Iren Levi's novel Final Call has been shortlisted in the Contemporary Bulgarian Novel Contest of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester in January 2014
…It was an almost ordinary day. We gathered in the common room and discussed the spelling of the words cappuccino and espresso. According to a nice little old man in a checkered shirt and striped pants, I forgot his name, the spelling was "campuccino" because it originated from Campuccio, and "expresso" because it was brewed fast and they served it on express trains in the past. He was very convincing and it took them some time to change his mind. Then we passed a ball to each other and we had to be truthful. The five of us were very careful not to be.
We did nothing special throughout the whole day. I did not ask anything.
But that night Matthew went to bed with his socks on. That seemed like Plan A. I got worried. I was wondering whether to keep my socks on, too. Better have some extra socks on – I thought, but I was wrong. I did not get a wink of sleep because of them the whole night. From time to time I dozed off and had dreams of tying up the sheets and using them to escape through the window of the second floor to the yard, then the sheets turned into birds and we chased after them to return them to the nursing home, where they belonged. Good thing Matthew was noisy and woke me up early.
He got up, changed his socks and looked well rested. All five of us went to breakfast. John drank five cups of milk. Luke rarely came to breakfast. But today, as if in his honour, the girls rattled the plates, cups and spoons less. It felt suddenly wonderful to me that all five of us were there. We met in this nursing home, where we all came bearing the shame of having no one out there to love us at the end. We were loners who fit together in their loneliness. Essentially, we were idiots. Idiot is a good word. Means "unique," but does not sound so lofty.
Thomas appeared gloomy. Luke – gracefully melancholic, Matthew – dreamy, John – optimistically crazy, and I did not appear like anything. I was all that and none of it. I never got to discover myself my whole life, so how was I expected to do it now, in-between two pieces of meatloaf.
Then the Senior nurse came by, but did not pass us. She stood there carefully scrutinising us. Her nostrils widened suspiciously. She was sniffing. She looked like a predator. She had the ability to make my skin crawl. That thin, rather tall, gaunt woman with long nails and thin lips. I remember the day when she admitted me here – me and a few others. It was pouring with rain. She lined us up in front of the entrance of the nursing home and told us its whole history – names and facts, including the unverified ones. She held her umbrella with the curved part of its handle right in front of her lips like a microphone and we stood in the rain, which poured down our collars and ears. I realized that she had no intention of being our friend. She was the official witch of the home.
I saw her naked one night. Inadvertently, I went down the wrong hallway. I was sleepy and upset and I walked down the Forbidden Hallway. It was designated only for members of the staff. At its entrance there was a desk chained to a cabinet, and that cabinet was chained to a garbage bin, and there was a piece of paper pasted on the desk that read: "To be used only by the Senior nurse." Further down there was an armchair tied to another armchair, and both were tied to a small table. They were: "To be used only by the Senior nurse and her guests."
That's the hallway I mistakenly ended up in one night, while dragging my slippers, which whispered that I was just a little old man. Then she appeared like a phantom at the other end of the hallway. Stark naked. The bathrooms were at her end, the bedrooms – at mine. Apparently there was no doubt in her mind that she was alone, because she was humming a tune badly. This was her hallway. I was terrified and froze, unfortunately with my eyes wide open. She saw me, stopped humming, stopped walking, stopped breathing. That's the one time I felt the earth stop turning. And scientists keep wandering why there are time shifts...
She was thinking rapidly. I could simultaneously see and hear her thoughts. I had no contact with my own. After some time she moved towards me with resolve and with even greater resolve passed me by. I understood, I was just a piece of furniture which she could use some other time.
That was one of the scariest things that had ever happened to me. I survived a naked witch in the Forbidden Hallway. This memory encouraged me. No Plan A could be scarier than that.
The Senior nurse walked on. I sighed with relief. I could once again hear the rattling of the plates and spoons.
"What about the bed sheets?" I quietly asked John, who was sitting next to me.
"What bed sheets?" he wondered.
Apparently Plan A did not incorporate any sheets. I hoped I'd had a revelation. So if it wasn't bed sheets that turned into birds, then what?
"Remind me how Plan A begins." I smiled casually at John.
He just laughed. Took it as a joke, of course. Who could possibly forget how one of the most important escapes in his life began?! And who could fall asleep while it was being planned?! Well, me.
Just before our afternoon nap Matthew said:
"Let's go get a paper."
"Now? I don't feel like reading, I'm sleepy."
He stared at me.
"I didn't sleep well last night... the socks, the bed sheets..."
"Judas, let's go get a paper." He sounded serious.
I thought he wanted us to talk about the escape and that's why he wanted us to go out. That was wonderful! I was going to find out something at least. I hastily put on my shoes and proceeded to go.
"The jacket," Matthew said.
"Jacket!" said Matthew.
Maybe he wants me to hide some plan under the jacket – I thought.
"And the money, right? he asked me. "Judas, what's wrong with you?"
"What do you mean?"
"You're acting strange."
"It's all because of the birds," I said. "How much money should I take?"
Matthew headed towards the door:
"All of it."
Apparently the plan began with buying all the papers on the block – I thought and then I laughed at my own stupidity. I swiftly stuffed the money into my pockets and followed Matthew. Luke, Thomas and John were also heading somewhere. We met them at the gatekeeper's.
"To get a paper," said Luke.
The gatekeeper made a note of it.
"To get a paper," said Thomas.
The gatekeeper noted that.
"To get a paper," said John.
The gatekeeper made a note of that, too.
"To get a paper," said Matthew.
The gatekeeper noted that as well.
"To get a paper," I said and realized that I sounded the dumbest. Matthew and John sounded a little less dumb.
The gatekeeper gave me a look:
"Nope. Four just went out to get a paper. Why didn't you ask them to get you one?"
"I asked them, but they wouldn't. I have to go myself."
"No way. According to the regulations I can only let four at a time go to get a paper. When the first one comes back, you'll go."
"Fine," I agreed. The whole endeavor seemed like a pointless waste of money for papers and gatekeeper's ink, anyway. One of us could have easily gone out without sounding so dumb. But then I got worried that I'd miss out on information on Plan A again. "Can I go out for something else?" I inquired.
"Yes, no problem."
"What would be appropriate?" I asked him.
"Ah, that I don't know," he said. " I can't give clues."
The gatekeeper never left his little booth. I saw him through the small dirty window and his little face looked sort of endearing and insignificant. I thought that whenever he left, he took his booth with him, like a snail carrying his shell, but I had never seen him leave. He was not insignificant, though, and he knew it. In order for me to go out, he had to push a button and the door had to make a buzzing sound. Then I quickly got to work before he could change his mind. What other reasons did people give to go out – I wondered, I had only been outside to get papers.
"No one leaves just to get gum, you need a more justifiable reason," the gatekeeper explained.
"A case of whiskey?" I asked.
"It's not on the list," the gatekeeper said sternly, he was very strict.
"For smokes!" It struck me.
"Smokes, yes, I'll note that."
None of us smoked and for a moment there I almost forgot about this wonderful excuse to sneak out. From time to time Matthew chewed on an empty pipe and Luke sometimes found a cigar from someplace, which we all shared, but that was not something you remember in a pinch.
I went out, took a few steps and stopped, inhaled deeply, and was once again in the "front yard of my house." The birds sang, the grass was green, the glass waited for me on the porch, the swinging chair rocked gently, as if I had just left it, it was cloudy, just enough so the sun would not make you squint...
The yard disappeared, I could not even keep the glass, John was waddling towards me as he always did when he was in a hurry.
"What's going on? We're running late."
"Late for a paper?" I asked.
"Enough already, no need to pretend anymore. The train leaves at 3:15pm sharp, you know that."
The train? Plan A. We were out. Nothing could make us go back. Ingenious – we used the afternoon break to gain time. They wouldn't discover our absence until almost 4pm. No, it wasn't ingenious. Strangely enough, I had always envisioned a night escape. With bed sheets, ropes, drugging the gatekeeper and the Senior nurse, bribing the nurses, who would secretly give us the key to the gate, and we would give them a farewell pat on the butt, and all kinds of complications that we eventually overcame. And what did we do? We just lied to the gatekeeper. That kind guy. How could I fall asleep that night! They ruined the whole romantic adventure of the escape by choosing the safest way. I wondered how trivial Plan B must have been! I later found out that John wanted us to escape on horses and Matthew proposed we jump with parachutes from the roof, but due to the lack of horses and parachutes and the availability, instead, of a gatekeeper, things worked out the way Thomas had suggested.
I was walking beside John, who was skipping along and I suddenly remembered that I liked to run. I tried. I ran. I could do it. Maybe I waved my hands a little funny, but so what! It was like riding a bicycle. Then a boy on a bicycle rode by.
"Hey, kid! Please, let me see your bike."
The boy looked at me but did not stop, he actually went faster. He was holding an ice-cream in one hand and couldn't go that fast. I chased after him:
Luke, Thomas and Matthew watched me from the other corner of the street and Luke ran after me.
I was gaining on him. He looked back in alarm and I gave him a friendly wave. Then he dropped his ice-cream. It seemed like he slowed down, looked at it with regret and darted away, using both hands. I stopped by the ice-cream. Chocolate and mint. I was embarrassed.
"Judas!" John caught up with me.
"I wanted to see if it's true that you never forget how to ride a bike," I said quietly.
John put his arm around my shoulders and took me to Luke, Thomas and Matthew, who were looking at me in disbelief from the opposite corner. No one said a word and I loved them for it.
The train station was wonderful. Everyone was running and shouting. Suitcases flashed by as if alive. Some had wheels. Others – a hand that carried them. All were hiding secrets. When I was little I dreamed of working as a suit case checker at a train station. I wanted to find out what people carried around here and there. I would discover what was important to them, what it was that they refused to let go. I had only seen the contents of my own suitcase and those of my parents, it seemed to me that there was some kind of mistake in the choice of things that we believe we can't do without. Unfortunately, it turned out that I had talents in another area, the family gathered to discuss the facts and the checking of suitcases was left for another life. I became a priest. I was handsome. And an eloquent speaker. Forget suitcases and sense!
"I'll go crazy in this station" Thomas said. "Where is platform 6?"
We found platforms 5 and 7, but 6 was not between them…
IREN LEVI was born on 1 June, 1973, in Bulgaria. She studied at Sofia University, where she completed a master’s degree in journalism and mass communications, majoring in television studies. She is the scriptwriter of several documentaries. In 2007, her poetry collection The Naked Scarecrow was published by Zahariy Stoyanov Publishing House; and, in 2012, her novel Final Call was published by KITO. She works as a scriptwriter and TV host of the Little Stories TV show, broadcast by Bulgarian National Television.