MAN WHO BARKED
A novel based on the experiences of Alice Shrgai
(born Alice Roman; Michalovce, Czeckoslovakia 1923).
Andrew Bernhardt & Alice Shrgai
I am old and you are young. I have seen people born; Ive seen them
Some were killed because they were brave, some because they were stupid
and some just because they ran out of luck. You have seen none of this.
So let me do what grown ups always do to children: I will give you some
precious advice and you will do what children always do you will
It has always been like this.
This is my advice, you should remember it as long as you live and may
that be a very long time indeed: Never hide your pissy knickers in a piano.
Grandma Evelyn sweated. She sweated and spat. She always spat; she
spat when she ate, when she talked and she talked all the time, mostly
to herself. My best friend Lili said Grandma should have handed out
umbrellas before she opened her mouth. This made us laugh but only to
ourselves; if Grandma had known she would have flown into a rage and
shouted and then wed all have drowned.
Lili and I laughed at anything then sometimes wed just
meet up, look at each other and it would start. That runaway train of
giggling, careering down a track, we just couldnt stop. Mum said
it was a phase that wed grow out of; Grandma said: "Stupid
Dad pretended to ignore us, though when Grandma turned her back hed
pull a silly face at her and set us off giggling all over again.
That morning Grandma was sweating and shouting. I heard her dragging
something up the stairs.
My mother reached down and wiped some cream from my chin. I always had
cream cakes on Saturdays.
"Give her a hand for goodness sake." Which was another way
of saying: "Whatever it takes, just stop her complaining,"
I tramped out to the landing.
The maid Lena always brushing and scrubbing, elbows flying
scurried past into our apartment carrying a huge wooden crate.
"Alice, Alice!?" Grandma Evelyn was lugging another wooden
box up the stairs, red knuckles crowned with white as she heaved at
the polished brass handle, bumping the solid, stubborn crate upwards,
step by step.
"What is it Grandma?"
"Its heavy thats what it is." She sent a fine
mist of spittle cascading in the shafts of morning light that pierced
the hallway gloom. "So I have to die here, on the stairs?"
I ducked under the spray and together we heaved the box up the steps
and in to the drawing room - not the kitchen or the spare room but the
drawing room, Grandmas pride and joy. Whatever it was I reckoned
it must be important, or expensive.
She flipped her hand at me. I stood back as she wrestled with the big
box, then with a heave and a grunt dumped a large shiny, dark brown
case on the table. I recognised it; I had seen one given pride of place
in Minskas - the big Department store.
It was a wireless, a new wireless. I nearly screamed but managed to
stop myself; Grandma hated children who scream. She grunted at me to
help her with the other crate. Together we heaved out two impossibly
heavy black boxes batteries. Mum poked her head round the door
"Evelyn! Wait till Nandor gets home."
Grandma Evelyn laughed bitterly.
"Pah! Wait for the genius? What would he do? Blow us all up? Leave
Mr Einstein to count his sacks of grain. I will do it."
Nandor my dad worked in a grain factory and I hated Grandam
Evelyn for always criticising him. She worked on, I heard her breath
rattling in her heaving chest and I hated her so much that I hoped shed
electrocute herself. It would have been great to see her frizzy hair
fly up and her false teeth shoot across the room. But she didnt
and soon we had all gathered around as she prepared to switch on.
Grandma, Mum, myself and Lena the maid - we all crouched down, staring,
amazed at this strange machine. Beautiful carved tulip shapes, like
a delicate stencil, in glossy, dark brown wood twined across the oval
cloth-covered speakers. Grandma, standing, rolled back her sleeves,
basking in the attention. She paused, made some completely unnecessary
adjustments to the dial and turned one of the two gorgeous wooden knobs
on the front.
Mum smiled as a dull yellow light slowly illuminated the glass panel
picking out the names of places from all around the world, some near
to Kosice our own little town: Prague, Warsaw, Vienna, some far away:
Minsk, London, Berlin, Moscow even!
We were hushed into silence but I wasnt very good at silence.
"Stupid girl!" Grandma hissed, "Its warming up".
Mum stroked my back I loved it when she did that - as I leant
against her strong hands. A piercing howl suddenly cracked the air,
Lena screamed, mum and Grandma leapt to their feet and, of course, I
shrieked with laughter.
I was sent from the room in disgrace but I pressed my ear to the door
A man talked in some jittery language, strange whistlings and scratchy
buzzes, piano music, more whistlings and buzzes, a snatch of an orchestra.
Mum said excitedly: "Try Oslo mother!"
"So she understands Norwegian, my daughter."
Grandmas cutting replies always silenced mum. Another sound, a
voice, loud now, odd words, a phrase half announced, half shouted, somebody
with a lot to said. He seemed in a hurry to got it all out. I shut my
eyes and tried to imagine him somewhere in a far off city, hundreds
of kilometres away, speaking, shouting. I could hear him! I heard his
little gasps of breath between sentences. His words came out in hard
rows, like little wooden blocks, stamping out his thoughts. I listened
intently though I could only understand the odd word. He sounded like
one of our teachers the one we call Bomb Head who gets angry
at just about everything. I tried to imagine the man who was shouting
at us through the wireless, as he stood lit by a long piercing spotlight
raised high on a stage. It seemed like a miracle. It was a miracle.
He sounded stiff-shouldered, cross, as if his shirt were itchy and annoying.
He seemed to be making himself angrier and angrier - then, with a sharp
pop, the yelling stopped.
"Enough already, the man barks," hissed Grandma switching
the wireless off.
Hearing her disbelieving muttering and cursing growing closer I leapt
back and darted to my room and peered around the door.
"But Mother thats Chancellor Hitler!"
My mother hated rudeness; she was honoured that Mr Hitler had taken
the trouble to talk to us. Grandma emerged flapping a hand in disgust.
"I should pay good money to hear a man bark? And someone tell me,
what is that smell?"
© Andrew Bernhardt & AliceShrgai 2001