She dreams: the empty pedestal is made of glass and resting in it like bones in a reliquary are the names of the statue’s children.
Comrade A had the habit of rapping on the toes of his boots with his cane as he walked. They were safety boots of a kind you can’t buy any more, with heat-resistant soles and steel toecaps from which the rubber tip of the cane rebounded. This drumbeat irritated Ma Z, but she had known Comrade A long enough to hold her tongue. He was touchy about the boots, which he’d been wearing since his days as a shop steward in the Metalworkers’ Union. He didn’t care that they were down at the heel and looked odd with a suit, and he would give anyone who dared to comment a lecture on the hazards of the shop floor. These boots had saved his feet more than once when a metal bar slipped off the rollers in the factory. You could still see the dents. He was touchy about the walking stick too, although he had come by that more recently.
It was pension day. The two old friends had taken the train to the station, as they did every month, and then a bus to the city center. It was their routine to stop for lunch before they walked over to collect their pensions. You don’t want to face the pension office on an empty stomach, Ma Z said. In fact, this office was no more than a desk in Fidelity House where veterans like them picked up their checks, by special arrangement, but they liked to joke about the endless queues and the grumpy clerks, just as if they were ordinary old-timers. If pension day fell on a Tuesday, when the supermarkets offered pensioners a special discount, along with a free blood-pressure test and a cup of tea, Ma Z brought her shopping basket, and she was towing that behind her as they went along Company Lane.
A gastropub, she said when they spotted the signboard. I didn’t expect it to be so fancy.
The Swannery was a new restaurant she’d seen advertised on a bus shelter. There was a menu on a music stand outside, in a handwritten script as full of curly tendrils as a bean plant, and they paged through it.
I could write like that once, she said. They had a calligraphy class at the Academy in Sofia. All it takes is a bit of practice.
Penmanship? I thought you specialized in military strategy.
My field was strategic communications, but we had our leisure time, our hobbies. It wasn’t all work and no play.
Comrade A struck the music stand with his cane. Pretentious simplicity, he said bitterly. Artisanal bread. Which is to say: left in the oven too long, misshapen and black as a pot on the bottom. How did artisanal come to mean made by an amateur?
Some other time then. When he was in a mood like this she knew not to insist.
They walked on to the Great Leader noodle bar at the end of the block. Comrade A liked to sit there at the sticky counter, under the ironic portrait of Chairman Mao, and discuss the lessons of the Cultural Revolution.
Ma Z had the chicken chow mein, declining the chopsticks in favor of a plastic fork. If God meant us to eat with sticks, he wouldn’t have given us fingers, she said, or forks, which are a sensible improvement.
Comrade A lifted a water chestnut expertly with the chopsticks and let the hot sauce drip off into his bowl. He had a theory that chopsticks were good for the waistline. Look how skinny the Chinese are, he said. When you eat slowly, you appreciate every morsel, you chew properly, you savor the tastes and textures of each ingredient. He shattered the water chestnut between his teeth and picked up a slant-cut green bean. You think about the hands that till the earth and plant the seedlings. You see a chain of tendril winders, forklift drivers, pickers, packers, slicers and dicers, each with a part to play in bringing this lowly vegetable to your plate.
Bowl, she said. Over her friend’s shoulder, she saw a teenager with a rash of pimples like tiny fried eggs on his cheeks shoveling rice and shredded pork straight from a tilted bowl into his mouth.
The waiter brought them jasmine tea. As she cracked the sticky bowtie into shards, Ma Z voiced an idea she had been carrying in her mind for a week. We should go and take a look at the Old Man.
You won’t find him home, said Comrade A.
It was a week since the statue of the president had been removed from the square.
I know he’s gone, she said; I also watch the news. I mean we should go and look at the pedestal.
It will be empty.
That’s why I’d like to see it. He was up there so long. I’m curious to see if the place feels different now that he’s not looking
down on us.
So they called for the bill and split it exactly, as they always did, and went out into the lane.
It was a very civilized removal, she said, as they ambled along.
Surprisingly enough, after all the fighting that went before.
Some of our people wanted him to stay, even though he was giving the wrong impression. The conqueror lording it over a free city—where do you see such a thing?
He had to go.
They kept the security guards, mind you, the men with the beards. They were allowed to stay.
That was good thinking. Comrade A remembered the statues in their niches around the pedestal, four sentries draped with bandoleers and cradling rifles with the ease of men used to war.
I thought he would be properly toppled, Com, but they found some professionals to loosen him nicely and lift him off with a crane, very carefully, as if he was made of glass. Do you remember when the people pulled down Saddam Hussein in Baghdad? Now that was a toppling.
Did you think so? I was disappointed. The Marines usually break things once and for all, but Saddam keeled over like a clown whose shoes are stuck to the ground. I half expected him to spring upright again, like one of those donkeys with elastic bands for joints.
This thing with the president was much more dignified, as I say.
Tell me Ma, do you remember that chap who jumped up on the pedestal afterward and struck a pose? He was wearing a T-shirt with a slogan on it, but I couldn’t see what it said.
Once you’ve pulled something off a pedestal it must be very tempting to jump up there yourself.
That’s what I thought: he’s trying on the empty boots for size. But he didn’t look comfortable. You know, the Old Man was a size 12.
The words of Stanisław Lec came into Comrade A’s head: When smashing monuments, save the pedestals. They always come in handy.
They were standing on a path near the middle of the square, side by side, gazing at the empty pedestal. Gazing rather at the space above it, a man-shaped hole in the air whose headspace was troubled by the quick gray smudges of pigeons, claws outstretched, reaching for the vanished perch of a hat brim. The sentries slouched in their niches like workmen on a smoke break.
I wonder what they’ll put up there, Comrade A mused.
A Hero of the Struggle, said Ma Z.
I doubt it.
No sooner had this feathery doubt crossed his mind than a statue appeared on the pedestal, the figure of a man in bronze, every bit as imposing as the one that had been taken down, and more elegantly dressed. Comrade A shook his head to dismiss the vision, but it persisted. A professional man, apparently, in a three-piece suit with a broad tie and a pocket square.
The two friends gazed speculatively at the pedestal. They were both at that stage of life when your eyes begin to deceive you.
It’s a fine pedestal, she said, squinting. It would be a shame if it went to waste. And then she opened her eyes wide and saw that the figure was still there. What is that?
You see it too?
It’s a good sign, he said at last, making a diagnosis. Your imagination is still working.
More than I can say for my ankles. Let’s sit down for a while.
There were no benches, but a stone wall that encircled the pedestal offered them a perch. She parked her shopping basket between them and they each put one foot up on it, she to rest her ankle and he to relieve the pain in his knee.
Who do you suppose it is? she asked.
Is it a VIP? It’s fuzzy at the edges, you can almost see through that bit where the stomach sticks out. Perhaps it’s just an idea. Let’s say: Enterprise.
It’s one of our mining magnates.
Our billionaire philanthropists.
Someone who throws a party for the kids at Christmastime.
At that the statue of the man in the suit faded away and a new figure appeared on the pedestal. It was obvious from the overalls and boots, safety boots like the one Comrade A had propped on the shopping basket, that this was a worker.
It’s a shame you imagine him like that, she said. The worker was on all fours with his head hanging down between his shoulders.
Why do you suppose it’s my doing?
Someone must be summoning these visions, Com, and it isn’t me. You’re the one with the overactive imagination.
I’m the one with a grip on reality. Perhaps it’s a projection? I saw something like that a few years ago. An artist made portraits of our Heroes of the Struggle and projected them onto the walls of the High Court.
He stood up, rubbing his knees, and gazed at the facades of the Palace of Justice, the old Parliament, the General Post Office, the Opera House. He thought he might see a projector jutting from a ledge, but above the rooftops there was nothing but sky and pigeons. He remembered the story that the crown of the Old Man’s hat was hollow, but had long since been filled to overflowing with bird shit.
When he sat down the pedestal was empty again. The sentries were nodding off.
I’m going to miss him, said Ma Z. I miss him already.
They had moved to the other side of the square to consider the absence from another angle.
You never thought much of him before. You said he was a hero of the colonists.
That’s true, Com, but I was used to him. He was always there. That part of the sky doesn’t look right now.
He wasn’t always there. For many years he stood at the railway station. They moved him here after the war.
And who was here before him?
Nobody. There was a pond with water spouts and shrubs
And now he’s gone again. She gave his hand a squeeze. It was his time. He caused our people so much pain.
Yes, I saw that on television, the young people especially. The sight of him was too much to bear. They were crying!
Why do you suppose it hurts them so much?
They’re not like us, Ma: they haven’t grown a thick skin. We’ve been rubbed raw, you and me. My poor back is nothing but scar tissue.
He’ll be better off in a museum. Our people have been burning statues, you know. One of these days they would have burnt him too.
This thing with the tires troubles me. Who would set fire to a statue? It reminds me of Heine.
Please, Ma Z thought. Not that again.
You’re right, Comrade A thought. Let’s not talk about it now.
The sun beat down on them. The trees straggling along the paths provided no shade. The square had been a gathering place once, but these days it was no more than a thoroughfare. Comrade A had seen photographs in an old book showing the pond, where a few people had paused to cool their eyes, and he’d looked at the dawdlers through a magnifying glass to see if they were rich or poor, but it was impossible to tell. Only their hats and trousers told him they were all men.
I know what you’re thinking, she said; you think I don’t know who Heine is, but I’ve read him, and also Holub, and Herbert—
You go for the ones with an “H.”
—Neruda—oh, don’t be silly! she said, punching his arm.
You were quite a poet yourself in your younger days, he said, to mollify her. I remember that one about the flowers. The petals of my anger open … What an erotic charge! They should put up a statue of you. I’ll write to the task team about it.
There are poets much more deserving of honor than this has-been, she said, deflecting the joke. Do you remember Gwala? We buried Humpty Dumpty …
Or that chubby Bra So-and-So. A ball of energy, leaping about with the microphone clutched in his fist like a Molotov cocktail. He would make a good statue.
He’s not so lively anymore. You can’t even get him to recite anything. He just sits behind a desk and reads from a book, like a novelist.
Well, we can’t put that on a pedestal, Ma. A statue should be up on its hind legs.
I agree, no sitting, unless it’s on a horse.
Ja … but the men on horseback are usually those conquerors of yours, the field marshals and governor generals.
Our people hit one with a hammer yesterday.
They should pull down the rider and keep the horse!
No sooner were these words out of his mouth than a statue of a riderless stallion appeared on the pedestal, reared up on its hind legs, mane and tail streaming, reins afloat on the air.
This is definitely one of yours, but I like it. The vision reminded her of the sweaty horseflesh in the winner’s enclosure at the races. Our people are very fond of animals.
And now!—what’s this?
The riderless horse had bolted and a podgy little animal had taken its place.
Looks like a pig, Com. Why are you proposing that?
It’s not a proposal so much as a possibility. In any case, it’s not one of mine.
Time to go! Her answer troubled him. A dozen people were standing stock-still on the paths or sprawled on the grass, their eyes fixed on the pedestal. What if the visions were his alone, but the power to apprehend them extended to everyone?
I wouldn’t choose a pig, she said. Not when our people can’t put food on the table. That pig will be pork by breakfast.
Rashers and cutlets. Now we really should go, before we miss the pension office.
At the top of the stairs they paused for one last look over the square.
The pig was gone. In its place stood a naked man with shackles on his wrists and ankles, head thrown back and mouth wide open. From his lips bulged an immense tumor. It pressed down on his chest and ballooned back over one shoulder. It was, Ma Z thought, as if he had coughed up his lungs. Or, Comrade A thought further, as if he had vomited a speech bubble full of reproach.
What’s this ugly thing, Com? Is it a sick person?
I think it’s a prisoner, a political prisoner, or a slave. Look at those chains.
But we don’t have any of those.
Suddenly the pair of them felt hungry. Together they turned away. Although they seemed to have been dawdling on the square for hours, the hands of the clock in Parliament tower had not moved. They crossed the street and passed the booth where they came every January to collect their special bus passes. Behind them, the statue of the prisoner crumbled away to nothing.
They strolled, as they always did on pension day, into the Templeton Arcade. Comrade A steered Ma Z through the doorway of Manolis’s bakery. There was a bitter taste in his mouth, which he hoped a chocolate éclair would dispel. He was thinking again about her poem. The petals of my anger open / to your iron resolve … She had written it when he came out of detention. It was dedicated to him, her subversive beloved, scourge of the old regime. She must have forgotten.
Long rows of sweets glistened under curved glass: chocolate brownies and Chelsea buns, cubes of coconut ice and petits fours like tiny parcels wrapped in national flags.
Small and expensive, he thought.
Don’t we deserve a little luxury from time to time, she thought, after all we’ve been through.
She chose a florentine and he a custard slice. Then they split the bill, as always, and went back into the arcade. He regretted his choice at once: he needed two hands to eat it. Not for the first time, he felt like snapping the walking stick in two and dropping the pieces in the nearest garbage can. It had been a retirement gift from his colleagues at Public Enterprises, a parting shot, as he thought of it, one last stab in the back. He clamped the stick in his armpit and balanced the pastry on his palm. She was managing the florentine well with one hand and the shopping basket with the other. Outside Fidelity House they paused so she could give him a nibble of the biscuit. As she held it to his lips, exuding the essence of almond and orange peel, the past and the present pressed their palms together in his chest and an unfamiliar tumult shook him. A woman like Ma Z … why not say it—Ma Z herself, the young woman she once was, had treated him with tenderness. The moment would never come again. This certainty pained him more than anything they had spoken about all day.
A pig of all things!
It wasn’t mine, Com, and even if it had been, it’s no worse than your dead miner.
He was on his knees, but there was life in him, I assure you. He was about to rise up!
He saw the figure he had conjured earlier, a man on all fours with his head dangling, but now he was in flames. Was he a miner at all? Or was he thinking of that migrant worker who was burnt to death because he was a foreigner? He searched his memory for the name. Flames must be difficult to cast in bronze, a flame is such a lively thing, so full of restless energy. The ones that flickered in his mind were convincing enough.
Meanwhile she had dozed off. The train had this effect on her: no sooner were they out of the station than she would be nodding. She loved everything about the train, the elegant lines of the carriages, the picture windows, even the pattern of red blocks on the royal-blue upholstery. It reminded her of her old life in Cologne and Vienna. Her exile.
The name would not come to him.
Conjure. He used the word without thinking. Was it possible that he could summon something into existence? Imagine something fully enough to make a stranger see it too? Magic was a perilous undertaking.