(Translation: Jim Brown)
The dusty silence of the neighbourhood was broken by Nea Stelică yelling:
“What is it? Why are you screaming as if you’re off your head?”
“Throw down the shopping bag, the money, and the stool. They’ve got chicken feet in at Redresare! Right now, do you hear?”
“What money’s this? ’Cause I don’t have any left.”
“The hell you don’t! Never mind, we’ll sort it out when I get back! Take a look, either in that broken vase on the balcony, or if it’s not there, in my toolbox there’s little box full of screws. Take the screws out and you’ll see the money tied up with an elastic band. But get a move on, ’cause the line’s growing. Dead slow and stop you are!”
Lenuţa gladly threw him down the shopping bag, money, and stool, her eyes shining with hope, and Mr. Stelică zipped off like a shot in the direction of Redresare.
The news had spread like lightning round the neighbourhood: they’d got chicken feet in!
The apartment blocks shook with the bustle of people rummaging for money, shopping bags, and stools so they could get off to the line as fast as possible. They were full of enthusiasm; I could see it in our apartment too. Mother had started singing and Father was whistling at high speed. This didn’t happen very often. They even kissed each other, sort of… in a hurry, knowing that they had to move very fast, to get as near the front as they could.
The sound of running feet came from the stair well, the sign that our neighbours had got ahead of us. Searching for a solution, Father decided that I should go to the line, because if I ran, I would get there faster and then they would come and take my place.. Consequently I grabbed the shopping bag, money, and stool, and I zipped off down the stairs. Once outside, I was swallowed by the streams of people flowing among dozens of apartment blocks, all heading for a single goal: Redresare.
Even now, I haven’t a clue why they called it that. It’s just what everybody called it. It was a sort of grocery store where sugar, oil, chicken feet, and even meat were in stock more often than anywhere else. People said the boss was a bald guy who was well in with people from the Party and that was why they got more produce. Of course he kept back something for them too. Sometimes they even got in olives, oranges, or bananas. My folks never managed to come back with anything like that; it was murder. In any case, bananas were the rarest of all, but I did eat them a few times. Mother had a contact, Suzi, who helped her out with the more luxurious stuff: coffee, cigarettes, little bars of soap, chocolate, fruit. She used to bring the bananas home green, and we put them on top of the wardrobe to ripen. We would lay them on a newspaper, lined up, one by one, equally spaced, and cover them with a blanket, as if they were little children. Every day we would check them repeatedly to see if they had turned a little bit more yellow. When they were ripe, it was festival time in the house. Father would divide the banana in three, and of course he gave me the biggest part. We never ate a whole banana. We would stretch them out for as long as possible. That was the best taste of my childhood. Chewing gum tasted good too. After we ate the bananas, we didn’t throw away the skins. We kept them to smell nice in the house. The bananas had coloured stickers on them that said Ecuador. I used to peel them off carefully and stick them on my schoolbag, on the covers of my notebook, or round a pencil. Even the stickers seemed to smell of banana. So my pencil case and schoolbag smelled of banana when I went to school, which gave me a certain air of importance.
My most beautiful dreams in those days were also about bananas. One time I dreamed that I had gone to Grandma’s in the village to catch butterflies for the insect collection we had to make for school. The way it was in my dream, in the fields, instead of butterflies, big fat yellow bananas were flying all over the place, the size of Turkish pumpkins, and I was catching them in my net and devouring them on the spot. In the yard, the apple trees, pear trees, plum trees, and apricot trees all had bananas growing in them, and the stacks of corncobs had turned into stacks of banana skins. In the vegetable garden, where I knew Grandma had planted carrots, bananas had come up in all their glory, with carrot leaves round their stems. A dizzying smell came at me from all directions. I thought I was going to turn into a banana too. In the morning, when I woke up, I could still feel the unmistakable taste of the most delicious fruit in the whole world.
One night, I dreamed that Father had filled my whole bedroom with bananas, and when I opened the door the bananas tumbled down and covered me all over. For hours I sat there alone, crouched on the cupboard at the end of my bed, eating bananas and carefully folding up the skins, so I could show them to my classmates the next day, because otherwise they would never have believed, not in a month of Sundays, that I had really had a room full of them.
We didn’t start school straight away. First we had quite a long period of agricultural practice. It was great fun for us. Our parents were a bit upset because they said it was taking time out of our schooling. Our grandparents said it was all right, that we would get used to working in the fields. Those whose parents had contacts managed to get medical exemptions and didn’t go on practice. One time Mother got me an exemption too. She gave a cleaning woman at the Clinic a packet of Kent cigarettes and a little bar of Fa soap and that did the trick.
In the morning we children all gathered in the schoolyard, each of us holding a little plastic bucket. We waited till the bus arrived; then we got on and went off to various destinations. I took part in picking tomatoes, green beans, grapes, and lots of other things. Each of us had a quota to make up. Every time we filled a bucket, we went to the comrade class teacher who marked a little line in her notebook. And so on until we made up our quota. Those that worked harder and finished first had to help the others who had fallen behind. That’s how it was then: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
At 12 o’clock sharp, we had a lunch break. Then we formed groups with our friends, unwrapped the packages our parents had given us, and ate together. I didn’t eat much of mine, because I was more attracted by what my classmates had, even if Mother said it wasn’t so good. From the lunch-packs you could see who had contacts. Those who didn’t get on so well tended just to come with cans.
We boys liked it when the girls went to pee. How we tormented them! And how we enjoyed watching them from a hiding place!
Most times I went to pick tomatoes. We came back from the field with our buckets full. Mother gave me a shopping bag too, so I could take more. She used them to make tomato sauce and she preserved the green ones for the winter. In the bus on the way back we would sing at the top of our voices:
“Ailadiladada, long live the driver,
Ailadiladada, ’cause he took us there and back,
Ailadiladada, and didn’t leave us on the road,
Ailadiladada, and long live the bus,
Ailadiladada, ’cause it’s burned up all its gas!”
When we arrived back in town all hell broke loose. We had tomatoes ready in our hands and zvirrrrrrrr! We threw them at the people in the street. We particularly liked ladies dressed in white. It was terrific fun!
I could never understand why they let us take something home with us, but not the peasants who worked alongside us. Especially when the “Agricultural Campaign” started, militiamen came to the field to keep watch in case anyone stole from the communal property. They would hide among the rows of corn and when the day’s work was over they would check that the peasants all left the field empty-handed.
One day they caught Grandpa Ghiţă in Scaieţi, right when I was there for a short vacation.
I had gone to bring him back from the field around 5 o’clock in the afternoon. After we had passed the corn rows, Grandpa saw a hare in a ditch. We went up to it and touched it. The hare was dead. Grandpa took it and stuffed it under his arm, inside his jacket. We had scarcely gone a few steps when we heard a voice behind us:
“Hey old man…! Stop where you are!”
I looked round and saw two militiamen. One was older, short and fat, with curly hair and his cap pushed back, and the other was younger, small and skinny, like a ghost. We stopped right there. The militiamen came up to us.
“Your identity bulletin for inspection!” they demanded of Grandpa.
“Long life to you, I don’t have my bulletin on me, because I’m coming from the fields, from the corn.”
“But are you aware that this is a border area and you must carry your papers at all times?”
“Chief, when I’m gathering corn what am I to do with my bulletin? I’d lose it among the stalks. But I have it at home. If you like we’ll go there right now and I’ll show you.”
“Oh, never mind that. We’ll let it pass, ’cause we’re understanding people. But what’s with the swollen jacket? Come here! Are you sure some corn hasn’t stuck onto you?”
“I don’t have any corn, but I found a dead hare in a ditch,” said Grandpa, pulling the hare out from his jacket.”
“Hah…, we can let you off with the bulletin, but this is a different matter, mate! We were out looking for one thing and here we come on something else. Are you aware that hunting is forbidden in this period?”
“But… by my sins… what hunting?”
“What do you mean ‘what hunting?’ when you have the animal hidden under your jacket?”
“But didn’t I tell you I found it? It was dead in a ditch. The boy saw it too! Look, it doesn’t have any marks of bullets or of blood, not even a broken paw, as if I had caught it in a trap. It’s head isn’t broken. I don’t have a gun on me…!”
The militiamen took the hare and felt it all over.
“So you think you know more about forensics than we do, mate? So, how did it die, if you make out you’re so clever?”
“Comrade militiaman, maybe it died of old age!” said Grandpa to the older of the two militiamen.
“Listen, old man… in all my career in the Militia I’ve never seen a hare die of old age. They only ever die either caught or shot, you can be sure of that! And even if it did die of old age, was the hare so stupid as to die like that, in a ditch, for you to find it? You listen here to me, old big-ears may be timid, but not stupid to drop dead by the roadside, let that be clear.”
“Then maybe it died of some disease!” stammered Grandpa.
“What disease, mate? This fellow runs all day, eats grass from the forest, doesn’t smoke… Have you ever seen a sick hare?”
“Come on, do you think I’ve every taken any notice of which one is and which one isn’t sick? I say they maybe get sick sometimes like the rest of us, ’cause they’re surely not made of iron. And if it didn’t die of old age or of some disease, then you tell me, how did it die?” Grandpa went onto the attack.
“Tut tut! That’s turning things on their head! Are you questioning us now!? I believe you caught it and killed it. For example you could have blocked its nostrils and stopped it breathing so it died of suffocation. That’s why it has nothing broken, because you suffocated it. That’s still hunting, you know! And because you hunted the hare in the closed season, you’re fined a hundred lei and the hare is confiscated. Come on, out with the money and I’ll tear off a receipt for you!”
“But I don’t have money on me; I’ve just come from the field.”
“Then we’ll go to your home and you can pay the fine there.”
We set off home, the militiamen holding the animal by the ears with the two of us following penitently behind them.
When we got home, Grandpa informed Grandma:
“Silvia, I’ve come with the comrade militiamen to pay the fine because I found a hare in the field.”
“What fine is this you’re paying?”
“They say it’s closed season for hunting.”
“And how did you hunt it?”
“Didn’t you hear I didn’t hunt it, I found it? Ask the little one.”
“And why should you pay if you found it?”
“They don’t believe I found it; they think I hunted it.”
“Well, maybe you caught a stone with your overshoes and you hit the hare as it was running past you. If that’s what happened, does it count as hunting?”
“Maybe I hit it, but I don’t think so, ’cause it was cold when I found it. If I had just hit it then, it would have been warm, not cold and wooden the way I found it.”
“Listen Ghiţă, you know what I say? They probably have to make up a Plan of Fines, ’cause they must have a Plan too, like you do in the Collective with how many rows to harvest per day. Here’s what I say: you go round to Motor’s girl and ask for a loan for the fine till we get our money from the Collective, and I say we should slaughter a hen, bring out some wine, and give the men a bit of hospitality, ’cause some militiamen have come into your yard, you know. You never know when you might need them. They probably know the mayor, the veterinary… Come on, do as I’ve told you!”
While Grandpa went to get hold of a hundred lei, Grandma brought the table and some chairs out into the yard and invited the militiamen to take a seat.
“Since you’ve crossed our threshold anyway, stay till we grill a hen on hot coals. And take a glass of wine to get your strength back, ’cause you must be tired too.”
“We just came so Nea Ghiţă could pay the fine for hunting the hare, but since you’ve invited us, we can’t refuse, ’cause it wouldn’t be polite.”
The militiamen put the hare down on the table, opened their jacked buttons and sat down heavily, next to the jug of wine. Grandma killed the hen, scalded it, plucked it, and grilled it on hot coals. She brought it to the table and invited the militiamen to tuck in. I didn’t get a bite of it and neither did Grandpa. Those “turkeys” licked it all up. They licked up a few jugs of wine too. We sat like fools beside them and listened to them talking about work. About 9 o’clock in the evening, they decided to go:
“Eeee.., it’s time we were getting on to your own homes,” said the older one. “Tanti Silvia, thank you for the dinner! Nea Ghiţă, We’re sorry about what happened, but just you be more careful next time. And now… we have to fine you! ’Cause what if there was someone else there in the corn when we were talking and they said we had let you off? We’d be out of a job. You’ve got to understand us too! Here’s your receipt!”
“Comrade militiaman, just keep the receipt, ’cause it’s of no use to us. Take the money and let’s hope it doesn’t happen again for us to make such a mistake,” replied Grandma, looking sternly in the direction of Grandpa. “And I’ve prepared a bag for each of you with some flour, cornmeal, eggs, whatever we have in the yard.”
“Thank you, Tanti Silvia, you’re a woman of gold for this village, take it from us! But listen, do you have any dried peppers, those hot ones, around here? ’Cause I thought I saw some strings of them hanging on the fence, in the sun.”
“We have; of course we have.” Grandma quickly took two fine strings of hot peppers down from the fence and gave them to the militiamen.
“Eeee…, we take our leave of you good people and wish you good health, ’cause health is better than everything,” said the militiamen once more, and went out through the gate.
We went through the gate too, to escort them. They were swaying from side to side as they walked, with the hare under the arm of the younger one, with their bags of flour from Grandma and each with a string of hot peppers over his shoulder.
“Did you really mean to give them each a bag?” asked Grandpa.
“Oh, be quiet, Ghiţă. That’s how you get by in this world!” answered Grandma, and shut the gate after the militiamen.
I was back in the line. I had barely changed places with Father when the mathematics teacher took charge of me:
“Well, are you ready for school, sonny? Because tomorrow, that’s it, nose to the grindstone!”
“I’m ready, sir!” I answered him, looking at the ground and hoping with all my heart he wasn’t going to ask me a mathematical question.
“Say, what’s two plus two divided by two?
“Two,” I answered quickly.
“Wrong,” said Mr. Georgescu. “Take it from me that two plus two divided by two makes exactly three.”
Nea Marin joined in the discussion:
“But how can it make three, teacher? Has my drink got you drunk? The kid’s right. It makes two. Like if one day they bring me, recorded in the storeroom files and everything, two asbestos boards, you know, the kind they use in laboratories, yes? Say it, pal, yes?
“Yes,” said Mr. Georgescu.
“Right, and then they bring me another two, a few days later, let’s say a month, maybe half a year, ’cause you don’t get that stuff supplied so easily, yes?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Georgescu.
“Right, first there were two, the asbestos boards that came the first time, and then two more the next time, so I’ve got four in the inventory, yes.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Georgescu.
“Gooooood! Right, and now the boss comes along and tells me to divide the asbestos between two end users, yes? Don’t I give them two boards each? I mean, two, those first asbestos boards, and two, the ones delivered later, divided between two end users makes two, I mean two boards to each end user, doesn’t it? ’Cause how am I going to give them three, like you say to each of them, if I only have four, in the storeroom, in the inventory, that I have to divide between two end users? I’d be caught with a shortfall and end up in jail if I followed your thinking, teacher!”
“Mr. Marin,” said the teacher.
“Just call me Nea Marin, pal, ’cause that’s what everyone calls me.”
“Nea Marin, it’s a question here of the order of the operations. Multiplication and division are done first, and then addition and subtraction. So first we calculate two divided by two, which makes one. Then we calculate two plus one, which equals three. Quod erat demonstrandum.”
“Teacher,” howled Nea Marin, hitting the ground with his cap, “how can I divide the asbestos first when I don’t have any in the storeroom? How am I supposed to give it to the end users when I haven’t taken delivery in the first place, I mean, done the addition part, as it were? So you tell me first to divide, I mean, to give out the goods, and then to add, I mean, to take delivery. Won’t you get me sent to jail that way? And even if it’s not a matter of jail, how can I give out what I don’t have? ’Cause if I haven’t taken delivery, I don’t have anything in the storeroom, ’cause I don’t hold goods in stock and I don’t have a surplus recorded either. God forbid! To think I’ve lived to hear such a thing!”
“Keep your voice down, comrade, you’re disturbing public peace and order!” said a militiaman who was hanging around beside the line.
“I beg your pardon, comrade militiaman,” said Nea Marin, beating retreat. “But will you take a look at the problem we’ve got here? The teacher says that two plus two divided by two makes three. I say it makes two. You, being a public authority, like, and responsible for peace and order, what do you say?”
“I say you should mind your own business and keep peace and order in this line that has been formed for the purpose of the acquisition of alimentary produce. It is not the business of the Militia to solve mathematical problems. According to the division of labour, that is a matter for those concerned with mathematics, for example teachers, engineers, and researchers. You, comrade, what work do you do?” the militiaman asked Nea Marin.
“Comrade sergeant, I’m a storeroom clerk at the chemical plant.”
“And you?” he asked Mr. Georgescu.
“I am a teacher of mathematics at School Number 10.”
“Then it’s clear! The comrade teacher is right!” continued the militiaman. “How do you permit yourself, comrade storeroom clerk, to upset the division of labour and express your opinion on a problem that is not within your competence? Are you aware that in so doing your have exceeded your professional attributes in a manner with potential criminal implications?”
“Comrade sergeant, I beg your pardon,” said Nea Marin feebly, rubbing his beret in his hands and sweating abundantly.”
“I’ll forgive you this time, but if it happens again I’ll fill in an unfavourable report and send you straight back to the factory,” said the militiaman, walking away from us.
Nea Marin was like a sponge full of water. He smelled even worse than usual now and he was scratching himself even more vigorously under the armpits. I was hoping he wouldn’t let off a fart under the strain. I think it would have laid us all flat.
Then Nea Costel broke in:
“Look, Nea Marin, I think it can be your way and his way. I mean theory is one thing and practice is something else. The teacher is talking by the book. You’re talking from your day to day work. And I can’t make out why you’re getting so upset, because it’s not such a big difference. What’s two or three to me? I mean if I live three more years instead of two, do you think I’m any happier? It’s true that if I don’t get three kilos of chicken feet but only get two I’ll be upset, but I’ll get over it, so what I say is that you’re both right.”
“What are you saying, Nea Costel? ’Cause I see you here, an old man with white hair. Look, have you ever been a storeroom clerk to know what it means when something’s missing against the inventory? You think if they come to do a stock check and see that instead of three asbestos boards I only have two, I’ll get away with it? Not likely, pal! I’m telling you. They’ll bloody well catch me with missing stock. If I’m one board short they’ll record a shortfall, meaning I’ve been screwed, and if I’ve one too many they’ll record a surplus, meaning I’ve screwed someone else and kept a board back for the purpose of stealing it. See what I mean? In my workplace, that sort of thing just doesn’t wash. It’s either black or white.”
Tanti Nuţa could no longer keep her mouth shut, and added her piece to the discussion:
“Teacher, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I also think Nea Marin is right. In our place, with the carpets, it’s the same. First we get together at the factory, the foreman goes through the safety at work stuff, and tells us what there is to be done, and after that we split up to work at different points. Are you saying that first we should split up and then gather together? That’s not possible. And I’ve been working in textiles for a good few years! Yes, and my man, who works at the Ministry does the same, ’cause I’m always asking him what he does. You tell them, Tanti Florica, am I not right?”
“Oh dear, Nuţi, what do I know? That’s likely how it is. I never got much book learning, ’cause Mother had a lot of us children and we had to work to put food on the table.”
“What, Tanti Florica? Do you need to have book learning for everything these days? Work teaches you how to get by in life! I never went to high school either; I went to the textile workers’ school and I married my Dide, but I’ve known a few people, and I’ve got myself a few connections; we’ve furnished a house for ourselves and here we are now putting money into the Savings Bank for a Dacia car. And what if I don’t have book learning? Let everyone stick to what he can do! Those that like work should stick to work, and those that like books, to books! I’ve always liked work, I can tell you!”
“Oh dear, Nuţi, that’s likely how it is.”
“You hear that? Never mind likely, it’s just how it is. I’m telling you.”
“Tanti Nuţi, you are confusing the order of operations in mathematics with the elements of the process of production and of the organization of labor in the factory where you work,” said Mr. Georgescu, feeling the need to justify himself. “In mathematics, I repeat, the order of the operations is very clear: first multiplication and division, and then addition and subtraction.”
“Listen, teacher, you listen here to me. Whoever made these rules didn’t like work: let that be clear! Because if he had liked work too, he would have seen that the problem is handled differently on the shop floor.”
An early autumn shower of rain started to fall on us out of the blue. As if at a signal, thousands of black shopping bags were raised above heads. It was dark above my head, but it was even darker inside it.