Circences - a beginning
Three in a bed. Roll over.
May 1, Prosek, Prague. Six thirty am.
Erich, eighteen, woke and groaned. He reached across the nape of
Johann's neck and slid across the bar that arrested the jitterbug
movement of the clapper between the two brass bells of his alarm clock.
Then he placed his hands behind his head away from temptation. Not that
it would have bothered Johann. At fourteen, Johann was shameless and
proud and acted always without compunction, his perennial fumblings
having an almost ineluctable inevitability but little Danton, on the
other hand, seemed to have inherited a Filipino modesty. He was six
years old and still so young.
The previous Friday in the swimming pool changing rooms Danton had
blushed bright red when he blurted out quite without thinking, bodily
curiosity overcoming him, "Mine's different to yours." Erich, trunks
around knees, knew at once what was being referred to. His circumcision
was the only evidence that he was the bastard progeny of a peripatetic
Hungarian rabbi. He pulled up his swimwear and smacked his naked chest
above the heart with his closed fist and said, "But we're the same in
here, little one. All for one..."
"And one for all," squealed Danton and splashed through the chlorine
concentrated trough to the kiddies pool.
It had been Erich who had named him Danton. Precocious at twelve he
had been immersed in Dumas. The glamour of seventeenth century France
seemed worlds away from the cramped one bedroom apartment on the
twelfth floor of a crumbling tower block he shared with his recidivist
brother and prostitute mother. Danton would be the catalyst who brought
about their salvation and rescued them from the mire of their
existence. Danton would be the catalyst for good.
It hadn't happened yet and it had been three in a bed for years and
years. Now that the nightly accidental deluges were largely over, and
recently it had been Johann who had been more guilty of them than
anyone, imbibing large quantities of Budvar in bus shelters with urchin
friends, it wasn't so bad. And besides, Erich didn't know any
This week it was Erich's turn in the middle. He knew that Danton liked
it best like this, there was a barrier between him and Johann. On these
weeks Danton would cuddle into his oldest brother's back or front
depending on how he was sleeping, wrap a skinny arm surreptitiously
around Erich's waist under covers and would dream peacefully, comforted
by the closeness. There was no such luxury when he was next to Johann.
Johann would push him away with his hands and feet, laughing loudly if
he crashed onto the hard floor or would take pleasure in making bad
smells and trapping him under the clothes, Danton yelping until Erich
came to the rescue.
Just then Johann grunted in his sleep and scratched an ear with a
somnambulant hand. Erich looked across and wondered what kind of man
Johann's father was and if moral turpitude was hereditary. It was,
however, too much to contemplate so early. He yawned and glanced at the
clock. It was six forty-five and time to get up. Not wanting to wake
the two slumberers he performed his usual trick, born out of an amalgam
of necessity, kindness and a natural bent for escapology.
To begin with Erich wiggled skilfully to the bottom of the gargantuan
bed by flexing and relaxing the muscles in his buttocks and using his
shoulder blades as levers. There was not even the slightest ripple on
the covers on either side of him. It was dark down here, like being in
a shroud and there was the elderflower smell of youthful flesh mingled
with the dank hum of unwashed soles.
Erich's passage was now stymied by the tightly tucked in top sheet,
taut as shrink-wrap. If he'd have reached down with either hand to
release it then he could have accidentally disturbed a prone thigh or
maybe the tenting of fabric would have pulled and twisted dormant
limbs. Instead he curled his left foot, but equally it could have been
the right, around the bottom edge of the mattress and with an abnormal
dexterity and fecundity of movement strongly gripped the sheet with a
supple flexing of the interphalangeal joint of his big toe. He
retracted his tibialis and pulled and slowly, slowly, as the angle
between his foot and leg reached ninety degrees, out slipped the cotton
from between the mattress and the base. Erich repeated the action, ever
aware of the bodies next to him, until he had created a thirty
centimetre slit. Using again the same technique of bio-mechanical
movement with which he had arrived at the foot of the bed he slithered
out of the gap and was on the carpeted floor of the bedroom.
Erich had neatly folded his shirt and trousers the night before and
they were as he had placed them on the chair only now covered by the
thrown crumpled mess of Johann's discarded togs. Erich noticed the
caking of brown mud around the bottom of Johann's jeans and guessed he
had been pilfering ironware from allotments again. As if he hadn't
caused them enough problems already. The tanning he had received from
old Mr Kuchera obviously hadn't done the trick. He turned and looked at
the twin heads of his brothers still poking out from the bedclothes and
snoring peacefully. The three of them were an anathema to Chinese
dolls. They couldn't have been a more unalike sibship if they had
sprung from different continents and as such were a living clip of
their mother's trade. For now he left them and crept out of the room.
It was Monday and time for his bath.
The bathroom was on the other side of the lounge. At night, the lounge
was his mother's room, her office as Erich called it strictly to
himself and it being the Monday after a Sunday night Mr Sodomka was
there. Mr Sodomka had been a regular for more than three years. He said
he was a police chief but Erich had seen him once one snowy winter's
morning, biro in mouth, placing a ticket under the crooked wiper of a
Skoda. Erich hadn't said anything. He didn't want any trouble. But Mr
Sodomka did have something going for him, something that made him more
of an interest than other clients and caused Erich almost to look
forward to his visits. Mr Sodomka had a gun. It was there now, on the
sideboard next to a bowl of kiwi fruit, where he often left it. Erich
had worked out that Mr Sodomka liked it to be in full view to assert
his manhood, to attest to his masculinity. Quite unbidden one morning
Erich's mother had, somewhat out of character and carefully covering
Danton's ears, announced over a plate of chipolatas that Mr Sodomka had
the smallest penis she had ever seen. Johann had nearly choked on his
mouthful of bacon.
Erich checked to see if the coast was clear. The mouth on Mr Sodomka's
rubicund face was wide open, each breath a stertorous rasp and his
mother, as usual, was dead to the world. Erich padded, dressed still
only in briefs, across the floor and picked up the nine millimetre CZ
seventy-five. He was always surprised by the heaviness and hardness of
it in his hand. He slid out the fifteen-round magazine and held the gun
up to eye-level and lined up the back and fore sights to a spot on the
far wall. He pulled back the hammer. He imagined wearing a mask like a
yashmak and doing a daring bank raid. "Hand over the money," he would
say cool as you like and he would return, sack on back and free them
all from their miserable existence. Erich smiled and then sighed. It
was pure fantasy. He had a quaking cadet's respect for authority and
had never broken a law in his life. Mr Sodomka gave an extra loud snort
and Erich jumped nearly dropping the pistol on his bare foot. He
replaced it and continued on to the bathroom.
Erich inserted the plug in its hole and turned on the taps and water
gushed out filling the short, stained tub. While he was waiting he
brushed his teeth in the mirror. He wondered if his father had blond
curls too. More like a cherub than a rabbi, he thought. He fumbled in
the cabinet and pulled out a thin plastic concave disc he had seen
there on numerous occasions. He placed it on the crown of his head and
envisaged it as a yarmulke. No, he didn't look Jewish at all. He saw in
the reflection that the bath was full.
He checked the temperature with his elbow, a habit he had developed
caring for Danton and judging it to be just perfect jumped in, the
waters lapping at his clavicle. He lathered the soap between his strong
fingers, turning the bar again and again until his hands were coated
with suds and then he began to wash. He started at his toes and worked
up, kneading flesh, rubbing and scratching and then rinsing. He paid
particular attention to hard to reach places, between the toes, behind
the ears, the back of the neck. As he washed his penis he wondered what
it would be like to have foreskin. His best friend Lubos had told him
that sex was better with a foreskin, the head was more sensitive,
perceptible to even the featheriest of touches. Erich didn't know he
had never had sex and he moved on to the abdomen.
At last he was finished, finished cleaning that is. He still had to
take the test.
Erich looked up at the old plastic clock that hung above the bath and
started to take deep breaths in preparation. In his mind he followed
the air as it passed down his trachea and into the lungs, forcing down
the diaphragm. His chest lifted slightly in the water. He breathed out
and then in again. He followed the oxygen through his elastic-walled
arteries, the smaller capillaries, and into the pumping machine of his
heart and then out and onwards to the furthest extremities, the
repetitious action his life depended upon. In and out. In and out. As
he was breathing he was watching the second hand and now, this time as
it reached the vertical he took the deepest breath, noted the position
of the minute hand and ducked right under the grimy water.
Erich didn't allow himself to think of anything down there. If he had
studied Buddhism he would have said he was chasing nirvana.
Alternatively; Olympus, Valhalla, Asgard, Elysium. But Erich had no
religion and knew only it was important to keep his mind absolutely
blank, a tabula rasa. There was just the impression of the titre of
gases in veins, oxygen used, carbon dioxide produced and then as one
minute passed, two minutes, three minutes and they in turn turned into
four the desire to breath grew, a desire like you wouldn't believe, the
pulmonary artery, the coronary artery, the brachial, gastric and
hepatic arteries all gasping for food, clamouring in the brain with
their synchronical pulses, give us oxygen, give us oxygen, give us
oxygen and then just when Erich thought he could stand it no longer, he
would have to surface there was louder than any sonar, a depth-bomb
depth-charge tumult of noise, frightening the pressure of water against
his eardrums. The words were clear, "Murder, murder, oh Lord,
Erich burst forth from the bath, gulping water in his eagerness for
respiration and saw the retreating back of Mr Sodomka. And then the
shouts came again more sonorous this time above the surface, "Murder,
murder, murder!" Erich leapt over the slippery side thinking something
terrible had happened to his mother and rushed through into the lounge,
naked and dripping water.
Mr Sodomka was flying around the room, ululating like a stuck pig,
caterwauling like a leopardess with a shot mate, trying simultaneously
to pull on a sock and do up a cuff. Erich's mother was sitting up in
bed and the underpanted forms of Johann and Danton appeared at the
"What's going on?" said Danton, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
May 1, Prosek, Prague. Seven forty-five am.
Ivanka couldn't stop laughing. She was almost crying into her scrambled
"And there you are, nude as the day I met you, just standing, hair and
body soaking and poor Mr Sodomka has got his left shoe on and he's
trying to stretch a sock over it."
"Mum I know," said Erich, but grinning too. It was already the forth
time he had heard the story.
"He thought you were dead. Well it must have been a shock seeing you
in the water like that. He only wanted to have a pee."
"Peed himself, almost," said Johann with mouth full.
"And the funniest thing," said Ivanka wiping a tear from her right
lower eyelid, being careful not to skewer herself with a long nail,
"was that when we had calmed him down and explained it was just one of
"...and she doesn't sleep with you," whispered Johann sibilantly in
Erich's ear, spraying motes of semi-masticated bread.
"....was that the thing he was most upset about," and the laughter was
bubbling up again, "the thing he was most put out by, was the superior
size of your dangling tackle."
"Mum!" said Erich and glanced at Danton. Danton was more than busy
anyway with a forefinger up his nostril.
"Should have seen mine then," said Johann, reaching for a sausage and
wafting it under Erich's nose. "Mine's a knockwurst. And what a noise
for a police chief. Shit! God help the city if he ever has to
investigate a worm infested, week-old, rotting corpse."
"Less cheek," said Ivanka but without venom. She was inclined to
agree. "Now Erich, off to work. I don't know if Mr Sodomka will be back
and we can't afford to lose another job."
"The time!" said Erich looking at his watch. He stood suddenly and
taking a final piece of bacon between his fingers, said, "I'll be late.
Bye everyone, bye Danton."
"Bye Erich," said Danton and he slipped from his wooden seat.
Danton followed his elder brother to the door of the flat. He did this
every morning and so wasn't surprised when Erich knelt and kissed him
on the forehead and told him to be a good boy at school.
"Good boys go places," said Danton. "Good boys get the best girls.
As the lift doors closed Danton's head was still there, poking
Erich was alone in the lift.
"Five minutes fifty," he said out loud and smacked his flat palms
against the rigidised stainless steel interior. "Fuck! Five minutes
fifty and if that ox hadn't come in then I would have made it to six.
Six whole minutes."
The lift shuddered to a stop and the doors slid open. Erich looked at
his watch again and with more imprecations on the head of a yellow
police chief he set off at a run for the station.
As he reached the edge of the road he saw the red and white body of
the tram in the distance on the cusp of the hill. It was moving at
speed, rattling with pantographs bouncing and stretching for the
electric cables above. Erich put on a extra spurt, skidding once on
gravel and made it just as the air-compressed doors were about to
close. Of course there was nowhere to sit and he stood swaying, his
wrist looped in a leather strap. He closed his eyes and leant his head
against his upright arm. He burped silently and tasted again the bacon
of his breakfast. It was the first time the family had eaten and
laughed together for a long while.
He changed trams once, lucky enough to have the luxury of a seat on
the second, and got off as usual at Namesti Miru. The shop was a two
minute walk away, situated on the corner of Rimske and
Letensk&;#8218;. As Erich rounded the bend he wasn't entirely
surprised to see the lemurian form of Mr Dobrowolski leaning against a
"Dobri den," Erich called from a distance but went apparently unheard.
His boss's deafness grew worse year by year.
"Dobri den," he said again, this time right behind the little man and
he squeezed a bony shoulder.
Mr Dobrowolski spun round, his hat flying, releasing long grey hair
and his siddur fell to the pavement where it landed face down.
"Auschwitz, my boy," he said through parched old lips and dramatically
clutching his heart over his overcoat "that's how they came for us in
Erich was used to this refrain as he heard it at least ten times a day
in multifarious situations so he smiled and stooped to pick up the hat
"Locked out again?" Erich said merrily, nestling the cap back in
"The keys, my keys," said Mr Dobrowolski patting his hip pocket. "They
were here when I left and now they're gone. Blasted Gypsy hands, they
get everywhere. Get rid of the lot of them is what I say."
"Don't worry pani," Erich said "I'll have it open in a jiffy."
The irony of a master locksmith being unable to gain entry to his own
establishment was lost on Erich. It had happened on too many occasions
already. A month earlier, after a similar incident, Erich had suggested
having his own set of keys and he had seen Mr Dobrowolski's kindly
visage transmogrify before him. The eyes had narrowed and taken on a
distinctly Semitic slant and the dorsum of the nose had seemed to bend
and grow in stature, casting shadows and narrowing the face until it
was rat-like and leery. "You'll be wanting the keys to my safe as well,
I expect," the old man had growled and Erich had stammered and blushed
and said that was not what he had meant at all.
But Erich loved working there. In many ways Mr Dobrowolski's
generosity and magnanimity were boundless and he had helped the family
through numerous near calamities. Erich also loved to hear stories
about old Prague and the war. But most of all, more than anything Erich
loved to be surrounded by locks, to daily play and become absorbed in
their springs and levers, to decrypt their mechanisms and decipher
their metal hieroglyphs. Locks were his passion, his desideratum.
"Quickly," said Mr Dobrowolski, "it's two minutes to nine."
Erich reached into his back pocket and pulled out the tool he had
crafted himself during his lunch-time breaks. It was steel and about
nine centimetres long with a diameter of three and a half millimetres.
The top end had been curved around to form a circle and then the shaft
was straight except at the bottom where the metal had been bent to an
angle of exactly eighty-seven degrees and slightly sharpened. It was
Erich's lock-pick and it had become his constant companion ever since
the misunderstanding over the keys.
The shop-door lock wasn't a challenge. Erich had done it all too often
already. The whole process from insertion to completion took less than
ten seconds. It was just a question of knowing where to depress the
spring and Erich knew precisely. However, it was always with pleasure
that he heard the pop of the latch. The door swung open. They were
It was eight fifty-nine.
Erich had no idea that an action, right now being performed by Danton
eight kilometres away on the other side of town as he made his carefree
way to school, was going to have repercussions that would turn all
their lives upside-down and continue for years and years to come. Erich
had no inkling whatsoever that his days working as an adjuvant to a
Jewish locksmith were about to come to an end.
Looking back, Erich would think that that day in the shop, in itself,
was unnoteworthy. Well, almost. It passed much like any other day. He
spent his time screwing, scraping, bending, twisting. He squashed
springs, lubricated joints, polished brass and went out at usual to
purchase two cups of thick black Czech coffee at eleven o'clock. The
only odd thing was that Mr Dobrowolski was unusually loquacious. Quite
frankly, he talked non-stop.
He talked of his cachement in a friend's wooden outhouse during the
Nazi occupation, performing evacuations in a rusty tea caddy and
coughing blood into a hankie. "I was a scrofulous Anne Frank without
Indian ink and parchment," he said. Although Erich had heard it all
before on countless occasions he hung on every word. He was breathless
as Mr Dobrowolski described the Germans tightening their iron grip, his
subsequent midnight flit, disguised as a Bavarian Fraulein, on the back
of a tumbrel. Erich felt keenly his boss's capture and internment in
the horror that was Auschwitz and the inhuman deprivations that took
place there, daily, nightly, incessantly and saw a single tear drip
from his own cheek onto the mortise he was working on.
"You know nothing," wheezed his old employer and then with a
surprising celerity shot out a withered old hand and grabbed Erich
firmly between the legs. "Down here you're Jewish, but up here," and
now with the other hand he slapped Erich's forehead, "you're empty and
will be empty until you've lived falsely, like me, denouncing your true
essence daily and your being hourly, like me, until you've been trapped
and scared for your life and escaped death by death-defying deeds of
outrageous bravery, like me and have loved completely and lost
absolutely like me and then like me and only then may you shed a tear.
A vicarious life is no life at all. Now go. It's time for home."
Erich looked at his watch and saw that it was indeed past five.
"Would you like me to help you lock up?" he said.
"Am I so old that I cannot pull to a door?"
"Bye then," said Erich. "See you tomorrow."
The journey home was unremarkable but even as the lift hit the ninth
floor Erich could sense trouble. By the eleventh the sounds were
unmistakable. Johann's voice was the loudest, rebounding from the walls
of the lift shaft. He was calling his mother every epithet that had
ever been given to a lady of her profession. And then the lift doors
were sliding open and there was the flip-flap of running footsteps in
the corridor outside. As Erich exited he just caught sight of his
brother's back as the door to the stairwell swung shut. For one moment
he thought of going after him but then shrugged and headed into the
Erich was two feet inside his home when a careering bundle of six year
old boy was wrapped around his legs, stifling sobs in the tails of his
coat. Erich gently picked Danton up under armpits and nestled the
scrunched up face against his shoulder and walked through to the
kitchen where he knew his mum would be.
"What happened?" said Erich.
"I caught Johann stealing from my purse." Ivanka's make-up was smudged
freely around her face and she was holding herself stiffly, trying not
to cry. "I said I didn't need a pimp."
"I know, I know, you don't have to tell me." With shaking hands Ivanka
pulled a cigarette from the packet in front of her and lit it. "I do my
best for you, for all of you."
"Mum, it's all right. I understand."
"I don't know any other way. I always meant to stop and then I look at
you now and you're a man. When did my baby get to be so big?" Ivanka
stood and turned away to face the kitchen wall and wrapped her arms
around her waist, hugging herself tightly and when she turned back
Erich was sitting on a chair stroking Danton's dark hair.
"I'll try and find him," said Ivanka. "Take care of the little one.
Johann hit him. Not purposefully but he got quite a blow, under the
eye. I'll be back later. I've a client at eight." And then she was
As the door slammed Danton lifted his face from off Erich's shoulder.
His eyes were red and snot was dribbling from both nostrils. Erich
pulled the sleeve of his jumper down over his hand and pinched Danton's
nose with his thumb and index finger through the material and said,
"Blow." Danton did and there was a satisfying bubbling sound.
"Where's mummy gone?" said Danton.
"To find your brother."
"Oh." There was a pause. "Why?"
"Because he's family."
"Oh." Another pause. "Erich?"
"Daddies are family too, aren't they?"
"So if mummy found daddy then things would be all right?"
"I don't know about that Dant," said Erich wiping his brother's eyes,
"but I do know that in the back of the freezer, hidden behind the
disgusting, yuck, peas and revolting, yuck yuck, carrots there's a box
of chocolate ice-cream. Want some?"
"Yes please!" And Danton clapped his hands.
Later, in front of an empty bowl and with a chocolate face, Danton
suddenly made his lips into an O and put his flat palm over them.
"Erich! Erich! I just remembered."
"You know that thing you are always talking about, the cattylist
thing? The thing that I am, cattylist for good you say."
Erich smiled. "Yes Dant?"
"Well this morning on my way to school I found it. It was caught on a
"Yeah, look." And out of his trouser pocket he pulled a crumpled piece
of paper and proudly passed it to his older brother. "The
Intrigued, Erich smoothed out the paper. It was a page from the Golem,
Prague's most scurrilous and biggest selling daily.
"Look, at the top," said Danton.
And indeed at the top there was a picture of a cartoon cat and in its
paw it was holding a list. It was an advertisement for a new pet food
store. But that wasn't what had caught Erich's attention. Under that
picture was a much larger picture. It was a picture of a boat heading
off into a sunset. Erich read the words avidly. Do you want to be a TV
star? it said. Do you want to take part in the biggest and most
ambitious soap opera ever seen? Do you want to be seen all over Europe?
All over the world? Do you want to make a fortune? All he had to do,
Erich read was send in a photo and say in fifteen words or less why he
should be chosen.
"Did I do right?" said Danton.
"Out of all the mess that is our lives," Erich said, "little Danton,
you've always been right."