The Mayor opened Saint Pantelimon Hospital in 1886. Saint Pantelimon of Nicomedia was a doctor, for the poor, sick and needy, who never took a penny from the poor. The same can’t be said for the doctors, nurses or cleaners of Hospital 1. It was renamed by the Communists. They weren’t big fans of saints.
“Go and brush your teeth, Nicu,” said Mama.
“You can’t go to see the doctor without having brushed your teeth. You know that. Go and brush them.”
Nicu didn’t say that the doctor was going to look at his eyes not his teeth. He went to the bathroom, squeezed a dollop of toothpaste onto his very own toothbrush and then finished in ten seconds. Still, ten seconds was enough to catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He was reminded of the mocking jibes in the park. Half an hour playing football and his eyes would go funny, one here, one there. A cross-eyed fool with nowhere to hide.
One of the boys, Daniel, would belt out, “What are you looking at, Nicu?”
His friend, Tibi, a tiny sparrow of a boy, would say, “Where’s he looking? Where? Where? Where?”
An older boy, David, who was only watching, would point and laugh. David wouldn’t have to say anything. The joke was self-explanatory.
This time Nicu wiped his mouth on the towel and looked straight in the mirror. Soon he’d be normal, like everyone else. He would no longer feel acute shame, his cheeks would stop burning with embarrassment. It didn’t matter how he got better, by operation or by God. All those prayers must be good for something. Mama would be there with him at the hospital where she worked. Mama would sort it out. Mama, so beautiful - the best.
He was too hot. Nicu was wearing a thick blue pullover, grey corduroy trousers and two pairs of socks. He was always too hot. Mama and Bunica were worried about him getting a cold and dying.
“It’s very cold in the hospital,” said Bunica, trying to make sure Nicu was as wrapped up as could be.
“You wouldn’t believe how cold it is,” said Mama. “I asked Dr Păunescu last week, do you think we can work like this? You know what he said? You work until you drop dead. And he laughed.”
Nicu went to the balcony where Bunicu was busy at the vice. With one hand he was trying to secure a piece of wood that he was then drilling holes into. Bunicu was working on a replacement leg for one of the old chairs. Nicu held the wood for Bunicu as he had done many times before.
“Are you ready for your operation, boy?”
“I can’t wait!” said Nicu.
The doorbell rang. It was Jeni, Mama’s friend and work colleague. Nicu could hear and recognise her voice through the walls. He let go of the piece of wood. Bunicu turned it over and Nicu held it in place as Bunicu sandpapered the ends.
“What are you doing, Nicu?” Mama strolled into the balcony. “We need to go now.” She kissed her father on the cheeks and took hold of Nicu’s hand.
Nicu went and put his arm around Bunicu who bent down to kiss him.
“You’ll be fine. Nothing to worry about.”
They rushed to the kitchen where Jeni kissed Nicu. The nurses loved him, always pinching or kissing or patting him. In the hall Mama, Jeni and Nicu slipped their shoes and coats on.
“Be a good boy. Be brave,” Bunica was almost in tears. She kissed her grandson and told him, “I’ll come to see you soon.”
Nicu knew Bunica would. He followed Mama to the lift.
“Let’s walk down instead. You never know with these stupid lifts,” said Mama.
Half the lights were out so they went downstairs, stepping carefully. Bogdan, Nicu’s good friend, lived on the third floor. Bogdan would like him even more after the operation. They went past Mr Olteanu’s door on the second floor and Mr Pancu’s door on the first floor. Mr Pancu was a funny, cheery type. He was always happy even when he carried the rubbish bags to the bins or when he beat his carpets outside. He loved smacking the carpets, punishing them for daring to hold dust.
Mama got in the back of the car with Nicu in case he got car sick. He was fine on trams or buses. But in cars, or trains, he would feel his breath sucked out of him, his body twitch and convulse and vomit.
Jeni turned the key and said, “Shit.”
Nicu looked across at Mama. “What’s happening? Shall I get Mr Pancu?”
Jeni said, “No, it’s fine. Shit!” She glared at her steering wheel, at the key, at the ignition, like you do at a naughty dog that’s simply too crazy to listen. “Just playing games with me aren’t you?” She turned it again. And again. It made a savage, scratching noise. But after violent complaints the engine awoke.
Jeni drove the car off the curb, to the end of the street and turned right onto Strada General Eremia Grigorescu. No one said a thing. From there they went past Bulevardul Carol. Nicu looked at the immaculately laid flower and grass and bushes until they turned right once more at the Centre on Calea Călăraşilor. Close to Hospital 1 they turned left and parked the car outside on the pavement.
They got out and Nicu held tightly onto his mother’s hand. He followed her and Jeni into the large backyard and then into the building he knew specialised in ophthalmology. The corridor was dark and Nicu could smell bleach. It got brighter near the staff room where they were met by Dr Păunescu who led them to his consultation room.
“Sit down, my boy,” he said and Nicu did so.
Dr Păunescu shone a bright light into Nicu’s eyes, checking, searching.
Nicu saw the snake.
Dr Păunescu said, “Follow my finger.”
Nicu did it. But he could still see the snake very slowly slithering in its glass cage. That’s why he loved Dr Păunescu. Because he was different.
“Don’t worry, he’s a good boy. Only got out once. Are you a good boy?”
“I think so.” Nicu didn’t know. He had to be good at home but playtime was something else.
“Do you like snakes?”
“I don’t think so.” Nicu could see lights and snakes and lighted snakes and Dr Păunescu’s finger.
“It’s looking good, Maria. Son, you’re going to make your parents proud. Are you looking forward to starting school?”
Dr Păunescu chuckled to himself. He then reached over and pulled a book from beneath a pile of folders. He handed it to Nicu.
“Do you know Russian?”
“I don’t.” Nicu leafed through the brightly illustrated book with strange characters and lettering. It was the most beautiful book he’d ever seen.
“Say thank you, Nicu,” said Mama.
“Thank you, Dr Păunescu.”
“I hope one day you will learn Russian. A great language.”
“I am starting to learn piano!”
Dr Păunescu got up and so did Nicu and Mama.
“Good boy. Maria, are you taking Nicu to piano classes?”
They were at the door and Nicu had another look at the snake.
“He’s preparing for his entry to the Nicolae Bălcescu School of Music.”
“Are you, really?” He ruffled Nicu’s hair. They were in the corridor and he was moving away from them, the pace of his feet quickening. “I’ll talk to you later, young man. You know where to go right, Maria?”
Mama led Nicu to the ward. In there they had a room specially reserved for them. It’s about who you know, that’s what Mama said many times.
Nicu sat on the bed watching as Mama went round the room checking for cleanliness. Then she turned and looked at him.
“So what’s going to happen is that in an hour or so you’ll get an injection which will put you to sleep and then you’ll come out of it a couple of hours later. You don’t need to worry.” But she looked worried. She took his pyjamas out from a bag.
In the dark, yellow circles illuminate the front.
Glowing, the circles glow and shine.
Beyond the dark, pain.
The doctor pulled the eyelids open and the assistant held them open. The eye was turned to the side.
The yellow circles vanish.
They reform and rush through, past, in, into the brain.
The doctor worked a suture on the tendon. Forceps worked intricate motions creating sutures.
Nothing but I can see!
When I wake up everything will be fine and Mama will smile and kiss me.
What is it moving in waves, forming?
Red skin, red lines.
A tiny elephant.
A baby elephant growing, bigger, biggest, taking over, it’s small again disappearing into white circles. Bigger, blue, red, purple, yellow, having fun growing, shrinking, rotating.
An elephant or a giraffe? A shape, a circle, a square, a triangle?
Partial thickness pass, full thickness pass.
An elephant, a giant, a worm, a centipede, a caterpillar, they’re all here breaking and coming together, playing, dancing, slowly creeping closer it’s making me sick!
Black black black.
The doctor knows exactly how much is enough.
Sleep, they say, sleep.
How long have I been like this?
Is this death?
“Wake up, Nicu. Don’t be afraid, you’re safe.”
It’s Bunicu! But I can’t see so I put my hands up to my eyes and feel the bandages that stop me from seeing. They’re thick, pressed up against my eyes so it’s difficult to blink.
“Try not to touch that.” Mama takes my hand in hers. “Everything is fine, there… who’s my little hero then?”
“Stop babying the boy, he’ll end up a damn mess,” says Bunicu.
I know he’s not really serious. He wants me to be treated like a man not a baby. I reach out with my other hand until I’m not quite lying down and touch Mama’s hair.
“Am I blind?” I try to touch my face or pick my nose or feel for where my eyes are supposed to be.
Mama laughs, the relief! “Don’t touch that I said. Of course you’re not blind, silly boy. You need to keep the bandages over your eyes until you’re well enough to take them off.”
Where is the doctor? Why is he not here now?
“What do I look like? What happened in the operation? Did they have problems? I saw elephants. Lots of elephants. Red elephants, blue elephants! Lots and lots of elephants.”
“Hear that, Jeni? Nicu saw elephants! Nicu, Jeni needs to do you a quick little injection.” Jeni must’ve been in the corner of the room somewhere, waiting, getting the injection ready. The needle! It’s a big needle that will hurt lots.
“I promise it won’t hurt, Nicu,” says Jeni.
“You always say it won’t hurt!”
“The boy’s seen through it, Jeni,” says Bunicu.
“He’s a sharp one,” answers Jeni and I feel her hand, colder than Mama’s, turning me over. I don’t struggle. She pulls down my pyjamas and taps my bum with a cold compress. Needle jabs! Here we go, one, two- needle smacks through my bum, it’s not a wasp sting it’s a sword! The liquid goes in and it spreads over like pee in a swimming pool. My bum feels numb. “Now, did that hurt? No, it didn’t.”
She kisses me like that’s supposed to help.
The door creaks. Open? Shut? Heavy feet on the floor.
“How is he?”
“Tata, when are they taking these bandages off?”
“Soon.” He moves away with Mama and I hear them whispering adult stuff, later stuff, work stuff.
The door creaks again and Bunica’s cracked hands grab my face. She runs her fingers through my hair and I feel her hands brush against my scalp.
“Are you hungry?” Bunica asks me. She always wants to know if I’m hungry but I’m never hungry.
“Give him some food later. He’s just had his injection,” says Mama from afar.
“I brought something else as well, Nicu,” says Bunica and she sits down on the bed. I can feel her very close to me. “I brought your favourite book by Creangă.”
“Can you read some to me, Bunica?”
“Which story would you like me to read?”
“The Tale of the Pig, please.”
“He has Fica read that at least once a day,” says Bunicu.
The story goes that there once lived an old woman and an old man; the old man was a hundred and the old woman was ninety, and both these old people were as white as the winter and as glum as foul weather, because they had no children. And Lord! much did they yearn for one, because throughout the whole mortal day and night they sat as lonesome as the cuckoo, as bored as bored could be.
Besides, there was not much else for them to do. A wretched, miserable hut, some tattered rags laid on chests, and that was the sum of their belongings. Latterly, moreover, boredom was positively eating into them, for not a living soul ever crossed their threshold; they might as well have been laid up with the plague, poor things!
One day the old woman heaved a heavy sigh and said to the old man:
“Lord, husband, we’ve been living in this world a long time, but no one has yet called us father and mother! It seems a shame that we should go on living in the world, for a childless household is not worth God’s help or mercy!”
“What of it, my dear? What can we do if such be God’s will?”
“You’re right, husband, I can see that, but I’ve something to say to you now. Do you know what I was thinking about last night?”
I love this next bit.
“I’ll know, wife, if you tell me.”
“Well, tomorrow morning, at daybreak, you’ll get up and set out whither your legs shall carry you; and whatever crosses your path first, be it man, or snake, or any other kind of creature, slip it into your bag and bring it home. We’ll bring it up as well as we can and that shall be our child.”
I laugh. It’s terrible, I know, the poor pig! I love stories. I love stories more than talking, nearly as much as I love holding a puppy close to my face and feeling its ears…
“Oh, the stupid bastard light has gone off!” says Bunicu.
“I’ll get some candles,” says Mama.
“I need to go,” says Tata. “These fuckers at work can’t wait. It’s like their house is on fire.”
“Make sure you get something to eat,” says Bunica. “There’s ham in the fridge.”
Tata kisses me and then the door creaks open and closes behind him. Tata has important work to do at Progresul. He works with big machines like excavators. That’s what engineers do there. Draw things. Measure things. Make things. I think.
“Idiot,” says Bunica.
Everyone else seems to agree in silence.
Somebody takes my left eyelid and tries to open it. They say, “Open up, come now, open…” but my eyelids don’t want to. Too much light. Flashes of faces. Liquid is dropped into my eyes. “There, that’s it,” and the nurse/doctor/villain places the bandage back over.
I try to blink. My eyelids flutter like a sick butterfly. Where am I?
“Calm. Stay calm, darling.” Mama’s soothing voice. Her tender hands make my head stop moving in panic from side to side.
“What time is it, Mama?”
I keep waking up and falling asleep. There’s nothing else to do.
“What day is it?”
“You said today we’d be home. Why are we not home?”
“I said tomorrow.”
“Be quiet. There are other patients here.”
“Your father said he would be here.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know. Probably busy with work. I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you know?”
“Only God knows everything, darling.”
“How old is God, Mama?”
“Very, very old.”
“Older than Auntie Stănescu? How old is Auntie Stănescu? Is she ninety-four? Is she still alive?”
“Yes, God is older than Auntie Stănescu.”
The creak of the door means that I now know that we’re in the same room as before. Maybe we’ve been here weeks. Maybe I’m blind. Tata bends to kiss me and he has nasty cigarette breath like he smoked before coming in.
“How’s it going there?” Is he asking me or Mama? Probably Mama, but his voice is tired.
“I don’t like it here. I can smell sick people!”
“It’s not too bad in here. Better than a fucking slap.”
“Don’t be rude, Remus,” says Mama.
I love rude. Fuck. Piss. Shit.
Tata is stronger than a bear but he looks more like a wolf. He lifts me with one arm and I cling onto his shoulder like a monkey in the jungle. I see nothing but I hear people complaining, shuffling, old people it sounds like in their pyjamas with their rough voices. Asking for attention.
Cleaner, colder air smacks me in the face. I hear the car door opening and Tata places me on the back seat. I touch the cold car seat with the back of my head and I jump. Shocked, I sink into Mama’s lap. It’s nice there like that, perfect. Mama brings her hand over my head and smooths the hair away from my forehead.
Somebody’s digging something at the side of the road outside, scraping, the earth being lifted and dropping onto the pavement. Machinery in the distance blows noise across.
“Do we have everything?” asks Jeni, half-shouting to be heard.
Bags are moved, picked up and placed. I stay where I am. “Yes, I think so,” responds Mama.
The engine scratches and coughs and off we go.
“How old is your Dacia?” asks Tata. He’s in front, I can smell his leather coat. I bet he looked at the car lots before we got in. I bet he’s looking at it now.
“Six, seven years, not too sure. Are you after one?”
“Maybe not at the moment-”
“We are,” says Tata.
“We’ve been searching for a few years, never really found anything,” says Mama. “You know how it is.”
“I know, I know. I think I heard Mr Dănciulescu’s looking to sell one. Not the best, though. I’ve seen it. Lucky it if moves you across town.”
“I’ll make it work,” says Tata.
“You’ll make it work… Jesus Christ…” says Mama.
“Shut your mouth. I’ll make the fucking thing like new again!”
“That’s all we need. A pile of junk sitting outside.”
“Pile of junk. How much was Dănciulescu asking for it?”
We are home. Tata reaches in and scoops me up and there I am on his back again. I hope no one sees me. We wait for the lift and when it comes we go in and my feet bang against the sides of the box.
“Careful,” says Mama. She presses the button. 4. The lift shakes. Can it really take all of us or will we fall down into hell? Hell is the area below ground floor.
Hurry up lift!
We slide out, my legs banging against the doors. Someone presses the doorbell.
“Oh my goodness!” says Bunica and grabs me. She must be smiling or laughing.
Somehow I end up on the sofa.
“I’ll get some soup for him,” says Mama.
Mama removes the bandages, around and around the bandages come off.
I want to see. No, I don’t want to see. I want to see Mama and Tata, Bunicu, Bunica. I want to see their faces. I want to see their eyes. I want to see them looking at me. My eyes start to water as I try to open them, hot droplets running down the sides of my nose, down my cheeks, over my lips.
“Easy does it,” says Mama and wipes away the tears with a handkerchief.
My eyes don’t want to open. Maybe they’re glued together. That’s what happens when you don’t see for so long. The eyes die. Look at mine. They don’t make friends with light now.
They open a little and headache! Everything is brighter than the brightest day in the sunshine of Constanța on the beach staring directly at the sun. The walls are shaking with light, falling through the light. The sofas, the cabinet, the table are all floating in bright, white light.
Close them. Feels better when they’re closed.
“Keep trying. Slowly. Open your eyes very slowly and let them adjust,” says Mama from somewhere to my right.
I try again, better this time. Darker, someone’s switched off all the lights. Or maybe the electricity has gone.
And I see everybody.