by Alexandru Potcoavă [Romania]
translation by Philippa Lawrence and Alina-Olimpia Miron
pentru versiunea română click aici
A tea party! A tea party!
‘A cup of ‘tea’, anyone?’ asked Pista, the caretaker. ‘Your tea will be the death of us!’ laughed young, pregnant Mrs Kurzweil from Apartment 7 who was dressed in an exquisite black sequinned evening gown. Ilona, the caretaker’s wife who cleaned for the tenants, echoed her laughter.
‘And so it goes on, night after night!’ added Feuerstein, the old Jewish corn merchant who lived in Apartment 2, his faced shadowed by a huge hat. ‘If the British don’t kill us off first, we’ll all die of kidney stones!’ Amongst the ripples of laughter from the forty souls sheltering in the apartment block’s basement, Mrs. Morvay from Apartment 6 hiccupped:
‘Or we’ll be a bunch of drunkards by the end of the war!’
‘Anyway, who drinks afternoon tea at five in the morning?’ remarked Eduard Thomas, owner of the building – and a finely tailored dinner jacket – who lived in Apartment 4.
‘Must behave like gentlefolk, even during night air raids!’ said Ilona carrying a full kettle in her large hands.
‘Air raid, my ass!’ grimaced Coca Nistor from Apartment 1. ‘Every single night the siren goes off two or three times, and those Fire Wardens are always busy somewhere else! Still, we sure as hell lead an exciting night life!’
‘Mmmm-right,’ Eduard Thomas sipped his tea and refrained from dishing out an appropriate response to this tenant who had turned her apartment in to a brothel, but was sure she had fooled them all by presenting her girls as orphaned cousins, and their many visitors as honourable but extremely hesitant suitors.
For a few minutes stillness enveloped the basement, and the building’s occupants lapsed in to silence around the long, rough trestle table. The false cheerfulness had deserted the forty faces lit by the dim glimmer of rush lights.. They were bored with hearing the same pleasantries and jokes night after night as they tried to ignore the dozens of bomb carriers hovering thousands of feet above them. Their stomachs were sickened by the stench of death as they waited in the earth floored basement, their lives depending on the exact moment when a finger might press the trigger to open a bomb’s shutter. They would sit, dressed in formal best clothes, a cup of tea in front of them lest, as young Mrs Kurzweil, usually the first to arrive for the ‘party‘, had once said, death should find them alone in their pajamas’.
‘This time it’s the real thing!’ Adel Halle yelled, pushing her mother and daughter in to the shelter. Panic seized eveyone in the basement.
‘What’s going on?’ Thomas tried to speak in a reassuring voice.
‘They’ve started!’ Adel whispered her face white as a sheet. ‘The sky’s on fire!’
As usual the instant she heard the siren go off Adel Halle had sprung out of bed. Then she strove for a good few minutes to put her shoes on for her mother, old Adél Lanyi, while from the hall of their apartment her grown up daughter, Juliana, was yelling at them to hurry up. Hurry? After all they slept with their clothes on and their shoes lined up by their beds!
‘Better leave it, Mother, we‘re not going to a wedding!’ Adel said pulling her towards the door.
‘But it’s for the tea, dear,’ old Adél babbled. As they descended the stairs, the sky suddenly lit up as bright as day with a surreal orange glow. Those were the parachute flares thrown by British pilots to mark the targets on the ground. These torch bombs, resembling 20 inch pencils filled with phosphorus instead of lead, instantly aligned like a trail of fire behind the flying birds of prey.
The three women ran, stooping, out on to the terrace towards the front wing of the building where the slapdash former bomb shelter was. They had actually preferred this one as it was closer and probably safer than the one built in their neighbor, Auntie Tusi’s, garden. The men had dug a deep trench, fortified with a roof of wooden wardrobe doors and bed boards collected from every tenant, over which they had dumped three feet of earth. For this construction, Adel Halle had sacrificed the middle leaf of her dining table so it could never again seat twelve people, only six. Other tenants’ mattresses had ended up on the floor and their clothes remained in their doorless wardrobes to be eaten by moths as, only a month or so after being built, the shelter had caved in, terminally damaged by rain, phreatic water and rats, far more effectively than by the enemy now illuminating the night sky with chemical light.
The first bomb had slashed the air directly above the three women, landing on the balcony without so much as an explosion. Another bomb pierced the roof of the building facing the street, and landed on the second floor. A third bomb had blown up behind them in the courtyard of the chocolate factory, the flames also engulfing the packaging department. In the blazing light a few workers attempted to put out the fire with buckets of sand – water would have been useless, would, in fact, have intensified the phosphorus flame a thousand fold.
‘It’s happened at last!’ Adel Halle hurled herself on to the basement floor. Thomas and Pista rushed to help her up and Ilona sprinkled water from a saucepan on her face. The others pricked up their ears but in vain as they could not make out what was going on outside. Smoke had penetrated the basement, and their eyes were smarting but that was all. They were safe. Later the sirens sounded the all clear. Ilona filled up the tea cups again while Pista plucked up the courage to go outside, returning after a few minutes with a rueful smile on his face. ‘Mr. Thomas, the fire in the factory has been put out.’
‘Thank goodness,’ whispered Eduard.
‘Mrs. Morvay, a bomb fell on your balcony!’
‘Oh Lord!’ she mumbled, horror-stricken.
‘Luckily it fell in the rubbish bin and didn’t ignite. The bin was full so the bomb didn’t have enough oxygen to burn.’
‘Oh Jesus!’ Mrs. Morvay burst in to hysterical laughter.
‘So don’t you ever complain to Mr. Thomas that I haven’t emptied your dustbin, again!’ Pista grinned.
‘Never again, I promise you!’ Mrs. Movray dashed over to hug Pista who continued:
‘And you, Mrs. Kurzweil, will have to get a new wardrobe…’
’What! How dare you…’
’Will you believe me when I tell you there’s a 110 pound bomb in your wardrobe? It didn’t go off or you’d need new furniture everywhere.’ The entire basement shook with laughter but Pista continued impassively: ‘If you want to see a real show, follow me!’
The tenants in the shelter were all ears. They left their tea cups and followed the caretaker in to the glowing night air. Pista led them along the street until they reached the first turning. Their eyes widened with amazement at the spectacle of the Timisora Railway Station engulfed in flames hundreds of feet high.
‘Wow – what a sight!’ exclaimed Juliana, ‘now I can see Nero’s point of view!’