For a time I felt as if nothing had come before me, that I had simply risen from the Vltava river, drenched in water, and had crossed the muddy banks to be close to the city.
I had been in Prague for two months and was renting a room in a shared building that was once a post office. The toilets, labelled by gender, still had hand-dryers on the walls, and the kitchen, which was burnt and filthy and smelled of oil, was in the strip of corridor that linked our rooms. There was six of us in total, a Brazilian, two Turks, an Irishman, a Macedonian, and myself. We lived harmoniously with few disputes. We gambled over cards until the early hours of the morning. We listened to techno and had film nights. We bought a pet snake and let it loose from its tank so it could explore the building and eat the mice. Sometimes it would sit on the table amongst the playing cards and glasses of gin.
At night I haunted strip joints and brothels. I drank beer and vodka and watched as the world around me vanished. Mostly I kept to myself, strolling the baroque streets with a cigarette hanging from my mouth.
I met Bethany at a bar on a street I no longer remember the name of. It was somewhere in the old town. Bethany was a podgy American who had the look of a chique-geek at a time when the style was in. She was attractive and wore thick rimmed glasses and had short dyed hair. We met once a week for coffee and she taught me how to knit. Sometimes she would let the strap of her dress slip down her arm to reveal the skin of her shoulder. Every time she did this she would meet my gaze but I always feigned ignorance. Whenever we finished our little get-togethers I walked with her to the tram stop and I always sensed she was waiting for me to go home with her. As a red blooded male I wanted to almost as much as I didn’t. The spark was not there and the cadence of her voice had begun to irritate me. This was confounded by the ridiculous things she often said.
‘I would make such a terrible mother,’ she told me.
‘Why would you think that?’
‘Because! It’s true!’ Everything was such a drama. ‘Haven’t you ever imagined yourself several steps ahead? Like in two or three years? Being a father? It’s like some kind of – oh my god.’ We were in a cafe that was situated at the back of a bookshop. A waitress came past with a tray of crockery. Bethany leant across and said, ‘She is such a porn star. Have you eaten? I haven’t really eaten.’
I declined the offer of food. The thought of eating made me feel sick. Bethany had no such problem. ‘Do you think I should have cake?’ She was looking for approval but she didn’t need it. She was a woman who had taken her baby fat with her into adult life.
I wanted to like Bethany but her clumsy facade made it near impossible. Occasionally I would find nuggets of thought and opinions that corresponded with my own worldview, but it was never enough to turn the tide. After awhile I did the unthinkable and began to phase her out, taking too long to return her calls or respond to a text. Eventually I ignored her.
The guilt was short-lived because by then I was sleeping with my Macedonian flatmate. Mateja was a wholesome girl from a rural village in east Macedonia. She was naive and inexperienced, much like myself. Recently she had had a bad experience with a man who had turned out to be married. Mateja worked in a call-centre. She had a talent for talking to strangers and she saw herself one day running the German wing of the department. She spoke German and English to a high level and she was evidently intelligent.
But as with Bethany there lacked the attraction. Despite this getting into bed together had been so easy that neither of us were able to stop it from happening. Mateja had cute breasts, large thighs, and a smile that didn’t sit right on her face. Her lips were thin and she had beautiful eyes and beautiful hands. The first time we fooled around I went down on her but she pushed me away at the point of climax. It was a sin in her family, she told me. The next time we got together she awkwardly returned the favour until I came. Embarrassed and uncertain she said, ‘You tasted nice.’ I was disgusted with myself. I knew she was putting me somewhere in her heart but already I had an eye on leaving the country.
Mateja insisted on spending whole days with me walking along the river and across the many bridges and into the old town of Prague with its romance and style, a connotation of which Mateja affixed to us. My days of brooding silently in bars were over. It seemed she was only happy when we held hands. Our walks were long and unforgiving. She was especially content when observing the architecture of the countless churches and monasteries and she would spend ages looking upon them as though in silent commune.
One afternoon as we made our way back to the courtyard we stopped at a pedestrian crossing and as we stood waiting for the lights to change a man behind us pinched her arse. It upset her greatly. The man was somewhere north of his fifties with a frayed and wild grin. Without thinking I punched him in the face. At the time I barely weighed nine stone due to the copius amounts of amphetamine I was taking but my punch landed well. He tried to right himself but his body told him otherwise, a flickering between states, and down he went. Nearby two tough-looking men drinking beer outside a bar laughed and pointed.
‘You scared me,’ said Mateja later.
‘I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay.’ She had mixed feelings. ‘You didn’t need to do that.’
I took my gaze to the window. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I did.’
The altercation had happened only a few meters from where I was staying and I was half-expecting the police to turn up and arrest me. I was scared of the Czech police.
That night a growing anxiety led me to a bottle of Jack Daniels. Sometimes the police would turn up in our courtyard to arrest one of the Romany Gypsies. The apartment buildings that overlooked the courtyard were housed by several generations of Gypsy families. At night they drank wine and played loud music from their cars but they always turned the music off at ten o’clock on the dot. Whenever the police came the Gypsies would be manhandled into cars, often getting a knuckle in the ribs or a hard slap over the head, slammed against cars. I had never seen a tougher-looking police force than the Czech police. Many of them were ex-military with facial scars and with grim expressions. They didn’t ask questions.
The thought of the police turning up to arrest me turned my piss yellow. As I sat on the balcony with a JD on my lap and a cigarette in my mouth, I watched the gate, terrified that it might swing open to flashing blue lights. Instead all night a steady stream of Gypsy family members came and went under the cover of midnight with TVs and stereos under their arms; items they had taxed from the city. The goods they brought in were taken to flat twenty-seven on the fourth floor in the building directly opposite to mine.
I did not know who lived in that flat but once a week the iron gates creaked open and a black BMW would crawl in, slow and purposeful, its tyres cracking on the cobbles. The car would come a stop and a beast of a man who was both beautiful and frightening would step out, observe his surroundings, and then make his way to flat twenty-seven. A half hour later he we would emerge from the flat and make his way back down to the car.
There was a steadiness about this man, the look of someone not prone to neurotic behaviour. He dressed like a person in finance. His head was shaven to the quick and he wore polished shoes that caught the light and a double-breasted suit that hugged his huge figure. One time I noticed a Rolex on his wrist. There was no doubt in my mind this man was a killer. I watched him leave through the iron gates, the BMW crawling back into the city, back towards the Vltava river.
I lit another cigarette and came to the conclusion that the police would not be coming for me. In the morning I would end my relationship with Mateja. As long as I lived in this city I would not be able to make commitments to anyone.
Prague is home to those who unwittingly are witness to their own degeneration.