by Alexandru Potcoavă (Romania)
Translation from Romanian by Philippa Lawrence and Cristina Mihaela Sandu (MTTLC)
pentru versiunea română click aici
Exactly five minutes before the clock above the entrance of the Szana Bank struck nine o’clock, Rezső Halle opened its street door and hurried up the stairs. When he reached the landing, as on every morning, he encountered Marek, the caretaker and longest serving employee of the bank after the Managing Director, Mr Szana.
‘Good morning Mr Halle,’ bows slightly Marek freezing for a moment the watering can over a ficus plant.
‘Good morning to you, too,’ said Rezső, pausing to raise his hat before making for his office.
The caretaker carried on watering, a complacent smile on his face. Employees like Halle were here today and gone tomorrow. Not everyone fitted in to this bank’s hierarchy whereas Marek, Szana, and the old ficus were here to stay. The Managing Director was the Managing Director, Marek was doing his job as efficiently and conscientiously as ever, and the ficus was flourishing in its spacious pot.
That evening, when Mr Szana finally remembered he had a home to go to, Marek was able to clean his office at last. The caretaker swept and polished the wooden floor, quickly vacuumed the carpet and keeping an eye on the door, emptied the huge, overflowing ash tray onto a sheet of newspaper which he folded up and put in his pocket. Then Marek turned off the lights and left the building.
A week more of this familiar work routine passed until one night, as Marek rushed off to catch the last bus, he bumped into the Managing Director leaving the board room.
‘Good evening, Mr Szana, Sir!’ said the caretaker, bowing from the waist.
‘Hello,’ grumbled the Managing Director frowning as he passed Marek. ‘Hey! Come back!’ His employee froze on the stairs.
‘Yes, Mr Szana, Sir!’
‘You, Marek, do you smoke?’
‘N-no, Mr Szana, Sir! A cigarette has never touched my lips!’
‘Hmmph! You may not realise it but you reek of cigarettes! It’s up to you what dives you frequent when you’re off duty but you cannot come to work with your clothes smelling like that.’
‘Yes, Mr Szana, Sir!’
‘That’s it then. I don’t expect to have to tell you again!’
The Managing Director turned round and left his office. Marek followed him slowly, then stood on the stairs for a while sniffing his clothes until he remembered the last bus and hurried away, clutching the newspaper parcel of cigarette stubs tightly in his coat pocket.
A month later the ficus had been given its daily watering. Mr Szana’s wooden floor shone and the huge overflowing ashtray had been emptied with a regularity befitting the status of a Timisoara family bank which has become the Western representative of the world renowned Marmorosch-Blank.
That evening the caretaker and the Managing Director ran into each other for the second time as each finished his day’s work.
‘Marek! I see old habits die hard. I warned you about coming to work in clothes smelling of tobacco!’
‘I know, Mr Szana, Sir!’ the caretaker agreed.
‘Well then, as from tomorrow, your duties here will cease.’
‘O-of c-course, Mr Szana, Sir’ the caretaker bowed humbly and sidled stooping down the stairs.
Only as Marek emerged into the street did his boss’s words sink in. He brooded on them as he hurried to the bus stop, clasping as he did every night, the small package of cigarette stubs which felt warmer than ever, in his pocket. The caretaker reached home confused, walked past his door and climbed up to the attic drying room. Tying together two of the sheets left to dry by the laundress from downstairs, he struggled to throw the linen snake over a beam and make a noose at one end. Marek stuck his head through it, climbed on to a doll trunk and jumped to one side. While hanging and struggling in the air he realised that he had not left a farewell note and managed to pull the newspaper ball out of his pocket. The cigarette butts spread on the floor and soon were sprinkled by the urine which had started to run down his trouser legs.
Marek’s wife found him early next morning, alerted by the laundress’s screams. The two women managed to get him down, undress and prepare him for the funeral. Later the caretaker’s widow opened her late husband’s wardrobe and finally discovered why, although Marek swore he was a non-smoker, his clothes always reeked of tobacco. At the back of the wardrobe, under some rags, Mrs Marek found a jute sack full or cigar and cigarette butts. She was bewildered as to where they came from and why her husband had hoarded them. Just then the door bell rang and she opened it to the Szana Bank’s courier who handed her their letter of dismissal, Mrs Marek asked the boy to wait a moment returning with the sack, and asked if he would throw it in the dumpster at the corner of the road.