A Strange and Beautiful Beast

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 closer to the lights.  Prague, I was told, is a home to those who unwittingly are witness to their own degeneration.

I had been in the city 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 fish, 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 disuptes.  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 our rooms.  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 ciagrette 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 meets, I walked with her to the tram stop and always I 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 cadance 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?  A father?  A mother?  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 some 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 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 that could make it work. 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 nose that didn’t sit right on her face.  Her lips were perfect 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.  I have always been a tactless sort.

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.  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.  She would spend ages looking upon them as though locked 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 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 terrified 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 they would manhandle their suspects into the black and blues, often giving them a knuckle in the ribs or a hard slap over the head, body slamming them against the bonnets just like in the movies.  I have never seen a harder looking police force.  Many of them were ex-soldiers with facial scars and with grim and hard expressions.  They didn’t ask questions first.

As I sat on my balcony with a JD on my lap and a cigarette in my mouth, I watched a steady stream of Gypsy family members coming and going under the cover of midnight with TVs and stereos beneath their arms; all sorts of fenced items they had taxed from the city.  The goods were taken to flat twenty-seven on the fourth floor in the building opposite to mine.  I never did find out who lived there.

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 to 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 the flat on the fourth floor.  After twenty minutes he would emerge from the flat and make his way back to the car.   There was a steadiness about this man, the look of someone not prone to impulsive behaviour or whimsical thought.  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.  One time I noticed a Rolex on his wrist.  There was no doubt in my mind this man was a killer.  I would watch him leave through the iron gates, the BMW crawling back into the lights, and I always wondered where he was going next.

Smoking in Prague

I found myself one afternoon high on meth-amphetamine and talking to a very serious, slightly tearful, but suicidal meth addict at his spacious apartment in the centre of Prague.  His name was Bohuslav, named, he told me, after a famous Czech composer.  Bohuslav had a straight posture and a frightening gaze.  He was very handsome and with a tall and sinewy frame.  His face was golden and suffering.

‘My cock doesn’t shrink,’ he told me.  His English was perfect with only a hint of a Czech accent.  ‘This shit doesn’t affect me anymore.  I can sleep, too.’  He went forward over the table to snort another line and as he did he said, ‘Do you know, not long ago in Prague we used to work for bread.’

We took his terrier for a walk around the streets.  He loved that dog, it was his only friend.  We drifted through crowds of tourists in a surreal cotton-wrapped world.  It struck me how odd it was in this beautiful and historic city that two worlds could collide and never know it.  Prague is known as the Golden City of Spires.  It’s a fusion of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, of Renaissance and Baroque.  The buildings and streets are simply beautiful.  A fairytale.

As we walked along a cobbled road, narrowed by imposing architecture, Bohuslav became silent and brooding.  ‘Do you know the translation of Prague?’ he asked.

We came to a stop so the terrier could cock his leg in the corner.  I leant against a wall and lit a cigarette.  ‘I don’t believe I do.’

‘It means the “gateway between Heaven and Hell.”’

Despite having met me for the first time only hours before, Bohuslav had found in me a man who would listen.  I had bought him a whiskey at a strip joint near Wenceslas Square because, as I had told him at the time, there was “something interesting” about his face.  This one moment of engagement had in some way registered him to a world outside his own.  I was now something for him to blindly grab onto.

When we finished walking the dog we made our way back to the apartment to snort more meth.  Yellow lines on the table.  Bohuslav launched into a tired and sad monologue about his ex-girlfriend, his family, his life.  The magic faded.

‘My family are doctors,’ he went on.  ‘They want me to be a doctor.  My ex-girlfriend, I loved her, but she wouldn’t take responsibility for things, she wouldn’t clean or cook.’  As he talked I felt a great burden weigh down upon me.  I began to resent him.  ‘I live here but I cannot afford the rent and will be out on the street.  I can’t work.  And you know what?  I don’t care.  I don’t care anymore.’

He began to leaf through photographs he kept in a shoe box.  There were hundreds of them.  Photos of his friends and family, his ex-girlfriend.  It was another life.  His eyes were distant as he retrieved them from the box.  He described each scene with a morose detachment, spittle forming at the corners of his mouth.  The situation was beginning to unnerve me.  As he spoke it seemed his brain was no longer connected to the things he was saying.  ‘You know there are little devils on the ground that lead to my house,’ he said.

After some time I anxiously made my excuses.  At the door I stopped, reached into my bag and pulled free a copy of Baudrillard’s The Perfect Crime.  ‘Take this,’ I said.

Bohuslav held it, bemused.  Neither of us knew why I’d given it to him. With hindsight I guess I felt the need to impart something before leaving – a gift, a word, an idea.  I knew I would never see him again.

I walked out into the evening, relieved to be free.  I was so high that the red and orange lights of the city were hurting my eyes.  The world was a strange rock.  My head felt like a stadium, my brain floodlit.  I passed a nun in a grey habit and with a cross clutched to her chest in both hands.  There are countless convents in Prague.  I don’t know why but as we passed each other I tried to meet her gaze but she looked through me like I didn’t exist.

On a corner near Wenceslas Square a Czech man accosted me.  ‘I take you to titty bar!  Nice bar.  Good bar.  Nice pussy.’  He slapped the back of his hand into the open palm of the other.  ‘You bang bang, yes?’

‘I ain’t a tourist, mate,’ I said trying to walk him off.

‘What?  You don’t like pussy?’

‘I like pussy,’ I said.  ‘I just ain’t a tourist.’

It was nine-thirty in the evening and I’d been awake all weekend, high for thirty-six hours straight, no sleep, just wired, daylight threatening to end it at any moment.  My eyes were sore.  My jaw ached.  My teeth buzzed.  I felt dirty and dark inside.  I slipped through the Metro like a ghost and arrived ten minutes later at Anděl Station.  Luckily the place I was renting was only a minute from the exit.  As I came up from the underground and made my way towards Radlická Street I noticed on the pavement a print of a devil holding a fork.  On the ground a few feet ahead was another identical devil.  Then another.  And another, all of them heading towards the courtyard of my house and stoping just short of the iron gate.

Little devils on the ground.

I got into bed and slept a broken, difficult sleep with my teeth grinding like ice in a glass.  When at last I emerged from slumber a day or two later I flushed the last of my meth and coke down the toilet.

I don’t know where Bohuslav is today, or if he’s even alive.  But since then I’ve bought another copy of The Perfect Crime.