In the morning, the square was white. Voula’s hair was white. A pigeon on a bronze horse shifted, sent snow down a flank the colour of Voula’s hair as it had been yesterday. The girls at the factory were stumped. They searched her locker for the necessary products. They touched their heads and snapped at each other. Their hair remained the colour of the bronze horses defending the square. They distinguished themselves by minor differences in length and thickness. There were those with fringes and those without. They bought special tonics from daughters-in-law and dentists and women who spent their working days sat at bus stops staring at the pavements. Tonics were expensive and they hadn’t the heart to tell each other that it made no difference. The factory air flattened and thinned their hair. How did Voula manage it? Nothing stayed white in this square for long, except the square itself. She had arrived slightly later than the other girls, this morning. They had been seated at their machines when she entered, smiling widely, blaming the snow. She took her place in the corner, her back to the other girls, her white bob standing for the whole of her head. Their eyes watched it while their hands fed what would become the white sleeves of men’s shirts through the machines. When the girls returned from lunch, her machine was empty. Half a sleeve. They were as worried as they were triumphant. One of them peered into the office of the supervisor, who sat vacantly running a screwdriver through his flat, thin hair. ‘Voula has had an emergency,’ he answered, before she could ask. ‘I have given her the afternoon off.’ And then: ‘She had the necessary papers.’
She explained everything to her husband. He sat in their bedroom a few blocks from the factory, listening to the horses running through the radio. She had woken up earlier than usual. She had left the flat quietly and walked through the streets. The sun had not been quite ready. She passed the supermarket and the chemist and a shop selling bathrooms. Through the metal hexagons of the window shutters, a small round mirror above a white basin showed to her the change in her appearance and she took this as an omen of other changes to come. She had gone to bed with hair the colour of a weathered memorial and woken with hair the colour of a new bathroom suite.
She had become the subject of a transformation.
Voula’s husband remonstrated. ‘Remember that time we took the train out to the countryside to visit the village where you were born. You’d not been back since you were a child and wanted so desperately to see it again but the train didn’t go that far. We climbed the hill in the rain to see the ruined cottages and thought we saw two hares boxing and I said I wish I could marry you all over again.’
‘I was born in the city hospital,’ she said, ‘but I would kill to see a hare fighting in the wild.’ She took down the white shower curtain and the white bedroom blinds and kissed her husband on the cheek and left.
Crossing the square, Voula was stopped by an officer. The girls lined up at the factory window to watch, the flat line formed by their hair parallel to its frame. Voula waved. The officer was young, built from the same arms, cheeks and forehead as her husband. It was hard to identify what kind of officer he was. Each man wore the same silver buttons, the same high collar, the same private expression. Voula thought he could be a traffic officer: the buses were out of service today, because of civil action, or the snow, so he had nothing better to do than approach pedestrians and ask them where they were going. ‘I am staying with a friend tonight,’ she said, twitching the bundle clamped by her armpit. She pronounced the name of a suburb a few miles from the square and handed him the necessary papers. He rifled through them, keeping his eyes on her hair, hardly reading. Voula stood smiling. ‘We have not seen each other in a long, long time. We grew up together, in the country. She is going to cook me food and we are going to smoke and bitch about all the things we don’t like about our respective workplaces.’ The traffic officer brought his eyes down to the level of hers and gestured with his chin. He turned and walked from the square, making an exit between the horses. She waved again to the girls and followed.
They walked abreast. The snow creaked beneath them more thickly as they left the main roads behind. They passed a school, a church, a cramped allotment. ‘Popescu has destroyed his chances now. He’ll never recover.’ They were making conversation. He was talking about the race. He was not a traffic officer at all, he was a sports official. ‘People travel for miles to watch an old man fail. The queues are without precedent. A mile of spectators, forming a lap of the racecourse itself. They queue for so long, the snow begins to settle. On shoulders and flatcaps and children’s faces. They are scared to move in case anybody takes it as an attempt to push in front. Nobody moves a millimetre. They stand absolutely still. They let the snow settle on them.’
Voula was bored. She wanted to talk about something else; she wanted to talk about violent crime. She pointed to a building on the corner. ‘I went swimming with my friend last Wednesday. Another friend. We go after work when the factory closes. We love to swim. It reminds us of our childhoods, our parents taking us to the huge, open lakes in the valleys near our village – in the country. Wednesday is ladies’ night. Men are not allowed, except for the lifeguards. We swim thirty lengths and chat about work and all the people we haven’t seen in so long. The pool is usually empty because women work late or are afraid of water or despise the company of other women. The largest group there were off duty police officers. I recognised one of them. She had come to our door one Sunday and presented us with a parking fine. My husband apologised and paid up immediately, though neither of us can drive. I smiled politely across the water. After an hour, my friend and I, we were hungry, tired; we left for the showers. We took two adjoining cubicles, the better to share shampoo, conditioner – she had a special hair tonic she got from a relative who came to stay. A sister-in-law. The mood caught us and we started singing. Our repertoire consists only of patriotic folk songs. Simultaneously, telepathically, synchronously, we sang the one that goes, you know: I saw the women who live by the Sabar / how they were whitening pieces of cloth in it / lele, lele… Only my friend, who is of southern extraction, when she sang, it came out as: And I saw / how they was whitening pieces of cloth, and so on. We made it through three verses, sweetly harmonising, before my friend’s cubicle door was kicked down. She was kicked to the ground. I watched the shadows moving beneath the partition. Someone was kicking her, repeatedly, in the stomach, in the head. I heard someone spit and then the voice of the police officer, ‘Patriotism is a matter of grammar.’ The sports official turned to her and frowned. ‘What happened to your hair?’ he said.
Voula and the officer had reached the suburbs. Here, buildings were largely derelict or demolished. A squat tower block and an equally squat power station were the only objects of interest. Black smoke from the power station held to one side of the tower block: three squat, white sides, one blackened, squat. A young boy with a brush and a tub of paint stood at the base of the single blackened side, repairing damage done with bars of white paint applied at abstract points, distinguished by minor differences in length and thickness. ‘He’ll never get it done with that method,’ Voula pointed out. Drawing closer, the strips of new paint formed half a sentence: WE WOULD LIKE LESS THINGS TO HAPPEN LIKE. The boy stood and waited as the sports official bore down on him. Voula counted the number of times the officer’s fists and feet met with the boy’s body. She listened to the laboured sounds of pain and effort and watched the boy’s face collect small bruises of white paint. Her companion was neither a traffic officer nor a sports official; he was a police officer. Voula picked up the neglected tub of paint and disappeared into the tower block.
The horses raced again the next afternoon. The police officer followed, a small pocket radio beside his computer. The speakers were broken, making it difficult to hear exactly which animal was doing what. Jacob’s Ladder or Rob the Bruce had taken a clear lead. Dutch Courage had stumbled but recovered well, as had Maria Tănase, or both, or neither. Popescu had no hope of recovery. He watched the motionless circuit of the bronze horses about the square. It was not snowing in the country, where the race was taking place, which is why the race could take place, and the horses of the square could only stand and wait. A forlorn man entered the office. The officer had watched him cross the square, seen him slip twice and pause at the steps to the police station. It was Corneliu Bratescu, the singing teacher. He had been a big name in the music halls of the district and had once appeared on national television; now, he taught young girls, including the police officer’s daughter. The officer shut all the doors in his house and watched video tapes in the basement while his daughter practiced her vocal exercises. The singing teacher had come to report his wife. She had done something to her hair. She had been seen leaving the square yesterday afternoon with a strange man. She was cavorting with black marketeers. She was a menace at large. A bearded man poked his head round the office door. ‘Who’s ahead?’ The officer turned up the radio. The singing teacher was talking about hair tonics, about the women who collected beneath underpasses with ice cream tubs and bottles of water. Two Doves, then Greasepaint, then Happy Harry. Dutch Courage comes to the final ditch. Walking to work beneath the main roads each morning he stepped over soap suds and smelled chemicals collecting. The phone, again. Dmitri from the factory, sat a square away, blinds down, phone to the side of his face, complaining. A staff member had been causing trouble, she needed watching. She had shown up to work late, wearing God knows what. The girls stared. Dmitri stared. He had pointed to the disciplinary procedure, taped to the wall above her machine, above every machine. That was that, then. The girl took to her feet, took the basket of shirts from beside the machine, took herself from the factory, ten minutes ago. Dmitri was furious. She needed following, she needed punishing, because who knew what. She was a menace at large. Now the singing teacher was on his feet, sweating, at the window, staring down into the square. The phone rang again. It was Romica, the milliner. She wanted to report a theft. A woman walks into a hat shop. Can I help you? asks Romica. I’d like a hat for the races says the woman. But the race has already started says Romica. I’ll make it says the woman, have you got something like this but with darker stitching? Let me check says Romica but when she returns the woman has gone, as has the hat, one of her most expensive, a white bonnet, smuggled no doubt within the suspicious basket of no doubt stolen fabric the woman had been dragging across the floor. The police officer put down the phone, heard with both ears the sound of singing through the window, opened by Bratescu:
So I climbed from the valley to the top of the hill
to cast a glance on the Sabar
And I saw the women who live by the Sabar
how they was whitening pieces of cloth in it
You could see them legs
white as swans
The bearded officer’s head returned to let the first officer know that the factory supervisor was on the line. The officer turned up the radio as loud as it would go and shouted: ‘Does anybody know what the hell has happened to Popescu?’
The transformation of Voula Bratescu was almost complete. She sat in the middle of a room on a mattress swaddled in men’s long sleeve shirts, waiting. The landlord had described it as a box room. A box was exactly what Voula was after. On first stepping inside, she put down her bags and began taking the bed to pieces. The screws had rusted. She asked the man downstairs for a shovel. ‘What for?’ he asked. ‘Settling in,’ she said. He asked if she would like to sign his petition. So far, he had six signatures. She looked: four used the same surname. A few hours later, she knocked on his door again and asked if he wouldn’t mind helping her move a few pieces down into the courtyard. Grabbing the splintered headboard between them, they moved sideways down seven flights of stairs. They paused in corners and leant on windowsills to catch their breath and let elderly residents pass. He said that he was a painter. ‘What do you paint?’ she asked. ‘Houses, mostly.’
The courtyard was small, made smaller by the remains of the wide mahogany bed, already topped with snow. A window opened and a woman began shouting down at the mess. Voula stared at the window below. She had left the light switched on. The bulb was too yellow, the shade too dirty. ‘She wants it moved it to the pavement,’ the painter told her. ‘She’s threatening to call the police.’ She returned to the room, which now contained only a wide mattress and Voula. On closer inspection, the shade, which had looked white before the light had been switched on, was in fact a dulled cream, with ivory stitching around the rim. She pulled it from its fitting and threw it out the window.
It took nine tubs of paint to cover the walls of the room as thickly as Voula wanted. Close to the walls, she heard communal life continuing on all sides. It was like listening to cockroaches fighting in the insulation. She shared a bathroom between two floors, five families, seventeen citizens. Once she had finished the walls, she began painting the floorboards. She started at the edges of the room and moved inwards, following a spiral of right angles, closing in on the mattress. When she reached the centre, which was Voula, she stood still and waited for her work to dry; hours later, she pulled up the mattress, stretched her muscles, and finished the job. Her neighbour knocked every few hours with more paint; Voula paid in absentminded handfuls of currency. One evening, his eyes were black. He was clutching a leaflet. Voula curled her lip and closed the door.
The painter disciplined his son. He had come home with a white, splattered face and a cut lip. ‘Fewer THINGS,’ he told him, ‘but less ACTIVITY.’ His son was not concentrating. He was watching, through the window, the steady downpour of items from the flat above: a purse, a jumper, empty paint cans, a small, round bathroom mirror. When the box was empty, Voula drew the newly-installed blinds and taped them to the frame.
The mattress was as good as white, except for a thin black line that skirted two edges, making it impossible. The shower curtain was, thankfully, a perfect fit. Voula was careful to sit entirely still, so that the curtain did not crease and ruin everything. Silence was crucial. Quiet was colourless. Even the insects next-door put her life in jeopardy. Her legs remained folded, her spine remained straight, her hands remained clasped to her throat, holding the stitched sleeves of six men’s shirts tautly in place. If she held out a hand, it was possible that it would dissolve into the room itself. The room was white, Voula was white, entirely; the edges between Voula and plaster, between Voula and cotton, would disappear. Possibly. More likely, the slightest crunch of the curtain would once again reduce everything to its outlines. Or the sleeves would slip and reveal the patch of careless collarbone left unpainted.
Voula made do without a mirror. She relied on the eyes of a hypothetical visitor to observe and correct the consistency of her painted face, the symmetry of her bonnet. Each adjustment was a step backwards. She imagined a neighbour, a salesman, a police officer climbing the stairs and knocking at her door. Horses raced below, condemned to race again and again until further notice, a car radio left switched on in a stationary vehicle. Kicking down the door with effort, the police officer would find nothing to see here. She granted the visitor a sturdy imagination, to forgive the corners, the joins, the patches of damp. She resented the rattle of the taped blinds, the boiling of kettles above, the smell of the painter’s tea staining her walls from below; and yet she was confident. Not now, but nearly. Her attempts to reach solubility were stalled by the few mistakes that, in her haste to dissolve, she had left scattered about the room. She waited patiently for these to take care of themselves – the silver of the needle beside the mattress, the black of the key beneath the window, the red flush of excitement rising through her heavy make-up – after which the transformation of Voula Bratescu would be complete.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Scott Morris is the fiction editor at The Literateur. He was shortlisted for the White Review Short Story Prize 2013.