The Red Car
What an adventurous domain it was for me - the attic in our house! The steps led from the last landing up into a mysterious half-dark which brought me into a state in which I felt joy and apprehension at the same time. Fine rays of light, falling through the lattice door drew strange patterns onto the steps. The beams of the roof and the heap of weather beaten old boards in the corner exuded the smell of sun-drenched wood. A small attic window stood half open and the wind made the few pieces of drying laundry hanging on a line sway like ghosts. Crouching, I crept under a sheet and approached the window, while the damp cloth stroked my cheek eerily. I opened the skylight as wide as the iron hatch allowed. Daringly leaning out the opening, I could observe - deep, frighteningly deep down, the traffic flowing by. Only muffled noises resounded up to my altitude. The seagulls, on whose backs I could look, flew past me with shrill cries, only to be driven by the wind into a fast U-turn back to the Vltava. The pedestrians down in the street looked like dolls; the cars and a clanging tram shrank to the size of toys. Opposite, on the Archers Island, the many old chestnut trees were standing in full bloom and a white paddle-wheel steamer was slowly moving up the Vltava. The increasingly high wind, which was now whistling around my ears, became a bit distracting. I pulled my head back and closed the window down to a narrow opening.
My prime interest, anyway, was in what was up here. Maybe I could discover something new today. A few of the first latticed partitions in the foreground stood empty or had nothing more to offer than a few dusty boards or bricks. But the other ones, which had been located in the darker and more remote reaches of the attic, had more to offer. Unfortunately, those, spitefully, had been secured with padlocks of varying sizes. However, to my great pleasure, at least one of them - in which some of the beautiful models of the technical school had been stored - was an easy-to-open bolt. I liked especially the railway bridge which was built to an exact scale. On the rails were standing small cars loaded with miniature round logs, which could be tipped over. Because the bridge had been set up at an angle against the wall, I could run the little wagons with their free rolling wheels at an increasing speed over the bridge. Excited, I amused myself with this game!
But there were more shelves and open crates filled to the top with detailed models of various bridge constructions in different sizes. Pillars, bows, fundaments, braces made from wood, gypsum, and shining metal. It was stimulating work for me, fastening the loosened screws and fallen braces to put them together again. A real playground for me, and not comparable to the Technical Museum where I wasn’t allowed to touch anything. Here I could work with my hands and not be held back. Here also it came to my mind, but only vaguely, that the artistic beauty of the shapes and materials gave me more excitement than the techniques alone.
To my great surprise, I found that today the next space was not completely locked. Someone had forgotten to snap the padlock. As far as I knew, a part of the inheritance of our house custodian from his dead grandmother was stored here. I hoped that he wouldn’t just now appear here, as I was not on a good footing with this man, who was mostly grumpy and surly. I always felt a bit uncomfortable when I carefully opened the door. But this once, when opportunity knocked, I could not let go. Who knew how soon this room would be locked again and for how long a long time. Moving very cautiously between an antique wardrobe and gilded picture frames with no pictures, and two ruined, flowered cloth-covered suitcases, I took the trouble not to bump into any of the pieces.
With curiosity I looked at a small secretaire which was standing in the corner. The lower part of it was decorated with woodcarving, the top with differently colored inlaid wood sections, which were a bit damaged in places. I had seen a similar piece in the workshop of the cabinetmaker in our house. He had then explained to me how carefully he had to do the renovation in order not to damage the precious piece of furniture. So I let my finger glide reverently over the polished surface of the desk.
Only after a bit of hesitation, did I touch very carefully the very small knobs on the drawers. All the small ones jammed and I didn't have the courage to put too much force to them. Only one of the bigger drawers in the lower part of the writing table could be easily pulled out.
Surprised, I looked at the strange things in it. A hair crown made from silk flowers, hat pins with silver balls on the ends, a brooch with tiny inlaid pictures, and a heap of faded, brown-toned photographs with stern looking faces. There was a bigger picture of a gentleman with an amazingly, long handlebar mustache, and a shining top hat on his head.
In one of the corners I discovered, wrapped in cotton and tissue paper, strange shaped wax plugs. They were dented in the middle, some of these had, on one end, a painted eye; others faded red mouths. I turned those little things around on the palm of my hand and tried very hard to think what purpose they could have had. Then one of them slid accidentally between my fingers--and I suddenly knew how somebody had played with it long ago. I made a fist, squeezed two of the wax objects with the painted blue eyes between my index and third fingers; with a bent middle finger as a bit too big nose, it was only necessary to use a piece of cloth as a head scarf to make it look like a weird face. I found this idea great in its simplicity. I knew that it would not be very difficult for me to make these little objects out of candle wax, only with different and more impressively painted eyes. I was already looking forward to the surprised faces at home and of my friends if I would make a little performance for them. I was sure they never had seen a puppet face like this one.
The longer, growing shadows on the floor, reminded me that I'd spent much more time up here than usual. I was in a devil of a hurry now to leave here so I wouldn't be missed at home. I put the wax pieces, wrapped again in tissue, back into the drawer, closed it carefully, and pulled the lattice door behind me. I breathed a sigh of relief. How nice that I had been left undisturbed in my excursion.
Now I hesitated for a moment. How many times had I said no to myself to ban thoughts of visiting the absolute end of the attic, but without success. I was anyway pulled like magic into this corner. For a couple of months it had been the most alluring reason for being up here. Here it was. In among a sea chest reinforced with heavy bands, a wardrobe with mirrors, various boxes and lamp shades, stood my dream: the red car!
It was a child's pedal car with a very elegantly shaped body; impressive thick, rubber tires; upholstered seats; and an elegant windshield. Because of its size, which was bigger than similar toy cars I had seen, it was obvious that this one here must be the work of an expert craftsman. It was very dusty, but there was not too much imagination necessary to know how it could look after a cleaning because a few shining red spots were visible. I dreamed of stepping in, getting the feel of it for a few minutes, and then putting in action the pedal mechanism-- maybe in the beginning as a test only forward and back--and then driving a few lively rounds around the posts in the attic. But unfortunately this door to my dream was especially well secured with a lock and bolt.
By carefully questioning some of the people in the house, I was told that this section of the attic belonged to a woman who had lived here and moved out to live with a faraway relative. That was all I could find out, so unless there was some lucky coincidence, my dream would never come true. After that, on my less frequent visits to the attic I could just greet it through the lattice: "Hello, red car. How are you?" And I could hear what it was saying to me. "How should it be with me? My axles, my steering, and all other parts are now stiff from standing still so long. What I need is movement." With a sad smile, I turned around to leave.
Winter came to an end. And the heavy first floes of the dynamited ice surface of the Vltava moved slowly on. That was reason enough after a long absence to run up the steps to the attic to observe this spectacle from the high window. The massive ice floes, in the beginning nearly without movement, started slowly to float. Moving faster and faster, they were driven to the weir, over which they were scratching with a loud noise you could hear from a distance. Then, with increasing force, turning and rocking, they crashed against the protective wooden beams in front of the Charles Bridge pillars. Pushed up forcefully to the highest point of those beams, they fell sideways into the high splashing water of the rising Vltava. It was a spectacle worth seeing, and the many onlookers along the rail of the quay and on the Charles Bridge would certainly agree. At this place it was especially exciting to watch the oncoming heavy plates, but before I could run down to see everything closer, at least I had to give "my" car a short "hello."
I rushed back to the far end of the attic. But what was that! The surprise came so unexpectedly that I stared motionlessly at the crack of the door: it was open! I looked around me, but there was nothing except the red car in front of me. I opened the door very carefully and stood now very close to my dream. For one moment I felt a tickling feeling of joy; my long wish was fulfilled. But then I could not overlook two differences that I held in my memory. Not only was the dust removed and the paint shining perfectly, but also the vehicle seemed much smaller. The metal could certainly not have shrunk. There occurred to me now a better reason for this when I thought of what my mother had said not long ago. "My goodness, how the boy had grown in the last months!"
In spite of my doubts, at least I could try it. Well, well, with some trying, I was able to squeeze myself into the seat, but my legs were too long, as much as I tried to bend them. I put my hands on the steering wheel and said with a bit of bitterness in my voice: "Dear car, you can see it for yourself. You are too small, I too big, or the other way around. I am not small enough, you not big enough. what a pity! There will be no drive around at all."
There was a light laugh behind me and a woman standing in the opening of the door said: "Oh, so you are talking to the car."
I blushed with embarrassment that she had surprised me sitting there so squeezed in. She raised her hand in a calming way and said: "It is all right', keep your seat. A pity that I met you only today, you would have been the perfect driver." She was nicely dressed and had very friendly eyes. A pleasant smell of perfume surrounded her. She had taken a seat on a finished, sealed box and, looking at the car, she said: "My husband built this car with much love and care for our son. He would be now about your age, and like you, too big for it. He loved it very much."
I felt uneasy in this uncomfortable situation. The lady was now looking quite sad. I was, too, and I had no idea what I should do or say. She looked at me again and I was glad that a little smile showed on her face.
"Are you sad?" she asked me.
"A bit," said I. "It was my dream. It was nice to look at it, and to dream of a ride. In the end, at least I was sitting in it, and that was nice, I will never forget it."
I was standing next to her. She bent down to me, gave me a kiss on my forehead and said: "You are a fine boy. I wish you the best of luck in your life. But now, run off."
I never saw her nor the car again.Walter Albert
(the chapter from the book Theater Lane 7)
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