SLOW WALKING COURSE
I tripped over her, in the street, just like that. I was in a hurry to cross the road and then suddenly, crash-bang! My heels made a nasty screeching sound and I landed on my butt. She was teeny. Tinier than a garden gnome. She was wearing a hat with multicolored wooly bobbles.
“Can’t you look where you‘re going, you blind or what?!” I lambasted her.
The little woman grinned. I tried to get up but my legs refused to obey me.
“Shit,” I swore, trying to get my ankle to work.
The woman giggled and shouted: “Slow walking course!”
I looked her in the eyes: they were yellowish-brown, the color of amber. She just laughed and shook her head, which made the bobbles on her hat jump up and down. She was weird. There was something squirrel-like about her face.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, irritated.
The dwarf woman wiped her nose in a huge checkered handkerchief.
“You’ll see,” she said and disappeared.
I looked around in astonishment and then got up and limped to the trolleybus stop. The bus came after a while and I got on. And that’s when it all began.
I’m a total neurotic. I bite my fingernails and never have time for anything. I’m always in a hurry. Indecisive people, long conversations and slow elevators wind me up. Traffic jams on the way to work plunge me into a blind frenzy and make me want to kick in the butt everyone who stands in front of my trolleybus. I’m allergic to tourists asking for directions. I can’t stand vacations and national holidays. I get worked up about children asking pointless questions. I suffer anxiety attacks and wake up in the middle of the night because of phone calls I didn’t deal with during the day. I don’t eat much and am often constipated.
There’s a strict inspector sitting inside of me. If she catches me not working hard enough she transmits cruel signals of reproach to my brain. Sometimes she doesn’t stop cracking her whip till late at night. I’m not a nice person to be with, I’m permanently pissed off and have every day planned out down to the last second. That’s why that midget really got to me.
I’ll be late again. Tripping over wasn’t part of my plan. Now my ankle hurts and the trolleybus is dawdling along like a worn-out old nag. And there’s this irritating old lady with a blue rinse and an appalling wheeled tote. Twice she drove it over my feet.
The red light takes forever to change and someone around here smells really bad! Nerves make my eyelids twitch as I studiously avoid looking at my watch. Suddenly a cell phone starts to ring. The ringing gets louder and louder and I’m mentally cursing the deaf idiot who can’t be bothered to pick up.
“That wasn’t nice of you,” a man in a gray coat says turning to me, slowly fishing his cell phone out of his pocket. Every eye on the trolleybus is fixed on me and I realize I’m sweating even more profusely.
“What’s going on?” I snap in exasperation.
A brunette with enormous artificial eyelashes smiles: “Slow walking course.”
“Have you gone crazy?” I ask, and the man with the cell phone in his hand whispers: “It’s just started.”
The trolleybus reaches a stop. Everyone gets off. I realize I’m going to be seriously late for my meeting. I want to take the cell phone out of my pocket but can’t move my hands. My fingers are stiff, cold and gnarled. They’re somebody else’s hands, helplessly folded in my lap, refusing to obey me. I try to get up but my legs don’t obey and I just sit there watching the trolleybus leave my stop.
At first I’m seized by helpless fury, which after twenty minutes turns into panic and finally into dull apathy. I’m the last person on the bus. For some mysterious reason nobody gets on. Black Mamba from the movie Kill Bill comes to my mind, as she flexes her fingers after she’s recovered from a coma. I try to move one of my little fingers at least a fraction. The harder I try the stiffer it gets.
“I can’t move!” I scream as the trolleybus reaches the terminus.
The driver pokes his head out of his cabin with a tired sigh: “Slow walking course, hey?”
“What the hell does slow walking course mean?” I yell back, thoroughly fed up with this phrase by now.
“It does sometimes happen on this line,” the man says, taking a sandwich out of his bag. “I don’t know why. It’s something to do with speed. At least that’s what this lady said to me. The faster you think, talk, walk, breathe, the slower you get. You might even find that you stop moving altogether,” he explains.
“OK, but what am I supposed to do now?” I ask, repelled by the bits of salami dropping from his mouth.
“Well,” he replies, “they say you’ve got to start breathing slowly and properly and generally start doing everything really, really slow.”
“Breathe properly, what sort of nonsense is that, there’s nothing wrong with my breathing, after all, I’ve been breathing since I was a baby.” I start getting worked up.
At that moment I realize I can’t move my head and my tongue is stiffening up. I mumble something.
“You see?” says the man, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, “you mustn’t get worked up!” Then he proceeds to open a bottle of mineral water and drink it with relish. “Slowly. That’s how you’ll have to do everything from now on,” he says. “You’ll have to learn how to walk slowly, look slowly, think slowly and above all, you mustn’t try too hard. You mustn’t push anything, especially not yourself. Good luck with it, and in the meantime you can stay here as long as you need!”
He closes his cabin and starts the engine. The trolleybus sets off and I realize how hard this is. This slow breathing. I try to relax, forget about everything, to not desire anything and, first and foremost, to stay completely calm. Every now and then the thought of something I have to do crowds in on my thoughts. My nerves are on edge. My stomach is jittery. The inspector inside me is tapping her pen restlessly. A meeting with a client. An interim activity report and a financial summary, a tax return, an order form to send out, a work meeting to set up!
The trolleybus has covered its route a million times and I still can’t move. “That’s it for today!” the driver suddenly announces, pulling into the parking lot. He collects his things and is about to get off.
“Hey,” I shout, “you can’t leave me here like that! It’s almost night and I still can’t move!” The man scratches his head and says he can’t help me. I’m the only one on this slow walking course. All he can offer is a warm blanket and what’s left of his roll. “A course is a course.”
He shrugs his shoulders. “Last time, I had someone sitting here for a week until he managed to slow down.” He gets off the trolleybus and waves good-bye.
Perhaps he’s gone crazy, it occurs to me. Or have I gone crazy? The inspector inside me applies her most powerful lever – my conscience – but I can no longer weep. Even my tears are stuck somewhere beneath my eyelids.
I’ve been living on the trolleybus for two weeks now. The passengers are peculiar. The man I silently sent to hell because of his ringing cell phone always greets me with a friendly smile. He’d been on this course, too. He used to be addicted to his phone. Apparently he wouldn’t even go to the sauna without his cell. The driver supplies me with bread rolls and whenever I’m able to open my mouth he pours in a little water. The brunette with enormous eyelashes teaches me how to breathe properly and the blue-rinsed old lady gives me massages to silence the inspector inside me.
The inspector has finally stopped cracking her whip. Today I’ll be finally up to making my way to the back exit. I get off. I smell and look a bit like a bag lady. Never mind. I watch cars rush past and people walk by. It’s not difficult. I inhale slowly until I feel a balloon inflating in my belly. I open my mouth slightly and exhale, slowly. The more slowly I breathe the slower my movements get. I place one foot on the sidewalk and, slowly shifting my body weight onto it, take a step forward. Slowly. I’ve got time.
Time to look around. To take things in. Nothing matters except the movement itself. The way I walk. I am aware of the present. I am here and now. I notice a disabled woman’s cane catch between the paving stones. A drunken old man dances in front of the presidential palace. A depressed Vietnamese in an Asian bistro gazes at his steamed-up window. A woman in lacquered pumps picks her nose. There’s a demonstration outside the presidential palace, someone is on hunger strike. There are hoboes and Romanian children begging. A blind accordion player, weeping. A crazy lady with an Alsatian in a sweater. People asleep on benches. Two men kissing. A woman jogging with headphones on. I notice details I’ve never noticed before. Grinning faces on a building’s facade as well as a woman feeding an old ginger tomcat by a trash can.
I cross the road. Slowly. A shiny BMW steps on its brakes at the last minute. Its furious driver screams out of the window: “Are you asleep, you stupid cow?!”
I give a grin and say nothing. A tiny little woman is dancing on the car hood. She’s smaller than a garden gnome. Multicolored wooly bobbles dance on her enormous hat. She’s singing: “Slow walking course, param-pam-pam, slow walking….”
URŠUĽA KOVALYK, is a poet, fiction writer, playwright and social worker. She was born in 1969 in Košice, eastern Slovakia and currently lives in Bratislava. She has worked for a women’s non-profit focusing on women’s rights and currently works for the NGO Against the Current, which helps homeless people. She is the director of the Theatre With No Home, which features homeless and disabled actors.
Kovalyk debuted as a writer with the short story collections Neverné ženy neznášajú vajíčka (Faithless Women Do Not Lay Eggs, 2002) and Travesty šou (Travesty show, 2004) as well as the novel Žena zo sekáča (The Secondhand Woman,2008). Her plays include Vec (The Thing, 2003), Maková panna (The Poppy Seed Spinster, 2004), Krvavý kľúč (The Bloodied Key 2005), Oktagon (Octagon, 2006), Dia de muertos (2008) and Squat (2009). In 2010 she had a short story, “Mrs. Agnes’s Bathroom,” published as part of Dalkey Archive Press’s Slovak fiction issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction and “Lace” was published in Counterfeits, Two Lines World Writing in Translation in September 2011. Her latest novel Krasojazdkyňa (The Circus Rider) is due out later in 2013.
About the Translators:
JULIA SHERWOOD (née Kalinová) was born and grew up in Bratislava, then Czechoslovakia. After studying English and Slavonic languages and literature at universities in Cologne and Munich she settled in the UK, where she spent more than 20 years working for Amnesty International. Since moving to the US in 2008 she has worked as a freelance translator from English, Czech, Slovak, German, Polish and Russian into Slovak and English, and administers the Facebook group Slovak Literature in English translation. She is Chair of the NGO Rights in Russia, and divides her time between Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and London. Her translations include Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book by Daniela Kapitáňová, Freshta by Petra Procházková, and My Life with Hviezdoslav by Jana Juráňová due to be published by Calypso Editions in 2015. She has also translated work by writers such as Uršuľa Kovalyk, Michal Hvorecký and Leopold Lahola among many others.
PETER SHERWOOD studied Hungarian and linguistics in the University of London before being appointed, in 1972, lecturer in Hungarian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (now part of University College London). He taught language, linguistics and literature there until 2007. Since 2008 he has been the first László Birinyi, Sr., Distinguished Professor of Hungarian Language and Culture in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Peter Sherwood received the Pro Cultura Hungarica prize of the Hungarian Republic for contributions to Anglo-Hungarian relations in 2001, the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic in 2007, and the János Lotz medal of the International Association for Hungarian Studies in 2011. He has translated the novels The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos and The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noémi Szécsi as well as stories by Dezső Kosztolányi, Zsigmond Móricz and others, along with works of poetry, drama and philosophy.