Mărgărit for one had been just about to leave, he had to get back home to wash his ma, but they’d spun out their gabbing, wandering the streets and going from bar to bar. Raphael knew the score ; he’d long been familiar with Mărgărit’s problems. His ma, well, in any case she’d be completely soiled by lunchtime, which is when he usually got back home.
It was long past lunchtime. It was getting dark. And you can imagine it, in that heat, washing and changing her like a baby… A baby would have been a piece of cake. A mound of pasty, sagging flesh, twenty stones, enough to leave him gasping for breath. A vegetable, but she has a sound stomach. She feeds, she eats, she’s hale… She has a healthy appetite, stuffs herself with all kinds. It’s a bad as it can get : he can’t afford to hire a nurse to look after her, but nor can he sit in the house with her all day. He’s doesn’t have any choice : he has to get out and about to earn a crust. What the hell, Raphael, all I did was to lay it down that we have to eat. Regardless ! I mean, even when we get to the stage of shitting ourselves, and having others wash our arses for us, even then we still have to eat.
Not just to earn a crust either. You still have to get out of the house for some fresh air. You’re combining the practical with the pleasant, to put it like that. You’d go mad if you stayed in all day just to keep her amused. To make conversation with her, you understand, that’s the only joy she has left, the poor soul, and if you knew how queer and how finicky she was, there’s no pleasing her… There’s nought you can do, that’s what old folk are like, worse than bairns, and Raphael knows what it’s like with bairns, he’s had experience, he used to work with them…
It was Mărgărit’s turn not to listen. His ma, the poor soul, she would eat anything that moves, but even she doesn’t know what it is she wants. But you should hear her putting in a serious order : mammy’s Mărgărit, from that kilo of meat, make us some marinated meatballs, and some stuffed vine leaves… With cream. In fact no, with yoghurt, because it’s cheaper and we’ve got to economise. That’s how I raised you, by economising, mammy’s Mărgărit, to which Raphael, heh, heh, heh, you’re telling me ? It was economising and hunger that made us big and strong too, and our children, and our parents…
So then she goes, mammy’s Mărgărit, go out and buy a pot of yoghurt, and a meatball soup wouldn’t go amiss, and a bit of mousaka, in that small pan there, with just three taties. With this meat here, mammy’s darling, we’ll do the business. With these two pounds of meat we’ll cook up all kinds, just like at an ambassador’s reception. But what are you supposed to do when you bring her the tray with all those dainties to her in bed, and you see her turn her nose up and scowl, it’s enough to make you blow your top, nothing short. Stuffed peppers, that’s what she wanted in fact, mammy’s Mărgărit, see what hands I’ve fallen into, so that I won’t have a peaceful old age, that son of mine, he’s more sclerotic than I am, mammy’s Mărgărit. Not for anything in the world will she admit what it was she ordered – just two stuffed peppers, that’s all, that’s all she wants, darling little mammy’s Mărgărit, start cooking all over again, mammy’s Mărgărit, so that you’re still slaving over a hot stove at two o’clock in the morning, as stressed and as riled as can be, but can you say anything ? His ma. Worse than a bairn. Maybe you wouldn’t stand for it in a bairn, and it wouldn’t do any good to let a bairn get away with it neither, but you can see very well that it’s completely different with an old woman. You’re thinking that tomorrow or the day after she’s going to die and that you’ll miss her, and that the worms of guilt will gnaw away at your guts for not having done everything in your power, Raphael, it’s a cross to bear. So, we’re back to what we were saying before. That’s what I like about you, you brood about all that sort of thing… That’s why I asked you if you’d been a priest or a monk…
Not on your life. I’ve never had anything to do with priests or monks. I’ve worked in all kinds of places, but most of all in an orphanage school, as a teacher, that’s why I was trying to tell you that I know what it’s like with bairns… They’d reached a local bar and beer garden, in a makeshift tin shack, in a park with paths that wound through the undergrowth and grass around a pond, a different bar than the one they’d left at lunchtime. They’d set out from Văcăreşti pond and, after going round in a circle, with frequent stops, they arrived back at the Romanian Optics Factory pond just as it was getting dark. There are large number of lakes and ponds in the area, with bars around them to suit every pocket. They’d never have been able to visit all of them in one summer even if they’d had a mind to, and in any case Mărgărit wouldn’t have had enough funds. Not to mention that he was in a hurry, he was busy, a man with responsibilities and obligations, which ought to have made him keep it as short as possible… But there he was, unable to tear himself away from that table and from Raphael. His head had lolled to one side and his eyes had narrowed, but otherwise he was full of life.
He was standing up well after some ten or twelve mugs of beer interspersed with a few shots of rum, which was how much he’d poured down his neck since lunchtime. Rigid, determined to see the business through to the end. His ma – that was his business, which you might say he was avoiding. Mammy’s Mărgărit was shirking, and on the other hand, Raphael was like a salve for a wound. He always knows how to listen to others’ woes while telling his own, although even he’s out of his depth here. Well, he can’t compete with a professional of Mărgărit’s stature, aye, marrer, of course we’ve got to eat, but from what I can see, drink’s the main thing – it’s a basic need.
Mărgărit agreed laughing – you can’t operate without an anaesthetic ; the pain goes straight to your heart when you cut into the living flesh… I’ll explain when I get back. He told him to wait for him a little. He’d been called over to another table at the other end of the beer garden, where three gadgers were sat. Now he was talking to them, standing up and leaning with his fists against the edge of the table. A minute later, he straightened up, startled, as though fending off a blow, and began to rummage with his fists in the deep pockets of his camouflage shorts.
Raphael was groping through the fog of memory, trying to connect the image of Mărgărit rummaging in his pockets with an occurrence that he could no longer remember. His mind stumbled among the tables of the beer garden and rose up above the -pitch-black park and the chirping crickets and over Titan Boulevard on the left, traced out by the gliding car headlights. The faces of the men at the table seemed to turn away and bow, avoiding the path of his thought, which at the same time dissolved in the neon lights together with all kinds of different events. All he could remember was that he ought to recall those events, but there it was, he’d forgotten them, frittered them away along with all the all the days of his life. Where was it that he had seen him digging his fists into his pockets and stretching his neck out like a frightened hen ? Amid all the din from the tables he couldn’t manage to catch what the hell those three gadgers were saying. Nonetheless, he could see that they were threatening him. One was tawny-haired, short and podgy, with a thick gold chain lolling over his flowery shirt, while the other two seemed to be father and son, judging by the likeness and the difference in age. They had swarthy, chinless, mole-like faces, with protruding snouts and short black hair of a mousy lustre. And they were getting more and more het up, piling on the threats and raising their voices, so that Raphael managed to hear how they kept mentioning a certain Zizi, who was going to show him, Mărgărit, don’t get him wrong, ’cause he wasn’t going to get fooled again, not like last time… He said that you were a man, but no. A toe-rag, Mărgărit, that’s what you are, a toe-rag ! And again : he’ll show you, just you wait and see – if he doesn’t put you in hospital, you can spit in me face !
They were obviously waiting for Zizi to show up, to sort out his business with Mărgărit. The young mole had his mobile to his ear and was nodding, probably agreeing with Zizi and giving him a running commentary on the negotiations, on how Mărgărit was reacting to his messages. Nonetheless, Mărgărit wasn’t as repentant as the three would have liked. Though frightened and confused, he was standing up to them, indignant – he didn’t owe Zizi anything any more, and Zizi knew it, and they ought to know that he’d given him all the money, down to the last cent… Five hundred dollars, yes, plus one hundred per cent interest, as they’d agreed on from the very start. On time, yes, just like at the bank. Mărgărit had paid off the debt.
Then the tawny one jumped up from his chair and bobbed around him like a jack-in-the-box for a good few seconds, before giving him a slap. Mărgărit took it stoically and remained silent, bowing his head, as though he had nothing else to say. Raphael saw him convicted and defeated and, at last, he stirred from his table. I mean, you have go to the aid of a mate in a tight spot. He was already reproaching himself for not having intervened earlier. Given the amount of time he’d been hanging around with Mărgărit during the last week, he felt indebted and almost guilty, and so there he goes, swaying as though in a high wind, clearing a path for himself among the closely packed tables, all of them hotching with folk.
He tripped over a chair, and almost fell crashing onto some other blokes’ table. Before he could get there, Mărgărit took another clout. From the old mole this time – a jab launched with the movement of a discus thrower, from somewhere below the thigh, compared to which the blow the tawny one had given him was nought but a light tap. Mărgărit jerked as though electrocuted, bent double, and hunched up in a ball with his head in his arms. Blood was pouring from his nose, but in spite of the pain and humiliation, he stayed rooted to the spot. As stubborn as a mule, to show them he was in the right, maybe he sensed Raphael was at his shoulder, ready to back him up, and there he was already arguing the toss furiously : “What’s your quarrel with him ? ! The hell with you, you arseholes ! You saw that he’s weedier and you picked a fight with him ? ! Is that it, eh ! ?”
He was roaring as though there were flames belching from his gob. All the blokes at the other tables were looking him up and down with worried eyes, except for the ones his roars were aimed at – indifferent, bored all three of them, and they would have gestured for him to go away, to mind his own business, not to poke his nose into their problems with Mărgărit. That perverse idiot Mărgărit, clarified the tawny-haired one emphatically, and the young mole went the hell with him, dad, you’re wasting your time with that loser. Is that a man, for you to hit him ? Now you can see him rolling his eyes, and the tawny one the same : leave him be, he knows what he’s doing ; let him do his explaining to Zizi. We’ve told him, don’t go saying the day after next that we didn’t tell you.
They’d calmed down ; they’d done with that loser Mărgărit. They’d clouted him a couple of times and that was the end of it.
Zizi must have told them the same thing. With the mobile to his ear and intent on Zizi’s instructions, the young mole waved his hand, gesturing for Raphael to clear the field, to go and crow at another table, he can see he’s not wanted here. The elongated snouts of the two moles, moving ever more slowly, growing claggy in the yellowish light of the neon bulbs, seemed also to be telling him to sling his hook. Mărgărit seemed to want to let them have it their way, pulling Raphael by the arm towards their table, and let’s pay for the beer and go. Then he started going on about his mother again, the poor soul, she’s been waiting half a day for him to wash and feed her, oh, come on Raphael. Leave them the hell out of it. There’s no need for you to get involved ; I can handle it on me own…
He was pulling him by the arm not very convincingly, and Raphael was resisting not very convincingly, apparently of a mind to fight for the insult, and the sullied honour, and the shed blood, and Mărgărit was blowing his nose and wiping the blood and snot on the back of his hand and shaking it off onto the gravel, and in the end he headed towards their table and here he is coming back through the bustling crowd with the two plastic chairs over his head. Well, they should sit down if they’re staying, because to Raphael’s mind they ought to stay some more until they come to an agreement : who is it that has the right to dish out slaps and punched noses, and based on what ? What loans still have to be paid off ?
The three pulled their chairs closer together around the table to make room for them too, and now they start quarrelling like all hell’s been let loose. Raphael could not for the life of him agree, why did they have to hit Mărgărit ? At which the old mole couldn’t help but be amazed at seeing, at last, someone sticking his neck out for that cur Mărgărit, but Mărgărit didn’t have anything to say about it. He just looked at the empty glasses sorrowfully and stretched his neck towards the old mole. Could he give him some money for another round, aye, and he gave him it an’all, without any further comment, and after that they introduced themselves. Raphael, aye, and the tawny one with the gold chain is called Adrian. The other two, father and son, are, of course, gaffer Ghetzu and Răzvănel. Răzvănel, the young mole, started explaining to Raphael that, in the end, they’d been doing Mărgărit a favour and they were just teaching him to do the best thing…
“What the hell ! So you cover him in blood…”
“Look here, old duffer, I don’t know how long you’ve know Mărgărit…”
“For a week and a bit, but I don’t see what that has to do…”
“Bilge, old duffer,” Răzvănel gestured with his hand. “There’s no way you could know that Mărgărit has a talent, that everything he puts his hand to turns out a disaster. Listen to me : you’re putting your arse on the line for nothing, as far as he’s concerned. Me, in your place, I’d mind me own business. I mean, you could do him a lot more harm than he could do to himself by his own hand. Well, all we did was to warn him to tread lightly with someone like Zizi. You know what Zizi’s like when it comes to money.”
Răzvănel fell silent. Raphael’s admission that he had no idea who Zizi was didn’t go down well at all. All three of them were amazed, and so Raphael he rolled his eyes and banged his mug of beer back down on the table, spluttering beer and spittle, saying that he might know him to look at, even if the name doesn’t mean anything to him.
“Where was it you said you’re from, marrer ?” the old mole asked him.
“From hereabouts. I’ve been hanging round these parts for a good few years now : Dudeşti, Vitan, Văcăreşti, Saint Venera, Union Square…”
“How many years ?”
“Forty. That’s how old I am.”
“I’d have said you were younger. Me, I’m forty-three.”
“Aha. I shave my head specially. To look younger. So that the white hairs won’t show. It also saves money, you know. Hair costs money. It needs to be fed too.”
“You ought to feed yourself as well, old duffer,” the tawny one sniggered. “You’ve stopped feeding your hair and done away with it ; it’ll not be long before you stop feeding yourself and do away with yourself too, heh, heh, heh… You’ve no idea how to save up a bit of flesh on yourself. Look at gaffer Ghetzu, he’s a good housekeeper, with that great big gut of his. He eats twenty stuffed cabbage rolls for starters followed by a load of barbecued sausages, and then he’s hungry again after half an hour.”
Mărgărit had come back with the mugs of beers and he set them down on the table in front of each of them with exaggerated meticulousness, like a waiter hoping for a tip.
“Good for Mărgărit,” went gaffer Ghetzu, “’cause he feeds himself on just beer and rum and look at him, he’s like a reed.” He turned to Raphael : “I can just see you ending up the same way tomorrow or the day after. You know… it’s as though I know you to look at. I asked you where you were from, because I was amazed that you didn’t know Zizi. Mărgărit, bugger it all to hell, are you going to give me that change or what ?”
“What change, Ghetzu ?”
“What can I say,” went Raphael. “He must be a big wheel this Zizi, if everybody knows him like he were President Iliescu.”
“The change from the beer, man, what are you trying to pull ?”
“You can laugh all you like, ’cause he’s bigger than President Iliescu.”
“I told you that I probably know him to look at,” Raphael exculpated himself. “I know plenty of folk just to look at.”
“I bet me life that it’s been less than a month since they let you out of gaol,” went Adrian.
“Don’t bet on it, ’cause you’ll lose.”
“Is that what you’re telling me ?” gaffer Ghetzu snapped at him. “Who knows how many years you were inside for you to be so well pickled that you haven’t got a clue what world you’re living in ? If you haven’t even heard of Zizi… I can just see you tomorrow or the day after going off to Zizi for him to give you a loaf of bread to eat.” He burst out laughing, in anticipation : “He’ll send you to Mărgărit, with a sword, to get his money back.”
“I haven’t got a sword.”
“Big deal. Zizi will kit you out.”
“In any case, Mărgărit’s me marrer.”
“A true friend, one of the best. Ballocks. The change, Mărgărit !”
“I said I was getting another round in, gaffer Ghetzu,” snivelled Mărgărit.
“Get on with it then, you bugger. I’m parched.”
“I reckon I need another twenty thou’ to get another round of five beers…”
Gaffer Ghetzu purses his lips and looks at Raphael. He looks even more like a fat mole, with his throat overrun by the thick network of a week’s stubble.
“He’s a right bugger this marrer of yours. He’s always doing this. If he can get away with it with us, he thinks he can with Zizi an’all. Are you daft, Mărgărit ? Do you want him to cut that throat of yours with his sword ? In the end, he’ll do right to slice you open. A debt’s a debt.”
Mărgărit nods to the rhythm of the old mole’s words, as though underscoring every phrase.
“That’s right, gaffer Ghetzu, especially as you owe me too. And Adrian as well, besides yourself.”
“That’s right !” Raphael hastens to confirm, although he doesn’t know anything about Mărgărit’s dealings with the two. “You owe him !”
Răzvănel reminds his dad :
“The pair of you clouted him, you both owe him for those two slaps. You and Adrian. As for me, I didn’t dirty my hands hitting the poor beggar.”
The old mole slaps himself on the forehead.
“I’d forgotten, Mărgărit, bugger it… A debt’s a debt. Now, two slaps are no great shakes.”
“There’d have been room for ten, gaffer Ghetzu,” Mărgărit reassured him. “You know I don’t take it badly, but I’m on me uppers. I’ve been on me feet walking around since lunchtime with this mate of mine, and he’s got problems of his own, gaffer Ghetzu, I’ll tell you all about it… And me mammy’s waiting for me to get back home with something to eat. I should have bought her some chicken legs, she put an order in last night, and some tinned peas, and some bananas…”
“I’m right glad about that, Mărgărit, that you see to it your ma has a decent life.”
“What else can I do, gaffer Ghetzu ? She’s the only one I’ve got, I haven’t got no one else. Paralysed in bed since the age of eighty. It’ll not be long before she dies, and I’ll be left behind to mourn her – me mammy, poor soul, she’s waiting for me and I haven’t got anything to take her, ohhh…”
This bit of wailing made Adrian shudder.
“You’re making me sick, man, stop bawling. I’m going to puke. Take this : a hundred thou’. I reckon it’s enough for a slap. Take it for yourself and for your ma.”
Mărgărit stuffed the money in his pocket, assenting mutely. Bowed slightly forward, with their elbows on the table, Raphael and he looked as though they were set to pounce on the other three, who were sprawling in their chairs with their guts bulging over the waistbands of their shorts, relaxed, sated, groggy. The old mole chipped in, with difficulty :
“I don’t know, Adrian, fuck it. A hundred thou’s a bit much for me. For a slap…” Nonetheless, he’d pulled out a hundred-thousand note and was fluttering it over the table. “I don’t know, I work hard for this money, it doesn’t grow on trees.”
“Go on, dad, give him it,” whined Răzvănel, seemingly touched by Mărgărit’s lot and at the same time commiserating with his dad : “You should know that he works hard, he races around all day long, like a horse he is, trying to make some money.”
After hesitating for a while, at last the old mole stretched out the banknote to Mărgărit.
“’Cause I heard what you were saying about your ma, bugger it. I’m glad you look after her. But you should know you still owe me for this money.”
“Put it on the slate, gaffer Ghetzu, no problem. You know I’m a man of me word.”
They’d got up from the table. The two moles and the tawny-haired one stepped over the little fence that separated the beer garden from the park. Mărgărit seemed to wait for them for a few moments, and then he went after them, with Raphael following behind him and asking why he was going after them. Mărgărit shrugged. Well, they’ve subbed him and he might still get something out of them, well, the three had gone into the park to have a piss. Raphael and Mărgărit had a piss as well and then they all went around the outside of the beer garden towards the boulevard. The old mole was lagging a little way behind, muttering something unintelligible. His steps were starting to get wobbly, and so his son turned back to give him a hand. He chased him away. He didn’t need no help, he swore at Mărgărit and tried to chase after him, his arms and legs flapping like a rag doll, Mărgărit, you still owe me, bugger you, at which Mărgărit, straight away, that’s right, I do, gaffer Ghetuzu, you and Zizi, I owe you both, and I respect you like me own father, and gaffer Ghetzu was looking at him with his hands on his hips, panting, with his mole snout raised, sniffing the sultry heat of the night, crisscrossed by the gliding headlights of cars on the boulevard, and he kept challenging him. After a while, he leapt forward and rushed him kicking and punching. He knocked him over and fell on top of him, and now they were both rolling in the gutter, under the fence that separated the park from the pavement of the boulevard, embracing and surrounded by the others, who were doubled up laughing and shouting at Mărgărit to pay his debt.
He was paying his debt, giving gaffer Ghetzu a good thrashing and leaving him sprawling. Anyway, it didn’t take long, because gaffer Ghetzu tired quickly, Mărgărit got up and brushed the dirt off himself and accepted to do what Raphael had told him to do earlier, so that he took his leave of the other three. They both walked together for another half an hour, as far as Sãlãjan Square, and before they went their separate ways, Mărgărit gave Raphael one of the two hundred-thousand banknotes.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth