“Don’t move or I might cut your ear off.” And I can hear the snipping sound of the scissors past my ears. I. Don’t. Dare. Move. I am holding on to the brown leather chair with all my might, with sweaty hands, squinting my eyes. Snip-snip-snip. The scissors are coming even closer. I have the feeling that one more snip and my ear will fly off, followed by the feeling of a warm trickle of blood down my back.
“I’m only seven,” I’m thinking, “What would I do without an ear for the rest of my life?” Yet my father is standing beside the barber doing nothing about it, just talking with him. They are having a man-to-man talk. My father doesn’t talk about such things with my mother. “That’s probably why,” I’m thinking, “they are about to cut my ear off – to prevent me from hearing what they’re talking about so that I don’t give it away.”
I know what they’re talking about.
They are talking about…women. And about the reasons why there is no toilet paper and cooking oil in the shops. And about the neighbor, who, as everyone knows, is eavesdropping on people, and about his wife – the town… I don’t understand the word here or they just mumble it on purpose…
When was that? It was…it was 53 years ago. It happened over there, at the far end of the hotel…in the barber’s shop at Hotel Bulgaria. My father and the barber are both long gone; their beards are probably growing at will somewhere. And the women they used to talk about are gone, too. I watched myself grow old on the barber’s chair long after that. At first, single grey hairs would appear among the locks falling on the floor, and then their numbers grew. Around my 40s, the grey in my hair got the upperhand. Hair salons are our Waterloo. The locks, greyer and thinner, are now rolling on the floor. The battle has been lost.
Once though…every first Sunday of the month, we used to be here, at this salon. I can still see the chair – huge, made of leather, shabby and worn out here and there. My father used to sit there first and then, when my turn came, they put a board across the chair to prevent me from sinking into it. And then the torture would begin.
We could come here only because my father and the barber had been in the army together. This bonded them for life. Even if you fight with your brother or the country falls apart, when you’ve been in the army with someone – it’s forever and for always.
Actually, the barber wasn’t a bad man. But I only realize that now. Back then, every time we left the barber’s shop at the hotel, I felt as if I had risen from the dead yet again. And I would keep touching my ears over and over to check if they were still in place. “This barber is a true master,” people used to say. He could cut your ears off without you even noticing. Only after you shake your head would they fall into your lap.
I hate being late. I always arrive early when I have to meet someone. I haven’t been here, in the hotel’s lobby for quite some time. There’s the old marble floor, the café (called “Bulgaria,” of course), the banquet hall for weddings – “Bulgaria,” again. And at the back is the best concert hall – Bulgaria Concert Hall. Everything’s called “Bulgaria” – one should know where they are. Such hotels are always in the center of the city – and always luxurious. In any case, they’re more luxurious than the country they’re named after.
While I was waiting for my turn, always after my father’s, I would watch the hotel’s guests going in and out. It was the 1960s. They were from another world, most of them were speaking foreign languages. The women were beautiful, oh yes, I could say that with all my experience as a seven-year-old man. Luxurious women they were, as the men in the barber’s shop would say. The oldest men would still remember the previous hotel, some fifty feet down the boulevard. All the actresses from German pre-war cinema would stay there, professional Russian revolutionaries would hang around to buy arms, even Chaliapin, the opera star, rented out the suite with the balcony for a month and used to come out in the late afternoon to wave to the crowd from above. The Times’ reporter James Bouchier also lived here almost year-round. He died here, too, in his room in 1920. Lots of dying goes on at hotels, but no one ever talks about it.
Yet the barber once told us how he gave the man himself (instead of saying a name, he pointed to the attic) a shave, but anyhow, we all knew who he meant. “Well, why didn’t you cut his…then,” one of the old men called out and didn’t finish his sentence, just ran a finger across his throat. I was aware of this language of conspiracy; after all, it was halfway through socialism. Yet I never saw the old man who made such a careless joke again. I asked my father what had happened to him, but he only made a gesture of zipping his mouth shut to show me to keep mine shut, too. That’s how people talked to each other back then.
Five more minutes and it will be 12. I wonder if we were supposed to meet at 12 or at 11. No, after all we agreed to meet at high noon. At high noon has always meant 12 o’clock. Yet I’ve been hanging around this place for at least an hour. We couldn’t have missed each other. I’m walking around like a stuffed horse on the yellow paving stones. The city takes pride in its yellow paving stones. When they brought in the paving blocks about a hundred years ago for the wedding of Tsar Ferdinand, all streets used to be covered by nothing but mud and puddles. Only here, in front of the hotel, the whole street and the square in front of the Palace were paved with yellow ceramic bricks. The bricks proved enduring, though. Two political regimes have collapsed since then and the pavement remains. First they sent the tsar into exile, then the kingdom was replaced by a republic. Communism, too, proved fragile, yet the pavement has outlasted all that.
It’s 12:10 already… Nobody stays at the hotel in their own town. Except for some special cases like when you have a fight with your wife and leave, slamming the door behind you. But even then, you don’t go to a hotel. You get drunk at the last open pub and when they kick you out of there at around 3a.m. you head for the station or you wake up in the morning, curled up on some bench, chilled to the bone from the morning cold.
Once, only once did I spend the night at Hotel Bulgaria. You won’t find my name in the visitors’ book though. I was here illegally, so to speak.
On the evening of August 5, 1968, on the fourth floor, in the service room with no number, near the elevator, among bed linen, soap and brooms. I wasn’t alone. I spent the night with a person of the female sex. Helma Laakkonen, a 19-year old Finnish girl from Helsinki, a junior member of the Finnish Communist Party. What were we doing that night? We were discussing the challenges faced by the progressive left-wing youth in their fight against the provocations of imperialism. That’s how I answered when they called me down to the police station two days later. I have no idea how they found out about that night. They could have ruined my life then. I got away with it thanks to the barber, who had cut the hair of the communist party’s general secretary himself and who stood up for me.
Helma Laakkonen. The first woman in my life, with whom I spent a whole night, illegally, in the centre of Sofia, just a hundred meters from the Party’s headquarters. And no, we didn’t discuss the international situation.
All we had was that night, our first and last night together, on the next day the Festival ended, and she had to leave for home. Finland was from another world and I could only dream that I would ever reach its shores. But we had one whole night. The barber’s son, my best friend, used to work on the hotel’s electricity maintenance crew. He got us into the hotel, but it was risky for him, too. We only had to keep all the lights off and leave around 5a.m.
We were sitting in the dark among the piles of washed sheets. I will never forget that smell of soap and cleanliness.
Everything in my life after that happened exactly the way we had sketched it out then, hurriedly, in that service room on the fourth floor. We knew that we would part and everyone would live out the time he’d been given with someone else. “There will be time to fall in love with her,” she said, “There will be time to be happy with your children, to get bored with your wife, to sleep in separate rooms, the children will grow up and leave you, you will part ways with her without much fuss. “And what will happen to you,” I asked her in turn. She didn’t respond for a few seconds, and then added: “The same. It’s always the same. Let’s give each other 40 years and meet here again. We will be 60. Happiness will have worn itself out, the end will be near.” That’s what she said. “One morning, the alarm clock will ring and we will remember…”
“Okay, so – August 5, 2008, in the lobby of the hotel or in front of the entrance, if it’s not raining (I wonder if I said this as a joke or if I really meant it…). What time?”
“Well, at noon. At high noon. We won’t try to get in touch with each other until then. We’ll leave this room, live out our lives and meet again 40 years later.”
“What if we forget or get distracted?” I asked her.
“We won’t,” she said.
When you’re twenty, you can promise anything. Forty years seem like an eternity, but when you’re twenty, you’re practically immortal.
I had almost forgotten about all that a year later. I fell in love, had children, lived through the fall of communism, we used to hang about on the squares, then we hung about on the squares again, old and disappointed, then I moved out to live by myself. Sometimes, late at night, I would recall that endless night which never repeated itself. Everything seemed so unreal, as if I had made it all up – from beginning to end.
And then, one morning the alarm clock rang. I literally can’t remember having wound it up, and it came to me that 40 years had already passed.
Today is August 5, 2008.
I’ve got a date.
But she’s not here. I don’t know why I am so sure that I will recognize her but she’s not here. Probably her alarm clock hadn’t rung. After all, one can afford to be somewhat late for a date that will happen 40 years after it’s been arranged. Anything could happen in that time. I’ve been waiting for so many years, I can wait for another half an hour.
What did we talk about back then…? There is no sense of memory at hotels because they wash the sheets…Every time the sheets have to be fresh, keeping no memory, not even a hair of the bodies that have lain on them. Probably the wallpaper is made of a similar impermeable material. The sheet under us, too, would be thoroughly washed, until there were no stains or prints left. Then someone might even die on it and the next day, it would be washed as if nothing had happened. Some clerk would sleep on it, I continued fantasizing, then the conductor of the Vienna philharmonic, I heard he used to come here often…they would sleep on the same sheets, on our sheets…yet no one will ever know about our night. “The laundry detergents are getting better,” she laughed.
That’s not her…That’s not her either… I can see only a man who’s been hanging around for around ten minutes. What if she made a date here with all her ex-lovers? What if she’s lined us up here and she’s just having fun watching us from the garden across the way? Oh, how horrible, the man’s approaching me. And he knows my name. “Yes, that’s me,” I answer. We’re speaking in English. “The envelope is for me?” He says that years ago he promised to give it to me. Mrs. Laakkonen is long…I can’t hear the last words clearly.
I open the envelope and read only the first few lines… “Dear К., I’ve been worried for some time that I might have to miss a date we arranged 33 years ago. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to be in front of Hotel Bulgaria on August 5, 2008. I’ll try the best I can but the doctors aren’t giving me much hope. That’s why I’m writing this letter, which I will sent you through my ex-husband, he’s a decent and responsible man and he will give it to you, in case I…So, in short…” I turn the page, the date is the end of November 2001.
Wellll…wellll…weeeelllll…I’m trying hard not to burst in tears like a seven-year-old boy. The man who gave me the letter has tactfully disappeared. I. Don’t. Dare. Move. It’s as if the barber has cut my whole head off, but I still don’t know that. If I move, it will roll over onto the sidewalk. You shouldn’t have changed the place of our meeting, Helma…
Now, I will pull myself together, go into the hotel and head toward the elevators. What’s important is to walk confidently. No one’s paying that much attention…On the fourth floor, right past the elevator, is the room where they keep the bed linen and the brooms. I don’t believe they lock it, who would steal bed sheets? I will go in, drink up all the liquid soap, the floor detergent and the bath cleaner. My stomach will fill up with soap bubbles…I’ve always loved them. My soul will rise to the sky on a soap bubble. It will feel pure and at ease. Death can smell nice. The elevator is the same old pre-war Schindler, there’s a bell-hop.
To the fourth floor, please.