First Prize Winner - Pat Aitcheson - All That Sands That Touch The Sea
Sean wiggled his toes and felt tiny grains of sand slip between, insinuating themselves under his nails and scouring his skin clean. The familiar sensation calmed his jittery nerves, and he decided to sit and wait. The boat was nowhere in sight yet, but it would soon come. No sense in stressing over it, and who could be stressed under this warm sun, with the sea stretching away to the edge of the sky? Sean placed the heavy rucksack carefully on the sand and sat next to it, creaking a little. He burrowed his feet into pale sand, adjusted his wide brimmed hat and watched waves come and go.
The first day he saw Valerie, she joined his lunch table. She sat opposite and of course didn’t speak to him, chatting to her friends instead. He joined in the conversation but she paid him no mind. No matter, he thought, there will be another day.
Over the course of many lunchtimes, groups of colleagues gradually bonded as their Venn diagrams first overlapped and then coalesced. The bright sun of her smile lit up dark eyes and skin and drew him in, inexorable as gravity. When eventually he asked her out, he held his breath awaiting her answer. Her words sparked a flame in his heart, and her smile was the only thing he saw.
He brought her to the strand where he had grown up, playing fetch with a series of childhood dogs long gone. “I’m going into the water,” he said, stripping as he spoke.
Valerie looked doubtfully at the churning blue grey waves, far away over pale sands. “You’re crazy. You’ll die out there, or get exposure or something.” She zipped her jacket right up under her chin. “Don’t think I’m coming with you. I only do warm tropical waters.”
“Oh, I know that. Wish me luck.” He smiled and kissed her, taking a little sunny warmth with him, and ran headlong into the cold sea.
She waved and watched him swim for a few minutes, and when he emerged, shrunken and tinged blue, she pulled the blanket from the beach bag and waited.
“You’re an idiot.” She wrapped him up and rubbed his back while his teeth chattered.
“Maybe, but I’m your idiot.” He pressed his cold lips to hers, and pulled back while she watched his face crease in a smile.
“The sea is in your eyes,” she said, but in answer he shook his head.
“No, don’t be silly.” Sean pulled on his shirt and she handed over his sweater. “Tell you what, I need to put some coffee in my stomach. Warm me up a bit.” They held hands walking back to the car, then found a café on Wexford High Street where they sat a while over steaming mugs, letting the colour return to Sean’s pale cheeks.
Valerie dragged him into the jewellers’ shop after that, where she picked out silver earrings set with deep blue lapis lazuli. She liked to have a souvenir from the places she visited. He stood by, in the shop he had never really noticed on a too familiar street.
Back in the English city where they lived, far from the water, Valerie wore the earrings sometimes and Sean remembered the strand. He had escaped its narrow reach, but now and again he took her back to the cottage where he grew up. His mother cleared the spare bedroom for Valerie, and fed them potatoes, cabbage and corned beef. On their way back from the pub one night Valerie stopped in the middle of the lane. She squeezed Sean’s hand and looked in amazement at the deep blue sky sprinkled with stars.
“Wow. This is too fabulous. No light pollution, and look! You can see the Milky Way here. I love the stars so much.” She gazed into the sky, transfixed, and he saw the wonder of the heavens in her eyes. He knew, then.
In Tenerife, Valerie and Sean sat on fine sand, the sun warm on their skin. The travel agent had warned them that the beaches were black, but they didn’t care as long as it was hot.
“Anyway,” she pointed out, “the sand may be dark but it still sparkles when the sun catches it. You just have to look closely.” She let a handful slip through her fingers and scatter on the wind, and he had to agree.
It was easier to spot pale seashells where they nestled among dusky, glittering grains. She bought silver earrings shaped like crescent moons in a little shop behind the main street. He held her hand tight and gathered her up into a warm embrace that smelled of her rose perfume, of safety and love.
The boat approached, and Sean picked up his rucksack and sandals and waded out to meet it. The boatman chatted about weather over the sound of the engine, and the hurricane that had devastated the neighbouring island the year before. Sean relaxed as they talked about anything and nothing important, and the boat slipped out of the bay. The sea here was turquoise and blue, and he could see clear to the bottom.
It was nothing like the angry, snot green sea that had lashed the strand the day Sean asked Valerie to marry him. The storm came in fast and brooding grey clouds touched the sea. Rain soaked his bare head but he felt only anxious excitement. Down on one knee, yes, all that, the ring in a blue velvet box and their black Labrador frolicking around them. He was back in Wexford, but he was not yet home. She was what he sought, and his heart swelled again when she rushed into his arms and kissed him over and over. Between each kiss, the word yes.
Later, Valerie sat under a huge umbrella while he went down to the water’s edge. She was careful to keep their daughter in the shade, and the toddler clapped her hands in delight when her Daddy returned. In his hands he bore the seaside in miniature, and he sat Anya down with the bucket. She fished around in the bottom and drew out sand, and a shell. But the shell held a surprise, and she dropped it in shock when a hermit crab popped out. Sean picked it out again and showed her, and Anya forgot her tears in her fascination with its tiny waving claws.
The pale sand of Puerto Pollensa Playa was quite the equal of more exotic beaches, with sun sparkling on the blue sea of the bay. They would return many times, until the children were old enough to let Valerie wander the shore gathering shells, just as she had on a Caribbean beach long before. The children squealed around her as shells grew legs and scampered back to the sea. Sean watched her emerge from the shallows, his dark Venus, a child on each hip and still, that smile he knew so well. They were both transplanted, yet no place seemed foreign as long as they had each other.
Much later again, Sean and Valerie walked a Norfolk beach in wellies. They buttoned their coats against a cool wind, accompanied by another black dog running in and out of the water and three reluctant children, dragged from their phones and consoles to the outside. Valerie strode ahead, as if wanting to be alone. There were no shells but in any case he saw her head was up, she was not looking for them. Sean brought up the rear, and the distance stretched between them, filled with children and work and accumulated grievances.
They had their house, far from the sea, with her beachcombing finds lined up dusty on a shelf. They had their family, their dog, their shared life. They had all the beaches they had seen together, but Sean felt oddly misplaced again, as though he were once more the immigrant in search of something he could not find at home. Home was slipping away, fading and less substantial the more he tried to grasp it. The sun was permanently obscured by clouds, and a chill fell over them.
One by one, the children left to pursue their own half-seen dreams. The dog and the house grew quieter, and in that space he sought her again. Sean and Valerie went back to Norfolk, and walked side by side this time, talking. He took her to brochure worthy beaches all over the world. On Whitehaven beach she laughed when she heard the brilliant quartz sand actually squeak underfoot. In the Australian desert she gazed with delight at Jupiter’s rings, seen through a telescope. In Mauritius he presented her with the most perfect conch shell he could find, pressing it into her hands and closing her fingers around it with a kiss.
In their white linen bed she sighed when he held her close. Once more she said, “You really do have the sea in your eyes. It’s not a tropical sea, but still lovely to me.”
He did not disagree this time. Instead he smiled and kissed her again, soft and sincere. They crept back towards each other cautiously, remembering all the seas and beaches and storms they had shared, and he was safe again.
Sean asked the boatman to stop his little craft some way from the shore. The little boat bobbed on the surface, and despite his hat Sean felt sweat bead on his forehead. He took off his sunglasses and rubbed one hand down his face. It was so peaceful, he could almost believe he was alone. He missed the sound of waves on the shore, but this was the time and place.
Sean pulled the jar from his rucksack, and then felt around for the blue velvet pouch. He took them out in turn; the lapis earrings, the crescent earrings, the shells and smooth worn pebbles she had picked up, the pretty pieces of broken coral he had gathered for her when snorkeling. Without her, they were random objects, and he cast them into the warm sea in tribute and watched them sink out of sight. Their fate was no longer his to decide. When he leaned over, her wedding ring swung on a gold chain round his neck. He tucked it back inside his shirt, reassured by its warm weight against his skin.
Under the impassive gaze of the boatman, Sean uncapped the jar. He swallowed hard. “I brought you back to tropical waters, just like I promised.”
He turned the jar over and spilt the contents. The ashes drifted away on a warm breeze, and melted into the blue green sea. He fought the lump that came to his throat, but nothing could hold back the sea of tears that blinded him. The boatman thrust a tissue into Sean’s hand, and he wiped his eyes. He stared out at the sparkling horizon and its promise of adventure in distant lands until his vision cleared, and his heart stopped trying to follow her.
“Take me back,” he said, his tongue thick and dry. “And thank you.” Sean replaced his sunglasses and sat down, clutching the empty jar to his chest.
“No problem, man, no problem at all. We go home now.”
Back in England, Sean sold the big house and named a star for her. Though Valerie would not see it, he knew she would have loved it. She had always said that rituals are for the living, not the dead, and he was both amazed and comforted to find himself smiling at the thought. He had left home, and found a home, and he did not think any beach would feel like home again. But she was in the stars and the oceans, and one day her treasures would wash ashore cleaned and tumbled, waiting to be found.
Second Prize Winner - Barbara Featherstone - Dust To Dust
It’s the hottest summer, the hottest. On the building site, the brick dust gets up our noses, snitching up under our masks. Tiny particles cloud the air; rust-pink, dingy-yellow, grey. The scaffolding rears high, bright metal burnished by the sun, dazzling our eyes.
I’m halfway up the ladder when Billy swings by. ‘Okay, mate?’ he yells.
I wave a trowel; give him the ‘thumbs up’.
Billy’s foreman. He grunts, the sweat oozing from him. I watch him stride away across the rubble - red-face, bull-neck, brawny arms, builder’s arse. No different from none of us, you might say.’Cept Danny Boy, of course.
Danny’s the new lad. Nineteen going on twelve. All skinny ribs, muss of ginger hair, skin so pasty-white you wonder where he’s been hiding all summer. Billy were dubious about taking the kid on, same as we all was. But these London flats need finishing; there’s a dead-line. And we’re a couple of blokes short.
Won’t last the week, scrawny little toad, is the general consensus. But next morning the kid’s back. Real punctual like. Turns up in this sunhat. Big straw one. Billy tips it off. ‘What do you think you are, lad? Some flamin’ Mexican bandit?’
A couple of the crew kick the hat about a bit. Play footie. It ends up in the rubble and the rust-pink dust, battered and split. Billy chucks the lad a hard hat. Yellow. Danny reaches, misses. He bends, scoops it up, scowls, mutters something.
Billy’s ears prick up. ‘What’s that?’ says Billy.
Billy picks on him the rest of the day. Keeps on picking. The kid’s too slow. Too weak. Too thick.
End of shift, Danny’s face is pink and peeling, ginger hair sticky-dark with sweat. Billy’s right. Lad’s slow. Not half the strength of us men. But the kid’s a grafter. You gotta give him that. Sticks at it. Each morning on the dot. Mucks along; Billy still picking.
Couple of weeks later, there’s this bird, the feathered kind. Danny’s cradling it in his hands.
One of the crew bawls out, ‘Whotcha got there, Danny Boy?’
‘Pigeon,’ says Danny. ‘Neck’s broken. That big ginger tom had it, the one that’s been skulking about the yard. I saw it off.’
We crowd around. Anything for a bit of a skive. Danny’s holding the pigeon real gentle, supporting the useless neck. He strokes his fingers slowly over the blue-grey feathers, caressing almost. A small feather drifts to the ground; a flicker of purple-green glints in the sunlight. Danny blinks. There’s this kind of reverent look on his face.
Billy stomps up. ‘You! Put that piece of vermin down! You’re not paid to waste time. We’ve got a dead-line here.’
Danny’s still holding the pigeon. He looks up at Billy. ‘I’m going to bury it. I’ll work overtime - no pay.’
Him and Billy eyeball each other. Billy begins to splutter but Danny’s not moving. We can see Billy don’t know what to do. He clocks us gawping. ‘You lot. Get back to work. Else you’ll all be on unpaid overtime!’
So we gets back to work. But with the slap-slapping of cement on bricks, the churn of the mixer and the scrape of wheelbarrow over the rubble, we’re all watching Danny Boy with his dead pigeon.
The ground is baked dry. Sharp lumps of stone, grit, broken bricks, folds of old brown mud, and that rust-pink brick dust everywhere. Perspiration drips off the kid. But he keeps at it. Keeps on prodding at the earth with his spade till the hole is deep enough. Then he lowers the pigeon into it, careful like; shovels the gritty earth back over, and stands looking down at it.
Someone sniggers. ‘What’s the kid gonna do now? Say a flamin’ prayer?’ But nobody laughs.
Billy makes Danny Boy work a whole Saturday morning to make up for the half hour burying that pigeon. Rest of the week, he’s still on Danny’s case.
One of the crew chances it. Says, friendly like, ‘Leave it off, boss.’ Knows he won’t get laid off ’cos of those two men we’ve got down.
‘What’s up with you, you tosser?’ says Billy. ‘You the kid’s minder?’
All the same, Billy does ease off. Until Danny’s bird drops by…the female kind, not the pigeon variety.
‘Who let her in?’ yells Billy. ‘Public’s not allowed!’
Building site’s got these security hoardings all round. Graffiti scrawled all over. One of the men takes the truck out for supplies. Says when he gets back, this girl slips in after him, whippy as an eel. Says she wants a word with Danny.
Billy’s still roaring. ‘Didn’t you see the notice? Blind, are you, woman? DANGER NO ENTRY Can’t you read?’
Then I see him clock the girl real proper. Silky dress the blue of her eyes. Silky dress that swishes just so when she moves. Orange-pink hair like strands of woolly spaghetti.
Billy grins round at us all. Licks his lips. ‘Wouldn’t mind a bit of that.’
Next moment Danny’s fist collides with Billy’s nose. Blood spurts like tomato sauce. Billy’s eyes go black. Then the real fight begins.
It’s Danny Boy gets the worst. Not cut out for it, see. Manual labour, that’s men’s work. All that heavy lifting, shunting the wheelbarrow, churning the cement mixer, the dust of the bricks, the hours, the heat…
And now it’s Danny Boy got tomato sauce all over him. Cut cheek, ripped jeans, left eye puffing.
Then suddenly the girl’s wading in. Steps up close. Screams at Billy to stop it, just stop it! There’s this stream of foul language spewing from her pretty pink mouth. Didn’t know birds knew all them words.
Billy don’t stop it, though. He sidesteps the girl, keeps on pounding. Danny Boy’s on the floor. Billy aims a boot. One of the men drags at him. Tells Billy that’s enough now, the lad’s had it. But Billy don’t care. He shakes him off. Hair redder than the kid’s, he’s got his rag well up.
Then the girl shouts out. She’s pregnant, she yells to Billy.
And now Billy does stop. He turns. One of the crew is trying to grab the girl back, shielding her. And Billy sees what we all see now. The slight swell of her belly under the blue dress, that dress as blue as her eyes.
Danny’s lying crumpled in the rubble, spattered in brick dust; the rust pink, the dingy yellow and the grey. The girl kneels beside him. Anna, her name is. We find out later. She holds out a small plastic box. Tells Danny he forgot his sarnies.
Us men take it in turns to do the sandwich run, take the orders. In the mid-day heat, sandwiches and beer come warm. But Danny brings his own lunch. Dainty rolls, fruit and crisps, iced water. Another butt for Billy’s sour tongue.
But now Billy spits on his hand, swipes it on his jeans, tugs Danny up. ‘A nipper, eh? Didn’t know you had it in you, puny kid like you.’
Danny Boy glances at the girl. Says for her to go, just go! Says she’s no business here. This is his pitch. He glances at her belly.
The girl don’t budge. She scowls round at us men. Gives Billy a real good clocking. But whatever she sees is okay by her. With a flick of the spaghetti hair she’s off, the blue dress swaying with the swing of her hips. And the blue sky blazes down; the heat stretching on and on…
Next day, Danny turns up left eye almost closed. Face swollen, pink-blistered from the sun, purple-bruised from Billy’s fists. No one says nuthin’. We need our jobs. When it’s time for the sandwich run, Danny adds his order to ours. There’s no little plastic box, no dainty rolls, no iced water.
We gets on with it, steady like; the flats rising higher, cement slap-slapping, mixer churning, sarnies crusted, beer warm. Danny goes slow pace. Billy covers, does extra shifts. And all the time there’s the heat and the dust - the rust-pink, the dingy yellow and the grey, snitching up our noses.
The weeks go on. It’s the hottest summer, the hottest.
Danny goes on, too. His pink skin pock-marked now, never does go brown. Not like Billy. He’s like a walnut, the white of his eyes glittering against the darkness of his skin. Him and Danny never will be ‘best buddies’ but they gets by.
Anna happens along, now and then. Her belly’s ripe, her time almost due. It’s for Anna and the baby Danny signed on. It comes out, bit by bit. Danny Boy’s a student at Uni. Local one. Gonna be a lawyer or some such. Anna’s just done with sixth form at school. Come autumn, she’s starting same Uni as Danny. She’s aiming to be a teacher.
When Anna gets pregnant, her folks don’t want to know, so she moves in with Danny’s mum. Danny’s mum is cool. She’s gonna look after the sprog while those two kids finish their learning. So all the hot summer break, Danny works the building site to help pay for that baby. And he’s a grafter. We all know that.
I catch myself thinking, why didn’t they get rid? Easier all round. But I don’t say nuthin’. ’Cos people are different, see. Folks go their own way. And sometimes you never can tell why. It’ll all work out in the end, I guess.
But it don’t work out. Well, not in the way none of us thought.
It’s the hottest summer, the hottest. It goes on and on… Then comes the morning Danny don’t show. ’Course we know why he don’t show.
‘Lad’s down the Hospital,’ says Billy. ‘Anna will be popping her kid.’
Couple of days, we think, then Danny will be back. Working his guts to pay for a cot, pushchair, nappies… Billy says his sister’s got a new nipper. Says there’s no room to swing a flamin’ cat, not any more, not what with all that paraphernalia.
Time around, Danny does come by. Done up like a dog’s dinner. Ginger hair spiky-jelled. White shirt, clean jeans, shoes all shiny new. And there’s this black tie looping out his back pocket...
The crew’s sitting in the yard, munching us dried sarnies, swigging warm beer. Danny says he ain’t coming back to work. Says Uni starts up in a week or so. Says Anna’s going to this University in Wales. She’s got a mate lives up there.
‘Other side of the earth,’ says Billy.
Danny shrugs. ‘Me and Anna, we’ve split,’ he says.
There’s this funny kind of silence. Billy clears his throat. ‘What d’you get? Boy or girl?’
Danny looks up at the blue, blue sky. It’s hot. Danny’s face is milk-pale under the blistered pink; pimpled with perspiration.
‘Boy,’ says Danny.
Billy grins. ‘A boy’s good,’ he says. ‘You can do things with a boy. Footie, snooker, fishing…’
‘Could have done,’ says Danny.
Billy asks around. Turns out that baby only lived three hours. A weak heart…like his dad. The nipper buried in the local churchyard; cradled in the warm dusty earth - the day Danny dropped by.
Few days later, we’re clearing up at the building site. The flats are finished. We’ll be moving on soon.
‘They were wrong,’ says Billy after a bit. ‘Weak heart? Huh! That Danny Boy’s got the biggest heart of all.’
I nod. I’m thinking about that dead pigeon. How Danny’s fingers stroked the blue-grey feathers. I can still see that look on his face…
One of the crew starts sweeping the yard. Dust clouds the air; rust-pink, dingy yellow, grey. It billows up into the blue sky.
It’s the hottest summer, the hottest…
Third Prize Winner - D.R.D.Bruton - Mariska And The Bear
Mariska is like a doll. She is like the doll Tomáš’ grandmother once kept on a high shelf in her room and his grandmother said he was not to touch it, not ever, but he could look. She said Tomáš’ hands were too big and too rough, even when he was a boy she said that, and the doll was made of glass or china, its face and its hands and its feet, she said.
It was a pretty doll and he would watch it for hours, watch it sitting on its high shelf, stiff and still and out of reach with its petticoats showing; and Tomáš dreamed of one day taking it down and holding it secret in his arms and kissing its red painted porcelain lips.
Mariska is as pretty as that doll and small as a doll, too, and for 2000 koruna he can hold her like he never once held his grandmother’s doll.
‘Careful or you’ll break her with your daft clumsy hands, boy,’ scolds his grandmother from the grave and ‘boy’ she calls him though he is almost fifty.
Tomáš waits for Mariska in a bar on Malostranské. He is known there. He has waited before, once a month for almost a year. He drinks maybe six or seven beers, sometimes eight, before he finds his tongue and before Mariska comes creeping on tip-toe dancing feet to his table.
‘Two thousand koruna,’ she says.
He nods and fishes in his pockets for a roll of banknotes. He counts the money into her outstretched small hand and then finishes his beer. The money smells of sweat and dirt and the fingers and palms of old men.
‘Stay for another,’ she says, and Mariska feigns a dry thirst so that he does.
The barman nods and grins, for he profits, too, from Tomáš buying another beer and from charging him for more than he drinks. There is music playing on an old juke-box with the lights not working, a rock and roll love song all crackle and hiss, and the air in the bar is yellow as egg-yolks or sunsets.
‘Just one more,’ croons Mariska, ‘one more song and one more beer.’ And she knows he cannot deny her.
Then, when Tomáš has finished his drink and hers, they go back to her room. Mariska walks in front, leading the way. She knows a short-cut, she says, and short-cuts were never so twist and turn and weave. Tomáš follows on behind, stumbling a little, his breath coming heavy and thick and quick as he trips to keep up.
She lives in an apartment block just a stone’s throw from Malostranské – but stones can be thrown further than Tomáš thinks and ‘just’ is not a word that fits in that space between the bar and Mariska’s apartment or in that ‘just a stone’s throw’ – at least not in the short-cut that Mariska takes him. A small one-room apartment it is, at the top of the building. As high as a nest in a tall tree, as high as stars, as high as a doll sitting on Tomáš’ grandmother’s shelf and which he must not touch.
‘Two thousand koruna,’ Mariska had said and hadn’t Tomáš given her the money he had saved up? A month of saving and cutting back on things like butter and meat and tobacco, and tightening his belt a notch if he had to, and all so he can touch his grandmother’s doll once a month. ‘Two thousand koruna.’
Tomáš climbs the stairs to the top of Mariska’s building and the muscles in his thighs tighten and tear and there is an iron-grip pain in his chest, and he leans a little heavy on the stair-rail, and he sucks in air; and Mariska, she climbs light on her feet and like skipping, climbing before him so he can see her legs ‘neath her skirt and petticoats.
Her room is just that, a room tucked under the eaves with a sagging unmade bed pushed into one corner and next to it a simple wooden armchair with cushions. There’s a sink fixed to the wall with a tap that does not stop dripping and a wooden rail that holds a limp damp towel, and under the sink there’s a pot to piss in and a skylight window above so only the moon can see your business.
Mariska undresses for Tomáš, for if she does not he may rip the buttons on her clothes. It has happened before. Tomáš sits on the bed and watches, telling her to slow down a little so he can better appreciate the show, and might she turn a little this way and a little more that.
‘Mind your manners, boy,’ snaps his grandmother.
‘Please,’ he says.
And Mariska swivels her hips and shucks her dress free, letting it fall to the floor from where she picks it up and drapes it over a metal hanger that she hooks on the back of the door. And she slips her feet from inside her shoes, and she unbuttons the front of her blouse.
It is cold in the apartment and her breath mists the air and so she does not tonight remove the scrap-wool socks she knitted herself and that reach to just above her knees; or her petticoats, she does not remove them either.
Under the bed she has a cheap bottle of slivovice and she fetches it for Tomáš.
‘For warmth,’ she says.
He drinks from the bottle and coughs against the burning as he swallows, and he wipes his mouth with the sweeping back of his hand. He offers her a drink and she shakes her head.
‘You are like a doll,’ he says. ‘Like a beautiful doll my grandmother had when I was small.’
His words are all spittle and blown. Mariska smiles a little tightly. She has heard the story before and before, and she has not the patience to hear it again, not when he slurs and stammers in his drink. Besides, she does not think Tomáš was ever small.
‘On a high shelf,’ she says. ‘And you were not ever to touch it.’
He nods and he puts one finger across his lips like it is a secret or a sin he has admitted to, and he looks over his shoulder as though his grandmother might be there.
‘Not ever,’ Mariska says, ‘not unless you pay two thousand koruna.’
Tomáš is confused for he is sure he has paid.
Mariska pushes the bottle to his lips and encourages him to drink again.
‘And if I am like a doll, then you are like a bear,’ she says. ‘A great black bear with paws the size of dinner plates. A Czech bear. Such a bear that there was in the town where I was a girl growing up, and the bear was chained to a wooden post in the ground. And for just ten koruna dropped into a tin cup an old man would blow on his rasping pipe, taking out of his wooden instrument a lilting tune, rising and falling, and the bear made to dance, turning in slow crooked circles, and weaving, and waving its arms in the air and tossing its great blunt wedge of a dizzy head. And all the children laughed and clapped their hands and tapped their feet in the dirt.’
Tomáš gets up off the bed, stands unsteady and leaning, and with his arms in the air he dances, and Mariska taps her toes – not so loud as to wake the neighbours sleeping below – and she claps her hands as soft as clapping can and she laughs. And soon enough Tomáš is a dizzy great bear falling back to the bed, and he drinks again from the bottle of slivovice and does not wipe his mouth this time.
‘A bear,’ he says.
Tomáš reaches to hold Mariska and she cautions him to be gentle with his bear paws for she might break in his arms. ‘A doll, remember,’ she says. They lie down together on the bed, and holding Mariska pressed to him Tomáš closes his eyes. He breathes in the smell of her, like flowers or green tea or cucumbers. Mariska kisses his neck and strokes the hair on his chest and she hums a tune, running and soft and clever, such a tune as a bear might dance to, if dancing could be slow, only this bear slips into sleep. It is an easy 2000 koruna if Tomáš has drunk enough.
In the morning when he wakes, his head hurts like hammer blows and his mouth is as dry as a miller’s wheel, as dry as cottonmouth or cinders, and he does not at first remember where he is or who he is.
‘And what did I tell you, Tomáš? What did I always tell you?’
It is the voice of his grandmother scolding him still. And he knows then, who he is, though still not where. And his arms are empty and he thinks for a moment he has broken the doll, his grandmother’s doll taken down from the shelf, broken it by holding it too tightly and it never can be held again, not for 2000 koruna and not for 10,000.
He sits up and looks around him. The tap is dripping in the sink and light from the window stings his eyes so much that they water and the room seems to swim or drown and Tomáš is in a breathless panic.
But then, by the self-same stinging light he sees her, Mariska, there asleep, curled like a child or a doll in the armchair by the bed, and Tomáš has no memory of what he has or has not done, not beyond the dancing like a lump and the drinking of slivovice from the bottle and the laying down with Mariska.
He holds his fingers to his nose and breathes in. He smells only money that has passed through his hands and passed through the hands of a hundred old men. He smells sweat and dirt and not flowers or green tea or cucumber.
He gets up, his head heavy as a bear's and sore, and he dresses without waking her, or he hopes he does. He leaves the apartment, creeping like a thief, a thief with his hands empty and his pockets picked, not fully closing the door after him so that the click of the snib is never a sharp stick breaking in a quiet wood and never breaking her sleep.
He climbs down from the high shelf, stumbling as much in his descent as he did when he had climbed to the top, stumbling all the way down and back to the street. In his head he hears his dead grandmother still scolding him against touching the doll, Mariska, and he shrugs, and he licks his cracked lips and turns his collar up against the cold morning air.
And Tomáš retraces his steps to Malostranské where there is a coffee shop he knows and that he believes will be open even though it is early. His credit is still good there so it is no matter that his pockets are empty.