The City of the Last Eclipse – Twenty Years After
An oppressive atmosphere pervades the small hall of Cortocioaia palace. The last ones to arrive are anxiously looking for empty seats, if possible, among those still left vacant in the back. The first rows are intentionally avoided, because the Romanian, since time immemorial, has known well that you should never sit behind the horse and in front of the boss.
Sica Holban calls the roll reluctantly. He spent the whole night in a “conspiratorial” hut, with only a few family friends. With this pandemic, it’s worse than in wartime. He must beware of idiots more than of venomous snakes. These brazen journalists don’t take their eyes off you for a moment, lurking God knows where so they can record you and laugh in your face; or blackmail you, if possible. He left the villa through the back door, through which the housekeeper and the cook usually go out, dressed in a chef’s jacket and toque, with a mask on his face. He was unrecognizable when he got in a jalopy to take him to his destination. Now he has a choking cough, and his throat stings terribly from the cigarettes and the cold beers, because that’s how he likes them. He only drinks a beer if it numbs his Adam’s apple when he swallows. It has to be a German brand in a mug, so the foam remains on his mouth. That’s how he got used to it since he was little.
Roli Turcan helps him energetically with the roll call. She slept well, as she doesn’t waste her nights on drinking sprees. She doesn’t even have time to eat and gets her take-out dinner from the government’s canteen. It’s cheap and substantial. Why should she cook just for herself? From the moment she gets home until she has to go back to the government, she is online to find out what the PSD enemy is doing and undoing. She also is disgusted by these cunning journalists, who keep playing her that recording, when she brownnoses Nuti, the one from Basanescu’s time. But no one knows her hardships from back then, when she had to get by and get along with the ringleader. Now it’s something else. She stands on her own feet and wants to show Prime Minister Sica her availability, even if he is one head smaller than she is. She notices that her boss is terribly tired. He can barely keep his eyes open. The president should arrive in ten minutes. He can’t stand delays or anyone coming in after him. This just can’t be, lest he get upset and throw at you whatever he gets hold of, be it his overcoat, his coat, if need be, even his shoe. And he wears size 47. Not his tie though. What would a president do without his tie, could he still be president?!
Only five minutes left until Kall von Ionis is supposed to enter and three ministers are still missing. Nelut Porcanu from Health, Vella Ceau from Interior Affairs, and Florinel Scart from Public Finance, who is just entering the door with a floppy tuft of hair on the top of his head, like a dejected samurai about to perform harakiri. A hand appears, then Vella Ceau slips in militarily, adorned with a fancy suede jacket and, of course, a purple tie, with a small, tightly tied knot.
The presidential adviser announces the president will enter in a minute.
The National Anthem bursts the silence in the small hall through the loudspeakers in the wall, also bursting the hearing of the ministers, now scared of the unexpected situation. Filomita Hanisie from Education stuck both her index fingers deep in her ears. Violenta Casandra from Labor and Social Protection trembles and cries like a child whom Santa Claus forgot to bring presents to.
The door opens. In its doorstep appears Kall von Ionis himself, large as life and almost touching the header. The government stands up as the loudspeakers burst, making their brains explode, while the sharp, big eyes of the brave statesman scrutinize the livid faces of those who must be held accountable today. Finally, the music stops as abruptly as it had started and the whole audience sits down shyly. The President remains standing, solemn and silent. It takes a while and then another until he manages to say a protocolary hello. Seconds go by, then minutes, until the huge president starts talking.
“Mr Prime Minister, ladies and gentlemen Ministers, be responsible!?”
He stops abruptly, staring for a moment somewhere above the government, at a point known only he knows. Then he resumes slowly, with long pauses.
“Wear a face mask. Keep a protective distance of 1.5 meters from the others. Limit unnecessary travel. Observe hygiene measures.”
Now he pauses for a long time, looking at the government again, after which he decides to come to a close.
“Continue to be responsible.” After another long pause, he breathes a sigh of relief.
“You have the right to a single question, only if necessary,” he ends sparely.
The small hall of the palace gets silent as the grave. Only the sighs of Violenta Casandra from Labor and Social Protection can be heard now and then, under the desperate eyes of Prime Minister Sica Holban, whose fatigue from last night’s spree has completely disappeared. He clears his throat pedantically, shouting through his mask at the president.
“Mr President, our government and our party have fully understood everything we will have to do on Sunday to win the coming elections. Your guidelines will become the key to our success. May you live long, Mr President,” Sica concludes confidently, while the hall applauds in standing ovations.
Suddenly the door jerks open and the jovial figure of Mr Gelu appears in the doorway. He is the head of K.G.B.T., the main sponsor of the party, and the sole ruler of the City of the Last Eclipse. President Kall von Ionis salutes in the direction of the boss and in the endless applause of the ministerial assistance.
The City of the Last Eclipse – Fragment
Suddenly the door jerks open and Mr Gelu appears in the doorway. He is a man in his forties, of middle height, with a receding hairline and a face round like a ball. A respectable pot-belly pours out over the wide belt of his trousers. He stares at the guest with playful and inquisitive eyes.
“Oh, I beg your pardon, Maestro! I made you wait … Artists should never have to wait. But I had no choice, Hans is to blame. He is sending us a new shipment, a special one that I will have to receive personally. Please come into my office!” the owner invites him amiably.
“Do not worry on my account, Mr Gelu! I can wait as long as necessary. Art demands sacrifice! And I make sacrifices. Last year I had to wait almost six hours in the Voltcrin’s lobby and still didn’t give up. Mr Calu, the company’s manager, put me off on two occasions. But he still received me in the end. You don’t know how it is. It is the suffering that leads to masterpieces in our case!” Tase professes somewhat proudly.
As soon as the writer crosses the doorway into the office, everything changes. The oppressive heat disappears as if it had never been there and the air conditioning cools his whole being. Two glasses and a bottle of invitingly cold Coke lie on a long dark-colored table.
“You must be thirsty … Open the bottle!” the host urges him.
“You’re most obliging,” the guest smiles with craving eyes.
Having gulped down the dark liquid from the large crystal glass to the last drop, he glances back gratefully at his benefactor. It is different here, in the spacious room: He no longer has to bother about the heat outside. There is Coke to his heart’s content. This is the life!
“Well, sir, what brings you here on this scorcher?” the owner of the building pretends not to understand.
“As if you don’t know it! I finished my manuscript, but I can’t afford to publish it. Same old, same old …”
The phone starts ringing. Winking friendly at his guest, Gelu Dumitriu picks up the receiver.
“Hello! Yes, speaking! What kind of an accident? Did the driver make it? Yes, I hear. Neither dead nor wounded? This is good! Listen, Vasile, get hold of a crane. You can’t? The policemen are giving you trouble? Pass the police commander on to me!”
The owner pauses, glancing at Tase, who thirstily empties another glass. He encourages Tase with a faint smile.
“Hello, this is Gelu Dumitriu. With whom do I have the honor of speaking? What do you mean what Dumitriu? The owner of the K.G.B.T., Captain! Don’t you know me? What are you saying? Oh, you are not interested! Very well, sir!… I will solve this another way …” the businessman darkens, slamming down the receiver.
Grabbing his cell phone, he dials another number.
“Hello, this is Gelu! How are you, Colonel? You said you’d come by! I kept that leather jacket for you. Yes, yes, the one you liked. Come by whenever you want. We are going to receive a new shipment the day after tomorrow. Around noon. Yes, bring your Mrs along; perhaps she’ll notice something she likes. Listen, you have this captain who is giving me a lot of trouble. I have a lorry that turned over. No, there are no victims. Close to kilometer three. I am looking forward to you and the Mrs coming by. Yes, anytime you want! Cheers!” adds the owner, pleased with how the discussion had ended.
“Nobody stands a chance against you, Mr Gelu! It’s as clear as day!” the writer exclaims admiringly.
“An ass of a captain, sir, getting on his high horse! What did he think, I wonder? That he was the cat’s whiskers?! If he saw there were neither dead, nor wounded, he should have left them alone, so as not to hinder production. I take care of this city! I can’t be hampered by a mere captain.”
“You’re great, Mr Gelu!” the guest cannot hold back. “I also told the Mrs I have written a blockbuster! It will be all the rage among writers and definitely awarded at the end of the year! Mr Gelu will help me publish it; no other sponsor deserves to touch it! What is then more to add? I even forgot about the heat and ran to you, to K.G.B.”
“All right, Maestro, I am delighted! But you left out the T in my company’s initials. It’s K.G.B.T., get it?”
“I apologize, you are right. I constantly mix up initialisms. But I have an excuse: I have never known what it stands for. K.G.B. is easier to remember. You know, the Soviet secret police. You shudder only to …”
“I know, Maestro,” Dumitriu cuts in. “I chose it on purpose! To give the revenue service the creeps and make all stand in awe!”
“But you still haven’t told me what it stands for?” Tase doesn’t give up.
“Well, it’s a lot simpler than it sounds. I did like in these TV commercials, haven’t you seen them? I am hot, come now! I am burning, come quench me! So I thought to myself, I should also find something like this. Then I remembered what my grandmother used to say. Maică, cauţi, găseşti, bine trăieşti![i] I abbreviated it for effect. Now, the initials I chose are the City Emblem! Only the Voltcrin bears comparison with me. But the state pumped heaps of money in there, Maestro! I made the K.G.B.T. out of nothing. I knew what the Romanians needed and I gave it to them! Don’t you see that I dress all and sundry from head to toe? It’s no piece of cake!”
“You’re right,” sighs Tase, with fake tears in the corners of his eyes. “There’s no other like you, no matter how much you would search. I’ve always wondered why you don’t run for office. Not to mention that you are already like a mayor to us! Or perhaps the prefect’s office would suit you better?” the writer enthuses.
“Nonsense! What am I to do in the Parliament? Let the city bite the dust? Lay the city bare? If you care to know, I also dress the Parliament! It’s to me that the senators and deputies come! They come crumpled and dirty, and go dressed to the nines. May you live long, Mr Gelu, may God give you health! This is all the thanks I get. And then they go. They are busy, you know, they go to write laws.”
“Forgive me for being indiscreet, but what political party do you belong to, Mr Gelu, you have to belong to one,” the writer asks inquisitively, tossing off another glass of Coke.
“That’s another nonsense,” the owner answers leniently. “What do I have to do with their parties? They themselves don’t care! It’s just for show, so that the crowd elects them. You should see them when they come to get dressed up, it’s a treat! The guys from the P.S.D.R.[ii] hug and kiss with the agrarians[iii], as if they hadn’t seen each other in ages. And together they cry on the shoulders of the liberals[iv]. Only Vadim’s[v] guys manage to cheer them up a little. Then they go on a spree till the morning comes. I don’t allow them to argue in front of me!”
“I hope you won’t take this the wrong way,” Tase tries to contradict him, “but I saw on TV an affray in the Chamber between the members of PD[vi] and two agrarians. Live, Mr Gelu, it wasn’t faked! Even a guy from U.D.M.R. got a black eye. He had cursed in Hungarian, Vadim heard it all!”
“You’re taken in rather easily, old man! Haven’t I already told you it’s just window dressing? To dupe the elector and make him vote again in four years, make him think electing another will change things for the better. As soon as they come into power, it’s over! They no longer bother about the elector, they have other things to worry about: Where does the senator sleep, how long does the Prime Minister work, what does the deputy eat, how much should a minister earn and how many official cars he is entitled to, who receives bodyguards and who doesn’t … You get it, Maestro? Come now, it’s not that hard!”
“But how about the opposition?” the guest asks baffled.
“See, here’s the trick! The opposition also gets its fill, but a bit less. Its job is to keep the elector alert and not let him fall asleep. To trouble him the whole four years until they get their hooks into him, till after the elections, when another opposition restarts the elector’s freeze-thaw cycle. I know it directly from the source! They confess to me as to a priest, isn’t it I who get them all dressed up?”
“I’ll be damned, I wouldn’t have thought them so smart!” the author bursts. “Much smarter than us, who sacrifice ourselves on the shrine of art. I wouldn’t have believed it!”
The phone rings again, interrupting their conversation. The proprietor picks up the receiver with a bored look.
“Hello … Oh, Mrs Inspector General! How do you do? I don’t hear you well … How many, three? No? Four then? Now I got it. I see, Mrs Minister is coming as well. No, it is absolutely fine, no reason to worry, Mrs Inspector General! She can choose to her heart’s content! Yes, we also have lingerie. It’s French lingerie, all the rage! I am looking forward to your coming! One moment, Mrs Inspector General!… Have you gotten around that problem with the Physics teacher from Cotu-Vaii? It doesn’t matter where, as long as he is in the city! Wait, what about those kids and their proficiency exams[vii]? So they have been admitted to high school! You know, the Director of the Hospital asked me personally. He said: ‘Mr Gelu, he’s my own flesh and blood! He has a short memory, what am I to do? He’s a good boy otherwise!’ The son of a doctor, Mrs Inspector General, he should at least get to attend high school. His father will find him a job afterward… Good, see you tomorrow! My respects to you, Mrs Inspector General!”
Silence falls in the room, as the guest helps himself to another glass of Coke. The other man jots down something in his agenda.
“See, Maestro, here it’s like in the Bucharest North Railway Station[viii]!” the owner breaks the silence. “Everybody calls here and expects to have the matters settled fast. One year ago, I said to myself, let me do a good deed with those wretches in Adancata, let them have some clothing as well. The mayor has been calling me ever since, when would I do them the honor of paying them a visit. Against my better judgment, I finally yielded. You see, I didn’t want them to think I carry my head high. And I stayed too long, till late at night. I drank a little as well. But I respect the law, sir!… I don’t drive under the influence … So the mayor comes up to me and says: ‘Mr Gelu, please excuse our not having a guest room, but we managed to fix you up nonetheless. You can sleep at the landlord of the music teacher. It’s a large beautiful house! Tidy and well-kept! No reasons to worry …’ Only when we got there did the music teacher confess embarrassedly that there were only two sleeping rooms available, one for the host and the other for her. So I told her: ‘Fine, give me a blanket, I can sleep on the floor …’ You know, it was a very warm night. But she wouldn’t agree, she sobbed her heart out until I gave in and got into her bed, while she sat on a chair nearby. I had barely dozed off, when I felt something warm next to me. Drowsy from booze and lack of sleep, I yelled at her: ‘What are you doing there, behave yourself, this is not proper …’ She again started whining. The sight of her wailing was heartbreaking! She could not bear it in Adancata any longer, she had suffered enough humiliation from that horrid hideous Matilda. ‘Who is Matilda?’ I asked puzzled. ‘The drawing teacher and the parish priest’s daughter,’ she told me woefully. ‘She is stinking rich and changes her outfit every day, sometimes even twice daily. The priest bought her several outfits, to woo Misu, the Maths teacher. He is such a gentleman. And so handsome! I love him dearly, but Matilda has told him I only have two dresses, for both special occasions and everyday use. But Matilda is lying, I have five dresses and two black velvet skirts besides. Matilda talks all this nonsense and I’ve lost my head over him! I will pine away!’ ‘Fine, girl, I’ll send you as many dresses as you please, only please be quiet now and let me get some sleep.’ What do you think happened? All of a sudden she started hugging me. Then she was crying, then she was kissing me on both cheeks. And her body felt so hot that I swooned over and the Devil only knows what happened afterward! The next morning, I laced into her: ‘Don’t you have any shame, I am a married man, do you want to make a fool of me? I dress up a whole city, it is unbecoming …’ Am I ever! She started wailing again and I had to calm her down, so that the landlord wouldn’t hear. In the end, she calmed down. She swore she hadn’t touched me. And she said that oral thing was not sex … You see, Maestro, I wanted Adancata, I got Adancata!”
“You should not take this to heart, Mr Gelu,” the writer urges him hypocritically. “The girl was only being grateful. Besides, I think she was right, that oral thing is not really sex.”
In the spacious room, the two men fall silent again. The owner presses a button placed discretely on one side of his huge desk. The secretary enters the door. All smiles and dimples, she comes dangerously close to Gelu Dumitriu, nearly brushing him with her almost too firm breasts. Bending down, she whispers in his ear, her beautifully shaped lips touching his earlobe as if by chance.
[i] “Maică, cauţi, găseşti, bine trăieşti!” literally translates as “Dear, you search, you find, you live well!” Taking the initials of the last four Romanian words and replacing the “c” with a “k” results in K.G.B.T., the initials of Gelu Dumitriu’s company.
[ii] P.S.D.R. stands for Partidul Social Democrat Român, the Social Democratic Party in Romania at the time.
[iii] Agrarian, in Romanian ţărănist, a member of the Christian Democratic National Peasants’ Party (Partidul Național Țărănesc Creștin Democrat, PNŢ-CD, in Romanian).
[iv] Liberal, in Romanian liberal, a member of the National Liberal Party (Partidul Național Liberal, PNL, in Romanian).
[v] Vadim refers to Corneliu Vadim Tudor, the then leader of the Greater Romania Party (Partidul România Mare in Romanian).
[vi] PD stands for Partidul Democrat, the Democratic Party in Romania at the time.
[vii] Proficiency exam. In Romania, at the end of the eighth grade, pupils sit for a proficiency exam. Passing this examination is a prerequisite to being admitted to high-school.
[viii] Bucharest North Railway Station (Bucureşti Gara de Nord in Romanian) is the main railway station in Bucharest and the largest railway station in Romania.