A Missing Person
by Fannie Tsurakova
The old lady withdrew her hand and barely the tip of her finger she managed to skim slightly a bit of the white cream of the cake. She lapped it up and smacked her lips.
“You should blow out the candles first,” said her great granddaughter and started swaying her legs from the high-backed chair.
“I have no diabetes, there are no contraindications,” the old lady replied.
“Just wait minute,” the daughter placed saucers at the end of the table, bent her head and counted them.
“A new fad, candles,” the old lady went on. “I have never placed candles in my cake.”
“You fill your cheeks with air and blow on them,” the little girl took a deep breath and blew on the two candles. The one was in the shape of the figure 8 the other, 0.
“The child will catch cold in these socks,” the old lady said. “Bronchopneumonia claims most victims among aldolescents up to the age of twelve,” she went on. “Aetiology is either bacterial or viral.”
“Come and help me will you,” the daughter had opened the glass case of the drawing-room sideboard and was holding champagne glasses.
The little girl slid off the chair.
“Is this the neighbours’child?” inquired the old lady.
“This is Magda, your great granddaughter. The granddaughter of me brother Peter,” the daughter explained slowly and distinctly.
“You have sclerosis,” the little girl climbed on to a chair at some distance from the old lady. “You’ll get a CD as a birthday present,” she informed her, swaying to and fro with her elbows on the table. “From someone you were very much in love with when you were young.”
“Come on, go home now, this get-together is for relatives only,” the old lady urged the child with an impatient gesture.
“This is Magda!” The man approaching his 50’s chose where to place the ice bucket with a bottle of champagne in it. “She is not the neighbours’ child. She’s my granddaughter.”
“Oh!” The old lady looked up, trying to interpret the information. “Sorry!” she added. “I’m only a burden for you,” tears welled up in her eyes. “Where’s my husband?”
“He’s dead,” the daughter stopped arranging the table napkins. “Father died five years ago.”
“That’s exactly what I thought!” Frightened, the old lady pressed her hands to her lips. “I guess I knew it somehow! Men have lower life expectancy. That’s why more boys are born,” she reached out towards the cake with a finger. “Even when children, their mortality rate is higher. Heaving two peaks: up to the age of one, and -”
“She’s skimming off the cream again!” yelled Magdalena.
The old lady withdrew her hand.
“Shall we prescribe and injection to this girl-twirl?”
“They’ve brought her!” A boy about twelve pushed open the balcony door and entered the drawing room.
“Maria is coming,” the daughter checked whether there was enough in the lighter next to the cake. “You remember Maria, don’t you?”
The old lady looked vacantly.
“Don’t you remember Maria?” her daughter sighed. “Maria your friend, your fellow student.”
“You haven’t cut down the lilac tree, have you?” the old lady asked slowly and distinctly. “Why can’t I smell it?”
“You don’t remember even Maria?”
“I remember her. She married at twenty,” the old lady laughed, “it’s not those who marry early that are real flirts! Your father has cut dawn the lilac, hasn’t he?”
“Let my father rest in peace! He’s dead.”
Steps and congratulations could be heard from the hall.
“Ha! He had been plotting it for a long time!”
Someone knocked on the door.
“Come on in, Auntie Maria!” the daughter cried out.
“He was not the first to die on purpose before his partner!” the old lady went on. “To leave the spouse behind helpless. That’s what it’s done for!”
In the doorway there appeared an elderly woman of small constitution, very alert. Her cane tapped on the parquet floor.
“Goodness, what children!” she exclaimed. “My Goodness, we are still around, we’ve lived to be eighty! Haw are you going, Elena?”
“Nothing serious really. Atherosclerosis or the brain.”
“And one dies only of bronchial pneumonia,” the great granddaughter smeared a black dot on the tablecloth.
“Compensated form,” specified the old lady.
“What a cake! It must be the most gorgeous and most expensive cake in the town!” the newcomer hung her cane on the back of the chair beside the old lady. Hematologie has quoted an article of mine from twenty years ago! I’m so delighted, I can’t help boasting straight-away,” she addressed the others at the table.
“Has the lilac blossomed jet?” the old lady asked in a whisper.
“Pardon!?” Maria failed to hear and leaned towards her friend.
“You’ve been watching the lilac fixedly ever since yesterday?! Yes, it is in blossom!” the son said. “Peter, go and pick a few blossoms from the lilac for your Granny!”
“I am a nuisance,” remarked the old lady. “However, today’s work can’t be done tomorrow.”
“The expression is ‘Don’t pull off till tomorrow what you can do today’,” the little girl corrected her. “Now blow!” she pointed at the lit candles on top of the cake.
The old lady fumbled.
“Within a year sclerosis has devastated her,” the daughter explained to the guest. “Magda, help your Granny!”
The girl slid of the chair, trotted towards the cake, looked at the elderly lady, a sly flame flickered in her eyes and she suddenly blew out the two candles.
Everybody clapped their hands.
“ You had to wait for the two of you to blow them out,” the daughter pulled Magda closer to herself and kissed her on the ear.
“When will the girl’s parents come to take her away?” asked the old lady watching her son cup up the cake. “I wont a piece of that!”, she pointed at the white rose upon the cream.
The great grandson entered and left some lilac twigs on the table.
“It gives off a lovely fragrance,” Maria put her nose close to one of the violet blossoms and then gave it to her friend.
“I prefer white,” said the old lady curtly. “Do please excuse us, my husband is a bit late,” she went on. “We needn’t wait for him. Let’s have a drink,” she raised the glass of champagne in front of her.
“Oh!” her friend was watching her with compassion.
“He’s supposed to be finishing something in the studio,” the old lady ironically added.
“Mother!” the son said.
“Temperamental differences in the family are an important theoretical issue,” the old lady help her ground.
“There’s nothing wrong with them, given today’s mores,” giggled Maria who raised her glass of the champagne but seeing that the others had not yet had a sip, placed it back on the table with some hesitation.
“Marie and I will go out for a cup of coffee,” the old lady rose from her chair.
“We’ll have coffee here,” the son put back the half-empty bottle in the ice bucket. “I have bought a special brand of coffee.”
The daughter took her mother by the hand and gently pushed her back her into her chair. The old lady sat dawn.
“It you go out, you’ll get lost again,” added Magda, then she dipped her index finger into the champagne in front of her and licked it.
“Cheers! To the anniversary,” the daughter raised her glass.
“O, God! Nobody has ever made such a birthday celebration for me!”, tears welled up in Maria’s eyes.
“You don’t think, do you, that all bridges behind me have been burnt?!, the old lady asked her friend.
The twelve-wear-old boy giggled, took the piece of cake he had started eating and went out.
“Happy birthday to you!” the daughter started singing and stood up, glass in hand.
The others stood up too.
“I have to go to the toilet,” the old lady rose again from her chair.
“She goes there every fifteen minutes,” the daughter informed Maria
The old lady minced towards the door, and once in the hall, carefully closed the door behind her.
“God! What a woman she used to be!” Maria drank up her champagne. “Beautiful, intelligent, house-proud. Everything! I’ve known her for sixty-two years: since the first day at the university.”
“She even forgets father is dead,” the daughter noticed Maria’s empty glass and refilled it.
In the hall the old lady slipped her hand into the inside pocket of the man’s jacket hanging on the peg, took out a wallet from in and emptied in of all the banknotes. Then she tucked the wallet under a pair of shoes and quietly stole out of the apartment door.
In the street a warm gust of wind swayed the skirt of her well-pressed, though a big old-fashioned, suit and she face turned her in the direction it was coming from. She went as far as the end of the pavement, let the next warm wave engulf her face, and started walking against in with mincing, hurried steps as if hindered by something invisible. She took the first turning and then the next. A colder wave made the old lady look up at the sky and slow down her pace as if to sniff it and then again turned. She reached a small park planted with acacia trees, turned about this way and that in anxiety and finally chose a bench in the sun. She tried to stretch her head backwards but the esostoses in her neck prevented her movement and she turned her face to one side. She closed her eyes. Her cheeks and hands felt warm; the warmth enveloped her thighs and all of a sudden something touched her knee. She opened her eyes. It was a black dog of indeterminate breed with a neckpiece. A man appeared at the bottom of the alley.
“It’s quite harmless, madam!” he cried out.
The old lady had slipped somewhat from the bench and now regained her posture.
“Dog tapeworm afflicts scores of children every year,” she replied.
The man passed by in silence with averted eyes. The old lady looked under the seat as if in search of something, put her hand into the pocket of her suit, took out the banknotes in her clasped palm and glancing around to make sure nobody was watching, she counted them. She stood up, shoved the money back into her pocket, chose a sunny alley and in two or three minutes reached a tram stop. She approached a kiosk for newspapers and cigarettes.
“Mint drops, please,” she said.
The saleswoman passed her a box of candies.
“But I have no money,” the old lady sighed. “I was robed at home.”
The saleswoman shrugged her shoulders and reached out to take back the box of candies.
“They don’t give me anything to eat,” the old lady went on, bent down her head and stamped her feet.
The saleswoman looked with disbelief at her once expensive and still well-kept suit, at her hairdo and her hands.
“They dress me well only when I meet people,” the old lady continued monotonously, raised her head suddenly and looked searchingly and sharply.
The candies rattled in the saleswoman’s hands.
“Don’t I know that hunger is the cruelest torture,” groaned the old lady. “There is medication for that. Cheap, painless effective... if somebody is in your way. But they’re stingy about that, too.”
The saleswoman again shook the box and was about to put in back in its place.
“Herbs would to too. Preferably the ones that cause no vomiting. Otherwise everyone would guess. Vomiting, poison, crime.”
The box froze in the saleswoman’s hand.
“I have discovered only one such herb in our geographical latitude,” the old lady wend on.
Air whizzed through the saleswoman’s nostrils and for a moment deflected the old lad’s attention.
“... ’Graveyard grass’, that’s what it’s called. Ha! Mogilnik* in Russian. Isn’t it amazing ideas and observation move about the world! Eh?” she tilted her hand ambiguously to one side. They get around like that, no need of newspapers, magazines or space satellites.”
*From Russian ’mogila’ = tomb (Translator’s note)
The candies rattled again in the hands of the saleswoman.
“I adopted the twins of someone, who had been executed. He had slain his wife...” the old lady shrugged her shoulders helplessly. “And now they work for a security firm.”
“God save us!” the saleswoman made the sing or the cross. “Here you are!” she put the candies on the tray for coins and pushed them forward. “Take them, please,” she again shoved the tray away from herself.
The old lady grabbed the mint drops, as if started off but halted again.
“And my granddaughter is a flighty woman,” she said. “For money... Genetic predisposition.”
“Where are... you...?!” the saleswoman exclaimed.
The old lady looked back condescendingly.
“The ending - tomorrow evening,” she said sternly and moved away. “Tales of horror are a kind of ethnographic psychoanalysis,” she added moving away.
The saleswoman sat back in her chair:
“Oh, God, how much grief there is in the world!” she was about to make the sing of the cross but stopped in mid-air, reached out, took from the shelf another box of mint drops, opened it and put into her mouth three or four candies together. She rolled them in her mouth, got up, stuck her head out of the opening of the kiosk and gazed after the old lady.
Still hurrying, on the move, the old lady opened the candies, several of them fell on the ground, she bend down to collect them, staggered, sat down on the pavement and could not get up. Two fifteen-year-old boys came to her assistance, help her on both sides and began lifting her to her feet.
“Are you feeling sick?” the thinner boy asked.
“Collect my mint drops!” the old lady begged.
The bigger boy continued to support her while the other bent down to the ground.
“They are soiled,” he remarked and straightened up.
“It doesn’t matter ,” the old lady insisted.
The boy shrugged his shoulders, collected several candies, the old lady opened the pocket of her jacket and he dropped them in it.
“There are still more there,” she noticed something green under the tree.
“It’s glass,” the thinner one turned, “glass from a beer bottle.”
“It’s drops!” the old lady started walking in that direction and drew with her the boy who was supporting her.
The thinner one bend down, took the piece of glass and passed in to her. She felt in slowly between her dry fingers.
“O.K.,” she agreed, gave back the piece of glass to the boy and with the other hand clutched more tightly the box with the mint drops. “Sucking candies spoils children’s teeth,” she declared. “Whoever gives them candies as presents is not doing them a favour.”
“O, three’s no need,” the boy replied. The other one laughed.
“I’m not a skinflint,” the old lady felt offended. “Peppermint has a soothing effect,” she added after they had already moved off. “It is recommended in mild cases of tension and insomnia.”
The street took the old lady on to a boulevard, at the corner of which there was a big store for fashionable ready-to-wear. As she walked she fixed her eyes on the clothes and passed near the shopwindow. She carefully put the box into her pocket, took out yet another bonbon, gobbled it and smacked with relish. A white silk velvet cress draw her attention. Wishing to have a better look at it, she came too close to the shopwindow and knocked her spectacles against the window glass. She pulled back startled, felt for the box and the money in her pocket, raised her head to read the company signboard, and started walking along the shopwindow in search of the entrance to the store. The boulevard wend uphill towards the higher parts of the town; the entrance turned to be considerably further up from the corner where the small street joined the boulevard. The old lady found it too much uphill, stopped and began to examine the tips of her shoes inquisitively. After a minute she sighed, turned back and retraced her steps. She stopped once more in front of the white silk velvet dress, sighed again and continued with a firm step.
At one of the crossing she saw a large cinema signboard and hurried towards it with double effort. She looked for stills from the current film on the display board but on it there was only a large poster, so she murmured her displeasure, tripped over the aluminum threshold of the entrance and went into the empty dusky foyer.
The box office was to one side in a glass booth plastered with posters. The old lady leaned for support on the railing in front of it and seemed ready to doze off. The booking clerk moved about in her chair, attempted to see what was going on behind the visitor’s spectacles and failing in that, she knocked on the glass pane. The old lady lifted her head, adjusted her spectacles and stepped forward.
“At what time is the screening?”, she rested her elbows on the ledge and peered into the box office.
“The film is a pornographic one,” the woman warned her loudly and distinctly.
“I’m not schoolgirl,” replied the old lady.
The woman giggled. A man of about thirty entered the foyer.
“It’s not romantic, there’s only sex!” emphatically said the booking clerk, stressing every syllable.
“Don’t shout, please, I can hear you,” there was irritation in the old lady’s voice. “Sex isn’t’ shameful.”
“The lady has the right to see the film,” the man stood behind the old lady.
The booking clerk eyed him contemptuously.
“Eighty. Seats are not numbered,” she shoved the ticket before her and in disgust averted her glance from the bluish-white haired head bent over the suit pocket.
The old lady took one banknote from the wad, carefully rubbing it with her thumb and forefinger to assure herself that it was not two notes stuck to each other, and passed it on.
“Use of the lavatory is included in the price, isn’t it?” she asked to make sure.
“It is, it is,” the booking clerk answered.
“You will accompany me to the lavatory, won’t you, sir?” the old lady turned unexpectedly to the man behind her.
“I hope you don’t think I’m flirting with you,” she winked at him while they walked along a corridor which was filthy, badly lit and jammed with discarded seats. “You, men, are a bit naive. Has sex education been introduced as a compulsory subject in secondary schools nowadays?” she changed the subject before she went into the lavatory.
The man shrugged his shoulders and did not say anything. He waited a second outside the door, then he turned back, retraced his steps along the corridor and left the cinema. The booking clerk looked after him with curiosity and disbelief, stepped out of the box office ran up to the corridor leading to the lavatory, cast a searching glance around and it was only when she heard the old lady’s shuffling steps behind the door that she went back to her seat.
It was stuffy and warm in the old small auditorium with wide seats upholstered in red damask long before. The spectators, several couples and a dozen men of various age, had chosen seats as distant as possible from one another. The old lady paused for a moment at the door, slowly cast an eye at the audience, and made for the aisle seat in one of the rows, next to a boy in a black leather jacket. The film began and she stretched out her legs and rested her head on the high back of the chair. Some ten minutes later, during a pause in the speech lines coming from the screen, a prolonged snoring, accompanied by shrill whistling was heard.
There followed a common giggle among the audience and some whistling from the back. The boy next to the old lady nudged her.
“Come on, off with you!”
The nudge was so strong that the old lady’s body went forward. Her spectacles slipped from her nose, slid down and fell on the floor.
“Are we going to have breakfast?” she asked, startled.
The audience again burst into laughter and jeering. When the latter subsided, sobbing was heard on top of the sound of the dialogue from the screen. Someone opened the door, the light from the foyer pierced the darkness within, the usher’s voice was heard, the lights in the auditorium were turned on and finally, the booking clerk appeared at the door.
“My spectacles have been stolen,” told her the old lady coolly, calmly and authoritatively. “Please, call the police!”
The boy in the black jacket diligently stooped and groped under the seat in front.
He found the spectacles but one lens was missing. He squatted in the narrow space between the seats, touched the floor with his knee and under the babel of comments managed to find in too. He tried to fix in back onto the frame but it did not stick.
“Hey, put it in her pocket!” someone suggested.
“You haven’t got lost, have you?” the usherette, asked at the exit. “Do you know your telephone number?”
The eye, until a moment before seeming helpless behind the frame without the lens, fixed her with a stare: somehow mocking as though it could perceive secrets and nuances. The usherette shrugged her shoulders.
“I am cheating on my husband,” said the old lady, her ewes ranging over the tops of buildings and the darkening sky. “Vice knows no age,” tears welled up in her eyes. “Oh, I’m flighty, so very flighty.”
“Shall I call the police?” suggested the usherette.
“You may. But from the vice squad. Have they instituted it again?” she asked with a brighter voice.
The usterette did not answer and wend back into the cinema. The old lady stomped her feet in one spot, took a deep breath through her wide opened nostrils, held it in for awhile and suddenly started walking briskly along the street. At a large crossroads she bought a packet of salted peanuts, crunched a few, slowed down her steps, took a left turn and started studying the shopwindows and entrances. At the next crossroads she stood hesitantly in one place and chose a steep street leading up to the river. A wave of warm air wafted from below, she turned to face in and waited for it to get colder, a soft smile on her face. She crossed over carefully and went into a small bistro. The place was no larger than some thirty square metres with preserved old wooden shelves, decorated with draped curtains and artificial flowers. One other item in the interior was a turn-of-the-century cash register on the bar counter at the other end of the room.
The old lady sat at one of the round tables bordered with nickel, adjusted her spectacles and took an attentive look around. She put her forefinger were the missing lens used to be touched her eyelid, removed her hand and examined it like a one-eyed bird and murmured something.
Leaning on the bar, the waitress followed the entry of the old lady with curiosity, exchanged a remark with the man behind the counter and made for the new customer.
“What will you have, madam?” she asked. “Here is the price list.” She placed the menu folder upon the table.
The old lady looked up with incomprehension. The combination of the strong dioptres of the remaining lens and the missing one made one half of her face look unnaturally bulging.
“Are you going to order anything?” the young woman repeated with impatience.
“A textbook in forensic medicine.” The old lady bent down her head and took out the banknotes from her pocket. “Will that money be enough?” she inhaled noisily several times through her nostrils. “I have always had something to drink,” she added. “Would that be enough for a glass of liqueur?” with the tips of her fingers the old lady fumbled the crimpled banknotes. ‘I can’t see properly,” she complained. “The children broke my glasses,” she sighed and helplessly looked up.
“So you want a glass of liqueur,” the young woman asked. “That would be twenty. Shall I take the sum?” She reached towards the banknotes.
The old lady quickly withdrew them.
“And how much is one cognac?” she squinted a searching eye behind the missing lens.
The girl nodded. The old lady again half closed her eyes end counted the sum.
“A glass of cognac then?” the waitress asked.
“Well, two glasses would by forty, wouldn’t it?” the old lady covered the banknotes with her hand.
“Shall I bring you a double cognac?” the girl began to lose patience.
“O, no, a small one! the old lady almost screamed, offended. “I am not addicted to alcohol! Two small ones. One after the other. And no one is to know!”
Disgust was added to the impatient in the girl’s eyes.
“I don’t have enough money for the textbook, I know it!” she leaned forward confidentially and complacently giggled.
“So, you want two small cognac,” specified the girl.
“Alcohol helps communication,” the old lady looked up at her slyly.
The girl took the money and came back with a crystal glass of cognac. The old lady downed the contents at once, shook her head, ran her fingers over the top of the table and tentatively placed the empty glass on it. The man behind the counter whistled.
“She might drink herself under the table,” his hand hesitated in pouring the second glass. “Why don’t you give her a cup of coffee instead? Do you think she can tell the difference,” he pulled the handle of the espresso machine and cleaned the coffee remains.
The girl had not yet placed the coffee on the table when the old lady raised her nose, sniffed the tray and stared at the cup.
“Your order,” the waitress said.
“So, you give bonuses!” remarked the old lady. “Like the Spaniards: for every beer a morsel of appetizer. But,” she turned her head. “I won’t have it. I don’t allow myself coffee. The cognac is enough.”
The waitress hesitated.
“My order won’t be late, will it? inquired the old lady loudly.
The waitress put back the coffee cup on the tray and returned to the bar.
“I hope you won’t feel sick after that,” said she, placing the brownish liquid before the old lady.
“I’m as fit as a fiddle, dear,” she patted the girl’s arm. “You forgot to mark the bill on the cash register. It didn’t click.”
“It doesn’t work,” the young woman withdrew her hand.
“Oh,” the old lady looked round at shelves on the bistro wall with surprise and pain.
“Will you please give me a textbook in forensic medicine,” with a tentative motion she took the stem of the glass, took a sip and added: “I’ll not go back home without a textbook!”
The girl and the man behind the counter exchanged smiles.
“Get rid of her before she gets drunk,” the bar tender started wiping the counter with a large blue sponge. The girl placed several ashtrays on the tray and gave the old lady a hesitant look.
“Go and tell her to make herself scarce!” the man repeated, bent down and put away the sponge. “You know what? I think this place had been once a medical bookshop!” he straightened up. “That’s right!” he exclaimed, turning towards the old lady who was sipping cognac with relish. “It was really a medical bookshop! But I think she’ll get drunk and might kick the bucket in here!”
Another customer caught the waitress’s eye end she moved away from the counter. When she went back, the bar tender was rummaging in a drawer behind him. He pulled out a thick volume and shut the drawer loudly.
“Some Arabs left it behind them. Give it to her and good riddance,” he handed the book to the girl.
The waitress hesitated but took it.
“Here is your textbook, madam,” she stood in front of old lady’s table, pushed the volume into her hands and carefully drew the cognac glass towards herself.
“Keep your hands off my cognac!” the old lady clasped the girl’s wrist.
“You wanted a textbook,” she gave up picking up the glass.
The old lady drew the cognac closer to herself and started leafing through the book.
“There aren’t many illustrations in it,” she concluded.
“It’s in great demand,” the waitress exchanged glances with the bar tender end he nodded encouragingly.
“The assistant professor in forensic medicine suddenly hanged himself,” the old lady giggled. “With bandage. Quite aesthetically,” she sipped from the glass and with an unsteady hand placed it back on the table. “You need knowledge to be able kill yourself.” she added. “If you are to do it aesthetically once you have decided to take your life,” she looked engagingly and paused. “And because knowledge is the stab in the back, or in the heart... no... or rather yes, in the heart of crime. And the most important thing upon arriving on the scene is to make a lateral cup in the rope,” she hiccuped and imitated with fingers a movement of cutting with scissors. “... The chain, the rope, bandage, belt must not be untied. The coroners strongly object to that... Even if I liked coroners once I don’t fancy them anymore. There are more suitable occupations for a husband. Such as an architect, for example,” she made a grimace and sighed.
“Take the textbook and go study it at home,” hollered the man at the bar.
“The boss is a tough one,” the old lady raised her eyes towards the girl. “I’m two levs short of its price.”
“You’ll bring them some other time,” the young woman held her by the elbow, helping her stand up.
“Now, I would like to hear the clicking sound of the cash register,” begged the old lady.
“Hey, why don’t you call an ambulance?” a man from another table suggested.
“Why call an ambulance, it’s more a case for the mortuary,” said another customer.
“Oh!” exclaimed the old lady with unconcealed envy. “I give right of way to the younger ones. I have loved the hanged, the shot and the poisoned as well,” the old lady puckered up her nose, hesitated and trough she lowered her voice, decided to share confidances completely: “Used to pass suicides who killed themselves with submachine guns to a colleague of mine. He respected me and I availed myself of his weakness. My sense of space suffered when they were spilled all over.”
The girl accompanied her to the door and shoved the book under her arm.
“I have also been wooed by an Arab surgeon,” giggled the old lady, “but one thing I know for sure : the Latin Americans know best about love. I am not a frivolous woman,” she concluded and cropped the book. “I can’t accept it; I have no money.”
The girl stooped, picked the book up and again shoved it into the old lady’s hands. The man behind the bar come out, pushed the waitress out of the way, took the old lady under her arm and dragged her on to the pavement.
“Left or right?” he impatiently looked in the direction of the bar.
“Do they sell lilac somewhere near here?” the old lady asked in turn.
The man let go of her hand, took a step back, and realized the woman was steady on her legs. He swore, went back into the bar, took his place behind the counter and turned up the music.
The old lady walked some distance along the middle of the pavement with an alertly raised head. The sun was setting in the West, shining warmly over the people opposite her coloring them in a gentle sunlight. A men of about thirty was reading a large announcement on the wall of a large house built probably by a wealthy merchant in earlier times. The building was decorated with fine sculpted ornaments. The old lady spotted him, stopped dead in her tracks and trying to remember something important, suddenly lowered her head upon her chest. The man finished reading, headed of his way and then saw the old lady.
“You don’t seem to feel well?” he asked, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“I am short of cash for the textbook,” she said unclearly and wiped something off her spectacles with a trembling hand.
The man sensed a whiff of alcohol and stepped back. The old lady looked up and with amazement he saw a pair of eyes on the verge of tears which looked different because of the great diopter of the remaining lens they were, full of confusion, guilt but also guilt, and something more than that, which he defined as wisitfuness.
“Well, if science is at stake, ” the man continued peering into the face with the one lacking spectacle lens. His glanced at her expensive but not so new shoes. “Do you want money?” he added.
“Coins, coins,” the old lady seemed to awaked from a vision and in her eyes now there was only helplessness. She took the banknotes out of her pocket. “Can you give me change for these banknotes and dial for me one telephone number; I’ve broken my glasses.” She produced the missing lens from her pocket and showed it to him.
“But of course!” The man took a look round. The telephone booth was on the opposite pavement. “Of course,” he repeated, reassured and apparently pleased.
They crossed the street as he was supporting her by the elbow.
“I mistook you for someone else,” she smiled. “But the one I mistook you for -”
The man dialed the number the old lady gave him, put the coin in and handed the receiver over to her.
“One usually mistake people for someone one either loves or is afraid of,” she apparently gave up her attempts to recall... “Hello, Helda, is that you? Your Auntie Elena is calling. How are you?”
“Is everything okay?” the man asked.
The old lady stretched her lips into a smile and nodded. He gave her yet another coin.
“Oh, no, please!” he went away smiling.
“Helga, how is Maria going?” the old lady said into the receiver. “No, nothing bad has happened. I’m just asking. Oh, yes he got drunk at my wedding. He also got drunk on his business trip to Moscow. I can’t hear you well... What matters is that you can hear me: if your father hadn’t a mistress, he would not have been drinking!... Whose birthday party you say? When is he coming back?... I want to share with her a little concern of mine. Why do I need the police?” I lake to confide in women friends. What do I need the police for?” she repeated. “I don’t steal,” she examined the book she was holding. “No... I haven’t permitted myself other crimes. Why should I read the street names?” the old lady moved the receiver away from herself. “She has started hiding it!” she added and with a slow, patient movement she managed to hand up the receiver. “She has taken after her father in that,” she continued, looking at the door of the telephone booth. “He may not have had a mistress,” some hesitation colored her voice. She moved to the curb the pavement and looked towards the bottom of the street. Then she turned her eyes towards the sky.
The mountains cash a deeper violet shadow over the town. The church bell tolled.
“It wasn’t him but Maria who had a lover. I have mixed them up! The old lady covered her neckline with her suit’s collar and on the inner side of the pavement she headed with her back to the mountain. “She may have had even two, she’s so secretive.”
The old lady passed by a shop for pet animals, paused after some ten steps, pondered something, retraced her steps and went into the shop.
The proprietor, a short, lively, bald man nearing fifty, greeted her and with respect closed the note-pad in which he was writing down something. The old lady did not respond to the greeting, started moving in between the cages and, covering with her palm the spot were the missing lens had been, took a careful look about.
“Are you looking for something in particular?” the man came closer to her and her folded his hands behind his back.
“There is a kind of poisonous spiders,” the old lady said without interrupting her inspection. “In our country there is only one kind of poisonous spider.”