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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

Albanian Authors



Helena KADARE, 1997

Helena KADARE, 1997

Webdesign J. Groß




    It had stopped raining and the skies had cleared as so often happens after a summer storm. The trees and facades of the houses across the street reflected the rays of the late afternoon sun, which had now lost some of its heat. Its presence could be felt in the air like a warm and soothing embrace. Outside the open window everything was warm, soft and tender. The raindrops still quivered on the wet foliage of the high poplars.
     It seemed as if that June afternoon would never end. So thought Martin as he sat on the sofa in the living room, feasting his eyes on the view through the glass door to the balcony. From this position he could see a part of the city, the part he loved most: the park with the children’s playground and beyond it the Lana river flowing beneath the high poplars.
     While contemplating the view, Martin turned his head two or three times as if expecting a call. But no call came. He returned to his tranquil contemplation of that June afternoon which was still giving no sign of drawing to a close.
     After the ritual bath and change of clothes which always followed his return from business trips, he would let his mind wander and do absolutely nothing but listen for the familiar echo of his wife’s footsteps. She had taken the children out to play and would soon be back. The two of them would have coffee together and discuss all sorts of things. Every time he was away on business it was this moment he longed for most.
     In the kitchen, he now heard the noise of the tap which was interrupted by the clatter of china. He stood up, then sat down again, undecided for a moment, his eyes wandering to the door and then back to the contours of the poplars, the tips of which sparkled with raindrops. The sight was a refreshment to his soul. He imagined his wife’s smooth hands washing the dishes in the sink, and somewhere, hovering in the depths of his being, deep under the relaxation he was savouring, he could sense a breath of isolation.
     He had returned from the mountains in the north only a few hours earlier and they had had no time to talk except for a few brief words of greeting and the usual inquiry as to how the children were. She would now have finished the dishes (it was customary for a woman to see that the dishes were always done immediately) and would be making afternoon coffee as usual. They would sit down to drink at the open door of the balcony where the two large potted fig trees had been placed to get some fresh air. He had so much to tell her and she was a good listener, but more than anything, he enjoyed listening to her talk. When talking, he always came directly to the point, whereas Vojsava was different. She had a much more lively manner and always a hint of humour. She was gifted at telling stories and knew how to spice up her conversation with amusing observations and with vivid gestures and facial expressions. Although they had been married for fourteen years, one of the best elements of their marriage remained these moments when the two of them were together and when in the course of their seemingly endless conversations he would smell the fragrance of her hair. There were so many things he loved, but somehow he never managed to confide them to his wife. She would be coming in any moment now...
     Martin’s eyes turned to the calendar on the wall. He was tempted to smile at the little mark she had made in red pencil to note the day of his departure. Their calendar was full of such marks. "When we are old and retired what are you going to note on the calendar?" he would tease her. "We will always be together then, and I won’t need to make any notes," she would reply.
     Martin picked up a book lying open on the table and tried to read for a moment. Once Vojsava has finished her work we’ll go out for a walk, he thought.
     Outside, the June afternoon was still mild and warm. The sun had descended behind the thick foliage of the poplars which now took on a golden glow.
     For a moment it seemed as if the work in the kitchen was over. Martin put his book down but realized on hearing water flowing in the sink again that she was not finished. He frowned as if from a slight ache and had the impression that she had splashed water all over his face. He relaxed once more and began observing the flight of a long-winged insect at the window. He smiled and pushed the drapes to one side to help the little creature escape. From the street came the voices of passers-by and the cries of children playing in the park. Summer had indeed arrived. This was more apparent than ever from the animation in the streets on that June afternoon full of life, hues and odours. He realized that he was deeply attached not only to his home, his wife and children but also to the city, its inhabitants and to his street. A sense of confidence welled up within him at the thought that his was a successful marriage that was destined to last. Whenever there was talk of failed marriages, he was tempted to believe that such things only happened in books. After all, without unhappy marriages, there would perhaps be fewer novels. Who would write the history of Anna Karenina? Is it the happy families that resemble one another, or the unhappy ones?
     Vojsava must have finished her work by now. He closed his eyes and imagined the nape of her neck as she bent over the sink, the parting of her hair, and waited quietly, listening for her step. Perhaps he should get up and make the coffee himself, but the thought of her making fun of him or telling him to sit down made him change his mind. After all, it only takes a couple of minutes to make coffee, he thought.
     The telephone rang in the hall. He got up to answer it. It was for Vojsava. She heard him call her name and came out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a towel.
     "It’s a good thing you answered it, at least," she said, giving him a mildly reproachful glance.
     For some reason, he had the feeling that something was wrong. But what exactly? He could not interpret the meaning of that glance. He left the hall and forgot the matter. The noise in the kitchen had come to an end and the two of them would soon be together to drink their coffee and watch the sun descend peacefully behind the poplars. He now felt that he could stand no further delay. He suddenly felt impatient. She must come any moment now.
     The telephone conversation continued in the hall. He heard his wife’s sweet voice as she talked to one of her friends, and smiled instinctively. There was something refreshing in her voice, like the voices of school children talking during class. He had often thought of telling her this but somehow he never had. It reminded him of the day at the office when some of his colleagues had begun exchanging anecdotes about their marriages, some out of pure boredom and others to parade their excess baggage of jokes. They were the same dull anecdotes told everywhere when the subject arose. Martin had said nothing.
     Vojsava finally finished her conversation. On her way down the hall, she gave her husband a glance as he sat reading his book. She was irritated at the very sight of him.
     He never thinks about me, she thought. As if I didn’t find books more interesting than washing the dishes. She realized that the frustration which had taken hold of her was there for good. She turned the tap on full, wondering whether she was not being unfair to him. The doubt bothered her.
     I can understand how he feels. He has just gotten back from work and is tired and I am the one who should go to him. But he could at least have spoken to me. It wouldn’t have cost him anything. Are there no words for such occasions?
     Martin heard the noise of the tap in the kitchen and felt that he had been wronged. There was a limit to everything. He rose and went to the kitchen door. There he stood for a moment not knowing quite what to do. Weren’t the dishes finished yet? he thought. Wait another second, he said to himself, she’ll be finished any minute.
     The dishes were finished and she was wiping off the white tiles around the sink. Seeing the nape of her neck as she bent over the sink, he had an impulse to go and give her a kiss, but something stopped him. He wanted to make some sort of tender gesture, but he was paralysed. I don’t know where to start, he thought.
     He noticed an open notebook on the buffet and a ballpoint pen next to it. Vojsava’s handwriting was more vertical and legible than his. She studied when the children in their beds, he thought to himself, casting his mind fondly back to the evenings when she would read until late at night, when all the housework had been done and the children were sound asleep.
     The June afternoon gently enveloped everything in its warmth and sensuality. The emotion he felt seemed to penetrate every cell of his body. He was filled with a longing for his wife who was still at work with her back to him.
     She sensed his presence in the mirror over the sink. He has come in here because he wants something and is afraid to say what it is. He is not as conceited as all that but he still only thinks of himself. Oh God!
     The water poured out of the tap, a symbol of her anger.
     She’s finished, he thought. Now she is drying her hands. He could go over and give her a hug, as he often did, and let her interpret it however she wanted. How silly to hide his love, he thought to himself. All the talk about women, about the daily rut, boasting about one’s independence and making fun of the others who were tied to their wives’ apron strings.
     His whole being shuddered at the impetuous ringing of the doorbell. Who could it be at this hour of the day? he wondered, angry at the uninvited guests who were breaking into their afternoon without any right to do so. Though it was quite a normal time of day for visits, he considered the arrival at the door, whoever it might be, as an imposition. Vojsava opened the door.
     He heard familiar voices in the hall, the usual words of greeting, but could not make out who it was.
     "Is Martin not at home?" inquired the visitors with the self-confidence of those who are certain that they will be welcome wherever they go.
     "Oh yes, he’s here. Won’t you come in?" Vojsava replied without betraying any hint of annoyance. Martin sensed the weariness in her voice.
     "He has just got back from a business trip and ..." Vojsava was always at a loss for words when she was in a predicament.
     "Oh, good. We’re in luck. Hang your sweater on the coat-stand, Pauline."
     It’s Farouk, thought Martin. At that instant he felt exhausted from his long trip and the waiting for Vojsava.
     It was indeed Farouk with his wife. They had met two years ago at the coast where they had shared a summer house. Martin had later seen them several times on the street and they had gone together for coffee. It was not long ago. They had always promised to visit one another but, as always in such cases, promises are easily made but difficult to keep. As a result, they had never exchanged visits at all.
     "Come on in. This way," said Vojsava, showing them into the living room. "Well, you finally found the time to drop by. We have always been ..." Once again she lost her train of thought.
     Farouk and his wife followed their hostess cheerfully into the living room and began complementing her on the decor before they had even sat down: the beautiful view from the balcony, the well-tended flowers...
     Martin moved awkwardly through the room, not knowing whether to sit down or stand like everyone else.
     "How is your son?" Vojsava inquired.
     "Daughter, you mean. We have a daughter. Don’t you remember?"
     "Oh, of course."
     "She’s fine, she is doing wonderfully."
     "So what’s new?" Martin finally said.
     "Pauline and I were just out for a beer as usual," the guest began explaining in a particularly enthusiastic manner. "And, well, we were in the neighbourhood and thought, why don’t we drop in on Martin and Vojsava for a change? We’ve been meaning to come over for so long."
     "Splendid idea!" exclaimed the hostess. Her eyes met Martin’s. Her cheeks flushed ever so slightly.
     "Pauline, you should put your sweater back on," said Farouk, getting up to fetch his wife’s sweater from the hall. "She has just gotten over a cold and isn’t taking care of herself."
     "It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?" said his wife. "Such a shame to be indoors on a day like this."
     "We always go out whenever we can," added Farouk loudly without hesitation.
     "Farouk is a good soul," his wife interrupted. "He never says ‘no’ when I want to go out."
     "That’s true, all right. Whenever Pauline says ‘Let’s go for a walk’, I’m ready."
     Martin and Vojsava exchanged furtive glances and quickly looked away again as if caught in some shameful act.
     "How is your sister, Pauline?" Vojsava inquired. "Martin told me she was operated on last month."
     An expression of sorrow passed over the eyes of their guests.
     "She’s better now, thank you. What she went through! And we all suffered with her. But it’s over now, thank goodness. Man is a strange animal. No one would ever have thought that she would fall ill."
     "Well, what can you do? We are mortal, after all," added Vojsava, getting up to make coffee.
     "And how about you?" Farouk inquired.
     "I was just washing up. Martin was reading..."
     Martin looked up and glanced at his wife. There seemed to be a hint of irony in the way she pronounced the word ‘reading’. He wanted to say something, but the moment he opened his mouth, he realized that there was nothing to add.
     He saw what she was thinking by the way she stood there. Martin wondered what exactly had happened, for he...
     Ten days earlier he had run into Farouk on the street and they had gone to a bar for a drink. Farouk had complained about his wife. "They’re all the same," he muttered angrily, "but what can you do?"
     "That’s the way I am. Pauline just has to say the word. It doesn’t matter whether I have a doctoral dissertation to finish or anything. I drop whatever I am doing just to keep her happy."
     He had also told him more intimate details that day.
     Martin turned to his wife to try to see what she was thinking, but she just stood there quietly. He was aware that behind the calm facade there was some irritation which he felt truly sorry about. He was on the point of saying something, not to their guests but to Vojsava, to make her understand how deceptive appearances were and that the essence of things was quite different. He was about to blurt out, "Listen, it’s not the way you think!" but Farouk broke in before he could say a word, speaking with great enthusiasm.
     "For some men, women are simply part of the household. There are even men who cannot be bothered discussing their professional problems and concerns with their wives..."
     Martin winced. Damn, he thought, crushing the butt of his unfinished cigarette in the saucer of a flower pot.
     On the balcony, the light in the sky was beginning to give way to the shades of evening. The leaves of the poplar trees quivered in the light breeze which had sprung up. The long June afternoon which had been so pleasant before was drawing to a close.
     "A man has to talk to his wife. A wife is a life-long companion. Without a wife..."
     "I don’t know what to talk to her about. We have nothing more to say to one another. She talks and I say ‘yes, yes’, but my thoughts are elsewhere," he had said in the bar.
     Vojsava finally brought in the coffee. Martin raised his head and observed how his wife held the tray. He suddenly felt overwhelmed by a need to be with her. All this time he had been longing to be with her, in vain, and as if that were not enough, now there was this silly misunderstanding between them. If they were alone now, he would kiss her.
     Her hands in front of him proffered a cup of coffee which he accepted stiffly.
     The emotion which he had hoped to be able to show her was swept aside by Farouk’s undampened enthusiasm. Martin, quite speechless now, wanted to shout at him: "Thief!"
     Vojsava was not unaware of the enthusiasm of their guests but stood before them as if she had noticed nothing special. Martin thought he could read a hidden irony in her expression, which seemed to ask, "What would it cost you?"
     The guests stayed for a while and then rose to leave. Once again, the hallway was filled with their laughter and noise, which echoed all the way down the staircase until they had reached the bottom.
     For a moment, Martin and Vojsava stood in silence at the doorway. Closing the door behind them, they remained in the hall without saying a word. Their power of speech seemed to have been used up. A new language would be needed for them to understand one another. Each passing moment made it more difficult to begin speaking again.
     The June afternoon finally came to an end. The neon streetlights had gone on outside. Children were still playing noisily as their mothers called them home.
     Martin walked down the hall and turned on the light in the living room. The door to the balcony was ajar and he pushed it wide open. He wanted to say something, but the shadow of the guests lingered in the room and impeded his thoughts. Vojsava approached silently.
     Suddenly, Martin felt revolted. He wanted to explain to her that human relations were only genuine when they were natural and that words and gestures only had a meaning if they were sincere. Ten days ago... Martin was now filled with an irresistible desire to tell Vojsava everything he knew, not so much to ease her unnecessary suffering or satisfy her curiosity, but simply to confide in her as everyone does with those close to them, just as he had always confided in her. But he changed his mind, not because he was afraid she would misunderstand (she understood everything without ever losing her sense of proportion), but because speaking about it might hurt his wife and destroy that beautiful June afternoon. How would it clarify his relationship with Vojsava? Their relationship had always been based more on real love and understanding than on showy gestures. He looked up and smiled at his wife. Seated across from him, and exhausted by the impromptu visit, she smiled back unexpectedly. Then suddenly she rose, gathered up the coffee cups and left the room.
     Obviously my place is here at the sink, she thought, and although she realized that she was being unfair, a blind fury made the estrangement all the worse. She set the cups beside the sink and turned the tap on full. The jet of water only heightened her frustration.
     Martin heard the water, got up and walked resolutely towards the kitchen, but was interrupted at that moment by an irregular knocking at the door which he recognized immediately.
     It was the children. Sweaty and dusty, the two boys were still kicking a football back and forth. They had been out too long and had prepared themselves for a scolding. But surprisingly enough none was forthcoming. Their father’s calm demeanour gave them courage. The elder son gave his father a man-to-man wink and said, "Mommy forgot to call us."
     "Off to the bathroom with you. And wash quickly so that she doesn’t catch you like that," he said with the sort of amazement and satisfaction experienced by men when they discover one day that their children have grown into adolescents. The boys were in a boisterous mood as their father entered the kitchen with a smile on his face. He could see the back of his wife’s neck bent over the sink once again. A lock of her hair usually held in place by a hair clip had fallen to one side. He approached slowly and with a tender gesture put it back in place.
     "Leave the dishes. Let’s go out and get a bit of air," he said, "I’ve got so much to tell you and I haven’t had a minute alone with you yet."
     She shrank back at the touch of his hands. For a moment, for a single second, he was on the point of being offended by this gesture and his hand froze in the air. She realized how absurd her reaction was. She had waited so long and with such intensity, and now that the moment had finally arrived, she did the very opposite of what she wanted, the very thing she would have considered unacceptable in him. How could it have happened?
     Martin withdrew slightly and observed her pensively. She raised her head and gave him a look. The spark of warmth in his eyes had set off a mixture of longing, tenderness and understanding in her. Even though these things had never been lacking in their lives, against their will and for unknown reasons, there were also many superfluous moments of tension between them accompanied by worry and suffering which they would later laugh about. Her expression had now grown tender and the teardrops welling in her eyes seemed to have been waiting for this very moment to wash away all trace of antagonism or stubbornness.
     "I’ll get ready," she said and went to get dressed. Her voice resounded joyfully down the corridor as she told the boys to get out of the bathroom and do their homework.
     "Is it necessary to give proof of one’s love in order to be understood by one’s wife?" Martin wondered.
     "I’ve sworn a hundred times not to get upset because he simply does not pay attention to details, and still I keep making the same mistake. Why does my stupidity get in the way of my happiness?" she thought as she combed her hair in the mirror. The cold click of her hair clip seemed to banish all remnants of anger in her.
     Although both of them felt relieved, as if liberated from some force of evil, they were well aware that there would always be moments when the harmony in their lives would be thrown into discord by some thoughtless gesture or remark. But at the same time they knew that the wellspring of affection they felt for one another would keep their love alive forever.

[Keqkuptimi, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]