By GABI REIGH.
SHE MUST HAVE been seventeen, eighteen, when she met her father’s supervisor for the first time. A few months later, when she had gone to university and was making a phone call to her boyfriend from a public phone box, the cards crowding the small windows with the numbers of women in their underwear, all claiming to be ‘barely eighteen’, informed her that she was currently at the height of her desirability. She remembered looking at the cards competing with each other for space, overlapping each other in places, and imagined ringing one of the numbers. What would the voice of an eighteen year old girl waiting for that phone call sound like? Would it have a foreign accent, or sound grumpy, like she had just woken up? Or would her flatmate or her brother answer, and tell you to ring back in half an hour?
She stayed with her father during the summer holidays until she left for university, when it seemed like a reasonable time to let go of several childhood traditions. When her father was at work, she did her schoolwork in bed, and sometimes walked into town and looked in the charity shops. She went to the beach and tried to read, uncomfortable on the pebbles, until the blustery wind became too much, then she walked for a bit, and then went back home. She couldn’t remember why her father took her to his work that day.
Mr. Kovac picked them up in the town centre. Her father was nervous because everywhere outside the Arndale Centre there were ‘No Parking’ signs, so they waited in silence, looking in every direction that the car might come from. She looked too, although she didn’t know what she was supposed to be looking for. When the car finally sped past them and parked at the other end of the road, her father started and they both immediately broke into an unpracticed, oafish little sprint. Opening the door on the passenger side, her father thanked Mr. Kovac three times in between heavy breaths, each time louder. In the back seat, she shrank away from him. Mr. Kovac did not seem in a hurry to drive away. He did not say anything to her father but turned around to look at her and she saw his face change.He looked down at her naked knees, inches away from him, then back at her face with the same smile, a clear show of hand. She held his gaze and her own smile dropped its easy friendliness.
They would have had to drive out of town via Sea Road. It would have been busy, in the summer, even if the weather was bad, with clusters of people around the amusement arcade, and then the pier, which had not yet burned down, and then outside the language schools, where the people were not always white and wore padded coats and sometimes scarves.
AT THE END of the day, Mr Kovac opened the front passenger door for her. Her father and another colleague, a younger man in his early thirties, sat in the back. She looked at his hands on the steering wheel, the red hairs translucent in the light and the slim gold wedding ring making them seem whiter, bare. In the back seat, leaning forward, her father was educating Mr Kovac about Dostoevsky at the top of his voice. Changing gears, Mr. Kovac smiled at her and rested his hand on her seat. The younger colleague cut in with something about work and he and Mr Kovac talked for the rest of the journey while her father stared out of the window.
It turned out that the younger man lived in the same neighbourhood as them so Mr Kovac said he would take them all home.
‘Actually, would you mind dropping me off in town?’, she asked.
He checked the rearview mirror and it was a couple of seconds before he answered:
‘Sure. I’ll take them home and drive you into town on my way back’.
She thought she could remember her father reading out something from a crumpled newspaper he had fished out of his bag. Turning her eyes away from Mr Kovac, she could see in the door compartment some coins and a packet of ‘Kent’ cigarettes, which they all used to bring back with them in whole cartons, because cigarettes in England were too expensive. Mr Kovac had put down the windows by an inch and the sea wind hit her sharply, agitating her hair into wild tangles. He turned on the radio and some pop song, by a girl band, came on, something with a good beat.
The younger colleague leaned over her father and said to Mr Kovac:
‘Nicule, let’s drop the girl off into town first’.
SHE SOMETIMES PASSES through the town where her father used to live when she has to travel for work. The pier burned down a couple of years ago and every year there are articles in the local paper about how the council is trying to raise money to rebuild it. The town’s people are angry that the money was spent on opening a modern art gallery where the old fishing huts used to be, which no-one, except the London people, likes. The London people come. Half of the charity shops reopen as vintage and antique stores. She thinks that she can see more sleeping bags behind the amusement arcade. Sometimes, when she walks past them, she hears her old language.
When she has to stay over, she chooses a small boutique hotel in the next village. Here, there are no betting shops or all-you-can-eat buffets. The streets are quiet and the poor are more discreet in their worn terraced houses, watching TV, she assumes. By the seafront, there is an old red phone box where the public phone has been disconnected and people leave old paperbacks, asking for a donation to charity. She likes to look in there whenever she comes down.When she stays at the hotel, she doesn’t go out to restaurants, but buys something from a supermarket and eats it in bed, looking over her work for the next day.
On one such visit, she meets Mr Kovac in Waitrose. She sees him first in the refrigerator aisle, studying a yoghurt label. He doesn’t see her and she knows she could avoid him by coming back to get her own yoghurt later and getting the wine first. She stands there for an instant, considering what to do. It is winter and he is wearing a thick blue jacket from an outdoor clothing shop, jeans, trainers. His hair has thinned, and coils up in wispy light red curls. She notices that he is now wearing glasses.
She draws closer and thinks that she’ll just grab a yoghurt then leave, when suddenly he looks at her, frowning with instinctive animosity as she invades his private space. She smiles and there is a moment where he assesses the situation, appraising her briefly before she calls out his name. She lets him recover while she introduces herself, reminds him of her father. He is now nodding and smiling and they kiss on both cheeks, his face soft and slightly chilled from the refrigerator unit.
She can now observe him as he begins to tell her about his job as an account manager for the local insurance company that everyone she went to school with now seems to work for. He switches to English, their language allowing him no space to describe his expansion of the company’s business profile, his skilful manipulation of premiums, the onerous responsibilities of managing an ever-growing young team. She notices that the coiling wisps are streaked with grey and there is coarse hair sprouting from his nostrils. He tells her about his son, who has graduated with a first-class honours degree in Business Studies and is now working for the insurance company until he can get a job in London. He will send his CV to Goldman Sachs, maybe Morgan Stanley. She nods, smiling encouragingly, but he does not look at her, his gaze darting from the yoghurt in his hands, to his trainers, to somewhere behind her, towards the checkout tills.
He asks about her father. While she is talking, he raises his eyes to look at her, but his gaze soon disconnects and she feels it wandering to her body, or maybe her clothes, and then away, somewhere over her shoulder, annoyed somehow.
He doesn’t apologise about her father, of course, there is no need, this is how things are. He had heard that he had gone back home, to his old job, and she said that yes, he had, but that he has now retired. He looks troubled now, remembering that they are old.
She tells him that the mine where he and her father once used to work had been bought by a Chinese company, but he knows that too. She tells him that he still reads a lot, but he doesn’t react, because this doesn’t matter.
‘He does Tai Chi. Someone from the Chinese company is offering free classes’, she says, because there is nothing else to say.
A girl who works in the shop excuses herself as she crosses between them with a new batch of milk and starts to refill the shelves. She moves back and apologizes for getting in the way, and the girl smiles at her and tells her it’s not a problem.
Does he ever go back? No, not since his mother died, what’s the point, there’s nothing there. He is thinking about buying an apartment at the seaside, but it has become very expensive, and then there is the corruption. He thinks he might buy in Bulgaria instead, or Spain.
She asks about Mr Tudorescu, the young man she once shared a car journey with, the only acquaintance they have in common.
‘Died. Bowel cancer’, he says with quiet triumph. And then he is transfigured, suddenly animated by a diatribe against the Eastern European diet. Does she still eat processed meat? Sometimes. It is the first question he has asked her about herself. He now looks straight at her, eyes shining as he tells her how the only meat that passes his lips is lean turkey and how he and his wife haven’t eaten dairy for three years. He jogs four times a week on the seafront, even when it rains. Encouraged by her attention, he hands her the soya yoghurt and takes the linseed bag out of his trolley and puts it into her other hand. She turns them over and examines them, nodding approvingly. Before they part, they kiss again, both cheeks, good-bye, good-bye.
When she goes back to the hotel, the room is too quiet and she doesn’t feel like doing work. She puts on the TV and searches for something soothing, a police procedural where the murder victim will most likely turn out to be an Eastern European prostitute. In between autopsies, she imagines Mr. Kovac next morning, returning from a run, spooning out soya yoghurt on his muesli, sprinkling it with linseed, staving off bowel cancer.
THERE IS ONLY one thing she remembers about going that day to the place where her father worked. She thinks she can fill in the missing parts of the story, how they must have driven to the industrial site, walked through the warehouse where her father began his shift, but these are images she cannot own, as they feel borrowed from other industrial sites, other warehouses she might have driven past over the last twenty years. There is only one thing that remains, a memory suspended out of its context, as brightly lit as everything around it is dissolved into darkness. She remembers being alone with Mr Kovac in his office. The office was bigger than most, and strangely furnished, with two large desks facing each other, like a stand-off. Mr Kovac sat behind one desk, she sat behind the other, at the opposite end of the room. She doesn’t remember how it happened that they were standing facing each other in the middle of the floor, between the two desks. He might have got up and called her to him. Or she might have walked to the middle and waited for him. The one thing she remembers is his arms around her, firm and still. She waited, wanting to see what was going to happen. But that was all.
Gabi Reigh won the Stephen Spender Trust prize for poetry in translation in 2017. Her work has been published in the journal Modern Poetry in Translation and her translation of Poems of Light by the Romanian poet Lucian Blaga was published in 2018 by Interbellum. ‘It Was A Very Good Year’ was shortlisted for the 2018 Tom-Gallon Trust Award. This is her first appearance in The Fortnightly Review.