The following is taken from Vratislav Manak's debut short story collection Saty z igelitu (The Polythene Dress, Host 2011), for which he was awarded the Jiri Orten Prize for writers under thirty.
Cover image by Tobias Melzer
A tram made its way along the road and was lost in the grey of the overcast morning. Prague awoke to its Monday hangover, tangled up in mist. Day was breaking at a leisurely pace.
Jiří Řehoř got up and went to work.
The gates opened slowly. The bureau, where Jiří worked, gave the impression of a Babylon of floors, corridors, and doors.
The building was made up of three wings: the main, the east, and the west. Each wing had six floors. Each floor, two main corridors, and two other connecting ones. Each connecting corridor had a set of two doors. Each main corridor, two sets of five doors. Affixed with screws next to each one was a sign bearing the name and title of the employee. Most of the letters, though, had been stripped off by clients, tired of waiting.
Jiří worked in office number 13 b/2 in the east wing, third floor, left-hand door of the second connecting corridor without a name plate. He didn’t have his own name plate because he was only there temporarily. Temporarily for three years.
He was generally alone in the office. Just him, the tall, tiered partition of a discarded filing cabinet that nobody had been tasked with moving to the storeroom yet, three chairs, and two empty desks. But that morning, when, shortly after six (very shortly), he entered the office (we could not say his office since it was not his in any imaginable way), not a single desk was empty.
Jiří thought he might have gotten the wrong floor and, standing in the doorway, bent down to check the number of the office. He hadn’t. So with a hello he went on in. The woman at his desk stood up—Jiří girded himself to ask why she was sitting in his place—strode decisively towards him—he preferred to move aside from the door—fumbled for the handle and slammed the door. Uncomprehendingly, he observed her pendulous zebra-striped backside. He cleared his throat and said hello again. Nothing. The women in the office continued to stare at their screens, each stirring their strong black coffee with one hand and tapping numbers on their keyboard with the other.
Jiří Řehoř turned and went out into the corridor.
The only thing that was surprising about the building was the brilliant orange linoleum. When he lifted his eyes from it and went to urinate, orange spots on the top of the white urinal flashed before his eyes.
Jiří decided to go to the head of his department. He was based in the west wing, fourth floor, second-to-last door of the northernmost corridor. He decided to take the lift. He waited for it for several minutes. The little red light indicating that the lift was in motion did not light up once during that time. He decided to take the stairs. Grey jackets swirled around. Apologizing, he made for the door of his superior. He checked the name plate, it was the right one, knocked, did not wait for an invitation, and entered with his eyes closed.
“Good morning, I apologise for the interruption, but it appears that during my week’s absence my workspace in office 13 b/2 has been taken over by someone else. In light of this, I would like enquire what steps I need to undertake in order to begin my shift here at work.”
No one answered.
He opened his eyes.
The room was empty. Neither the head of department nor his secretary was there. Jiří sat down on a wooden chair by the door. He drew himself up straight and clasped his hands behind the backrest. He sat stiffly and waited for his superior to arrive. He waited for more than half an hour. The head of department and the secretary walked past him without noticing.
“How are the new women in with the filing cabinet doing?” asked the head of department.
“Fine,” replied the secretary. She adjusted her skirt.
“Good morning,” said Jiří.
“What’s for lunch today?” asked the head of department.
“Hash,” replied the secretary.
“Good morning,” said Jiří.
“What about the one who was there before them?” asked the head of department.
“He hasn’t been in for a week,” replied the secretary.
“Did you phone him?”
“He blubbered something or other. He hasn’t been to see the company doctor. Didn’t provide a sick note.”
“So that’s breaking company regulations then.”
“He’s already received his notice though.”
“Goodbye,” said Jiří.
Jiří left the building. What to do with the unfinished day? Too early to head home. He went down to the river. His soles touched the cold stones of the bank. Swans were floating on the water. He’d dreamt about them, too, they had been pecking at his temples.
He thought back over the previous days and how he had been unfit for work. It had been a strange week and he was glad it was behind him. When he got back from work on Monday, he hadn’t been feeling well. Two slabs of basalt instead of legs. He took to his bed. There was a ringing in his ears. Work called. He said that he was ill. He got up several times, went to urinate and have a drink. In the end he broke a glass by accident. He didn’t have the strength to sweep it up. He left the shards on the floor and returned to the bedcovers. Heavy blankets, the mantle of a tropical day. He slept. He dreamed he was being bitten by swans. He could smell the stench of their feathers. They provoked him. The brilliant orange beaks.
It was calm on the bank. And cold. He stood above the river, his hands behind his back. Breath in, breath out. He was freezing. It hurt to breathe. The illness had passed.
He leaned against the wall.
He wasn’t accustomed to being in the city in the morning. He was fond of his city. It was dusty, dirty, and colorless. Today he criss-crossed it. A nomad. He didn’t want to go home. After a week of not being able to do anything he was glad to be outside, among other people. They didn’t take any notice of him. Their presence was suddenly important to him. He looked each and every one in the eye.
He walked through the center around the old churches and towers. He leaned his head back to glimpse the golden spires in the golden sun. He didn’t catch sight of them. All he could see were wet cornerstones and rubbish in the nooks and crannies. The union of pure, unadulterated history and the filth of cobblestones that looked just like little cat heads. A stray passed him by. It smelled of cigarettes.
Jiří drew close to the tram stop that he got off at under normal circumstances. He was here now four hours ahead of schedule. A kiosk with black American lettering above a red pentagon and always the same woman with a wart that protruded from her left nostril selling cigarettes. For once he wanted to buy the daily newspaper. The old woman was picking her nose. He decided that he would watch the news that evening.
He already knew some of the faces around him. The diminutive street paper seller respectfully greeted the bodies that passed by her. Jiří passed by too.
He drew close to the small underpass. The fellow was kneeling there, just the same. Unconsciously, Jiří reached for his wallet. Not a day went by when he didn’t do his bit for him. As always, the homeless man was kneeling on a green tartan blanket, his head bowed to the ground (Jiří had never seen his face), his right hand outstretched and in it a bowler hat. God knows where he got it from. It’s not the kind of thing you find in the shops nowadays. In his head Jiří had named him “Tau”. Today for the first time the homeless man’s hand was shaking. The coins in the hat jangled against each other. Jiří discovered that he must have left his wallet at home. Nothing for Mr. Tau this time around.
The building, where Jiří had his bachelor pad, was unusually animated today. He went up the stairs to the third floor, picking his way around plastic flower plots. The door of his flat was ajar. He went through the narrow hallway to the kitchen.
“Hello Mum, what are you doing here?”
She was standing with her back to him and looking out of the window. Her forehead was pushed up against the glass. She did not say a word. With difficulty, she remained on her feet. A dustpan with the swept-up shards lay on the countertop.
He went into the bedroom to get changed. Three strange men were standing there, facing his bed. On it lay Jiří’s motionless body. He looked like an alabaster statue, like an embalmed Christ.
The men covered his body with a sheet.
The noise of something heavy falling resounded from the kitchen.