Anton Baláž

The Camp of Fallen Women

translated by Jonathan Gresty

Reprinted with permission of Forum of Slavic Cultures


Fear and Desolation in Vydrica

Even though she has been doing twelve-hour shifts sewing aprons for the happy new throngs stepping out into a brighter future, Manda still can’t look at the world as a model working citizen, try as she may. But nor can she look any longer at Vydrica with the eyes of a carefree prostitute. The fear of police raids, which for decades were a key part of the dangerous and exciting charm of the streets, has now been replaced by a much deeper fear, which has come to those gas-lit streets and alleys leading up the castle hill. It now comes every time there is a sharp noise on the stone paving, every time the door to the Partisan pub is opened. The laughter is immediately silenced. The gipsies’ music is subdued now, the sighs behind the crepe curtains less ardent; the shrieks of mating bodies muffled by pillows. Although she would never have believed it back in the camp, Manda has started to realize that her profession really is on the verge of historical liquidation.

She has been thinking she might spend her two nights in her little room at Duga’s place. And rather then taking unnecessary risks, she will take the ferry across to Petržalka in the evening and find some villager in the Au-café or Leberfinger restaurant who is there not so much for the view of the castle as for the things she can offer. The large park, neglected since the war, together with the overgrown banks of the Danube, used to provide the women from Vydrica with good conditions for quickies with undemanding villagers. After her fight with the vicious Berta, Manda has a painful bruise on her left breast and a swollen mouth. But prostitutes never let their customers kiss them on the mouth; that would be too intimate, so tonight she will immediately take her punter’s hand and place it under her skirt or will lean against a tree and let him take her from behind. That so excites some of those respectable fathers of families, they barely last more than a few thrusts. And as she imagines a man probing under her skirt from behind, she realizes just how sex-starved she is. So she’s quietly hopeful she may come across some lingering villager in the Au-café that evening… and if he is also the generous type… But Duga quickly puts a quick end to her plans.

— Get out of here at once, you whore! — he hisses at her when she enters the half-empty pub.

Manda wants to explain that she’s not on the run or anything – she has a valid discharge note and is now a model worker. But Duga does not even let her say a word before grabbing her elbow and pushing her out of the bar. Oh, how she could kick the coward from one end of the pub to the other if she wanted to, but she mustn’t create a scandal in Vydrica – not if she wants to see her child and meet with Tante.

— I’ve got my things upstairs, you swine, — she hisses back at him when they’re out in the corridor under the stairs.

— Go to the cops to ask for them then and don’t let me see you here again! — he then yells at her and thrusts her so firmly out into the street she nearly drops the suitcase lent to her by the supervisor with three new aprons inside.

When she finally gets her balance back on the jagged pavement, slippery from all the men’s and horses’ urine that has been spilled on it, she glowers wrathfully at the slammed door of the local. She feels as if she really has just been kicked in the belly by a horse; her whole body is shaking and her legs can hardly support her. But she must get a grip on herself, she has no time to indulge her feelings of anger and humiliation and must find a place to stay for the night. So she decides to try her luck at Mademoiselle’s place.

The Mademoiselle is actually an old spinster named Božgayová, but in Vydrica she has been called Mademoiselle since time immemorial and still works as a messenger and general gopher in a bank. She has lived through three regimes and at least twice that many directors. She is an eccentric but kind-hearted woman of uncertain nationality, a strong believer who is convinced that everything, both her job in the bank and prostitution in Vydrica, are wise gifts from God. But when she sees Manda standing at the door of her little bedsit with a suitcase she waves her little hand at her most unwelcomingly.

— You! I’m not pleased… — she begins exactly like Duga. Fortunately, though, she gives Manda time to explain. And when, together with her discharge note, the younger woman takes one of the new aprons from her suitcase to give to her, she soon softens. Manda lays it on thick, telling her how in the camp when they reminisce about Vydrica, they often remember her and how she looked after them all, checking they went to confession regularly and always reminding them to put a bit of their earnings to one side for their later years. The older woman is soon wiping tears from her eyes and decides to let Manda stay for two nights without any more questions.

Manda puts her suitcase and envelope down and takes off the hat that the Lath also got for her so that she would look like a proper town lady meeting her husband. Feeling grubby after her journey, she then washes her hands and face in Mademoiselle’s elegantly enamelled washbasin and sits down for a moment on a divan upholstered with cleanly waxed linen. As the older woman makes tea, Manda observes her, thinking how lucky she has been in life. She is such a sexless being, Manda supposes she has never really wanted to do anything else in life apart from shuffle banknotes. In her innocence she probably has no idea what it means when a woman has a body like hers that constantly craves attention. It would now be enough for Manda to press her thighs against the cold smooth frame of the bed and after weeks of going without in the camp, they would immediately open and not even her creator could blame her for it.

Mademoiselle serves tea in her new apron and is delighted with it because you need points to get goods in the shops now and bank personnel haven’t been awarded any yet. Manda listens to Madamoiselle’s complaints about the new regime and tries to understand them all; she is happy to be sitting there drinking tea with shoes for her child, some points for clothing and vouchers for sugar and sweets and courteously thanks the older woman for the tea. After finishing it, she then says that she would like to go into town.

— Take this, — and Mademoiselle thrusts something into her hand. Manda thinks it is a sheath wrapped up in paper and starts to protest. When she tightens her grip on it, however, she realizes that it is money.

— If you vant to trink some coffee, a little cash always helps, — smiles Mademoiselle genially.

Manda is touched, and then quite overwhelmed when out in the street she opens her palm to see that Mademoiselle (who is famous not just for being sexless but also for being pathologically mean) has given her a thousand-crown note. And so rather than going to Bláhova’s garden, with its permanent whiff of stale beer and musty trousers, Manda goes to the Berlinka, where she orders a Viennese coffee and carefully listens in on all the coffeehouse talk. It only takes a moment before she realizes why Mademoiselle has been so generous: everyone is talking sotto voce about the imminent currency change about to take place. And the fact that Gottwald, Zápotocký, Široký, Šmidke and Husák have all denied the change and denounced it as an imperialistic lie has only convinced people that it really will happen.

Suddenly Manda goes off her Viennese coffee; even though she craved it more than she did men back in the camp, it now tastes bitter and ersatz. She pays without finishing it, leaves the waiter a large tip and with a vague, unpleasant premonition, goes out into the street. And although she planned to do it the next day, she runs down to the main street. The milliners is closed so she goes through the gate next door and up to the first floor where Tante has a similar bedsit to Madamoiselle’s, only with a large Dutch stove in the parlour. Manda has always admired the stove not just for its beauty but also for how it keeps the place warm all night, so that in the morning you don’t have to shiver with cold when you get up. The flat has always been as alluring to Manda as Tante’s little boutique selling fashionable hats and gloves.

She rings the bell breathlessly and waits impatiently for the chain to rattle in the door, for Tante to peek at her through the crack, recognize her and let her in. But nobody opens the door and Manda goes back out into the street to look through the shop window and see if Tante is not sitting behind the half-closed curtain unpacking newly delivered goods. But there is no sign of her, so she stands helplessly in front of the window display, surprised by how dusty it is, as if the hats were the same as those on sale back in the spring. The view of the goods, however, is obstructed by a large photo of a man there in the middle of the window. Manda decides the ugly, big-eared and unhatted man can hardly be an advert and must therefore be a new political powermonger. But he doesn’t resemble any of those hanging in the workshop nor is anything like old Masaryk, whose nice photos they used to look at fondly in the window of Schönfeld’s stationery shop. She wouldn’t want such a man even on a night like tonight, so she turns away from the window and decides to go to the Fajka.

But she walks up Michalská street with her heart like that of a small-time entrepreneur growing ever more anxious. Neher’s fabric shop with the slogan ‘Our Customer – Our Boss’ has disappeared, as has the Tichý and Ježdík elegant furriers shop in front of which she would fantasize about a rich husband who would cover her body with ermine. They have even got rid of the horse advert that shone at night like a lamp. As she gets nearer to the Fajka, she sees that Pallehner’s has also closed down, with the big windows of his department store covered with wrapping paper and old wallpaper. The sign is still hanging on the shop front but it seems someone has already tried to remove it. Manda suddenly realizes what all those educational lectures in the camp have been about. They had to attend them in the evenings and listen to silly agitators droning on about having to abolish this and liquidate that, but she was only ever half-listening because after her twelve-hour shifts she could barely keep her eyes open. She didn’t realize that the agitators had it in for both the whole world and for her, a future small-time entrepreneur.

The Fajka is as full and smoky as ever but the mood is melancholy. Manda sits in the little booth behind the taproom and orders some bean soup and a beer. And though she sits there for a good half-hour, no pedlar or street hawker appears offering crisps, salted almonds, pork scratchings, cheese quargels or even a horoscope. And if the customer didn’t fancy anything, he would at least try to get him to bet a few crowns with him. And if somehow he managed to sell the gentleman a penknife, he would then whisper to his lady that she also needed some protection and would delicately slip into her hand a French letter of the highest quality. Now rather than such provocative talk, everyone is listening to the rumours about the money devaluation.

Manda does not even finish her second beer before paying the bill and going back to Michalská. Most of the window displays are plunged in darkness; only in the goldsmith’s is there a little lamp illuminating a few silver chains on a velvet cushion and a sign saying WE HAVE NO GOLD. Perhaps it’s just a trick, thinks Manda.

There were signs like that up after the Red Army arrived, both in Slovak and Russian, but it didn’t help: the Russians would never believe bourgeois goldsmiths. Manda already had a little gold back then deposited at Tante’s place. She was a regular customer of hers and doing well; officers on the front would come to her to prove their virility. They would drink schnapps, sing ‘Lili Marleen’ and ‘Tearful Erika’ till they were hoarse, then settle between her breasts and whimper about their mothers in bombarded German cities. And they paid generously. Then her belly started to grow and Tante took her in for three months before she gave birth. During that time she would sit by the stove and dare to dream that one day the flat might be hers; she would help Tante with her business, bring up her child like a respectable citizen and not have to hide her source of income from anyone. And because Tante was getting old and wanted to move back to Vienna, she offered to sell her the business. When Manda then started dealing in sugar on the black market in order to get the necessary money together, she was surprised to discover that not only was she well endowed physically but also had some business acumen – it was a very attractive combination for her partners. The raid and the camp disrupted her plans but Manda remained confident it would only be temporary – the new regime must settle in and then everything would go back to normal.

But her faith was shaken when she arrived in Vydrica this morning… again she goes under the gate next to the milliner’s and runs upstairs impatiently. She rings but nobody opens the door. Perhaps she has gone to see a friend or travelled to Vienna for a few days, Manda surmises. But she knows Tante does not leave her flat in the evening and you can’t just go to Vienna like that anymore.

She rings the bell again, then raps on the door. After a while she hears footsteps on the stairs; below the banister rail she sees a head in curlers. Manda recognizes Tante’s neighbour, a factory worker in a yarn factory, allocated the flat of a hotelier who had escaped the front after the war.

— Is that you? — smiles the woman relieved. Manda finds out everything from her. Tante has had her trade licence confiscated and was moved a few days ago to a village by the Hungarian border.

— But why? — asks Manda despondently. The neighbour shrugs her shoulders and says she’d rather not stand there talking because security comes around during the evenings checking that the flats have not been robbed. The woman disappears and Manda trudges back out into the street. She looks at the dark window display – it will never be hers now. There’s nothing else for her than to become a model citizen she thinks and bursts out laughing. She laughs so hard she has to lean against the wall – then bangs her head so hard against the glass it rattles as if ready to crack. This brings her back to her senses; fortunately the street is dark and deserted now.

She goes back to Vydrica sensing it will be for the last time. At the corner of Štukova and Floriánska a man waves to her. Manda hesitates, then moves slowly towards him. The man takes a few quick steps then turns suddenly and with hands in pockets, throws open his white raincoat. Under his flabby belly there is something sticking out, but in the dark of the alley Manda can see his scrawny white thighs much more clearly.

— And what of it? — she snarls, turning and going back to Floriánska, the wretch’s sniggering echoing behind her. Everything is so screwed up, she thinks to herself crudely.

Before she gets undressed at Mademoiselle’s she remembers the Lath’s husband.

She asks Mademoiselle for a handful of camomile, boils it up in a mug on the gas cooker and leaves it to brew. She gets undressed and drowsily washes the bruise on her breast with pieces of cotton wool dipped in the infusion. Then with a piece of gauze from her suitcase she makes a compress, places it on the bruise and falls asleep with her hands pressed to her breast.

She dreams about her child, big now. They are both part of the happy throngs. But you still need coupons if you want sugar.

© Mullek and Sherwood