SIX O'CLOCK, OLD TOWN SQUARE
by Edward Mujinga
They walked quickly down the road, down the hill towards the station. A little of the early morning mist still hung in the valley. The air was fresh. The pavement fluctuated in width so where the kerb had crumbled away Tonda, the younger of the two, was obliged to step into the gutter. He bobbed up and down gaily, not minding the inconvenience in the slightest, for he was in fine spirits; his large head was swinging from side to side, observing all the familiar houses decked out in the year’s first dusting of snow. He was a stocky man, in contrast to Honza, who was taller and thinner. They were marked out as brothers by the colour of their piercing blue eyes. As they hurried along beside the train tracks, they greeted the villagers clearing the snow from pathways and threw hastily gathered snowballs at a few favourite dogs.
"Sun’ll probably melt it by ten o’clock anyway" sniffed Honza.
At the station they stamped their feet to shake off the excess snow and clapped their hands. Tonda told a rude joke which made his companion guffaw great clouds of steaming breath and caused Mr. Mrkev to turn around and give a stern look in their direction. Then they ducked their heads to step into the tiny ticket office, where they bought two return tickets for Prague.
"Nice to see you again young Honza" said the grizzly old lady behind the desk.
"Thanks Mrs.Tatarka, I’m enjoying being back."
"Snow in November? Whatever next?"
"Yes. The village looks beautiful though."
"You’ll be here for a while I hope. It’s such a nice time after university, with all your options spread out in front you."
If only you knew the half of it you dear old bat, thought Honza as he smiled and nodded his head like an obedient child. Then he heard the hoot of the train at the bridge and was spared any further questions.
On the train, Tonda opened up his book (‘Space Menace’ screamed the cover) and was soon immersed. Honza watched him for a while, amused at his rapt expression, then slouched down in the seat and turned his attention to the fields flashing past. His eyes flicked back and forth, he was amazed that the landscape could look so different despite the number of times he had already travelled through it. Only the man-made stuff was recognisable as the train eased its way into the familiar grey outskirts of Prague. He closed his eyes and drifted off into one of his favourite reveries, imagining walking around the streets of a deserted city, with no other people around to spoil his appreciation of the terrible grandeur of all the empty buildings, the silence of a place finally at rest. Then there was a roaring in his ears and when he opened his eyes they were in the tunnel under Namesti Miru; most of the people in the carriage were already standing up and buttoning their coats.
The two brothers stayed seated. They exchanged a smile as the train slid into Hlavni Nadrazi, which broke into laughter when they heard the antiquated jingle of the public announcement system, the one that they used to enjoy singing along to so much when they were kids.
"I don’t think they’ll ever change it" said Tonda.
"How could they?"
When they got off the train, they entered the city. Everyone seemed to be running from one place to another and the brothers found it hard to stay together, caught up in the crowd flowing towards the exits. They battled to the steps and descended into the main station. It made Honza feel alive to see all the movement, to hear snatches of a thousand conversations, to observe the pickpockets sizing up the tourists and the police following the pickpockets and the drunks watching the police and the tourists holding their maps upside down and looking lost. They helped a bewildered French couple find the platform for the train to Dresden and then continued. After getting attacked by a swarm of Japanese schooolchildren and picking up a stick for a polite elderly gentleman who turned out to be as drunk as a newt, they made it into the fresh air. It felt a few degrees warmer than back in the village. Tonda screwed up his nose.
"Phooey, it smells of piss here."
"Come on cowboy, this here odour is the authentic healing air of Prague central. Where’s the snow?"
"None here. Be yellow anyway. So where we going?"
"Vaclak then Starometska?"
They struck off at a fast pace towards Wenceslas Square, flowing along in the stream of office workers. Honza had not been to Prague for a year or so, and he was enjoying being back. He could tell Tonda was happy too, from the way he was staring at the shopfronts, the cars, the pretty girls.
"What’s that noise?" asked Tonda as they neared the square. They could hear some sort of discordant music, it sounded like some cooks banging pots together and chanting. They quickened their pace imperceptibly and bent their heads forward in unison. As they came around the corner, the sunlight glinting down the square dazzled them momentarily and then they were surrounded by flowing orange robes and unearthly singing.
"Hey, it’s the Hare Krishnas!" cried Tonda excitedly; they were in the midst of a group of sweet young disciples with shaved heads and trusting eyes who danced around them, shaking tambourines and thumping drums. Honza had a broad smile as he watched them traipse off down the street. Once one of his friends had told him that they all wore Nike trainers under their robes and he had never known for sure if it was a joke or not; he had been happy to confirm that it was. Like all true adepts, they wore sandals.
"Only in Prague eh?"
"Hare Hare Christmas."
At a relaxed pace, they followed the distant chanting and happily told each other how much better and less commercial the square used to be. The Old Town Square was also a disappointment, its beautiful cobblestones dominated by a group of twee little sheds selling souvenir crap for tourists, and even worse, a bar selling beer and mulled wine.
"As if they’re weren’t enough bloody inns already in Prague" moaned Honza, "You know, a few years back, I used to enjoy sitting on the statue of Jan Hus with my friends from college and smoking a nice big reefer, just chilling out watching the people. Then they made it a fineable offence to sit there and put benches around it, now if you sit on a bench all you get to see is drunken English lager louts getting more hammered. What’s the point in that?"
"It’s a terrible, terrible disgrace grandad" replied Tonda. "But hey, isn’t that Professor Mason?"
Although Honza had no particular wish to see his old tutor, Tonda was already waving him over so he had to pull his face into a serviceable smile.
"Tonda, Honza, nice to see you both again."
"What brings you to Prague?"
"Oh, just a social visit" lied Honza.
"I was just on my way to Puzzle Books. Do you fancy joining me?"
"Sure, why not?" Tonda nodded enthusiastically and propelled Honza around so that the three men were lined up with Mason in the middle. He was a classic avantgarde theorist, with de riguer wire rimmed spectacles, a black suit with a black polo neck underneath, and a black leather attache case which he clutched to his chest as if it contained all the secrets of the universe, which of course it did--for him at least. He was indeed an excellent, passionate teacher, but Honza had followed the usual course of first falling under his spell, then tiring of his routine and finally rejecting the source of his knowledge so as to evolve his own standpoint. Such is the inevitable cycle, both men knew it, but it made meeting like this slightly awkward. To make matters worse, now Tonda was Mason’s student and in the first flush of infatuation, despite Honza’s frequent attempts to make him see sense. So Tonda rabbited on as they left the square and passed under a small bridge into a courtyard with a few shops scattered around it, both men listening respectfully to a rather unsophisticated critique and waiting for a decent moment to interrupt. When Tonda finally paused for breath, Mason interjected "Interesting Tonda, very interesting. And now Honza what exactly have you been doing?"
Honza opened and shut his mouth. He hated these questions. And especially today. At the door of the bookshop, Mason turned towards him and fixed him with a special look.
"Better perhaps not to catch you off guard like this" he said and gave a rare curt smile.
"Now if you excuse me I must make an order. But first let me recommend this to you both."
He plucked a book off the nearest shelf and handed it to Tonda who grabbed it as if it had just fallen from the very skies above. Honza gave it a short glance but preferred to brood on his recent inability to respond to direct questions.
"Look Tondik, I feel like a walk before I meet Jitka. See you at the train station cafe at seven?"
Tonda looked a bit surprised, but he would plainly jump at the chance to spend more time with Mason, his unofficial guru, so Honza was able to slip away out of the shop and breathe some fresh air.
He felt like getting away from all these people, all these buildings, all this energy. He wanted to be walking in the forest near his house, with the calm trees and the subtle sounds of nature, not stuck in the middle of this constant roar. He pushed past groups of people taking photographs of buildings so frenetically it was as if they were about to vanish and followed one street after another as the turnings popped up in front of him. He dived into a passageway and miraculously came out back on Wenceslas Square again. He frowned and wondered how it had happened, he wanted to get to a park and had planned to go to Letna but that meant retracing his footsteps over the Old Town Square and he disliked going backwards, so instead he decided to go to Vysehrad. He crossed the road quickly and started walking up the hill. The air was brisk but not cold and without really looking at the people he passed, he marched up through IP Pavlova and down a footpath. He stopped for a moment to look across at the two towers of the Vysehrad cathedral, standing as dark and as proud as ever and something in his heart lifted a bit. The tears that had been pricking at his eyes retreated and he skipped down the steps. By the time he reached the park he was smiling again, and he ambled around the citadel, checking all his favourite views and places to sit; but there were also a lot of other people everywhere, drawn out by the afternoon sun. Inane chatter invaded his thought, clicking cameras interrupted his own mental photography, he felt himself growing irritated again. He was stood looking down towards the Vltava, watching it snake underneath the railway bridge and he decided he had time to walk over to Andel, have lunch there and then go to the hospital.
Halfway across the bridge, Honza stopped for a moment and looked down at the water. Some swans were swimming in a line towards the campsite island and he wondered how toxic the water was--it looked rather brown. He had seen a few fisherman dotted along on the waterfront,yet he had never seen any of them catch a thing. Furthermore, he could not understand why they did not take the car that was always parked nearby and head out of town to where the river was less polluted and the scenery nicer.
Still thinking these thoughts, he reached the other bank and decided to hop under the railing, take a shortcut down the slope and walk along the riverside path. The gradient was quite steep and he was distracted by his thoughts, so he slipped and landed smack on his arse. He stood up slowly and rubbed his behind, feeling a little bit foolish. A loud laugh made him jump and he turned round to see a genial old fisherman, decked out in the usual uniform of a lumberjack shirt and tatty green trousers.
"Saw you fall over you young tyke! Head in the clouds I'll bet."
"Fancy a spot of rum to erase the memory?"
The old man waved a small hipflask and beckoned him over. Honza shrugged and gingerly picked his way to the riverbank, where the man had a small camp set up. There were two rods, set on stands with the lines extending out into the river. He had a expensive looking foldable chair into which he collapsed with a grunt and various accroutrements set around it, such as a radio, a flask for a warm drink, the remains of his lunch and a book.
"Sod this" he said, and put the hip flask back into a pocket, "You look like you need a proper medical-sized shot."
The man pointed to a tree trunk which looked like a good place to sit and pulled out a bottle of rum from his bag, producing also two plastic beakers into which he poured a sizeable splash.
"Best of luck."
Honza was a bit bewildered by this unexpected generosity and now the rum was burning at his throat. He coughed and wiped his mouth.
"Strong stuff eh sailor?"
"Yeah. Hey, can I ask you a question?"
"Go ahead young man, go right ahead."
The old man nodded magnanimously and carefully adjusted his rods.
Honza blew his nose and thought how strange and beautiful it was that with some people one can instantly feel at ease.
"Why sit here all day? I mean, granted you must like fishing, but I mean, why not take the car and drive out to Karlstejn or Dobrichovice and have a fish in the countryside where the water’s fresher?"
The man looked at him sharply.
"It’s the same river here isn’t it?"
"No, no, I quite understand. The thing is that you misunderstand the purpose of my fishing."
"Do I? Why I never even-"
"Well you see the thing is, I’m not sitting here because I want to catch fish, or even because I actually enjoy fishing. My sole intent in being here is not to do anything else. You follow me? So actually the fishing and all this gear is quite extraneous. I’m here because my wife is not here, my troubles are far away, the neighbours don’t exist. Here and only here I’m free."
"And I’ll tell you another thing, the location does not matter either, except for the fact that I need to be near the river. It could be Decin, Dresden or Hamburg for all I care. Now tell me something. Have you ever listened to the river?"
There was a pause. Two swans appeared heading for the bridge. Honza realised that this time he was actually supposed to say something.
"Er, well, yeah, I like to sit by the stream near my house and listen to all the noises it makes. I find it a lot more soothing than the noise of the city actually."
"Exactly" The old man grinned delightedly, "That’s exactly the point my dear boy. I knew you understood. That’s what I’m doing here, escaping the city and listening to nature. You can learn a lot from this river. Try and listen. Go on."
Honza looked around at the discarded cigarette packets, McDonalds wrappers, beer cans, old boots and ripped plastic bags on the dirty river bank and wondered if he had met a loony. Still, he understood what the man was talking about, so he listened harder and caught the sound of a gentle, powerful lapping. And something else too, something beyond words. He smiled.
The old man jerked his head enthusiastically.
"There you go. You hear it too I know. Another shot of rum?"
"Yes please" said Honza mechanically. He did a very quick mental calculation and realised that this would have to be lunch. The rum tickled his throat and warmed his stomach.
"It’s funny how the river is always changing yet always the same. I mean the water that went past two days ago is probably somewhere like the North Sea by now."
A train rattled over the bridge above and they had to wait until it passed before continuing.
"Yes, young man, yes, but think about it further. The water flows past and goes on and on, and eventually gets evaporated back up into the air--who's to say this cloud above hasn’t come back from the North Sea even? Maybe if it rains tonight some atoms of the water that went past here last week will end up precisely at this point again. Who is to say? This universe works in much more mysterious ways than we can ever imagine."
Honza looked at this man, a new friend and a broad smile broke out across his face. He handed back the beaker and shook his hand.
"It was nice to meet you. I’ve got to go meet someone. Good luck with the fish."
"Who cares about the fish? Goodbye!"
Honza walked up to Andel, looking anxiously for a street clock until he saw one at Na Kniezeci and realised he still had enough time. He bought a Tatranky and loitered at the bus stop, watching an old lady slowly shuffle her way across the tarmac, her frame bent almost double. The bus ride passed in a blur of thoughts. Then he reached Motol and saw Jitka, waiting on the steps. She had her hair pulled back into a bun and looked more serious than usual, more business-like in her best clothes.
"Look, I’m sorry about the other day ..."
"I said some things I didn’t mean."
"You can be a real bastard if you want."
She smiled her toothy grin and her eyes flashed. He kissed those sweet lips and hugged her tight. He looked at her again and he could see that she had been crying, her make-up was a little bit smudged. He tried to remedy the situation as best he could and she wriggled away from him.
"You still wanna do this?"
"Yes. Now give me another hug."
Honza held her tight again and told himself that the universe works in many vague and mysterious ways. She was crying when he looked at her and he could not think of any words which were adequate, so he just hugged her and held her until it was time. He wanted to tell her about the old man but not now.
"So, you sure you don’t want me to come with you?"
"Yes. It’s better like this."
He still didn’t understand why it was better like that, but if that was how she felt, then that was how it would be.
"So let’s meet later, say six o’clock, Old Town Square?"
"Okay, fine, see you then."
She kissed him but already her eyes were far away, lost in a distant realm where he had no ticket to travel. He stood up and watched her push the doors open, a small smartly dressed woman pushing with her shoulder against the ponderous heavy doors of the hospital. Then the doors swung slowly shut and she was inside.
He went back to the bus stop and stood there, lost in thought. A bus came and went and he only noticed when it was too late. He laughed and waited for the next one. He had a little over three hours to kill so he went back to the Old Town and wandered aimlessly around the tiny streets. He stopped for a cup of tea then headed for the Old Town Square, buying a falafel on the way. As soon as he got there he remembered how the rampant commercialism had annoyed him earlier in the day and wished that he had arranged somewhere else to meet. He munched his food thoughtfully, trying to ignore the shouts echoing over from the bar area, watching the people walk past, all different, all unique, all running at different speeds but somehow managing to exist together in such a delicate four-dimensional space. He squinted at a figure in the distance who reminded him of the fisherman, but it was someone else. He imagined himself at forty or fifty years old, wearing the checked shirt and camping trousers, leaving Jitka at home to sit in his own private space under the Vysehrad bridge. Just him and the river. It was quite a nice idea. Then he turned his attention to the stage by the bar and was amused to watch a choir of small girls murder a version of 'White Christmas'.
"Good God, it’s only bloody November and they want us to start buying Christmas presents" said Jitka as she sank down beside him.
"So, how was it?"
"Well, come on, I want to know if you’re OK or not."
"I’m OK. But it was horrible. Degrading. Weird. Never again."
"No, definitely never again."
He squeezed her tight and hoped she was not harbouring resentment against him. In some obscure way he felt that he deserved it.
"When’s your train?"
"Seven thirty, like always. Do you want to come?"
"I can’t. Got work tomorrow. Next weekend maybe."
They sat for a bit and watched the people walking past them. Then the clock struck half past six and it was time for him to go.
"I love you."
"I love you too."
At the cafe, Tonda was full to bursting with newly acquired knowledge, spilling his coffee in his eagerness to greet Honza and get him seated. Honza took a seat and ordered a coffee; he nodded when he judged it appropriate and concentrated on stirring in the sugar.
"So you see Kant’s theory of aesthetics is ingenious. He blends the mystical and the scientific and takes a leap into the void of human understanding centuries before the ‘rational’ scientists come along and tell us that the brain works with synapses and electrical charges."
"Yes. When he talks of the aesthetic function being performed by the faculty of the imagination rubbing together with the faculty of understanding, he’s making a fundamental insight into the working of the human brain. Quite astounding for a man writing in the eighteenth century without the discoveries of modern science."
"Once again philosophy leads the human quest for knowledge."
Honza sighed to hear a maxim he had heard too many times before and put his head in his hands. The table felt cold against his forehead. He was compelled to hurt his brother’s feelings.
"Look, to be honest, I’m not in the mood to hear a word-perfect rendition of a Mason lecture right now Tondik. I am familiar with these views already remember and to be really honest I think they’re a load of horseshit."
Tonda started to reply, then thought the better of it. He scratched his head then prudently changed the subject.
"Where’s Jitka? She’s not coming back with us?"
"Not this time, no. Drink up, let’s go."
And so back to the train, an identical version of the one they had caught so early that the morning, which now seemed more like yesterday. Honza wanted to get home, to have a bath and then sleep. Outside the window it was already dark. Tonda had got the message that Honza wanted to be alone with his thoughts, so he was immersed in the book which Mason had recommended.
The train moved slowly out of Prague and as it trundled over the Vysehrad bridge, Honza looked down at where he had been sitting with the old fisherman and ruminated on their conversation. It was certainly correct that man could learn a lot from the nature around him, but Honza felt that this was only part of the picture; man could also learn a lot from his fellow man. He looked over at Tonda, wondering what he was thinking about. Their eyes met and his brother flicked him a grin. Honza smiled back and decided he had done enough for one day. He was tired. He relaxed his shoulders and settled down in his seat, listening to the train clattering along, the rhythmical shunts and bangs which would form the benign soundtrack to the journey home.
edward betrand le mujinga lives in a squatted nuclear bunker in holland. his only companions are two brave czech cats. he is stockpiling short stories for an eventual assault on the literary establishment and occasionally publishes a fine zine called (unsurprisingly) mujinga. issue sixteen is currently thrilling the masses. to gain a copy of this esteemed publication, email bintang (whereit'sat) seznam dot cz --trades, mail art, collaborative offers, weird things and unsolicited goods are welcomed. he thanks you for your time and hopes you enjoy this story, which appeared in a previous issue of mujinga. and by the way, if you feel like publishing a short story by him, please do get in touch.