The Six-Room Flat

 

by Zdravka Evtimova

 

 

            I was carefully curling her thin hair that I had dyed from sickly blond to russet ginger more times than I could remember. I was using ancient silver rollers with the initials of the German company “Kipheuer-Witsch”, her skull under my fingers as brittle as paper, her shoulders almost intangible under the heavy folds of her brocade dress that made her old skin twitch as I moved about her. It felt as if her soul was about to abandon her, disgusted with the silver rollers, loathing the brocade that weighed far more than the woman herself.

            “My dear,” she often addressed me, but I was neither dear nor hers: I felt the cold silver of Kipheuer-Witsch in her words. Her vowels were even and calm like an autumn day. Days and nights had blended into the smooth paste of her voice that told me about her husband, an eminent factory owner who had graduated in fine arts from the University of Vienna. A brilliant violin player, who had inherited his mother’s sugar factories, an intellectual whom fate had tossed away in the insignificant country town, smelling of sweat and boredom, a settlement, which was bearable only in spring because at that time squalor was concealed under the blossoms of cherry trees. Her husband would play the violin in the evenings, she would listen to him and their little son would frolic by the fountains in the small park.

            No, Mrs. Baeva would never allow the onus of the sugar factory to mutilate her heir’s life; she despised the aroma of caramelized sugar, a poisonous transparent cloud that engulfed the whole town.

            I couldn’t care less about Mrs. Baeva’s husband or her son. She had placed am advertisement in a local newspaper, in which I had wrapped my sandwich by accident: some cheese, tomatoes plus a baked pepper. The elderly lady wrote in her advertisement she would bequeath her gorgeous six-room apartment in the center of Sofia to the person willing to take care of her till death. There were eleven other women who were more than prepared to minister the old lady to her maker, for such a prize. To my amazement she made us all recite poetry. I had hated poetry all my life – guys often tried to convince me that I had beautiful eyes and after I gave them what they wanted the prevailing number of them declared I was a slut. I wouldn’t like to use the other vulgar word that guys called me now and then. You all know it, but I do not resort to obscenities even in my mind. Mrs. Baeva could hear my thoughts. Whenever words like “asshole” or “faggot” crept into my vocabulary, she fined me 100 Lev[1] per each rude phrase. I could say farewell to my salary if I enjoyed three dirty expressions a month.

            When I uttered an indecent part of the Bulgarian vocabulary Mrs. Baeva bristled up and her soul made best efforts to extricate itself from her thin hair and “Kipheuer Witsch” rollers. I knew what was at the roots of her troubles: she strongly suspected her son was gay. Actually, she not only suspected; her son Dennis had lived with a young man for seven years now. When Dennis visited his mother the two of them stood in front of the window overlooking the park with the broken swings, and wept. I couldn’t tell you why they cried their hearts out. The truth was their pretty faces glistened in a profusion of tears. Her son had her exquisite shoulders that twitched exactly like Mrs. Baeva’s, so I supposed his soul, too, was as sensitive and itchy as hers.

            “My dear, he was a treasure,” Ma’am explained to me most of the days while I combed her hair; she meant her husband. “Je l’adore,” she told me in French and when I stared at her blank-faced, she heaved a deep sigh and translated the damned sentence for me “I adore him.” I couldn’t care less, of course, but she made a habit of omitting ‘Good Morning” and starting the day with “Je l’adore”. Often she would ask me to open the mahogany chest of drawers: I had never imagined that a puny chest like that could be so expensive. She made me polish it with a special paste that her son brought from Vienna, and the poor mahogany wood shone with the energy of the moon and the sun combined. Actually, your ass would shine like the moon, too, if you polished it with that Vienna paste. My eyes hurt on account of the mahogany, but I polished the chest all the same. So, her husband, the treasure, played the violin every night: nocturne after nocturne, sonata after sonata until Mrs. Baeva felt blissfully happy. He kissed her good night to which she responded with a grateful smile, half asleep.

On the other hand, their son had a nurse, a young Mademoiselle, gentle and refined who recited Schiller in German, Byron in English and Baudelaire in French. The Mademoiselle could play the violin, the cello and the pianoforte. She played different concertos so magnificently that Mrs. Baeva’s son and husband wept silent tears by her side. Once in a blue moon Mr. Baev - when he was not utterly exhausted by the problems of the sugar factory - played the violin with the nurse and these were miraculous evenings, no doubt. What a pity that the lad asked his mother to hire a man to be his governess. Indeed, Dennis had no appetite at all, he pined and lost weight, he was such a delicate curly boy who recited Baudelaire in French and Schiller in German, but whenever Mademoiselle approached him and stretched across the table to touch his hand, the kid felt dizzy. If she remained in his room late in the night to read to him, then in the morning Dennis woke up covered in a horrible rash that mutilated his marble-white skin.

            Before Mrs. Baeva reached the point where her son’s marble skin was totally busted, I had usually managed to curl one third of her hair although it was as thin as laser rays. I knew what would come next: she wept harassed by the memory of miserable Dennis and his ruined complexion. I gave her mineral water; she touched my hand, her skin always cold, icy: perhaps death was already in her fingers and the chill came from the world beyond. It did not bother me, I was accustomed to touching death and obeying her usual order, “Go and clean my son’s house, Monika.”

            I promptly promised I’d clean her son’s and his boyfriend’s houses, meanwhile thinking how I was to smuggle Miladin, a boy I slept with from time to time, into Mrs. Baeva’s six-room flat. The walls of the flat were girded up for robberies: a thick network of black wires encompassed them. Ma’am had a safety system installed, which signaled the intrusion of gangsters, thieves, rapists, spiders, rodents and cockroaches by producing sounds of a differentiated pitch. Miladin always visited me wearing one of my dresses so I told Mrs. Baeva he was our new charwoman. The charwoman was allowed to enter the flat twice a week. She cleaned its spacious six rooms furnished with Vienna divans, cabinets and tables from the eighteenth century.  Mrs. Baeva was as good as blind without her glasses, so she asked to touch and check the charwoman’s cheek – smooth skin was her obsession.

            Maybe I had forgotten to mention that when Ma’am chose me among the eleven other competitors for the job, the first thing she did was to touch my cheeks. She rejected professional nurses on the grounds they could not recite, they inadvertently blurted out impolite remarks or she thought their voices sounded ugly. I suspected the major reason she flunked them was that the skin of their faces did not feel smooth. She touched all cheeks in turn and selected me, because my skin is as smooth as a polished shoe. Quite apart from that I had succeeded in stammering out a whole stanza of Vazov’s[2] poem “I am a Bulgarian”. Alas, that was a flash in the pan for later she made me recite Schiller and Shakespeare and I could not utter an articulate sound. I kept mum as if I was a dead fish. Yet I was the only one among the eleven competitors who knew these guys were poets although I hated poetry. Mrs. Baeva said, “You are my girl”, and I was.

            Ma’am touched Miladin’s cheek as well. He had fine bone structure and enormous blue eyes. I made him shave painstakingly before pouring French belle’s perfume all over him – Mrs. Baeva adored French scents and unlike her eyes which made out you were not a cow but her servant, her nose differentiated between all the twelve different perfumes I spilt over Miladin. Sometimes she and Miladin wept together. She had somehow managed to move him with the story about the man she loved; that fortunate individual, of course, was not her husband, who in spite of all his accomplishments and undisputable qualities was “simply a good friend”. The guy she was in love with was perfect. She had never used the word “lover” when she described him although he undoubtedly was a good one. O, what a shameful blemish that would be for his blessed heart and gentle soul. She adored him.

            This blessed individual joined his maker on account of excessive consumption of alcohol or maybe because he was one of the few drug addicts of his time. Whatever the truth, I often saw Miladin and Mrs. Baeva weep in unison for her beloved. Miladin sobbed most sincerely and Ma’am was sure he put his heart in his tears, although as I said before her eyes were as good as if they had been gouged out. She had an eerie sixth sense of fakers and caught you on the spot if you but tried to trick her. I had made it a rule with Ma’am: better keep mum like a fried trout and let her touch your cheek than feign sincerity. I let her fingers on my cheek reminisce about her own beauty in her youth.  She used to be a fascinating young minx, she said, and “my complexion was like yours at present, Monika”. Somehow I couldn’t make out the knot of silver rollers in her voice, which was accustomed to purchasing and selling, neither could I make out the tears in her thinning eyes.

            I could play no musical instrument; I loathed violins, sonatas and nocturnes, but “God has blessed you with an angelic voice, my dear,” Mrs. Baeva said and asked me to sing to her. I knew most of the hits of “Metallica” but she shook uncontrollably whenever I attempted to sing them to her. She coerced me into cramming an Italian song and although I couldn’t make heads or tails of what it said, I sang it to her, softly, so softly you could hear the clock knit the minutes into a rope around your neck. I crooned and cooed the Italian words until she began to weep, half of her hair captured in the rollers, the other half hanging like gossamer down her skull.

            Miladin sat immobile on the piano stool in the antechamber. I often wondered how it was possible for his backside not to contract paralysis. But when I tucked Mrs. Baeva in and turned to look at him, I saw that his face was sopping wet – he did get upset about the song – Ma’am had translated it into Bulgarian for him. The song, of course, told a story about unrequited love. Miladin was so moved upon hearing it that he could not make love for a while. To be honest with you, a situation like that was highly frustrating for me. I hadn’t given him my best dress to have him by my side soft like dough, teardrops all over him, while Mrs. Baeva snored in her mahogany bed.

            I imagined what would happen if she discovered Miladin was not a woman. She might kick me out or might give Miladin the boot and keep me. Actually, I had chosen him on account of his ability to squeeze into my dress and look like a girl in it. I liked the blue look in his eyes, though.

            One evening Baeva’s son met Miladin who had dolled himself up in my dress. I expected some sort of disaster but Dennis remarked casually, “That is our new servant girl, isn’t she?” and gave Miladin his old shirt as present. I should have smelled a rat back then.

            As I curled the second half of Mrs. Baeva’s hair, she would often tell me that, perhaps, it had been her fault that her son had developed the way he had. She knew very well that Dennis’s skin blistered on account of his nurse’s presence, so one night when the lad pleaded with his mother, his eyes brimming with tears, to hire a boy to take care of him, she had given in. She had hoped that Dennis would get accustomed to man’s company, learn to play man’s games and behave like a man. Yet, it had the opposite effect…What a pity, Mrs. Baeva’s husband said grieving over the beautiful night concerts with Mademoiselle. They could not recite together Schiller, Goethe and Heine any more. He could only bury his head in the heaps of sugar that his factory produced, and lament his days in the world of gruff workers and accountants who would bamboozle him into going bankrupt in a flash. Mademoiselle was so sorry, too… an inordinately sensitive girl that no factory owner of repute would hire. Who else would want a lovesick nurse sprawling on the sitting room floor in your villa!

            So the family hired a lad to take care of Mrs. Baeva’s son. He was an exceptionally civilized young guy who recited William Blake and Hoelderlin, but, alas, his family went bust in the cruel crisis of 1940. That lad won everybody with his refinement, erudition and elegance and what a pity again! Several months after they hired him, Mrs. Baeva happened to search for her son’s silk shirt in the wardrobe in his room. The thing she saw left her broken-hearted: her son, already a young man himself, and his male nurse were naked together, God forgive me the obscene phrase I resorted to! For a fleeting instant Ma’am didn’t know how she should react: if she announced her presence she could inflict a spiritual trauma on her son that wouldn’t heal. She chose to circumspectly withdraw and on the very next day she asked her husband to fire the male nurse.

            Mrs. Baeva’s son fell into a black depression, then was hit by a crisis, a disease-like state during which he came up in an itchy rash. His marble skin looked like as if it had been covered with popcorns. He’d be OK, Mrs. Baeva told herself and made a firm decision – an act I could relate to the knot of clanging Kipheuer-Witsch silver rollers in her voice.

Another event, a more tragic one occurred soon after that: her boy Dennis sold his books – by Goethe, Schiller, Heine and all the rest of them, he pawned the presents he had received for his birthdays: a gold ring, a diamond, his horse La Rochefoucault, and even hawked several pairs of his shoes. Then Dennis rushed to seek for his male nurse. This romantic hunt had been in vain – Mrs. Baeva had prudently sent the individual to Pirot, a town in Macedonia, to an asylum for aristocratic young men with psychotic disorders. At that point of the tale, the silver rollers curled Mrs. Baeva’s voice into a wire that could strangle anyone. In the long run, the male nurse ran away from the asylum and embarked on a dangerous trip back to Bulgaria, begging for food and small change all the way down to Sofia, to his beloved Dennis, Mrs. Baeva’s son.

            Miladin had already heard that tale twice. The first time he listened to it his face was soaked with tears like a freshly irrigated lawn. Mrs. Baeva personally checked his cheeks and was deeply gratified by the charwoman’s sympathy and good heart. Miladin was really upset; he remained soft almost half of the night, but as I had already pointed out, that could hardly be tolerated by me.

            I convinced Mrs. Baeva we needed another charwoman, a more energetic one, and I substituted Miladin for another guy, a burlier one. He had a wiry beard, no matter he diligently shaved it, and when Mrs. Baeva touched his cheek she felt sorely disappointed. She declared that people who had suffered from small pox made her think of old age, varicose veins and wrinkles.  Thus Miladin came back, meeker than ever, and tried to convince me he had learnt his lesson well.

Whenever he wept, he dried his tears with a towel and made best efforts to conceal them from me. Alas, one day he recited “Freude, Schöne Göterfunken” by Schiller staring at a photograph in a silver frame, which showed Mrs. Baeva as a young woman of the beau monde. The old photo made it clear that Ma’am had just given birth to a most beautiful son smiling happily in his mother’s arms. Actually, Miladin recited only the first stanza of “Freude”. He reiterated that absurd stanza muttering the German words like prayer every time he passed by Mrs. Baeva’s photograph. She must have turned heads when she was young. It was the most logical thing that a beau should appear; at this point I again eschewed the popular word “lover”.

Every Tuesday and Thursday Miladin placed a red rose in front of Mrs. Baeva’s photograph. Occasionally he addressed me “Natalia” – that was her personal name. In the beginning it really annoyed me but when I saw that “Natalia” honed his skills, I let him call me the way he pleased. That didn’t last long. On Thursday, before Miladin got his salary from Ma’am, he most unexpectedly declared, “Ma’am, I am not a woman. I am a man. I admire your son. Je l’adore!”.

That sentence rendered us both speechless, awestruck.

            No more do I curl Ma’am’s hair using the ancient silver rollers with the initials of the German company “Kipheuwr-Witsch”. That day she had them all buried in a big flowerpot. We purchased some soil from a park in Vienna for that flowerpot and her rollers. Now and then, she weeps tears of grief letting them drop into the flowerpot, into the very heart of “Kipheuer-Witsch”.


[1] Lev – Bulgarian national currency. One Lev is equal to 50 US cents.

[2] Ivan Vazov – the national poet of Bulgaria

© 2004 Zdravka Evtimova
                                                                                                                                                       

Zdravka Evtimova  was born in Bulgaria in 1959. In her native country she has published four collections of short stories and three novels. The titles of the novels are “Your Shadow was My Home”, “Lindy” and “Thursday”. The British Publishing House Skrev Press, Cardigan, UK, published her novella collection “Bitter Sky” in 2003. Her short stories have been broadcast by Radio BBC – London, in the week dedicated to the East European literature in February 2004. Her novel “God of Traitors” was published in June as an E-book by Buck Publications, Dallas, Texas, USA.  See -  www.booksforabuck.com . Zdravka Evtimova’s short story collection “Somebody Else” won the “short story collection by an established author” award of MAG Press, San Diego, California, in August 2004 and is nominated for 2005 Pushcart Prize in USA. Her novel “Thursday” won the Prose Award of the Bulgarian Writers’ Union for 2003.

She won Gencho Stoev literary award of Balkani Publishers for a short story written by a Balkan author in March 2004. Her short stories have been published in the UK (in the literary magazines: New London Writers, Quality Women’s Fiction, The Text, The Dream Catcher, Cluster Magazine, the Mighty Organ, NTH Position, Texts’ Bones, Buckingham review and Aesthetica , in the anthology “The Fall of the House of Poe”); in the USA (in the literary magazines: Antioch Review, Literary Salt, Mississippi Review online, Massachuzetts review, Metropole magazine, In Posse Review, Adirondack Review,  Moondance, Cauldron, Dream Forge, Muse Apprentice Guild, Eclectica, Mocha Memoirs, Summerset Review, in the anthology “The Best Fiction of Eclectica”, Lynx Eye, Night Train, Mind Fire, Roman Candles, Epicenter, Plum Ruby Review) in Canada (Lichen literary review, Slingshot, Moth Magazine, Filling Station Literary Magazine) in Germany (Leipziger Zeitung, and her story “200 000” won the biannual  prize of Lege Artis Foundation for a short story in Germany in 1999; in Kurzegeschichten Literary magazine), in France (Lieux d’etre), in India (The Taj Mahal International Literary review, Cerebration Literary Review), Russia, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Macedonia, Albania and in Serbia.

      Zdravka Evtimova works as a literary translator. She has translated 24 novels by English, American and Canadian authors into Bulgarian. She lives with her husband, two sons and her daughter in Pernik, Bulgaria.
zevtimova@yahoo.com