TRAPPED IN A TAXI IN THE HEAT at the lights at Universitatea, heading south to Unirii. Traffic in its citycentre midday frenzy. And I’m sick. Poisoned. A rock in my belly and no good way to even breathe. Before the truck in front can move off the taxi-driver leans on the horn, the way they do in Bucharest. Car behind does the same and it goes back along the line. Pointless chain of noise and the hot fumes through the open window. He accelerates towards the next light, edging out to see if he can overtake the truck, swerving sharply back into lane when he sees he cannot. He pours his anger into the machine and from the machine to me. And he is someone I want nothing to do with. I do not want to know him. A short swollen body under a shiny red sports vest, shoulders and arms covered with thick black hair. At the lights at Unirii he brakes hard and I pitch forward. We have reached the part of town razed by the dictator and rebuilt, new and terrible.
-Take it easy, I tell him.
He turns his head to me. I am looking straight ahead, teeth gritted, trying to hold it together. I can’t see the look on his face but I can feel it.
Then it all happens again; the horn, the acceleration, the sharp halt.
-Take it easy or let me out.
And again the hard stare and on the other side the burning sun.
-If you’ve got a problem with how…
I lean forward and let go. A bucket being emptied. I’m surprised I contain so much. Not as surprised as he. I didn’t mean to vomit in his car. But that is his problem now and I have my own. I spit, throw money in his lap and slowly get out. The lights have changed and the drivers behind are going crazy. The machines pulse forward to the next lights and I join a herd of people in the smoke waiting to cross six lanes of traffic. The day is getting hotter and it is still a long way down Unity Boulevard. That is where she is.
Meet me, I told my love, so that we can talk a final time. No, she said, before the phone rang dead. You are being ridiculous. This failure of a city. I am part of it again. I know I should give up but I cannot.
The lights change for the pedestrian crossing. We move forward.
THE DAY BEFORE I TOOK A MORNING TRAIN from Petrosani. A journey I have made many times, but not once in the past year. It is a long trip and it is hot on the lowlands.
I went to the home of my sister, Loredana. She wasn’t glad to see me. She knew I was coming but she stood at the door for a few seconds looking at me before she stood back to let me pass. They haven’t much space. Nobody does. She lent me money a year ago and she is waiting. She is an orderly, unhappy person and feels I have squandered my chances, am wasting my life. She resents my need for hospitality.
They have a baby girl and a boy of eight, my nephew Ovidiu. Ovidiu sits on a small chair by the door to the balcony to catch whatever breeze might come. It is the living room, which is also where his parents sleep at night. As I enter he doesn’t rise. He smiles and I go and put my hand on his head. I ask him what he is reading. It is a book about sea animals. We are on the fourth floor and the tops of the trees outside sway gently. He is my only nephew and I am his only uncle. He is very clever, very patient, very observant. He’s small for his age and listless and has dark rings under his eyes. A couple of years ago we thought he would die. It was something very rare which affected his liver.
Supposedly he is better now but still my sister spends endless days in waiting rooms. I should ask her how he is. But I am unable to.
Loredana’s husband arrives. We shake hands and tell each other we are fine. He turns on the television and sits on the sofa. He watches without interest, only because there is nothing else. On the screen two people are beating each other with huge padded sticks until one falls off a pedestal. It’s on a beach. People stand around and cheer. It is fun. Everybody is dressed for relaxation. The commentator is excited.
Long ago my brother-in-law and I decided we were of no interest to each other and we have a habit of not speaking. He has a good job, gets good money. Computers, a foreign firm. For all I know he loves it. They have a car, private medical care. They can think about getting a larger apartment. He waits sullenly on dinner.
I go downstairs with Ovidiu and we sit on a bench between the apartment blocks in the shade of trees and talk. They live in the West of the city, and it is just like everywhere else, row after row of blocks. It is back from the road, though, and not too bad. The kids run about. Some of them come up to Ovidiu and talk, but he doesn’t join in their games. They are used to him. I smoke a cigarette and the smoke spirals up in the still air, toward the trees. I tell him that before the city was built, before people lived in cities, it was all forest from the Danube to the mountains. People who didn’t know their way got lost in it.
Ovidiu says that one day he will work for the forestry department, cutting down trees with special machines.
-You have special machines, he says to me. Drills. Helmets with lights.
-Did you always want to be a miner?
It’s true. Growing up in a mining town, your father being a miner, you imagine your own life turning out differently. -I’ll give it up soon. I’ll join the forestry department.
We can cut down trees together. With chainsaws.
He smiles and I’m glad. We’re only talking.
I am easy with children. I do not try too hard and they listen. I tell Ovidiu a story about a man who dreamed of treasure hidden in the forest. He left his village to look for the treasure. He went around in circles for a year but he could not stop because he saw the treasure in his mind. He saw strange things in the forest, and met with people he never would have known had he stayed in his village. When he got back home he had no treasure and the people laughed at him. When the people laughed he would remember his journey.
Back on the fourth floor we eat. Loredana is occupied feeding the baby. Her husband doesn’t speak. Perhaps it is my presence. Perhaps he is always like this. A man resigned to his life, too worn out to even be disgusted. A city full of them. My sister asks what I want in Bucharest. I tell her I’m out to stop a wedding. She snorts.
-You’re wasting your time.
-Then what’s the point?
Her husband has a piece of spine in his fingers and he watches me as he gnaws and sucks over his bowl.
-I have to see that it’s what she really wants.
There is purpose in what I am doing. It is something completely necessary to me. Even though it is futile it is necessary. I do not want to discuss it with these people.
They watch more beach games on television. Then people sing karaoke. Out of tune songs in English. And the ads tell us what we need to buy. Television, opiate of the people. They have drink in the house, but they are not offering so I ask for a key.
-Don’t wake the baby.
I come in drunk and kick the cot in the dark and the baby screams. I share the room with the baby and Ovidiu, separated from the adults by a pair of big glass doors with flimsy curtains. Lights go on. I’m sitting on the bed I share with Ovidiu, taking off my boots. Loredana stands with her back to me, comforting the baby, her silence more powerful than words. The same hostility as before but now it has found a focus and no doubt she is in a strange way satisfied. Ovidiu lies on his side, looking at me, eyes wide open as if he had been lying awake in the dark. His face is expressionless. It’s worse than the screaming. Then it’s dark again.
-I’m sorry, Ovidiu. I didn’t mean to do that.
He is quiet and for a moment I fear he is angry with me
-I was thinking. The story you told about the man in the forest. It would be better if he finds some treasure. Then everyone can see his journey was a good one. That’s a better ending. Don’t you think?
-You’re right. That’s a much better ending.
For a long time I can hear them whispering in the next room, my sister’s voice sharp and rapid, her husband’s low and tired. I sleep for a moment and it is morning.
UNITY BOULEVARD IS A LONG STRAIGHT MADMAN’S DREAM of perfection. Behind me in the distance, on a rise, is the nightmare House of the People. Old Bucharest bulldozed
for a monument to insanity. And now it mocks us. There are no people to fill the space. Human scale has been lost. Another wasteland for mongrel dogs to piss on. The buildings glimmer in the intense sunlight. There is no shade and the sweat runs off me. At a kiosk I buy water, which I manage to keep down, and gum to kill the stink on my breath.
I march on towards the bank where Ileana works. I feel my feet sinking into the ground. I look back and it’s no illusion. I have left tracks in a footpath of tar.
The bank is air conditioned. I ask at three counters and find her in a special office for foreign exchange. She is disturbed to see me, but now there is nothing she can do about it. She leaves her desk.
-What are you doing here?
-You refused to see me. I had to talk to you.
We sit down in the lobby. She’s dressed for work. Her face is made up and she looks cool and elegant. I am the one who is out of my environment, still sweating from the street. It must look as if she is sitting with a stranger.
-So. What did you want to say?
It comes down to this. All around us people count out money. There was a time when a little pile of money like that would have saved us. But what do I mean, saved us? She isn’t lost. Mistakes happen, you forget, move forward. I am the one locked in the past, returning when I should stay away. I knew it would come, this moment when I see that it is finally useless. What did you want to say? I gesture with my hands. A thousand things I wanted to say to her and now nothing comes. Her legs are crossed and her hands rest upon her thighs. A diamond glitters on her finger. Coal and diamonds are the same stuff. In time coal becomes diamonds. It’s a matter of compression. And then fine cutting. Some poor bastard went down a mine for that. I look down and notice my shoes are spattered. I put them out of sight, under the chair.
-I have a conversation in my head with you all the time.
It shouldn’t have ended when it did. It should have begun. I mean, when you were pregnant with my child.
She looks away. She doesn’t want to be reminded of this now. She’s starting a new life, a better one, where all the pieces are in their ,proper places. A home, a husband. She will have his children.
-I could come back to Bucharest. I’d do any work.
-No. It’s too late now.
I’m disappearing. I ask:
-Are you happy?
It’s true. I’m gone. I have no place beside her. She asks about the job.
-You said it was only for a year. It’s a year now.
-There’s not much else. I might give it one more.
A woman comes with something for Ileana to sign. She says she has to go.
I would like to sit in the coolness a little longer but I get up because she wants to see me go. We do not kiss or embrace. It would be out of place. I walk from the bank. I had come to perform this act, and now it is done. The hot air of the street hits me like something from an oven door.
I WAS A STUDENT ONCE, at the University of Civil Engineering. There are no jobs for engineers since things fell apart and I didn’t go to lectures. But Bucharest was new to me and it felt good to be free. Most of the students were like me, from the provinces, taking advantage of the free accommodation they gave us.
By the time I met Ileana I wasn’t officially a student any more, but I’d done a deal with a student who didn’t need the accommodation and paid off the block administrator. We lived in blocks, ten storeys high, four people to a room. I was in building seven, on the first floor. The refuse chutes on the upper floors got blocked so they threw everything out the window to the waste ground below. You never knew what would sail past the window. Bottles. Bones. Condoms. A television came down the night we got knocked out of the world cup. Wild dogs scavenged in the litter between the blocks. In the winter they howled with hunger.
It was a good time. The city was its grinding brutal ugly self but it was still new to us and we were getting by and we didn’t care. There was always plenty to eat and drink and there were girls. A decaying rotten city full of the most beautiful girls. Trams rattling to a halt and their creaky doors banging open and girls stepping down to the street, hurrying to their lectures. Muddy autumn puddles with dancing circles of raindrops in the cobbled sidestreets and a girl stepping over to spare her shoes. Mongrel dog standing dazed by snowflakes. A hatless girl runs past into the block, flakes settling on her black hair.
I had money. I sold cigarettes smuggled from Bulgaria. I went over the border to Ruse, came back with the goods on the train, slipping the customs officials their cut. Sometimes I even went to Turkey. When I got back from a trip I would go to where Ileana stayed, a room she shared with three other girls from her town. I always felt good there. Peaceful. There was always a cloth on the table. Maybe flowers. The beds were always made, dishes washed and put away after eating. Patiently they would iron clothes for the coming morning, their talk unhurried. In that terrible city which wears you down there are women who know how to make things beautiful, to put grace in simple acts.
It is extraordinary to me now, that time, now that it is a memory. How at ease we were, that is what amazes me. Sometimes I even took Ileana on trips up to Predeal, where the mountains and pines reminded me of home. In summer the air was cool there and in winter the snow was clean. And we had a room alone to make love, and to lie together for long mornings listening to the sounds outside.
The government brought in tax seals on tobacco to kill the black market and the kiosks were afraid to take the smuggled cigarettes. I ended up going around the blocks from room to room, selling packs to students. They always wanted credit.
One morning I was brushing my teeth and wondering what work I could find (I had no experience of anything) when there was a heavy knock on the door. It was the police, demanding my documents. They were clamping down on people abusing student accommodation. I made up a story about being a visitor which they didn’t believe, as they had already extorted the block administrator. They sat down and made themselves comfortable and talked for a long time. In the end it came down to one hundred dollars. I wouldn’t hear from them again, they promised. I wasn’t even in a position to bargain them down to forty or fifty. I only had about five, in lei, and gave that to them. Then they noticed I had a lot of cigarettes, which they decided to confiscate. I had to wrap up the cartons in old newspaper for them. They were shy about leaving the building with so many good cigarettes. They didn’t comment on the fact that no duty had been paid on the tobacco but I knew they would have plenty to say about it when they came back. I had to get out.
I found a cheap place in the centre of town, little more than a closet beneath the roof, room for a bed and little else. The shower was down in the basement, a hosepipe above a concrete floor. Somebody gave me a hotplate. My friends came around and laughed at the place. But in general I had fewer visitors than before.
I got work on a building site. The first job was to knock plaster off a wall with a lump hammer. They were making a restaurant and there was good red brick behind the plaster. For two weeks I smashed at that wall with the lump hammer. I raised clouds of dust and breathed thema. The dust floated out into the street.
Girls skipped past the doorway waving their hands in front of their faces. We alerted each other to the good ones. When you’re standing with a hammer in your hand covered in dirt a fine girl is walking through a world that is not yours. She looks clean and light and very far away and you know that if she met you she would despise you and your four dollars a day.
It was enough for rent and food but as time passed it got harder, those days of labour followed by tired dull evenings. You calculate pennies, frustrated at how mean your life has become. My friends would talk about the parties we used to have not so long before. We had rapidly become the kind of people we did not want to be.
Then I got offered the job in the mine. It was so unexpected, so extreme, that I grabbed the chance. I enjoyed the reaction of my city friends. To the people of Bucharest the miners are violent brutes who one day came and kicked about their more sophisticated betters in the capital. Men who suck the country dry with their high wages, which they receive because the government fears them.
I planned to do the job for a year at most. Something else was sure to tum up. And, in any case, the pit could be shut down at any moment. Ileana looked displeased but didn’t say much. We parted ambiguously, and several days later I descended into a mine for the first time in my life.
Nothing could have prepared me for the horror of the first week. I was an outsider, always in the way. I laboured in a cramped chamber at the black rock, separated from the bright world above. That is what you can’t understand until you’ve been down there; the distance from the world you’ve left behind. And you know any second you could be cut off from it forever. I was in constant fear that first week of the roof collapsing. Many men had died sudden deaths in the pits. Others had time to wait for help in the silence and the dark, not knowing if it would come in time. Only my shame kept me going until the end of that week. The shame that I’d passed men like these on the street every day and their true lives had been hidden from me. I was ashamed because my father had done this work and I had never known how bad it was.
At the end of the first week Ileana told me that she was pregnant. She needed money for an abortion. Had she had the money, I.think she would have done it without telling me. She had just graduated and was living in Targoviste with her parents while looking for work. It cost twenty-two dollars. The clinic wanted dollars.
I set out in the morning. I had the money in my pocket but still couldn’t believe I would have to give it to her. As the bus wound down from the mountains and onto the hot plain l rehearsed what I would say. lt was a bright day and the mountains rose clear on my left. I always remember the road into Targoviste, lined with rows of mature poplars, tall and straight, evenly spaced.
The bus emptied us out at the railway station. The walk from the station to where I was to meet leleana led through quiet streets of houses set back from the road. lt was early afternoon and the street was drowsy. Wooden fences hid the gardens and greenery spilled over them. It was a neighbourhood which had once been elegant in a town that had once been prosperous but had faded and grown old and now only wanted to mind its own business. l imagined it would be easy to be happy just to have a home in such a street, the only disturbance the tears of the chieldren when the cat came back with a bird, slack-headed in its jaws.
We met in a park near her home. She wore a black summer dress, black like her hair, with a pattern of red flowers. She looked straight ahead while I sat on the edge of the bench, turned towards her, telling her how I would leave the mine and get us a place in Bucharest, how we would manage together. She was pregnant with my child, and I had learned this at the end of a week when l had learned how easy it is to die, how little holds us to this life. I was in love with her, and I was in love with the trees and the sun and the future.
But I had been sinking down for a long time in her estimation. And when I finished speaking she shook her head slowly. Now she had her own problems and it was time to consider her situation. After matters were dealt with it might again be possible to consider what we felt about each other. I had taken a job far away in a mine and she was no longer a student and needed work. We had no money, nowhere to live. Things were hard enough without a child. She was only starting out in life and with the country going the way it was nothing was certain. I promised her we would be happy. Again she shook her head slowly.
I was making her suffer by talking about impossible things. I gave her the money. She went to the clinic and I went to the station.
lt was dark when I got back to Petrosani. Immense clouds were hurrying in from the north and it had rained and the ground shone slippery orange under the streetlights. I found a phone and at the far end of the line she sobbed, quietly and persistently. There was nothing more to say. We were at the end of something. In the long silences I stood with the receiver squeezed against my ear and my eyes shut, feeling ridiculous. I felt there should be something to say but nothing came. I asked her if it hurt and she said it didn’t. She started to speak just as the phonecard expired. The beginning of a sentence hung in the air. I stood about for a moment stupidly. l didn’t know who l was or how l had got there.
I had no money left so I went around looking for someone from Lupeni who could help me get home. I found my cousin Marius at the back of a bar, playing backgammon with some friends. They were drunk and cheerful and I sat and listened to them until they were finished. I was very far away. My real life had gone underground and could not be seen by anybody. The person at the surface that everybody saw was no longer me. l wondered had many people felt this way and l supposed they had. l thought of how l had never known my father, and all the men he worked alongside, until l had descended into a mine myself. I understood how it was them against the whole world. Nobody else mattered, nobody else knew.
Next day I worked. lt was better than having time on my hands. I was no longer afraid. I worked well.
-I’m getting my bag.
Loredana allows me to pass into the hallway. She follows me into the room and stands watching, arms crossed, as I collect my few things. As if I might steal something.
-So. Did you get what you wanted?
-Like you said, a waste of time.
-And money. Are you happy now?
I open my wallet and hand her two crisp hundred dollar bills, the money I owe her from over a year ago, after the police had robbed me and I had nothing. l had brought the money in case lleana had given me some hope. Now I am on my way to the train station. I apologise for the delay with the money. She is confused. She had nursed the money into a grudge. She is caught between pleasure at the surprise of money and her discomfort at finding that l have turned out a little better than expected. I say goodbye civilly and the door closes behind me.
Halfway down the first flight of stairs I stop dead, my hand on the rail. I haven’t said goodbye to Ovidiu. I could go back. But I don’t want further contact with my sister.
I go on.
The ticket hall is chaos. And the stink of people, impatient and nervous for their trains, crowds the hot air. Everybody has the same idea-to get out of the city-and this idea has funneled us to the point of exit and we are almost clambering over each other like ants. I join a long frustrated queue and within minutes realise that it is a mutated creature with two tails, both winding into the same window. I join the back of another line. As it creeps forward arguments break out as people try to jump the queue. The inevitable pensioner bargaining on a show of feebleness. Then a man who pleads that he can’t miss his train. A family of gypsies lift their grandmother up the steps from the street outside. The old woman is sitting crumpled like a sack of potatoes on a board under which are castors. They pull her by a rope on this squeaking raft through the ticket hall, shouting noisily. It must all look like a strange dream to her old eyes.
I make the train. The other seven in the compartment are older, from Petrosani. As usual, one begins to make conversation and they all join in. The one subject that everybody loves; the price of this and that and what was going for how much in such a market, the price of bread compared to last year and isn’t everything gone to hell. It has been a long day and the pointlessness of such talk irritates me. The same thing has been going on in train compartments for as long as I can remember. Maybe in first class the conversation has more quality. Then as we leave Bucharest behind two old women start talking about all the different mine disasters through the years. This will take a while.
A man came from Germany once, part of a union delegation, and we stood around in a circle with the translator and he said, This is murder! This mine must be closed immediately! He appeared shocked. Then we went back to work. And he went back to Germany.
The joke is they don’t even want our coal. It’s poor quality and our equipment is obsolete. It would be be cheaper to import. The government would shut us down tomorrow, but they are are afraid the brutes will descend from the hills again, so instead they drag it out over years.
Open country, calm day’s end. Strangely, they no longer speak, and it is better like that. I am very tired. Towards Pitesti the sun is bloated and heavy and shadows draw out. The landscape is beautiful. With the white glare gone from the light, distant things stand out in detail. The hills, a cluster of willows at the curve of a stream. Everything appears close and urgent. The eye does not have to search, everything is immediately present. Something odd has happened in how I remember Ileana, however much I tell myself to let go of the past. The past as it draws away has moved into sharp focus. I know what occurred more clearly now than when I lived it. I can do nothing about this, no more than I can tell myself to look at this train window and not see through.
A line of men moves along a roadside lined with poplars, scythes balanced on their shoulders. The blades are folded in towards the shafts and wrapped with white strips of cloth, like bandages. Their work is done and they are satisfied at being released. I know that feeling.
A hand shakes my shoulder. I open my eyes. Grey dawn in Petrosani. The people on the platform move past my window with that quick railway-station walk. They are eager to return to their lives.
I board the early bus for Lupeni as the colour is coming back in the sky. Exhaust fumes enter through a hole in the floor. It is not a problem on the level but when the bus labours on the uphill we choke and our eyes stream. I walk through the single main street of Lupeni, which is also the main road through the valley of the Western Jiu. The road comes to an end at the head of the valley thirty kilometres beyond. Apartment blocks of naked concrete, ten stories high, line the road. They are more or less the same as you see in the suburbs of Bucharest except here we are in the hills. A dead town where there should not reasonably be any.
I open the door to the apartment I share with my parents, the same one where I grew up. My father greets me. He has just got up and is in faded pyjamas and an old robe. He tells me my mother has gone to the market. He is in his early fifties but appears older. He moves slowly. His lungs are ruined from years of black dust. His eyes are heavy and the skin on his face sags. His gut sags. He is being pulled down. When he smiles it is painful, like he is fighting gravity. I want to take a shower but when I turn the tap in the bathroom it sputters and coughs. I sit down in the kitchen and he makes me coffee. He always keeps a few bottles of water in the fridge. You never know when the water will be off. He asks about the family and I lie. I say Ovidiu is growing well and looks fatter. His face brightens.
-That’s good. That’s good.
He asks how it went. I have told him that I was going to make some money. Something about tobacco. I make an excuse about them wanting too much cash up front.
-Never mind. You tried. You have the right spirit. Too many people, they just take what they’re given.
I need to sleep but my shift will soon begin. I’ve had my rest days, and now it’s time to go down again.
I board the bus with the others, and it takes us out of town, several kilometres up the valley to the pithead. A woman raises the barrier to let us through. She does this job since her husband was killed in the mine a year ago.
We change into overalls, boots, helmets. An earlier shift has just returned to the surface. They move slowly, spreading out, getting the feel of open space again. They are tired and smudged and drunk on the light and the colour. It’s always like that, when you are released, when you see sky and grass and mountains again.
We get into the lift. The metal gate is wrenched closed. The intersecting slats make diamonds. As we fall the air rapidly goes cold. We never speak at this moment. The first month or so my chest would always tighten, but now I am more used to it. When I come up to the open sky all kinds of strange and wonderful ideas occur to me. The world is created again. I might even say I believe in God. As I sink down my mind empties and I know only the labour before me.
I wake. I am lying on Ileana’s bed. It is early afternoon, a Sunday, and nothing moves in the heat, nothing makes a sound. This is her room when she was a student. She is at her desk in front of the window, writing. Her back is to me and she is unaware that I have woken and am watching her. A white sheet hangs across the big window to shade the sun. A lower corner of the sheet stirs lightly in the breeze, and all I hear is her pen moving across paper. Her hair is shiny black against the brightly illuminated white sheet. I lie there, watching her.
The lift stops. The gate opens. We move forward.