28 June 2018
When I pushed open the door and stepped onto the cement floor of that overcrowded bar, nobody looked up from his mug of beer, but they all looked at me when I started to talk. Since the barman didn’t speak English, he shouted something to them, probably asking whether any of them spoke English, and as quick as a flash, they rushed over and surrounded me, they kept talking in Romanian and Russian, but since I couldn’t understand them, I just silently shrugged. A woman with large, almond eyes pushed her way through the crowd, she spoke a little English and translated to the barman that I wanted a beer. Nothing more than a beer. Just a beer, that was all. Which I wasn’t even going to drink. The barman was delighted. He smacked his lips as he opened the green bottle and poured it into a long glass, taking care not to let it foam, but when he invited me to sit at a table, he asked the woman next to me something that made her blush and lower her eyes to the floor.
“What did he ask?” I asked, wanting to know.
“Whether you want peanuts?”
“Yes, I do,” I said, nodding, and the man twigged.
“How about some salt fish too?”
“Yes, I’d like some salt fish too,” I said, cheering up, and asked her to sit with me for a little.
“But I’m in a hurry.”
“Only for a little. After all, you’re the only person in the whole bar who understands me,” I said and she agreed to stay a little, and we both watched as the barman walked past us holding a tray with my beer, a plate of salt fish and a dish of peanuts. He went over to a table by the window, from which he shooed away a man with a long neck so that we could sit there. The woman sat down on the chair opposite mine.
“My name’s Martin.”
The barman came back to our table and said something to the woman.
“He wants to know whether you’d like another beer.”
“Yes, I would. Two. Another two.”
“One for me and one for you.”
“But I don’t drink beer.”
“What do you drink?”
“A beer and a coffee, then.”
“A Turkish sand coffee.”
“All right, a beer and a Turkish sand coffee.”
“The barman asks if that’s all?”
“That’s all for now, yes.”
He went away and came back with the beer and coffee, not caring that a long queue had formed at the bar.
“What brings you to Moldova, sir?”
“Don’t call me sir!”
“I don’t know what else to call you. If you don’t like it, I’ll leave.”
“All right, call me whatever you like, but don’t leave.”
“I’m on holiday and some friends from Romania. Ciprian and his wife Daniela, whom I met in London, invited me to come to Bucharest.”
“And from Bucharest I took the train to Moldova.”
“Why didn’t you come together?”
“Because Ciprian’s father died.”
“Ah, I understand.”
“He died two days ago, on the morning we arrived.”
“That means you’ve been in Chișinău two days already?”
“This is the third day, not in Chișinău, but in Moldova. It’s my first day in Chișinău.”
“How long will you be staying?”
“Until after the funeral.”
“Are you scared of funerals?”
“Yes, I have a funeral phobia. Which is why I didn’t even go to my own mother’s funeral.”
“Terrible. What’s Ciprian’s father called?”
“From the name, it sounds like he was from over here.”
“Yes, he was from over here.”
“How come the funeral is in Bucharest?”
“Because after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they all moved to Bucharest.”
“But they’re from here. This is where they were born and where they lived most of their lives.”
“Ciprian was very attached to his father, and his father was very attached to this land, where he was born.”
“What about you? Do you like Chișinău, sir?”
“What can I say? This bar is all I’ve seen of Chișinău so far.”
“That’s up to you, sir.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Have you been to your hotel yet?”
“No, not yet.”
“There’s still time before this evening.”
“And you’re leaving tomorrow?”
“Yes, I’m going back to Bucharest. Actually, I forgot to tell you, but on the train, three days ago, I travelled in the same compartment as a Bessarabian—Ciprian told me that that’s what people in Romania call you—who lives in Bucharest. He was going back home to Moldova to have his surname changed officially: from Cutcovețchi with three c’s to Kutkovetski with three k’s. He’s a film director, apparently. Have you heard of him?”
“Yes, of course. It’s him I’m supposed to be interviewing at ten o’clock,” she said, looking at her watch, and as she did so, her face sagged in alarm. “Oh no, I have to be going. I don’t want to upset the director.”
“Actually, I ought to be going too,” I said, and as we went to the bar, I asked her to tell the barman to give me the bill, but he was already waiting to hand it to me. Maria looked down at her shoes in embarrassment. After counting the money, the barman wanted to give me my change, but I waved it away, and then he said something to me, but naturally, I couldn’t understand what.
“What did he say?” I asked Maria.
“But even so?” I insisted, seeing that the man was waiting for an answer.
“Whether you want a beer on the house,” translated Maria, looking away. “It’s on him.”
“No, I don’t. But I’ll come back here later.”
I left the barman stunned. He just couldn’t get his head around somebody turning down a free beer. Outside, the sun was blinding. It was ten in the morning and people were hurrying past, shivering in the cold. I walked with Maria as far as the House of the Press, where she was to meet the director and from which an acquaintance of hers was just emerging. Delighted at this excuse to be able to get rid of me, Maria left me in his company and quickly went inside to do her interview with Mr Kutkovetski. Ion’s English was a lot worse than Maria’s, since I could only understand half of what he was saying, but on the other hand, he was more obliging, offering to take me to a hotel, and on the way, I met all his friends, who looked at me in amazement. The street we were walking down was full of potholes. I tripped and fell, but as I didn’t break anything, we continued on our way. We hailed a cab, but the hotel wasn’t far away enough for the driver to want to take us there. Ion worked with Maria for the same website, for which he wanted to write something about me.
“About me? Write what about me?” I asked him in consternation, but he made no reply. I assumed he hadn’t understood the question and, in my mind, I searched for a different way of putting it. I’m not interesting enough to write about. “I’m just an ordinary gardener, like thousands of others in England,” I said, but instead of looking at me in puzzlement, Ion gazed at me in admiration, making me doubt whether he’d understood what I said. I don’t think he could have understood; otherwise why would he have smiled at me? “My only claim to fame is that I do David Lodge’s gardening, other than that, I’m as unremarkable as most other people, and the only thing that sets me apart from them is the fact that I garden for the author of The British Museum is Falling Down,” I went on, speaking more and more slowly and clearly so that Ion would be able to understand. “Otherwise, I’m a nobody. I don’t even read novels. Apart from David Lodge’s, obviously, and a few of his favourite novels, which I’ve read cover to cover, because, and maybe you don’t know this, writers are very generous when they find out you’ve read their books and that have you the same tastes as they do.”
Ion lapped up my words, as if what I was saying was enthralling. I couldn’t share his enthusiasm, since what I’d told him wasn’t anything special. As we turned a corner, two blokes jumped out in front of us and snatched my bag with my passport and all my money and bank cards, before running off.
“Hey, give me back my bag,” I shouted in a hoarse voice. The blokes stopped, turned around, and asked if I was English.
“Yes, I am,” I said, and straight away they gave me back my bag, which they hadn’t even opened, and then they ran away. Ion confirmed that they had given me my bag back only because I was English and from that moment, I started to feel that being in Chișinău was like being in A Clockwork Orange, one of David Lodge’s favourite novels, which I’d read to make me look better in his eyes. All of a sudden, a biting wind started to blow, probably so that I wouldn’t feel sorry about going to the hotel. We shook hands and parted. I was in a hurry to get to my room so that I could have a nap, and Ion was in a hurry to get to his website and write his text for the day.
When I woke up that afternoon, I found an envelope that had been slipped under my door and in it was a letter addressed to me, but written in an English so poor that the only words I could understand were my name. For that reason alone, I threw the letter in the wastepaper basket and left my room, intending to call a cab and ask to be taken to that bank from which they stole a billion, because I wanted to take a selfie in front of the building, but when I got downstairs, the receptionist intercepted me and told me that the head of the Union of European Novelists of the Republic of Moldova wanted to meet me.
“The head of the Union of European Novelists of the Republic of Moldova?”
“Yes, that’s right. Does that mean my English is good?”
“Very good. But how on earth did the head of the Union of European Novelists of the Republic of Moldova hear about me?”
“On the internet,” she said, holding up the screen of her mobile phone for me to see her Facebook page, where there was a photograph of me along with my name. “One of his advisers is here waiting for you. He’ll drive you there. He’s sitting in that armchair. He dictated that letter to me.”
“Has he been waiting long?”
“About an hour.”
When he saw us approach, a fat, bald man stood up and came toward us, walking faster and faster. The beautiful receptionist made the introductions.
“Radu doesn’t speak English, and so I’ll tell you what he would have told you if he did speak English. Radu is going to drive you to the Union of European Novelists of the Republic of Moldova, where the chairman is expecting you.”
“Where’s the car?”
“In front of the hotel.”
The receptionist conducted us outside, closing the door behind us. The biting wind of that morning had now become a gale. The tree branches were creaking. A bough snapped and crashed down right next to us. We crossed the street at a run. I shielded my head with the bag that those strange muggers had stolen that morning. It was a good job they gave it back to me, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to protect my poor head. If they hadn’t returned it, I’d probably have ended up lying on the pavement in a pool of blood. I’m grateful to the muggers of Chișinău. Thanks to them alone, my bonce was left unscathed. Another tree branch fell behind me, but by then I was inside the car and no longer cared.
By the time we arrived at the headquarters of Moldova’s European writers, the tempest had died down. The driver, who was also the chairman’s adviser, as the garrulous receptionist had told me, hastened to open the door for me. With a smile and a sweeping gesture, he invited me inside the white building. He walked a couple of paces ahead and kept looking behind to make sure I hadn’t vanished, like the billion from the bank. All the walls were adorned with photographs, probably of the members of the Union of European Novelists of the Republic of Moldova, as I deduced. Suddenly, as we climbed the stairs, the fat man started to limp. Still limping, he opened a door of solid pine and, with another sweeping gesture, urged me to enter. Inside, another corpulent bald man rose from his chair and stretched out his hand, shaking mine with vigorous enthusiasm, smiling broadly all the while. I returned his strong handshake, but as I realised moments later, nor was he the head of the Union of European Novelists of the Republic of Moldova. He merely conducted me down a corridor that twisted left and right. Finally, we came to a green door, on which he tapped timidly, so it seemed to me, as if he were reluctant to disturb the room’s occupant. The man who had suddenly developed a limp appeared to my left. The door opened and, on the threshold, there stood a man of around forty, with a broad face, who embraced me forthwith, but nor was he the most important person around there. The head of the Union was a short man who, in the moment when I entered, was goggling at my photograph on Facebook and at a text he was penning, but as soon as he saw me, he stood up from his desk, holding his mobile phone, and showed me the photograph of me, smiling warmly. He then embraced me, kissed me on the cheeks three times and invited me to sit down on the chair opposite him. At the same time, he said something to the man who had driven me from the hotel and he limped back into the antechamber, returning a few minutes later with a tray of coffee, the cups clinking. He came over to me first and I was the first to take a cup of coffee from the tray. The head of the Union of European Novelists of the Republic of Moldova took a bottle of brandy and some cups from a cabinet and lined them up on the table. He gestured for me to help myself. Each person in the room went to the table and poured himself a cup of brandy. As the cups were porcelain, you couldn’t see what they contained. I poured myself a cup of brandy and went back to my chair, taking alternate sips of brandy and coffee. Nobody spoke English and I didn’t speak Romanian. We just sat there looking at each other, smiling in silence. The door opened and Maria came in. The chairman became suddenly animated, leaping to his feet. They swarmed around me, talking all at once. The chairman made a sign for them to stop talking and addressed me. Maria translated.
“The chairman is very happy to have you here with us and is delighted to make your acquaintance.” I was gobsmacked. The Chairman of the Union of European Novelists of the Republic of Moldova was delighted to meet me? Me, an English gardener? What the hell did it mean? I couldn’t understand it. I was missing something. Nevertheless, I told him I was delighted to meet him, too. Why wouldn’t I be? When would I have another opportunity to chat to the Chairman of the Union of European Novelists of the Republic of Moldova? Why wouldn’t I be delighted that the chief novelist of Moldova’s novelists was treating me to brandy? Not just delighted, but flattered. Maria translated all this for him and he began to laugh.
“You’ve got a sense of humour,” he said. “Even though English writers don’t have much of a sense of humour.”
“English writers, perhaps. But not me,” I said, and he started to laugh again. Everybody was laughing and looking at me in admiration. Abruptly, the chairman invited me to go fishing with him.
“When?” I asked in amazement.
“Today, tomorrow,” he said. “It’s up to you. I know a smashing lake with not a single person around to bother you. Not even in England can you find such tranquillity. When would you like to go?”
“Let me think about it,” I said.
“Would you like to go to a sauna?”
“To a sauna?”
“Yes, a sauna. There’s a wonderful sauna near here, where you can also get a massage.”
“Let me think about it and I’ll tell you later.”
“All right,” said the chairman, reining it in a little. Then, after a few moments’ silence, he asked me to help Moldova’s novelists get a foothold on the British publishing scene.
“Me? But how?”
Maria was reluctant to translate what I said, and I couldn’t understand why. But in the end, she translated.
“Via your relations in the publishing world and the position you hold in British society.”
What relations? What position? I didn’t have any relations whatever in the publishing world. No influence whatever. In British society I was a nobody, I yelled at them and asked Maria to translate. She translated, but they continued to look me up and down.
“Mister writer,” said the chairman. “Mr Martin Lodge, we know who you are, we don’t know what brought you here, but we have our suspicions. We suspect that your next novel is going to be about Moldova. Probably that’s why you’re here now. But we would like to take advantage of the opportunity and to ask you to help us, the members of the Union of European Novelists of the Republic of Moldova, to get a foothold in the English publishing market. To recommend our books to translators and publishers.”
I sat looking up at him as if he was a hundred-storey building and suddenly I realised what had happened. It would seem that Ion, who wrote that text about me and posted it on his website, from where it had spread to Facebook, had got it all mixed up. I’d told him that I was David Lodge’s gardener, but he had understood something completely different. He understood that I was David Lodge and that I’d come to Chișinău to write a novel about Moldova. From Facebook, Moldova’s European novelists had discovered that an English writer was in Chișinău to write a novel about Moldova, and they were all desperate to meet him so that they could take advantage of the opportunity to get a foothold in England. I looked around me and saw that there was not one of them who wasn’t gazing at me in admiration. With Dumitru Crudu at their head, they came up to me one by one and handed me their novels to take back to England with me and give to English translators and publishers. Dumitru Crudu gave me his novel Where Do We Go From Here?, with his autograph on the first page, and the nonagenarian Podaru gave me a stack of his novels.
I took Maria to one side and told her that there had been a mix-up, that her colleague Ion had got it all wrong, that I wasn’t a novelist, but a gardener, the same as Ciprian, who had invited me to come to Romania, except that unlike me, he wasn’t a gardener to an English novelist, but apart from that, there wasn’t any difference, we were both gardeners, after which I repeated that I wasn’t a novelist, that I hadn’t written so much as a sentence in my entire life, just as Ciprian wasn’t a novelist either, who was now at his father’s funeral, and if his father hadn’t died two days earlier, I wouldn’t even be here today, but Maria just looked at me with bulging eyes and gulped, without saying a word.
“Go on, please, tell them all that,” I cajoled, but she looked at me forlornly, reluctant to turn to the novelists behind us and tell them the truth. But why? Was it because she worked for the same website that had published that erroneous text? Did she say nothing because she didn’t want to get her website and her colleague into trouble? Whatever the case, this couldn’t go on. It was a farce and I had to put a stop to it. I couldn’t give those people false hopes, I didn’t want to make fools of them. Maria took the cup of brandy from my hand and knocked it back, but after that she turned on her heel and made her getaway, without rescuing me from the mess I was in. She preferred to wash her hands of it, leaving me all by myself in their midst. To them, I was still the great English novelist visiting Chișinău to write a novel about Moldova. Damn it all, but it seemed that absolutely nobody realised it was all just a mistake, that I wasn’t a writer, that my name wasn’t Lodge, that I hadn’t written a single sentence in my life. The chairman came up to me, holding his latest novel, with a file of novelists, not few in number, bringing up his rear, all of them holding their novels. I had to do something, but I didn’t know what. I had to act, to put a stop to that nightmare. Suddenly I got an idea. I took a blank piece of paper from the desk, wrote two letters on it: WC, and handed it to the chairman. He smiled at me and said something to Dumitru Crudu, who, all smiles, showed me to the toilet. It was an excuse to get out of that office. What a stroke of luck that a WC is also a WC in Romanian, otherwise who knows how I would have got out of there? Smiling, Dumitru Crudu waited for me outside the toilet. I was thinking about what the hell to do when I saw a window. It was tall and wide and it opened. I climbed onto the ledge, jumped down into the courtyard, and ran out into the street. In the street, I hailed a cab. The driver spoke English. I told him to take me to the airport and to stop off at the Hotel Dacia on the way. To my good fortune, there was a flight to Bucharest in two hours. In the meantime, Moldova’s European novelists must have discovered my escape and were probably thinking that I’d done a runner so as not to help them get a foothold in the English publishing market. I don’t think they would have believed me if I’d been able to tell them the truth.
Once I got to Bucharest, I went straight to where my fellow gardener lived. I learned that my friend had taken ill and fainted just as the pallbearers were carrying his father out of the house. My friend had been taken to hospital, and the deceased back inside the house, because Mrs Barno had stubbornly refused to bury Mihai Mihailovich unless Ciprian was there. A few minutes after I arrived, my friend got back from the hospital and the deceased was carried out of the house once more. This time, I was able to join the funeral cortege and accompanied Mihai Mihailovich on his final journey.
fragment din romanul Ziua de nastere a lui Mihai Mihailovici,