Mrs C would have liked to use this quiet while, when her words, her smile, her involvement were not on display, as when the men were present. It felt weird to be divorced. They had been married for almost twenty years, in their provincial town where divorces were an attribute of “city” people. Women had a joviality stemming at once from confinement within a household universe and from knowing there was nothing more to life anyway. The only other thing that came in the way was the job, but that was simply a means to earn money, to make a living, to do one’s due for the family budget, which would enable them to buy food, pay the bills, fill the tank of their second-hand car. Eight or ten hours a day spent in a grey mist, her real self emerging once she was walking under the vine arch between the gate and the house, suddenly aware of things around her, aware of some solitary weed or of the two or three gravel stones that needed to be swept off the concrete slabs. Then opening the door and finding herself directly in her kitchen and living, as old houses were once built, around the large wood stove with an extension for cooking. The stove was made of light-blue terracotta, she could still remember the hue and the decorative leafy stripe at the bottom of each slab. There was a still discernible bulge in the whitewashed wall, beside the stove, where the old chimney had been, over what used to be her mother’s cooking stove. She now had a modern cooker with a propane-gas bottle, but she still used the built-in oven in the stove to bake the Christmas cozonac. It filled the house with the mingled scents of sweet dough and burning wood that made up her elemental memory of Christmas; besides, it saved propane, for which she would have to pull the forty-litre bottle on a wheelbarrow to the re-fill station.
She was taking their fifteen-year-old son with herself to the States. Their daughter, now eighteen, was finishing school later this year in Romania, where they had left her behind with the grandparents. She missed her brutally. The thought that the girl had almost finished off her growing up without herself there, that she could no longer see the girl’s face with her mind’s eyes, partly because of the years gone by, partly because of the changes she knew must have turned the child into a young lady, such thoughts would instantly give her a punch in the stomach and put a dark veil over her eyes. Something wasn’t right about her having been away from one of her children in the past twenty-six months, nor about packing to move further on instead of going back. Something hadn’t been right about this whole story from the start, or else they would have stuck together through thick and thin, including now, when they were further scattered to the four winds and the family was dissolved from reality and reduced to a mental automatism they were obstinately clinging to – for how long still…? The only testimony to what had once been “the Ceausescus” was the surname in the papers, as she had kept it without flinching.
That they were losing their bond, the last straw of who they were, precisely in their endeavour to set themselves up a fitter home, was, she felt, a bad omen. The house they had lived in on the outskirts of the little town, close to the scattered woods, had been the core of her life, and its memory still conjured up a sense of who she was and always had been. But even in that house, for as long as she could remember, she – and the others too – had led a double existence. First it was the true self within the walls against the public self out on the communist politicized battlefield of deception countered by deception; then, the true self playing her household role against the emptiness of working hours; or later the true self within the world they were moving in against the growing realisation of how people lived or behaved elsewhere. Up until then it had been relatively easy to tell which the real self was; it was always “home”. But in time they had gradually flipped, twisted, tossed and swapped perspectives until the brick-and-mortar around the word “home” had crumbled to dust in the wind. They were no longer home at home.
And that was what put them on the road. Mr C insisted that it was for decent pay and a decent standard of living, and that it was for the purpose of affording more than they could ever hope to in their modest circumstances in Romania. But she had only agreed to go ahead with his plan of leaving the country hoping to get rid of the permanent double-life, double-self, home-and-not-home existence. Maybe affording more in a world where everyone did the same might put everything else right – no need for her to do a soulless job, no need for them to wish for more and ache for having to settle with less – less opportunity, less fulfilment. Maybe his ambition to own more was the path towards being more. No longer being part of a disdained community, no longer justifying that contempt. No longer being cloned – their image and their reality, their private kindness and their collective failure, their touching heritage of memories and the grotesque daily experience.
But once they had started out, their goal seemed to be receding further into the distance instead of getting closer. First the alien rooms that took the place of their house. Walls perfectly flat and white – no bulge from former chimneys, no shadows of dust or of spider webs around it. They had given their son the bedroom and had taken up the living for themselves. This called up some remote association with their once-living-and-kitchen. Only the kitchen now was just a corner with a tiny electric cooker, which she had cursed heartily in the first months for being so different from what she knew about cooking. The rugs, the kitchen towels, the pans – all of them were objects. Bought for functionality and meant to be replaced when their functionality failed. Purchased for them, not even by a specific person, as when one lives with a friend or relative and they take the trouble of supplying one with what one needs. All these objects had been purchased for their use by the German government. The German government was all there was closest to a person. She had had to spend some of their savings buying the minimum she felt was needed for them to furnish their new, if temporary, life: a kettle for Turkish coffee (none of these brewing machines!), a ladle, a decent sieve, their own shower towels, two or three ash-trays and many other trinkets. She had even played with the thought of getting her own white curtains to replace the pitiful nets that hung on the sides of their windows. She could see lovely things in other people’s windows, but she kept telling herself there was no point attempting to make the flat homely when it was just a station before they were to move on.
And then there was the work. In the life she’d left behind there had been at least some continuity, some cohesion. It had been the same canteen for fifteen years where she had helped with cooking and washing up. The same, more or less, people had been around. She knew every corner of the kitchen, where dirt and dust would collect within two days, so that the all-too familiar canteen had become an extension of her own little house. From the household of her home to the household of her work. Work either way. Now it was two hours cleaning one place, then coming back to Calypso, tomorrow cleaning elsewhere. That is, if she was lucky enough to have work to do at all. She would be let in, sometimes politely offered coffee, then she was left alone in the flat and she would start cleaning. Cleaning someone else’s private life amid their private objects. Two days a week it was cleaning and washing up in a bakery, starting five-thirty in the morning. That job had been sheer luck as she was paid more by the hour than any black job she had heard of. The risks were higher, though, that she might be found out. Weeks went by in this manner, immersed in this pieced up existence, where the pieces did not belong anywhere. They did not even belong to her life, as it was black-market work which she was not supposed to be doing in the first place. But they needed the money for the next station in their journey, and she reverently placed the small banknotes in the coffee tin box that she had bought on a special offer. Little by little, week by week, the only thing that was adding up and coming out of this piecemeal time of her life was the pile of deutsche Mark. Maybe that was the way. Before becoming one with their lives, one with themselves, before getting a home, perhaps they were meant to go to pieces first.
And then Calypso, the only people she knew in Deutschland. The friends of this life in-between. Comforting to have someone talking the same language, to be sitting with people. Whose names she could pronounce without thinking about how she should shape her mouth. The only people she knew in fact in this country. The others were employers or public servants. Not that these here were real friends. There was a constant awareness of what she was saying or what mimic she was wearing, mindful not to complain more than the others were. It was part of the ritual to grumble against the Germans for their stiff bureaucratic procedures, for their complete inability to enjoy life or to emerge from behind their roles. It was also part of the ritual to reminisce about the good old days in Romania, about how loveable it all used to be, holidays, evenings, food. But part of the game was also to hint that they were on to something, that they possessed some ace up their sleeve and that they were merely biding their time until it was ripe and they would be immediately removed from this purgatory of killing wait. Letting others in on one’s null prospects was unconceivable, it meant not playing by the rules and it was bound to incur unbearable pity and condescension. Though by the same token they were not supposed to display their plans and means either. Under no circumstances give a figure of what she was earning at her best workplace. Or of how they had found the lady willing to marry Mr C for the papers. Deception had to go a thin and meandering line between looking downcast and winking knowingly. The tacitly agreed procedure was to have something – whether it was money to go back or a prospect of settling down here – and conceal it imperfectly behind a mask of misery; only she was faking the procedure too, playing coy about a fake marriage that was not her deliverance. Deception behind deception. I am faking the deception game itself.
Whatever they had, was just not to be had. Money was one thing. Money to get back to Romania and set oneself up properly. But getting back now would have been bitterer than never having even attempted to leave in the first place. They had left to find a proper home and getting back meant failure. It would have been a newly whitewashed, old, home. That was what the money could have bought. Everyone else acknowledging their return, back to the roots, back to square one, as it were. And it meant that the twenty-six months of atomized life had only yielded some make-up for their pulverized self.
And the other thing? Settling down here, or anywhere but back to Romania? They were on to that, yes. Though she could vaguely sense that something crucial had been left on the way. The settling down on a new territory had been a means towards an end, but at some stage it had become a goal in itself. When her husband had sketched for her, with oozing diplomatic ambiguity, the scheme of divorcing for the marriage-against-residence, her body had stopped ticking. A few seconds crawled by and she recovered her breath. But the ticking had been long coming back. She wasn’t even sure it had, in the end, at all. Until then it had been a story of hardship or endurance, or of concession. Looking away and putting a smile on one’s face. If possible, add a pinch of jest. The Romanian kidding the bull. It had now suddenly turned into a black gorge just inches away from her toes. Son, daughter, image of the house by the woods, cleaning jobs, Calypso faces – all of that had suddenly receded behind an estranging screen and she was on this other side, in black, black work, black gorge, black ghost on the frozen streets of Deutschland. Curling with shame and horror. What was it that was happening, who were all the faces, who was Mrs Ceausescu?
She would cling to the rational and keep telling herself it’s just a means to an end, it’s just a means to an end; getting divorced and one of them getting married so they might be able to stay. So that he might be able to stay. But being able to stay – what was that for? Never mind, it had been such a constant goal in the recent eternity spent in Calypso. This was finally a means to end it. To score. But peekaboo! – what do we have here, peeping from behind?, a horrifying grin whispering the word divorce in big black letters, divorce divorce, gotcha, off to the corner, turn around and pull your panties down ha ha ha, the laugh we’re going to have! Grounded, grounded, grounded! And keep still there in the corner! Her husband’s face, her husband’s face, coming home from work like a decent man, to a decent family, for a decent dinner and then mending a fuse or crafting a model car with the little one, their feet on the ground, no flimsy-kooky notions, he was just he, her husband – peekaboo, now he’s a man like any other, seven years younger than her, can get divorced and say yes again before the registrar, lots of opportunities for a man, can be with a woman, can move on his own, in his own world, losing that hubby posture or just tucking it away for a change, another he, another Mr C suddenly standing up from where he’d been squatting while mending the car on the concrete drive between their vine and the neighbour’s wall. A different, rejuvenated Mr C, it seemed, since his new outlook, laid back and rational, cool-headedly explaining how he could in this way send money home or bring the daughter over there to study, or how they could live together in the States, himself only once or twice a year flying over to Germany just to save appearances. Who was that resourceful guy she’d never known, scheming and working out kinky ways out of their old home? Where was her old life, its decency clichés and all – clichés do one good, make up a solid ground under one’s feet, a crust for fluid life, keeping it within the mould, within the mould one chooses, it’s reassuring to be living by clichés, where are all those clichés of her life? – keep together through thick and thin, come home from work, do orderly jobs about the house, keep things clean and have yourself a blessed dinner! They’d left their old lives behind, their inadequate home with their inadequate selves and now, stripped and naked in the crossroads at the mercy of all four winds, it seemed they could suddenly become just anything, and Mr C was the first of them putting on something for a self, or maybe it wasn’t them putting things on but some hidden thing suddenly standing up from where it had been squatting all along. No going back, no reeling back the cord to what they’d called home but it had never been, it only takes one peekaboo to know that there are two things instead of one, and then it all comes asunder – two things under the same name, ‘Mr C’, ‘the Ceausescus’, ‘the house by the woods’, the ‘Mrs C’ playing coy in Calypso and the Mrs C apart from that – ‘Mrs C’ – who was Mrs C?, the old one, the new one? – one calls out ‘Mrs C’ and several women will turn their heads, each within the box of her story.
“Mrs C?”, Steph was watching her enquiringly.
“O, sorry, dear”, she hit the ground and instantly hoisted her fluttering smile. Her instincts were still working. “What were you saying?” They must never get the faintest hunch. The double game, the double game.
“I said, it’s good to be just us, women here!” Steph smiled allusively.
Was it? What difference did it make? Steph was a nice young woman, but she could not be fooled easily. And Lucy was a sly old fox, just about her own age, playing the girl in love in her stretch jeans and slim youthful body. Lucy could get tears welling up in her eyes, she was a good girl in her own way, though she was never quite sure if Lucy’s interest in hearing one’s trouble was helpfulness or curiosity. “Just us women” often meant a space of time for casual remarks to be dropped about those not present, putting labels on what had happened recently.
“But where’s Nick?” she threw in some food for conversation, to give them something else to do than watch her. “I haven’t seen him these days!” she added with pointed cheerfulness.
Lucy and Steph exchanged a look.
“Diana, telephone for you!” a voice called from downstairs – Odisseas’ mother, in her shrill voice with an attempt at motherly gentleness, in a foreign German. Diana sprang up from bed and rushed out.
The women kept quiet, as if listening for Diana’s lunging down the staircase. When this noise was gone too, Lucy and Steph retouched base with a knowing look and then turned to Mrs C.
“O didn’t you know?!”, Lucy whispered in what looked like slight embarrassment.
Lucy smiled as if uneasy, eyeing Steph again, who mirrored her smile and purse of the lips.
“What? Tell me! What have I been missing on?”
“Well… there was a… Nick slapped Diana in this room, they were alone here, she ran out, he held her, she started to yell leave me alone leave me alone and he pushed her down the stairs.”
Lucy paused to let her words sink in.
“And? What next?” Mrs C inquired with bulging eyes.
Lucy drew again from her cigarette and behind the bluish veil of smoke she raised her eyebrows as before a kettle of fish.
“Well,” she said picking some tobacco leaf from the tip of her tongue, “neighbours heard her screams and saw her running out of the house on to the streets, where she vanished for several hours. They called the police but Nick was gone too. He’s been gone since. Cops have been here once or twice asking about him. Poor guy, bad luck!”
“Goodness! Bad luck – how do you mean that?”
Lucy was visibly uneasy, as if caught at something wrong.
“Well, I mean, obviously Diana’s been through something awful, sure, no doubt about it, it’s just that the poor boy… his only chance was the French Legion… and if they arrest him now he’ll be packed up and dispatched to Romania again, with a criminal record too. All this in Calypso, these fourteen months, for nothing.”
Mrs C was flabbergasted.
“But it’s his own doing… what business did he have to hit her? Is he gone mad? He’s such a bland guy otherwise!”
Lucy nodded slowly, as if to give more significance to her agreement.
“That’s the point, you see”, Lucy replied in a low voice. “I’m not so sure what they were doing in this room alone in the first place – I mean…”
There was a few seconds’ silence. Steph gazed to the floor intently, making efforts not to say what she was thinking. At last she said in a half doubtful intonation:
“He was in love with her?!…”, but the words, once launched into the room, turned into a self-evident fact.
Mrs C swivelled her head and slightly leaned aside, as if to distance herself from Steph and this way be able to determine what she was implying.
Steph pursed her lips keeping her eyes down and bending her head left and right like a pendulum of doubt, reproof, or innuendo.
Mrs C turned to Lucy for an explanation. Lucy was the tough girl, who had the guts to call things by their names.
“We don’t know, Mrs C, we can’t know, there were just the two of them here, god knows how it all came to pass… but poor Nick, either way!”