Agata and I were both eleven years old when she first introduced me to her machine. We were in all the same classes. She was sallow and thin, with enormous hands and feet. She wore her dark brown hair in a short bob, held back from her face with a plain, plastic barrette. Her eyebrows weren’t thick, but they were long, stretching to her temples. Her mouth was wide, but her lips were thin, with an expressiveness that reminded me of worms.
She wasn’t tormented by our schoolmates and teachers, as I was. The only student they treated worse than me was Large Barbara, who was so fat she walked with a cane, had one lazy eyeball, and a wart on her chin so long and thin it mocked the rest of her body. Agata wasn’t teased or tormented because she was a genius. She excelled in the sciences and maths, and could write beautiful, complex poems, though she only did so when it was a school assignment. She often yawned and shook one of her legs in class; she finished her work before everyone else. Some teachers let her read her own books, imported ones in foreign languages, full of complicated diagrams just as mysterious to the rest of us as the words.
Though she wasn’t bullied, she also didn’t have any friends. She seemed above such trivialities. No one invited her to parties – it was impossible to imagine her at them. She spent her lunch break reading. She didn’t play or gossip. She saw the other students as a nuisance, like flies or fleas. Some tried to pay her to do their homework, but she responded with, ‘You think I don’t have better things to do?’ in a tone of voice that was arrogant, and delighted in its own arrogance, her worm mouth wiggling.
Agata’s parents were poor because they had so many children, but they still bought her whatever she needed or desired so she could focus on her schoolwork: books, expensive pens, cigarettes. Agata was the eldest, and the most promising of her siblings. The rest were snivelly, slow readers who wore second-hand clothes that had seen too many threadbare childhoods. Because their clothes were so old, so outdated, their hair so sparse, their limbs so rickety, and their foreheads so large, they looked like little old men, even the girls. Agata didn’t care about clothes. I was sure her parents would buy her nice outfits, if she asked.
She wore cheap looking floral dresses, meant for an older housewife, and large men’s shoes–hand-me-downs from her father. When it was wet outside, she wore black rubber galoshes over her shoes, making her feet look even larger. In class she wore slippers of fuzzy grey wool.
I was vain and wore the same thin, white, feminine shoes all year round, even though the soles suffered under the pressure of my weight, and the material let water soak through, my toes and heels stained from the dye in my stockings.
In class, I discreetly took my shoes off under my desk to let my feet dry, blue and black imprints on the inner lining of my shoes. These stains horrified and embarrassed me, as if the dye had come out of my body instead of my stockings.
One morning it was so wet outside that dyed water dripped from my feet onto the classroom floor. Agata, who was sitting behind me, whispered, ‘Your foot is crying.’
She didn’t say it loud enough for anyone else to hear, but I blushed.
Swiftly, she moved her own foot under my desk, and within a second the small puddle was gone.
She did it again and again, whenever a puddle formed, until my stockings, dry enough near the end of the day, ceased to drip.
Leaving class at the end of the day, she put her large hand on my arm and whispered in my ear. ‘Come home with me, there’s something I want to show you.’
I was filled with dread, as if a few more hours of class had been added to my day. What was she going to show me? Maths textbooks, a home laboratory kit? I was too afraid to say no, in case she would tell the rest of our class about my ‘crying foot’, in case she would yell, loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Your foot cries!’
I was unsure whether I was embarrassed walking home with her or not.
I didn’t like the disgusting sound of her galoshes, the smell of her cigarettes, but she walked with such ease and confidence, with such disdain for everyone we passed by in our village. She wore fingerless gloves, a canvas knapsack so full it sagged down her legs, and a ragged blue military coat with flaking gold buttons.
Agata’s family lived on the main floor of a five-floor building. The landlord allowed Agata to use the attic as a study. In exchange, Agata’s father cleaned and maintained the foyer and the halls of the building, though he already had a full-time job as a clerk at a small glassware factory that specialised in vases.
Her mother, with all her other children, was too busy to clean the halls herself, said Agata. We briefly stopped in the family apartment before heading to her attic. There were children everywhere, and no sign of the life Agata lived; no books, only tacky lithographic prints of historic buildings, dark Madonna and Child icons dotting the walls like speckles on a crow’s egg. I wondered if Agata had to share a bedroom with her siblings.
Her mother was thin and going bald. Her pregnant stomach was ridiculous and reminded me of a hard-boiled egg, a food no one at school would eat without shame because of its terrible smell and uncanny, wobbly movements once the shell was removed. She wore a cheap metal necklace, childish rings, and a dress just like Agata’s. When introduced to her, I suppressed a giggle.
Agata didn’t greet any of her younger siblings, but grabbed two bread rolls off the table.
‘Bring us coffee in a bit,’ she said to her mother, and pulled me out and upwards to her attic.
She unlocked the door with a key kept in one of her coat pockets, and took off her galoshes and shoes. She put on a pair of crusty looking slippers from a ragged mat in the hall. I also took off my shoes, but the floor of her attic was dirty, covered with peeling linoleum, carpet and patches of wood, a repulsive mixture that reminded me of bandages that needed to be changed and the flaky, scabby skin underneath.
The walls of Agata’s attic were half-covered in maps and diagrams, a large poster of the periodic table, a map of the world. There were books everywhere, telescopes, glass vials and microscopes. A green metal desk with a ragged, greasy armchair in front of it. A glass vase full of brown water and cigarette butts. Socks, papers, teacups and mousetraps – one with a flattened and dried mouse under its metal bar. I had assumed she would be meticulous and clean.
In the middle of the attic was something large and awkward-looking, covered with a wool blanket. In one corner there was a headless garment dummy, its canvas torso covered in writing, too smudged to read. Agata took off her coat and hung it on the dummy. She lit a cigarette, and started to eat one of the rolls. She threw the other one to me. It was rock hard. I nibbled at it, but was used to finer things: my parents were grocers and I took pleasure in eating. For Agata, eating seemed like a distracting chore. She ate the bread roll with such indifference it could have been a raw potato or a marrow bone, she wouldn’t have noticed.
After she finished it, and her cigarette, she rubbed her large, bony hands together and tore the blanket off the object in the centre of the attic.
A gigantic black insect. It was a sewing machine, an old malicious one, black and gold, attached to its own desk with a treadle underneath, wrought metal like the grates over fire stoves and sewers. I was dumbfounded. Was she going to show me something both intricate and hideous that she had made? I knew from home economics class that she was a good sewer. If we finished a project before class was over, our teacher would make us mend her husband’s socks, shirts, trousers and underwear. Agata was the only one who didn’t mind doing it; she was so indifferent to whatever cloth she was feeding the machine, and it was against her nature to sew deliberately slowly like the rest of us. So she pumped out, with spiritless speed, flat doppelgängers of the teacher’s husband, the yellow pads of her tobacco-stained fingertips waltzing across the often unclean fabric which smelled like meat, soup, fruity liquors and that fried-onions-and-mushroom scent which oozes from the bodies of grown men, as if they were nothing but sacks of unwanted leftovers. Our home economics teacher was sour-looking and had a moustache. Some of us believed her husband was imaginary, that she’d bring the newly sewn pieces home, fill them with slops and potatoes so they’d gain life like proportions, and lie in bed with her creation, kissing it until the seams ripped, then bringing the pieces, ripped and stained with exaggeration, back to school with domestic pride, as if her husband was too large, too important, too filthy, too manly for her alone to manage.
At the sight of Agata’s sewing machine, my imagination whirred.
Agata would make me a pair of stockings I wouldn’t be able to take off. A pair that would swallow my legs and expand three-dimensionally with their own horrible breath, like balloons, that followed the direction of her will. She would cut me and sew me back up again like the baby toads she dissected with cold expertise in science class.
‘My mother’s old sewing machine, but that’s not all,’ she said.
I looked closer.
There was a large mason jar where the spool was supposed to go, perched on top of the sewing machine like a translucent egg being expelled from its body. Inside the jar was a cylindrical light bulb, the sepia colour of old photographs. Emerging from the top was a brown wire, attached like a thread to the levers and regulators before vanishing into a short wooden box where the needle was supposed to be. The wire reappeared from a small hole on the side of the box, ending in a black earpiece, culled from a telephone. The box had faded writing on the side. CIGARS, it said.
Agata pushed over her armchair and sat in front of the sewing machine. She started to pump the treadle. The large balance wheel started to turn, like a cinema reel. The jar started to move.
‘Turn off the lights,’ she said. I did, finding the switch near the door. The mason jar glowed. A wobbly bubble of light travelled across the room, then again, but this time there was some sort of shape inside it that was not fully formed, parts of it blacker than shadow, that morphed, flickering, into a Pierrot. He danced across the room. His face, white with black lips and eyebrows, was so beautiful I blushed. I blushed for him to see us, in Agata’s filthy attic, our breath and armpits smelly from a day at school. His outfit was billowing white, with large black buttons, his feet small and pointed. I leaned against Agata’s chair, watching the Pierrot circle us, again and again.
I knew what a Pierrot was. In my parents’ shop, there was a porcelain Pierrot bust. He had rosy cheeks and the word PIERROT was written across his chest. His shoulders were covered in holes to put lollipops in. The lollipops did not sell very well; children were afraid of the strange, foreign man with his black skullcap. My father had brought the Pierrot at an antique shop and thought it lent an air of elegance to his business. We had no idea what the original lollipops were like, and imagined horrible and exotic flavours – crab, liquorice, goat, octopus – rising from the Pierrot’s shoulders, the sugar spun into monstrous shapes.
Agata didn’t know the word ‘Pierrot’; I taught it to her, and she was visibly grateful. It suited the handsome, romantic figure in her attic much better than ‘clown’.
Agata handed me the earpiece. I didn’t hear anything. It was more like being listened to; as if there was a piece of shivering flesh behind the plastic. I didn’t see the Pierrot again, but this time appeared a man with white wings, wearing a striped sailor’s shirt, and wide sailor’s trousers. His hair was golden, greased back from his face, and his lips were red, very red, like he was wearing lipstick.
‘I have never seen him before. I have only seen the Pierrot. This is why I wanted someone else to try it.’ Agata put out her hand for the earpiece, pressed it to her ear, and the Pierrot appeared again. He performed a pirouette and blew us a kiss.
When she stopped treadling, I looked at the still jar. There were no images pasted onto it like on a lantern, or on the glass slides shown in class. I would have been disappointed if there had been: the winged man felt like something I had illustrated or brought into being.
Before Agata could start treadling again there was a knock on the door, a quiet, nervous tap. Without getting up from her chair, she gestured for me to open it and to turn on the light.
Her mother brought us cups of fake coffee made with chicory, and vanilla wafers that dissolved as soon as we put them in our mouths. Agata had a cigarette, then she told me to turn the light off again.
I didn’t get home till late. My parents were pleased to hear I had been studying with Agata, for her intelligence was known around our whole village. The next morning I hoped, more than anything, that Agata would ask me to come over again. She did. I wasn’t sure if she liked my company, or only wanted to see the ‘angel’ man again, but either way it didn’t matter. I went every day, after school. Agata even borrowed a chair from her family’s apartment for me to sit on. It was a toddler’s chair, with short squat legs, the seat bedecked with colourful illustrations of dogs and flowers. Agata never let me pump the treadle of her machine.
By the time I went home each night I was starving, and my dinner, left on the table with a cloth on top, was lukewarm.
I was used to having a snack as soon as I got home from school, and I got into the habit of stealing things from my family’s shop for Agata and me to eat. I brought hazelnut wafers, caramel chews, soft iced-ginger cookies, dry sausages, bottles of raspberry syrup we mixed with water, preserved plums covered in chocolate and, at Agata’s request, an expensive brand of cigarettes with a picture of Romeo and Juliet on the packet, imported from a country in the Caribbean.
My father noticed I was taking things, and though he was glad I was studying (it was easy to lie to him about that), he couldn’t afford such indulgences, and from then on only allowed me to take food from the overstock room. It was full of large jars of plum jam, dark brown in colour, and tinned sardines. Besides the cigarettes, it didn’t make much difference to Agata. We ate the plum jam straight from the jar using spoons. I hated sardines, but Agata ate them, peeling off the silver skin and spitting out the bones.
My parents and I lived above our shop. We didn’t share any walls with neighbours, and I was fascinated by Agata’s building. It reminded me of the cabinet with dozens of tiny drawers where my parents kept precious seeds and spices. I became obsessed by the fantasy that the angel and Pierrot lived somewhere in the building, that their images had travelled through pipes and oozed through the attic walls like leaking water. When I confessed it to Agata, she called me an idiot, but I couldn’t concentrate on the machine until she’d introduced me to every neighbour. Every door was a disappointing drawer, full of tiny sticky flecks and withered cinnamon sticks. A breath of hope before the next one, then again, nothing. Finally, every room in the building had been emptied of my dreams, except the attic. I also begged her to let me see inside the cigar box. It was nothing to me; a tangle of wires and cogs, no tiny Pierrot and angel trapped inside like beautiful white mice in a cage.
The moving images came from us, or were connected to us, Agata couldn’t say exactly. She had made the machine in order to project images from her mind’s eye, but the Pierrot wasn’t anything she had seen or imagined before. The angel was just as new to me.
I remembered once visiting my aunt in the city, when she took me to an arcade where a fortune teller lived in a theatrical box with glass sides. The fortune teller, who wore a colourful turban and many jewels, was made from wax, with a silent wax mouth. If you put a coin in a slot underneath the glass, she released a tiny card with your future written on it. Mine said I would get married and have one child. Agata’s machine must have said something about our futures, for where else could the images come from?
I created beautiful and ridiculous scenarios in my mind. I was married to the angel, Agata to the Pierrot. The angel and I owned a small, white dog. I spent hours imagining how he would bathe without getting his wings wet, how I would stroke them and keep all the feathers that fell off in a red lacquered box.
I even dreamed that Agata’s Pierrot was secretly in love with me, that he was in a sense enslaved by her. In fact, he felt somehow originally mine, because of the Pierrot bust in my parents’ shop. I knew the word, and had given it to her.
I knew Agata had fantasies too, but hers were perhaps filled with more knowledge of the world. Just as she knew how to smoke cigarettes without coughing and read foreign languages, so could she construct an imaginary marriage much more thorough than mine.
Sometimes she would suddenly say, ‘Leave now.’ The light continued moving after I left – I could see it under the door where I would stand until my legs hurt. I know she wanted to view the images in private. I never complained, I was too afraid of being banned from her machine forever. There was something in the way she said it – ‘Leave’ – that made her seem more grown up than me. Yet we were dependent on each other like a pair of twins, conjoined by a dream rather than a body, for the angel appeared more often when I held the machine to my ear, and the Pierrot when she did. The machine, our secret, bound us together: I could tell her parents or our classmates, while she could tell my parents I wasn’t studying.
We weren’t friends, exactly. I was bothered by the sound of her breathing and sniffing, she always had a runny nose, and she screamed at me for sucking my teeth, for noisily passing gas. Our bodies were nuisances to the enjoyment of the machine. I asked my father if I could borrow his record player, which folded up neatly into a suitcase. Music greatly enhanced the whole experience as it made it seem like our dear friends were not silent and unbreathing but, like us, merely drowned out by the music.
The colour of the attic’s walls, the greyish pink wallpaper with its pattern of green ferns curled like little goblin’s ears, gave the angel and Pierrot the appearance of having a skin disease. I didn’t notice this detail in my initial enchantment, but it became noticeable as I demanded more from the machine, like a stomach expanding from eating an ever-increasing amount of food.
I had the idea of painting the walls white, but Agata didn’t approve – it would mean days away from the machine, she didn’t want paint to get on her books, she didn’t want to pack up her things – so I constructed a white collage along her walls using a white linen tablecloth, a large white blouse of my mother’s, some sheets of typing paper, cloth bags for sugar and flour from the grocery store, endpapers ripped out of books, a piece of wooden board I painted white myself and carried over. Any white scrap I could find. Agata agreed: the angel and Pierrot looked purer, fuller, against white.
I had a dream that I removed all my teeth and glued them to the walls. I removed Agata’s teeth too, but they were stained and crooked, as in real life. As soon as I extracted them they started to grow until they were the size and length of elephant tusks. They smelled like soiled laundry and were covered in tiny black cavities.
Once, Large Barbara tried to follow us home, as if she could smell we were up to something important. We ran, Large Barbara’s cane rattling against the stones of the streets behind us. It was a horrible cane, with a doll’s head on the top, soiled and squished by Large Barbara’s sweaty hand. She screamed and screamed, irregular sounds, like the varied contents of a small, travelling menagerie, her cane a large beak or claw hitting the bars. She couldn’t catch up.
We didn’t mention the incident once we were upstairs, but the attic contained a thought too repellent to voice: what would Large Barbara, who was hopeless, an idiot, see with her ear against the machine? If she were to see, for example, a beautiful prince, wearing turquoise trousers and a yellow sash, it would mean the machine had no base in the future, or reality, and was nothing more than a reflection of our desires.
I don’t remember the date of the day Mr Magnolia first appeared. All days had melted into each other, into an amber-coloured syrup that slowly hardened under the whirring of Agata’s machine.
I do remember that Agata was holding the earpiece the first time Mr Magnolia appeared.
He was bald, except for a thin rim of hair like scum on a dirty bowl and a plain, unfanciful moustache shaped like the little plastic combs used for lice searches at school. He was old, like a father, and wore a suit, a drab, ill-fitting grey one.
As he moved across the room he sneered, stuck his tongue out and grabbed his crotch, his mouth open in a silent laugh.
We both gasped, but Agata didn’t stop treadling her machine.
The next round, the Pierrot reappeared, as if nothing had changed; then my angel, then Pierrot and the strange old man again, in an odd, nonsensical sequence.
Agata kept pumping, horrified and transfixed.
‘Mr Magnolia,’ she whispered, then added, ‘The name came to me as he appeared. They must come from the same place, they must belong to each other.’
‘I don’t know, I heard that word somewhere, yes, it’s his name.’
She looked the word up in her seven-volume dictionary. The different volumes were scattered around her attic and it took us a while to find L-M. We were surprised to learn that MAGNOLIA was a flower, a large pink or white one. The dictionary did not contain pictures or any more information, so we could only imagine how horrible the flower must be. We went to a flower shop.
‘Do you have any Magnolias?’ I stumbled over the word, unsure if we were being obscene.
‘Magnolia grows on trees, I can’t sell a bushel of them. I have beautiful purple asters, poppies, carnations, roses. Silly girls, magnolias grow on trees!’ said the shop owner, a broad woman with dyed hair and too much makeup, wearing a wet and stained apron over her dress.
Agata blushed at the word silly. It was the first time I had ever seen her blush.
‘Here, I’ll show you a picture.’ The shop owner went into the back of her shop, returning with a large, damp book.
‘It can either be white, or pink. Girls, it grows on trees in foreign places!’ she laughed. The flower looked like a dessert.
‘Stupid, worthless dictionary. It should’ve told us that,’ Agata mumbled as we left. We walked back to her house in a hurry, both wanting to see Mr Magnolia again, to compare him with the image of the flower we had just seen. But there was no resemblance between the beautiful, large flower and the ugly plainness of Mr Magnolia, who grimaced at us and tugged at his trouser legs.
‘Mr Magnolia, he must come from abroad. That is the connection. Perhaps he has an important message,’ said Agata when we were back in her attic.
We recorded and tried to decode all his poses, gestures and faces, but it was really a way to kill time between seeing the Pierrot or the angel who struck us dumb. Whatever music was playing when Mr Magnolia appeared was made ridiculous. We could never play that song again. As Mr Magnolia continued to appear, more and more songs were ruined. I borrowed more records from my father’s collection – symphonies, ballets, operas, folk songs – and was careless with the ones we no longer wanted, tossing them across the attic. They cracked and were forgotten.
Sometimes Agata would say, ‘I am so sick of Mr Magnolia, thank you very much,’ or ‘Fuck you and your Mr Magnolia,’ her lips curled, her head turned in my direction.
It was unfair of her to blame me for Mr Magnolia. He first appeared when the earpiece was held against her head. He slithered out of her mind like a maggot. Was he waiting to prance, like a devil, into both of our futures?
My parents noticed. I lost weight, I smelled like tobacco. I was behind on my schoolwork. My teachers had written my parents a letter, so they knew. Agata wasn’t. She didn’t hand in assignments anymore either, but I think the teachers believed she could do no wrong; they were firm in the belief that her work would be the best in class if she handed it in, so it wasn’t necessary for her to do so. She didn’t speak in class anymore, but sat sullenly, her arms crossed, one foot underneath her desk moving up and down as if pressing an invisible treadle.
Neither of us had appetites, our stomachs felt tight and curled like unblossomed flowers. We consumed only cigarettes, cups of black tea and spoonfuls of plum jam, brown and glistening like grease to smooth the cogs of a machine.
One evening, returning home bleary-eyed, my fingers sticky, my parents forbade me from returning to Agata’s. My mother said it was disgusting for a family to have so many children, and that she had heard they all slept in one big bed, boys and girls mixed. My mother picked me up from school the next day, and the next, and also dropped me off in the morning. The first night away from Agata’s machine, I couldn’t sleep.
‘What happened?’ I asked Agata as soon as we were seated in class.
‘Nothing. The same. Mr Magnolia appeared fifty times, Pierrot twenty times.’
‘And my angel?’
‘Not once. He only appears when you are in the room.’
The thought gave me relief and hope. Had the angel missed me? Did he not think it worth it to appear if I wasn’t there?
Still, I worried he would appear for Agata alone the next day. Every morning I asked her, and she gave the same reply. After four days, she answered, ‘Yes. He blew me a kiss.’
‘No. I’m joking,’ she snorted, when my face gave away my horror.
After a week, I stopped asking her, though she still told me. I acted indifferent, and it started to make me feel indifferent.
I felt calmer, more focused. I could read, do my homework. My appetite returned, my parents indulging whatever edible whims I had.
The time came, a few weeks later, when I felt assured that I could see Agata’s machine again without the intensity of feeling I had before.
I was even glad at the thought of seeing Mr Magnolia, but mostly I was curious to see how my reappearance would affect the expressions of the angel and Pierrot. Of course, my parents wouldn’t let me, so I had to sneak out after dark. I was sure Agata would be running her machine throughout the night, and I was right. The angel and Pierrot didn’t act any differently than before; I was disappointed, I had expected them to jump off the wall and embrace me. All I could do was continue holding the earpiece to my scalp, for Agata to continue pumping. There was a jar of plum jam left over from my last visit, viscid because the cap hadn’t been put back on properly. We ate it from the jar with our fingers, the earpiece increasingly sticky as we passed it between us.
‘Faster! Move it faster!’ I screamed, Mr Magnolia disappearing as quickly as he appeared, his image not fully formed, his head oddly squished and wobbly.
I barely focused on my angel when he appeared, so keen to see him a second time. ‘C’mon, again!’ I screamed as he was pulled back into the lantern. I kicked away my little chair, sat on Agata’s lap and put my foot over hers, adding pressure. My foot was much smaller, it didn’t make her go any faster, but she put her free arm around my waist and held me there, and the earpiece passed seamlessly between us. The angel and Pierrot became stronger, more flamboyant in their actions. The angel imitated the obscene crotch-grabbing of Mr Magnolia, and I was so thrilled that at first I did not hear my father shouting in the hall. I did not hear him until he had grabbed me, and was carrying me away, and only then I noticed that my legs and arms and nightdress were covered in jam, so dark it could have been blood. Perhaps my father imagined it was.
At home, my mother bathed me, calling me disgusting over and over again, while I moaned, a strange, deep sound I had never made before. I did not go to school the next day; I did not go to that school ever again. I suffered from horrible visions: Agata’s lips, Mr Magnolia’s crotch, jars of jam with bits and pieces of sewing machines hidden inside that I choked on, they tasted like metal and licorice. I kicked and screamed and threw up, and was kept in my room for months.
When I could get out of bed, I was sent to stay with my aunt in the city. My parents sold the shop and joined me a few months later. By then I was so integrated into my aunt’s exciting city life that our village, and my entire childhood, was a blur I was embarrassed to remember.
My aunt took me to restaurants, bookshops, department stores, markets and the cinema. She was a professor, and though she lived alone, she had many male friends. I became fond of one, Leopold. He was much older than me. He had a raspberry-coloured birthmark on his cheek and wore very tiny, round spectacles. I kept in touch with him throughout my schooling, and married him when I started university. Our son inherited his father’s gigantic nose, which depressed Leopold sometimes, as his nose was full of cruel, bitter memories like an old heart, but I liked it. They both made me think of crows with their feathers painted pink.
I found work as an archivist and often looked for Agata’s name in catalogues and newspapers, but I found no trace of her. I assumed she’d gone abroad, perhaps took on a different name to fit in better. It was hard to return to our country, and I felt bad for her parents, who had put so much effort into supporting her, most likely getting nothing in return.
I still suffered, a little. I couldn’t stand any sort of apparatus. Leopold once gave me a music box shaped like a theatre with a dancing paper Pierrot inside. It made me so nervous I had to run to the bathroom and vomit. I couldn’t even hang a mobile above our son’s crib because of the shadows it would project across his nursery walls.
I hated the microfilm readers at work, I avoided them as much as possible, and typewriters, which I used sparingly, always biting my tongue. I preferred to make handwritten labels and lists, and made sure my handwriting was neat and clear so my co-workers wouldn’t complain. My favourite things to work with were old manuscripts, so old I had to wear white gloves while handling them, manuscripts written on skin.
I couldn’t think about the way clothes were made, with those awful, black contraptions. I was drawn to expensive things described as ‘hand woven’, ‘hand knitted’; I loved the word ‘hand’, its warm and soft connotations. I always imagined a chubby, pink child’s hand like my son’s, completely opaque – no wiry veins showing underneath.
I hated anything that whirled, flickered, buzzed, clicked, clattered. Sometimes I had nightmares, beasts with scissor mouths, metal fan wings, a telephone receiver for eyes, metal pincers and cog wheels longing to touch me.
There aren’t any flattering photos of me. Cameras make me blink and shudder.
I still took great pleasure in food, with the exception of fish and jam. Fish did not seem natural, but mechanical somehow, perhaps because of their silver skins. I often had a dream in which Agata scooped out my flesh with a long spoon and stuffed it into fish skins made from silver satin and sewed the seams onto her machine. I was left as nothing but a pile of fake sardines, the satin damp from my flesh hidden inside, and a skeleton wearing my own hair as a wig.
For my birthday, Leopold always gave me cured ham legs, picked tongues and other gourmet meats, ones that resembled what they were, meat that hadn’t been minced, ground, pulverised.
When I was in my forties, I went back to our old village to visit a sick aunt who was too weak to travel to the city. I had the idea that I would also visit Agata’s mother, remembering the cruel way I used to laugh at her bald patches, her skinny limbs. I also suspected my parents had given her harsh words. I wanted to show her that she was forgiven, that really it wasn’t her fault. I would bring her flowers.
I looked for the old flower shop, it was gone, but there was a floral section in a large, new grocery store. I bought her a cheery orange bouquet.
The curtains in the first floor windows of their building were faded from the sun, and full of equally faded trinkets, like deteriorating daguerreotypes that took the interior life of the building with them as they crinkled and vanished, leaving nothing but a blank stone wall, an uninhabited ruin.
I was surprised to find anyone there. Agata’s mother answered their door.
She wore a turban made of ragged grey and black fabric, from which I surmised that she must be entirely bald underneath. She was even thinner than I remembered, and bent, like a rib bone. The apartment was free of children; they were all grown up by now. Instead there was an old man, huddled in a chair by the stove, giving off the same sopping smell as a toddler. I wondered how many of their children had left the town, how many had left our country, to which they could never return.
‘Come upstairs,’ her mother said in a whisper, placing the flowers on the table. Agata’s father flared his nostrils, seeking the origin of the floral smell, and I realised that he was blind.
‘From the glass. His eyes were ruined by the glass,’ Agata’s mother said, shuffling out. I followed her up the stairs. There was a distinctive mixture of aromas – cabbages, shoe polish, mice, tobacco, old kitchen pipes, walnuts, smoked ham – as if the stairwell was an accordion, and each step a key that released not a note, but a heavy spray of fragrance. It was the thought of being trapped in that wheezing, terrible contraption that made me hesitate, but Agata’s poor mother kept walking up, and so I followed. Strongest was a warm, waxy smell. It drowned out all the others in great, deep waves, and I had the sensation I was ascending towards a room full of thousands of burning tallow candles.
By the time I glimpsed the buttery light under the door, I knew what to expect, and my ears took in the flickering sound.
She sat in the same armchair. She was so fat that her eyes, which used to protrude, were sunk deep into the flesh of her face, as if they were drowning in the bluish purple bags below them. She was lumpy and frayed, like a cloth doll stuffed with too much wool. Unclean fleece, I thought, torn from an animal. Her brown hair was cut short, and was oily. I could see layers of dandruff flakes stuck to her hairline, glistening in the light of her lantern, like shards of broken glass among the wooden ruins of a building. In the centre was a bald spot; an unclean skylight, cracked like a boiled egg tapped with a spoon, but still solid.
‘The angel hasn’t come back since you left. He is waiting for you,’ she said, only half-looking at me and her mother, who whispered, ‘I’ll bring you girls some coffee in a few hours,’ and left.
My white collage on the wall had turned yellow. Scraps of fresh paper, mostly toilet roll, ribbons and a fridge door had been added. It resembled a frilled and bedraggled wedding dress, ill-preserved by its bride, worn over and over again, the sweat and sweetness of the wedding day covered in grey reproductions of itself, the stains of a day relived over and over. I imagined the attic as one of the arched hollows under the bride’s arm, the place where the body leaves its imprint on fabric most intensely, those pathetic, damp and silent mouths of the heart.
My old chair was very small, it hurt my back, the earpiece was greasy, but I felt behind it that strange piece of flesh, that mysterious ear listening to me. Once more my winged man appeared, wearing the same appealing wide-wool trousers, the same lipstick, and I thought, he’s feigning cheery indifference, he is yellowed and worn by my absence.