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29th July 2009
I am in Prague! Surprised? I am. I’m here for the weekend, till Sunday, arriving this morning. Yesterday I had no idea I would be here today. And now I don’t know what to think, or do.
We flew in to Ruzyne Airport early this morning, came into the city on the bus. Tony commented on the communist prefabs lining the route, on the poor things living in them. Little does he know.
We drank coffee in the Old Town Square, listening to the horses clattering their ‘platform’ shoes against the cobbles while they waited for their carriages to be hired. All around me swirled French and German, Russian, Japanese and Czech. I heard them all and reminded myself that I don’t understand any of them. And we watched the tourists crowding round the astrological clock to hear it chime on the hour. I was delighted by the automata, as required. This is my birthday treat, Damek. I’m 50!
Our hotel’s fine. An adequate room, twin beds, and I am told the water will be hot later – some things don’t change. Tony skipped through the TV channels, just the basic, a few barely-lingered-upon Czech channels, but we have Eurosport, in German, that’s new. He turned it off and went out to ‘orientate’ himself in the Kafka Bar opposite, pleased to have come up with such a treat for my birthday, delighted to have kept it a secret from me.
I have a headache – the plane journey, the surprise. So I’ve stayed here to rest and to try not to think about you. It’s been a long time, Damek.
Outside Prague Castle
30th July 2009
A water tank has just passed, spraying the heated pavements. The dull odour of wet dust fills the air. The guard stands his place despite a Japanese girl’s attempt to get him to speak or move while her photograph is taken painfully slowly. We are waiting for the changing of the guard. Tony is excited. This first venture into the former Eastern Bloc, that scary place from his childhood, is all so fascinating for him.
I am to wait here, sitting on the wall, while he tries to find a bottle of water. We’re both thirsty, but I mustn’t miss the changing of the guard. Tony’s like that; he wants to see it, so I mustn’t miss it. Kind, thoughtful, yet always based on the premise that I will want what he wants, like this weekend.
But you won’t know about Tony, my husband. We married in 1990 and have two children, Ben, 20, and Ella, 18. Ben’s at university, studying European Modern Languages. I tell everyone I don’t know where he gets his aptitude for languages from. Some lies I wish I had never begun with because I would like to be able to discuss Brecht with him in German, and Maupassant in French, and Vaclav Havel’s plays in Czech, just like you and I did once. Still, sacrifices had to be made.
And music! I’d forgotten that this is a city of music. It is everywhere – every street corner, every church. There is a group of French lads here with dreadlocks, Ben’s sort of age. They were in the Old Town Square this morning as we passed through, each with an instrument – violin, saxophone, drum, trumpet – and they laughed as they played Vivaldi’s Summer. Such fun.
Ah, the clicking of soldiers’ boot heels skitters across the cobbles. The guards are about to change. And Tony is back with water.
30th July 2009
It is 2am. Tony sleeps gently, his arm flopped off the bed, his breathing noisy, on the edge of a snore. I woke with a start about ten minutes ago, realising that you might have made an incorrect assumption from my last letter; you were always one for examining detail, that’s why you were so good at your job.
I know we had that last meeting in Vienna in ‘89, but Ben is Tony’s child, I am certain. Does that make you happy? Sad? Do you care?
There, that’s said now, sorted.
Outside the city is amber bright. We went to see Alice’s Adventures at the Black Light Theatre this evening – see how readily I write that name in English, as easily I write these letters – and we watched the spectacle of flying and optical jokes in ultraviolet light. At one point Alice knelt, holding a candle and the flame moved off, and another, and another, a coronet of flames circling her head, until each tiny light rejoined the main candle. I wondered about that being a metaphor for you and me and the others back then, each moving off independently, each part of a whole. I believe you would have enjoyed the metaphor discussion, dear Damek, had we been able to have it.
And afterwards, we stood on Charles Bridge. The stalls had packed away their gaudy pictures of Prague, and photos of the city in the snow, and Bohemian glass beaded jewellery. The lights from the castle glinted on the Vitava. And I thought how this is my city, my homeland, and as Tony linked his arm through mine and kissed me on the cheek I did not know where I belonged.
Tomorrow (today!) we visit Josefov. We have to do the synagogues, Tony says, like we did the Charles Bridge and the arty shops of Kampa today. And he is right, the fascist-inflicted pain is what I must remember now.
It is night. I must sleep.
31st July 2009
Oh God, the horror! Those innocent pictures drawn by the children killed in the camps; mother and father, sisters and brothers, all with saucer smiles, lined up in front of a house with yellow sun rays spearing the air above them. The sort of picture every child draws. Pictures Ben and Ella drew. And yet, as these children chewed their tongues in concentration and pushed their hair back behind their ears, they had no idea their names would end up carved into stone pillars in the room next door among the rows and rows of the gassed, or that their parents would not stand next to them forever, hand in hand, smiling.
The fight was right, Demek. That can never be allowed to happen again.
And yet … and yet … We then visited the memorial to those who died under communism. A row of statues of men stretching back, the one at the front whole, then each subsequent statue missing a tiny bit of his body until the one at the back is not recognisable as a man at all; a representation of the complete dehumanisation of an individual.
What is the difference between the two?
I cannot let myself think, so here I am, lying in the shade of a tree in the Rose Garden on Petrin Hill, watching a triangle of sun creep across my foot. Tony has gone to fetch ice creams; he says he didn’t imagine it being this hot here.
He woke last night just as I finished writing to you. I’m keeping a diary, that’s what I told him. He thinks that’s charming. He thinks that as I want to log each minute his gift is perfect. He’s a good man, but you can tell that from what I write.
In Wenceslas Square, after the synagogues, we attached ourselves to an American tour group and listened to the story of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, of Vaclav Havel’s balcony speech. Tony marvelled and repeated sections in awe, not knowing that he is recounting back to me my personal history.
You came looking for me after 1989, I know. Everything was uncertain. Lines of communication suddenly closed. So what then of our role to ‘contribute towards the downfall of capitalism’ when my country had embraced that enemy? Where did I fit?
I was trained to be invisible; you’d done your job well. I could walk on sand and leave no footprints, pass along a street and be unremarked-upon. A social chameleon is what you’d made of me, my slight inconsistencies of accent dismissed as the result of time spent in South Africa! And, Damek, I was pregnant with another man’s child – that’s how deep my entrenchment in British society had become. I convinced myself there was no coming back to you, I had to. And I was good by then, better than you could ever have known. I acquired a new passport, destroyed my papers and my one-time decoding pads. I disappeared for the second time in my life so that I could have stability, certainty.
And now I lie with the scent of roses infusing the air around me, and with a man who loves me enough to bring me to Prague as a birthday surprise fetching me an ice cream, and all I can think of is my mother crying goodbye in our ‘communist prefab’ flat as I left ‘just for a little while,’ knowing you were asking me for a lifetime commitment to the StB, that I must become so ingrained in the British system that no one would ever challenge me, ever.
Will you receive these letters, Damek? Will I send them?
1st August 2009
This is my moment to decide. I have faith that I will be able to leave the Czech Republic just as easily as I entered four days ago; no system to track down long-lost agents picked me up then. I am nothing more to this country. But to you, Damek? Do you remember me, Lida, the student who had a gift for languages, the woman whom you trained for three years, the lover you broke the rules with? I am no longer her. And now, after this weekend, I am no longer Lydia Pryce either.
Prague draws me to her. I am at home here even with my mother gone. Oh, the StB and its successor weren’t that smart; my mother knew all about Tony and the children. And I knew when she passed away. I shan’t tell you how it was done; you trained me too well to give away my secrets.
Last night, in our twin-bedded hotel room, I spoke to Tony about our future together. He was surprised, staggered, appalled. He never had any idea that I might not love him as much as he loves me. Maybe I can’t love anyone or anything, I told him. He doesn’t know where all this has come from and I can’t begin to tell him; there is so much deceit that even beginning to explain will convince him he must abandon this woman he never knew at all.
I am not a die-hard communist, Damek. I was a patriot of my time. Ideals die, Damek. Secrets imprison intimacy, smother life. And you are the only person I can say all this to, a fellow ghost in this half-world we’ve both ended up in.
Tony won’t look me in the eye. I have hurt him.
Is it time to come home, Damek? Or is it time to go home? What would you, my teacher, my adviser, my lover, tell me to do? Damek?
All I know is that I will forever be
Ruth Brandt is a creative writing tutor with Surrey ACL. She has been published in Yours and Candis magazines and in an anthology published by Leaf Books. Her work has also appeared in competition anthologies and online. She has a BSc in Maths and Physics and hasn’t stopped writing since she half-heartedly enrolled in a creative writing evening class eleven years ago. She is currently working on a novel and co-writing a play.