The Days... Content
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The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 18

Boris complained more and more often that he was tired, and he had pains in his neck and his left arm.
.... He used to sit hunched up in the armchair with his hand on his chest trying to catch his breath, as if he was stifling.
.... "At first I thought I had stomach cramps, but now it looks like a heart attack. Call the doctor," Boris said, and slumped back in the armchair.
.... With great difficulty, he got down on his hands and knees and crawled to the bed, where he stayed, lying on the floor.
.... The doctor said he couldn't come. He didn't care much for Boris. The two of them had some accounts that had never been squared. He gave me some nitroglycerine tablets: "Put a pill under his tongue and take him to hospital as quick as you can."
.... The next day they told me Boris was in intensive care.
.... "This is his room," said the nurse, showing me the door and then walking off down the corridor.
.... The door was glass. Propped up on his pillow, with his eyes half-closed, Boris was staring at a point somewhere in space. There was another bed in the room. The other patient was lying there motionless, perhaps he was asleep. Boris was quite unlike his old cheerful self. His face was ashen, as if it had been drained of blood.
.... He turned his head towards the door with difficulty, and then the ghost of a smile flitted across his face.
.... "Don't say anything, don't strain yourself, just let me look at you," I said.
.... He responded once more with a forced smile, and then I heard his quiet voice, almost a whisper:
.... "I'm all right now. They almost lost me, they had to work hard to bring me back to life. I've heard that I was in fact clinically dead. The doctor says I'm better now, but that I need self-confidence, a little faith and the will to live; they say that's very important now. All this time it was for your sake that I wanted to hang on. I wanted to see you at least once more, I even prayed to God that I might see you again. Well, I have to thank Him, he helped me. Don't smile, I know what you're thinking, what I said about God; that's just in case; it can't do any harm... Then I thought, what a comfort it was for people who had faith. It's not the material truth that matters, whether you can see or touch things, faith is enough in itself because it helps when you're in trouble, and it would help me a great deal now... It's as if I'd been at the gates of Heaven, or Purgatory rather, because I haven't done anything to deserve to go to Heaven. After the darkness I passed through, as through a dark tunnel where there was nothing, neither memory nor any kind of awareness, there was a brilliant flash of light, as if a thousand lights had been turned on, or as if a myriad stars were shining, as if someone had taken the stars from the sky and placed them all in a row, close together. Then I thought, 'Am I in Heaven?' And the next thing I saw was the outline of that window and the lights of the city we both love. I was surrounded by people in white. A soft, warm hand took mine and I heard a pleasant female voice, like an angel's, saying, 'Be quiet, don't move, everything's going to be all right.' She looked like you. At first I thought it was you standing next to me, in the form of an angel, and that we were in Heaven together, and I was glad I had died. Now I'm glad to be alive, and you're here. Or are we both in the other world? It doesn't matter where we are, as long as you're beside me."
.... Tears were rolling down his face. And mine, too. Then the doctor came in and said, "You mustn't get excited, it's not good for you. Talk about something cheerful, every cheerful moment is precious now."
.... The well-known tune of "I Can't Stop Loving You", which we both liked so much, was wafted in through the window, which was slightly open. Boris held my hand tighter and repeated the first line of the song. A series of pictures flashed through my mind: the two of us going dancing together, listening to records in our flat and dancing, just the two of us, with the lights turned down. I was roused from my day-dream by another of our favourite songs, "Delilah".
.... I tried to be cheerful, I talked of Boris's return home. He was slightly embarrassed by his tears; he tried to look cheerful and said, "That doctor has to see everything. I forgive her because she's so beautiful and good."
.... "You naughty boy, here you are looking at beautiful women! Come home at once!"
.... We both smiled sadly. He spoke softly, by fits and starts:
.... "Lisa, if I die, arrange the funeral any way you like. My decision about not wanting a priest no longer holds. I won't care anyway, you're the one who will be left behind."
.... He went on, saying something about religion and tradition, but his voice was growing fainter and fainter and was barely intelligible. He kept whispering something about funerals, he remembered a comrade of his, someone in his unit, it had been a funeral with no priest, no music, even without an official speech. The people simply stood round the open grave, the coffin was lowered into it in silence, and then you could hear the hollow thump of the clods of earth falling on the coffin. No priest, no speakers, only the thump of clay against the wooden coffin, and when the grave-diggers started filling in the grave with spades, it sounded like muffled underground thunder.
.... "And then the whole course of human life flitted through my mind, from the moment of birth, when a drowsy registrar smelling of brandy enters your name in the register of births, and then your wedding, sometimes at the same registrar's, several years after the war, with no ceremony, with no flowers on the table, in a dreary registrar's office, two people sign and go off to live together, and at the end of your life one of your descendants, a relative or a neighbour goes to the registrar to report your death. The Communists destroyed all those beautiful old traditions and provided nothing new to take their place," Boris whispered in a barely audible voice. "There, Lisa, that's why I'll let you decide about the priest, and because I think I know what you want. I'm not superstitious, you know me well, but I'm sorry now that they quenched my faith, that they stole God from me."
.... Then Boris fell asleep.
.... The doctor turned up, as if she had been hanging around waiting. She asked me to leave, because Boris needed to sleep. He needed plenty of rest.
.... At about eight o'clock in the evening the phone rang. I stretched out my hand abruptly, but then I hesitated, my hand in mid-air. The ringing went on and on and I picked up the receiver with dread in my heart. They told me Boris had died.
.... A little before midnight Robert came back. I was still crying. Robert came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said something, trying to comfort me and begging me not to cry so much.
.... Was it possible that the bond between us had been so strong? Memories came rushing back, scenes from our marriage, the frustrations, hopes, and vague yearnings. It was as if I could hear him saying, at night, as we lay awake, "You're not here somehow, Lisa. Sometimes I get the impression you're tired of me. Sometimes you're wonderful, and sometimes you're so cold, as if I was a burden to you." In those moments of crisis he would sometimes mention Alfred. "Don't mention Alfred. I'm your wife, and he belongs to the past. I ask just one thing of you, leave me my memories, I think I have a right to them. You know all there is to know, you knew it all when you took me as your wife."
.... Robert would graduate in the autumn, and then things would be easier. We had been left without a penny. We lived by selling family heirlooms of cut glass and china, books and a few pieces of gold jewellery. Just so long as we could manage somehow or other until Robert graduated.
.... He graduated in early October. He rang me up and told me to prepare lunch to celebrate his graduation.
.... "My brave warrior is coming home from his last battle, so the meal has to be a very special one: dumplings with plums, or Zwetsckenknodel, as grandmother called them. I thought of that day when you came home from school in tears because they teased you and called you a Hun, and sometimes a real little fight would break out, especially with Marko... Really, what became of Marko?"
.... "Oh, he's a big shot in the Committee, and his salary is higher than any salary I'll ever get as an engineer. He got a grant because he was the son of a Partisan killed in the war, but he wasn't interested in school, he gave up his studies... But, mum, where did you get the money to buy the flour, the plums, and the rest of it?"
.... "We won't talk about that now... Oh, all right, I'll tell you, you remember that big crystal vase, it was only in our way here, so I sold it. But let's forget about that now, let's pitch into our dumplings before they get cold."
.... "The dumplings are coated with sugar and breadcrumbs fried in butter! I hadn't hoped for anything like this. I expected fried potatoes and onion salad. Well, mum, things will be easier now. As soon as I find a job and get my first pay, I'll buy you an even more beautiful crystal vase."
.... We ate our dumplings, laughing at our grand lunch, or perhaps laughing because we were glad that now, with a University degree, things would get better.
.... We composed the job application together, revising it and touching it up over and over again, crossing out one thing, adding another, and then took it to the post office with high hopes, sending it by registered mail.
.... The first rejection hit us the hardest. And then rejections came in reply to all our other applications. Two years passed, two years of writing job applications in vain.
.... I had been through it all once before, when I had waited in fear and trembling for the replies to my job applications.
.... "Mum, let's go away!"
.... "Where can we go?"
.... "Let's go where so many other people have gone - to Germany."
.... I said nothing. How easy it was to take decisions when one was young! I remembered a conversation like this with Boris in Opatiya, when I had said to Boris what Robert had just said to me, when I had suggested that we go away. Everything was so different now. My youthful courage was gone, and the uncertainty of such a step filled me with dread.
.... "Say something, mum, say at least, you'll think about it."
.... "All right, I'll think about it."
.... "Don't worry, mum, there's work there for everyone. You know, I'd like a job that's connected with my profession, even if it means being a worker on a building site. Temporarily, of course; they wouldn't let a graduate architect carry bricks and mortar for long."
.... In the morning I visited Boris's grave. I left him a rose, as he had wished. We talked for a long time, or rather, I talked to him, and in my thoughts he seemed to reply. The grave was modest, as good as I could afford, with a tombstone to prevent it from becoming overgrown.
.... "I don't know when I'll come again. Here is a rose, as you wished. This time it has a root, so that it can go on growing. Let it renew itself, let Nature do what I may not be able to do any more."

Next: Chapter 19