Wintertime

11-12 2006 Povídka English
obálka čísla

For two days it had snowed steadily but softly. But today the big snowflakes tickling in my face were twirled around by the icy cold wind of the Vltava. In a short time the little heaps of snow were growing on my cap, my shoulders, and my schoolbag, and the other pedestrians who were trudging head down were transformed into decorated figures out of a winter fairy tale. The streetcar made sounds as though it was wrapped up in cotton; its roof was also covered with a heavy white carpet; with much clingalinging it was passing the National Theater. The huge amount of snow shoveled to the sides of the street was already heaped up to form low ramparts, but by the end of the winter, as in most of the years before, they would grow into frozen walls. Then it would be possible to cross the street only through a few man made passages. The shore line along the Smetana Quay and around Strelecky Island was already frozen. If the low temperature would hold, the river´s surface would be fast ice and closed from shore to shore.

During the next few days, I watched eagerly those men who had the responsibility of checking the soundness of the ice. They were marching with their tools, already encouragingly far from the shore over the snow-covered surface. Some of them were erecting hight wooden posts, on top of which red white flags would give the signal for the opening next morning.

Now the wings of the heavy, iron door would be opened to make way for the use of her passage from Theater Lane under the quay to the shore. Already that first day an expectant crowd had gathered in the stone archway. Skaters of all ages - some of them fastening skates to their shoes with small cranks were clattering over the cobblestones. Boys of my age were making do with branches as substitutes for hockey sticks and, with a piece of ice for the puck, were noisely imitating the famous players they admired. Of course even the many people on foot didn´t want to miss the fun of walking across the Vltava.

When I had chased around enough on the ice close to our house were I could just run up to our flat in between, I skidded over to the island. There I crawled up the steep embankment to the ice skating rink which was located in the end of the island. Here the surface was mirror smooth and always cleared of snow, not to compare with the very rough surface of the ice on the Vltava. A wooden railing enabled one to hold on if he was not an accomplished skater, nearby changing cabins and sausage stands. But the best of all was the Skater´s Waltz music which floated over half of the island.

Of course this wonderful entertainment, as is often the case, was not without a hitch. In this case, it meant that one had to pay an entrance fee, which, regretfully, I very seldom possessed. With some patience, I could manage many times in the midst of tall visitors to smuggle myself in. I had a bad conscience - albeit very shortlived - when I tried this way of getting in, even with some money in my pocket. The reason for that? The old chestnut man of course, behind his heat distributing stove. My money was far better invested in a bag of sweet smelling, nearly black, roasted chestnuts.

If on some days I was especially lucky, I discovered Susie pulling herself on skates along the railing. Thank God that she was not more skilled on the ice than I! I already knew from previous attempts that I would never go very far in this field. Susie was my school friend, my same age, and to my own surprise I liked her - a girl! very much. We found it both funny and quite fresh, if we could - in the only possible school hour: the religion class - hold hands and whisper to each other on the last bench. The disapproving glances of our teacher made this little game especially delightful. Now Susie had seen me too. She quickly unscrewed her skates and then we sat close to each other on one of the benches next to the crowded skating rink. We nibbled and blew on the hot chestnuts and waved to Susie´s big sister. She was gliding in regular rythmic timing in perfect, elegant posture with her friend, past our seat and michievously twinkled at us. We laughed and copied in a funny way the faces of other people and enjoyed the fun of watching some of the beginners on the ice. With their wildly moving arms, they were trying to keep their balance, but nevertheless they landed with a thud and a suppressed cry on the seat of their pants. Charlie Chaplin could not have don it better. Added to this came the sound of Susie´s roguish giggling, which was even infecting those sitting near us. At the same time she was looking at me with impish eyes and wrinkling her little snub nose - in this moment, she was for me a high spirited forest fairy out of one of my books.

Much earlier than we liked, we had to part. Her sister was waiting for her already, impatiently waving, a few paces away. At the same time Susie played with tying her shoes, especially slowly, so she could whisper to me that we could see each other again only after the winter holidays. Her parents had asked the school for an exceptional leave to visit some relatives in another county. We called to each other a short, "Happy Christmas" and she disapeeared between other people at the exit.

After that, I was sitting lost in thoughts on the bench without taking notice of the growing crowd. With quiet pleasure, I thought back to Susie´s birthday party at her family ´s villa in Dejvice, where I first stood shyly around until her mother, with a few nice words, helped me to regain my assurance. Susie introduced me to the other children whom I didn´t know before and decided where I should sit at the very nicely laid out table. There was a great amount if different cakes and tortes, delicious looking chocolate with wripped cream. At the games we played afterwards, Susie and I raced around holding hands too many times. We were aware of that only when the other children started to giggle and Susie´s Mama Looked at us a couple of times in an admonishingly, questioning way. Much too early I had to say, together with the others, goodbye. Quite wound up and heated, I took the electric tram homeward.

Reality brought me back from those nice memories. - I started to feel terribly cold from sitting still on the bench. Jogging swiftly across the island, I ran up the many stairs to the Legion Bridge. At the same time, I thought about how nice it would be to see Susie´s pretty little face again after the holidays.

In the beginning at bit stiff, but after a few minutes running, I felt some new life in my cold feet and hands. After a fast run, with breaks to gather some breath, I reached the coal market and then the New Town Hall on the Charles Square.

The Christmas market was nearly installed and it was even more stimulating than the one on the Old Town Square. The long rows of stands encircling the big park seemed to me endless. The air was rich with smells: the scent of roasted almonds, pink sugar cotton candy, Turkish honey, gingerbread cookies, and chestnuts. In all that mingled the strange smell of the gas lamps, which were hanging down from the stands and slowly swaying to and fro. A small pumping device on those lamps let the incandescent mantle shine out in a gleaming white light for a short time, while the snowflakes gliding down glistened. Decorated glass bowls of different sizes hung next to colorful, painted wooden figures. On shelves stood Christmas creches, goldfoiled Angels and ornamental tops for Christmas trees. Here were shimmering glass vases and pitchers, silver and gold tinsel, and candles in all shapes and colors.

Much advertised new additions drew crowds around the display tables. Here i saw toys which were new to me. A short distance away, people were crowding around a salesman who never stopped talking while he demonstrated a wonder liquid which he sold in little bottles. With this elixir, it should be possible to transfer printed pictures to a piece of paper wetted with it. The letters were unfortunately the wrong way around and the original was somewhat faded. Nevertheless, his success at selling was impressing. It was clear to me that it had to be a tincture that was dissolving printing colors. Hopefully I thought I should not forget to ask my chemistry teacher for the possible mixture to achieve this result. Maybe it was possible for me to make this brew myself. For today, however, I had enough of looking around. My head was spinning from all the impressions, and a few days were still left to see more.

Sooner then expected, Christmas eve arrived. Painting with crayons, I tried as best I could to divert myself. Finally, the small bell could be heard from the next room in which the decorated Christmas tree with the presents laid out underneath awaited me. The fir tree with its flickering candles in the dusky room, mirroring the slowly turning balls, and the lively sparklers which were beautiful again every year. And the chocolate rings decorated with colored sugar beads were not to be ignored. But to my disappointment, they were always positioned very high on the branches, so I couldn´t start eating some straight away.

I had said my thanks in an obligatory way for the practical presents, such as a woolen cap and stockings, warm hand-knitted scarf and lined gloves. But I was really overjoyed to unwrap the big book for which I had wished for the whole long year. I moved into a corner and went through the pages with a flushed face. There wasn´t much time left this evening. It was already late and the photographing session I was awaiting with suspense had yet to take place.

After a few preparations, the family sat down on different seats - I on a high stool, so I was not too low. My Papa put the plate camera on a heavy tripod in front of us and disappeared for a short time under a black cloth. Then he fastened sideways a little bag with flash powder, snapped the light out, lit the fuse, and sped to a chair next to me. I was glad that this time he didn´t catch the tripod with his leg and made the camera move. I didn´t like to that at that happening last year. My thoughtless loud laughter had clouded the festive atmosphere. Grown-ups, including my Papa, found such accidents not funny at all. But this time everything went well. The minutes, my weariness left me after I´d crawled under the high, ice-cold featherbed. For already my feet felt in the hot brick covered in a towel my aunt had thoughtfully put in my bed. Slowly the warmth spread under the blankets. Crouched like a porcupine, I drew a mental picture of my plans for the next day. On the small slope behind the last houses of the village I would build a small ski jump, from here I could try meter-wide jumps with my small skis. I would check the hardness of the ice on the little village pond; take sled rides with my friends; compete in throwing snowballs, at chickens, door entrances, and attic- window shutters - which would elicit many shouts from the inhabitants of the village. Marvelous holidays lay before me; and with those thoughts I sank satisfied into a dream.

Walter Albert

(česká verze je otištěna v Českém kalendáři 2007)

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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