“I’m so relieved you speak English, I was hoping not to have to translate difficult specialised words from history or architecture, if you can do it on your own I’ll just pretend I’m Peter’s colleague and call it a day. By the way, what plans have you got for us?”
Andrew had been listening to her smiling in the corner of his mouth as if he was familiar with that sort of speech or as if he was already picturing her, or both of them, in the thick of the events he was brooding on. Peter had by now got only too much used to the name of Andrew not to be able to sense a certain kind of reality lurking around, beyond his control but originating with the bearer of this name. He also got the queer feeling that Mona was now at the far-off boundary of her command, power or grasp, the point where she handed over her mission to this man, and that her light-hearted gesture of giving up any claim to guiding took on a deeper significance.
“I’ll think about it”, Andrew answered. “Right now I have to wait for everyone to leave and then lock the gate. It can take ten more minutes, so maybe you’ll start slowly down the hill, and I’ll be with you as soon as I can”, and on the last words he had already walked away a few very brisk steps.
“Do you actually believe he’s only thinking about it now?” Peter asked warily. It was the first time it struck him that what seemed naturally improvised might have been in fact carefully plotted out in advance and vice versa.
Had he been a guinea pig in the only apparently unknowing, innocuous hands of Andrew-his-facilitator, had everything happened because he had meant it for him for God knows what purposes? Or, on the contrary, had he just been left to the mercy of improvisation in a manner deviously simulating professionalism? Either option filled him with an anxiety hard to account for, yet unmistakably related to his treading on unknown ground.
“I should hope not”, Mona puffed and resumed her bristling manner. “Anyway, your motto will have long settled now to an ‘expect the unexpected’, so what could still possibly catch you off your guard?”
“I don’t know. But being caught off guard could happen too, if I am really to expect the unexpected, as you say. Whatever it is, I hope he’s not going to show us too much of the depressing stuff, I do feel like something else for a change – not what Andrew said in Bucharest about primitive households and meagre conditions, I’ve had enough of it – besides, the place is so incredibly beautiful, don’t you think?”
“Yeah. But it does tend indeed to be kind of depressing – with all the past stuffed in and all that. Like that plate over there”, and she pointed to the sign that the guide had been talking about to the crowd a few minutes ago. “It quotes from a nineteenth-century writer saying about this fortress – what a wealth of things these ruins might tell if only they could speak? If you would just consider how much life was spent here, hearts that loved each other, eyes that shed tears, brave warriors that stained these walls with their blood! It’s all very beautiful and kind of reminds me of my childhood, when I learned about history and read those stories, but now to be honest I’d like to go to a four-star hotel and get a really hot bath.”
Her words fell with a deep, almost startling thud against the clear air, so that Peter looked up again to the green and blue skyline and then down onto the ground and started slowly on the wooden bridge, slightly bending his head and his shoulders as if in an attempt to shirk from any intrusion. He heard Mona’s casual steps behind him, but willingly kept walking on, in a determination to abort any disturbing interference. The forest and the road had strangely changed now that they were climbing down. The earlier eerie sunlight strained through the numberless pointed branches had now faded into the dim, diffuse colour of impressed meditation. The slope seemed steeper too, tougher to cope with in this new revelatory light, even if in no way stranger, but bearing the subtle mark of experience, of some sort of gained knowledge, with its descending track.
Reaching the lap of the mountain they could see Andrew from a hundred yards fretting about, walking to and fro between a trailer and the ticket box nearby, turning and talking to the invisible person hidden in the box while collecting camping stool and table and various paraphernalia and casually chucking them into the trailer, locking the trailer, laughing, talking back to his interlocutor, all this without the faintest rumour of a sound from the distance. The two visitors approached Andrew and he welcomed them with the same lopsided smile and quick movements. His wiry body seemed to be continually in quicksilver motion, highly efficient, and noiseless.
“So!” he chanted, rubbing his hands, “let me take you down to my humble home then!” and his grin was both allusive and reassuring.
“Erm, well actually, we have booked ourselves into the Best Western here”, Mona put in disenchantingly.
Andrew eyed her while carrying on with his chucking objects into the trailer, undisturbed.
“No problem”, he shrugged with a fatherly smile, “you can always decide which place is better. I thought you might want us to talk things through a bit, maybe even get some action, while the day still lasts!”
“Well, yes, of course”, Peter came in as if only then waking up to the conversation. “There’s plenty of time until turning in, so let’s make the best of it! You drive ahead and we follow, OK?”
Andrew nodded while shutting the trailer’s door nimbly, then hitched himself up onto the driver’s seat and disappeared into the van before the others could even wink.
The two who were left standing on the groovy tarmac of the square car park turned a quick look to each other, as if a magician’s spell was suddenly gone and they were at a loss what they should do with themselves, then instantly realised they needed to move on or they would be stranded there. Speechless they rushed to their own van, got in and Peter put the vehicle into motion with a nervous jolt. Andrew’s trailer was just vanishing round a curve, a few hundred yards ahead.
They trailed behind Andrew back to the main road they had been driving to the town, then left the town behind them and swerved right, as if heading back to Bucharest. The sky was turning violet, tucked in with cotton-woolly neatly flat clouds. Small peasants’ white cottages lined up along the sides of their vision, tidy and simple and somehow all the same, no soul to see, as if they were but stage set, deceivingly unassuming. Andrew’s trailer rumbled and rocked over each bulge or bump in the road. Then, unexpectedly, Andrew’s right-hand blinker went on, tick-tick-tick. Peter wondered what the matter was, would Andrew have a puncture or something? He pressed the brake pedal gently but steadily, waiting for Andrew to come to a halt, but instead of that the trailer suddenly swirled right into a narrow side-road that Peter had been too busy gazing ahead to notice. He steered the van with another jolt and went down the narrow side-road like a slit into the stage set, headlong towards the wooded mountain range.
“I wonder if he’s really taking us to the monastery!” Mona exclaimed.
“The one that’s down this road”, she explained redundantly. “An old one. Nuns.”
“So it can’t be his home then”, Peter replied judiciously. “He said he’s taking us home.”
“Watch out”, Mona cried and then came a sudden quake as the van took a hole in the road.
They both went quiet.
“Well, we’ll see”, Peter muttered to himself, determined to mind nothing else now but the tarmac.
There was a great deal going on by the road too, kids gathered and shooting out from their crowd in a short sprint along, or even across the street, the one-off hen scurrying wildly in unpredictable directions or just pecking at invisible gems hidden in the ditches, peasants riding rickety bikes heading home presumably after work, women taking a huge cow home with a rope, a rusty bell tinkling round the neck of the imperturbable animal, scattered small crowds chatting before a gate or a well (one of the ancient things with a weight hanging at the end of a pole) or before the village shop that also acted as a pub in the dusk hours, for the regular needs for brandy or other concoctions to be had as a coronation of a working day.
If you were to mind all this detail in the scenery you’d certainly crash into the ditch, Peter thought. Better to stay focused. There will be plenty of time to gather information about these people and their way of life. That’s why he was a professional.
The houses, huddled up together, alternating with haystacks squeezed in between in the yards, were small and just adequate, but clean and decently kept. There was little money flowing round here, as it seemed. But signs made of cardboard or of some leftover iron sheet hanging sideways against electricity posts, nailed on tree trunks, or propped up on fences read “rooms free”, “rooms with hot running water”, “rooms with bath”, or “with satellite TV”.
Gradually the bustle of the village died out as the houses went scarce, dispersed over the glades of the mountain laps, across what must be the bed of a creek. With the houses now in the background, the view broadened itself so they could see that the road was taking them into a valley winding away between two wooded humps. It looked almost as if the mountain shoulders were drawing closer much faster than the speed of their own van, and the road soon came to be flanked on the right by a steep wooded wall, on the left the creek and a narrow bank that in summer might be strewn with tents, behind it a somewhat gentler slope. A few curves further down the road they could see a white spire against the green and blue background.
“The monastery it is!” Mona concluded demonstratively.
Peter kept quiet. No use arguing. The road was taking them now in a straight line towards the white building and the forefront arched gate, where the road actually ended. Andrew’s van stopped in a small carpark that looked like a pocket swelling up on the side of the street, between the little houses which apparently belonged to the administration of the monastery. Next to the van, in a fishbone pattern, was a vacant space, which Peter steered towards.
When the engine came to a halt, there was a moment’s quiet, as if they were breathing out with relief.
“We’re there. Don’t know exactly where, but it’s literally the end of the road”, whispered Mona, half ironical, half puzzled.