Local Civilization

'Make your stores - they're cutting it off,' calls the bobby, pushing the entrance door ajar.And every member of the household hurries to grab a pail, a mug or any of the tinier pots and pans, dashing forward to the tap (the house is endowed with a tap - blasted be tap and all!). Feverishly, the one who gets there first turns it on….Shshshsh! goes the tap, letting just a few remaining drops of the meager water remains leak feebly onto the bottom of a mug. As if at a sign, the arms of the people gathered round the tap are all dropping down towards the ground in a touchingly simultaneous posture. The bobby has left. Fully self-assured and belated, he carries further the good news. By the time he reaches the fourth household or so, everybody has already known for some time now that the water's been cut off. '?! What do you mean? Can't you see it's already been cut off?' a miserable housewife says to him for a welcome.'I don't know now! 'Tis my orderings', the man answers officially and kicks his boots already on the way to a further house. His orders are to let everyone in his posting know that they're cutting off the water, so he keeps on doing his duty quite strictly even though it's three hours since the water has been cut off. In a remote yard, an old-fashioned drinking-fountain lets out a thin stream of water pumped from a spring in the Ciricului hill. It's just trickling, that's true, but it comes cold in the summer, not too chilly in the winter and, in addition, you can bank on it at any time of the year, both day and night. The water of the great civilized installation (that makes us rank among the modern cities) has a way of being just the other way round, thanks to the ingenious layout of the piping: freezingly cold in the winter, tepid in the summer, and ready to do mischief all year round, just like a woman deprived of love. When it freezes, it turns into ice, only to gush forth in a profusion at melting time, so that it breaks the pipes ( which, being not too sturdy already, were on the point of bursting anyway); then it seeps into old cellars, infiltrating old, recondite dungeons which are left over since the time of Lapusneanu Voda and which happen to open into some unknown gallery right under a new house… This brings about a catastrophe: one night, the new house collapses, modern installation and all, without anyone having ever foreseen its - alas! - so untimely crash. The very next day, this gruesome news spreads all about the city, giving rise to feelings of dismay or satisfaction, as the case may be.The tiny school-girls walking on thin, agile ant's feet set out into the dark from the remotest corner of the Socola outskirts or from the Nicolina neighborhood to be in time for school. In winter, when they leave home it's still dark in their back-streets, there's mire reaching as high as their knees or it's bitterly cold outside and the hungry dogs chase people just like wolves. But there's little you can do, life is hard and harsh on you even if you're only a little girl knee high to a grasshopper: you've got to be in class at 8 sharp.So, one morning - here they are, a little after 8 o'clock, bands of girls dressed in black (the color sported by studious childhood) milling their way back home, to their outskirts. They're all exceedingly mirthful. What may be the cause of this? … On the way, they come across a few belated mates, hurrying to school, with transmogrified looks in their eyes at the thought of the trial expecting them for coming in late. One of those who have taken the road back, a short, stout girl, calls out with immeasurable joy in her voice to one of the belated culprits:'Praetorian, don't go any farther! Come back, all of you! The school's come down.''When?''Las' night. Got some water coming from beneath, no'one knows from where - and there was an' end o' it! Had wee' been in there, we'd've all got killed…' The night is closing in. Coming from nooks, stealthily, shadows gather ever thicker. Sweet melancholy spells, fits of unpredictable dismay or dark depression, completely unjustified, descend over our innermost selves, dictated by our respective ages and circumstances. Gloomy thoughts, just like bats, prefer the dark - and the dark breeds bats in our souls…But with a mere light gesture, one hand turns the electric switch to the right. A white, equal, tranquil light is now being given off by the Osram or Philips bulbs which have miraculously lit up and are glowing like some chilled sun fragments scattered through the rooms. The maleficent influence of the dark has been conjured off once again. Blessed be civilization!In the editor's office of a local newspaper, sitting with a white sheet of paper in front of him, the secretary is trying to fetch from the thin air the first sentence of an article that is palpitating like a butterfly around the crown of his head overflowing with domestic preoccupations… Now he's got it! The pen is speeding vertiginously across the white sheet… From the next room, he can hear the voice of a reporter talking over the phone; it has taken on the tender, irritated tonality of a pleading lover forcing his confession on someone:'Please listen to me, Miss! … Just a moment! … We've got absolutely no news for tomorrow's issue…You regret but there's nothing you can do, eh? The cables are out of order?…Then - I'm undone!'Somewhere, standing on guard near the sickbed of a child, a little lady is carefully counting the drops she lets fall into a tea-spoon from an expensive bottle of physic: one…two… three…In a rather dilapidated house that lies not very far from the city-center, an old teacher has just had his meal and is now sitting down at his desk on which is piled an unlikely mess of term papers waiting to be marked - for, who but a masterfully inspired minister of education could have imagined any better means of turning a man into a moron ? They're waiting with that kind of exasperating placidity of inanimate things…Then smoothly, all of a sudden and with no warning the electric light is off…The motor of the Plant has stopped!The journo remains stuck, stiff as a stone, his pen suspended in mid-air, the reporter gestures in the dark in front of the telephone, the lady gives a shrill cry and drops the bottle of medicine - the old teacher slaps his forehead energetically…'Candles! Bring some candles…'Lots of candles of the poorest quality appear in all the rooms (their fabrication has become a rather neglected industry since the rise of electric lighting; they flicker with a hesitating, very yellow light, as the candles in the dead man's room. The wick, often cast eccentrically in the wax, burns the candle on only one side. There's a curb digging itself almost instantaneously - and an abundant stream of melted paraffin or tallow's trickling down the candle-stick. The burnt wick observably grows in length, coils graciously at the top, then swells into a bead of glowing coal. Inside the transparent ember ruby there throb funeral shadows, as if it had within it a declining celestial body surrounded by its invisible satellites with their old civilizations. The teacher has stopped marking papers…At Nathanson's, where he's sent somebody to buy candles it's closed. And by no means would baba Tasia go to any further shop than Nathanson's at night-time, come what may.So now you can behold the old man, his elbows propped on the table and his forehead in the palms of his hands, in the dark, waiting for the capriciously alternative disposition of our Electrical Power Plant. Images of yore, fuzzy reminiscences pass through his weary soul … Eventually, the teacher rises and, venting his almost juvenile bitterness, he voices the public resentment:'To hell with civilization!' Post-scriptum – Our power plant for the tramways was burnt down last night, at about eleven. The moment they learned this news, all the tram carriages were transfixed on the rails, terror-stricken and dumbfounded – in different points of the city. Now, the passengers caught by the event on the trams were at first completely unaware of what was happening.'It's the contact rod!' they said to each other reassuringly. 'It's all right: they'll fix it up again and then off we go.''There's no electric'ty that's what it is. The contact ro-ad's in place…' objected the fare collectors and the tram operators, with their specialists' authority.And nobody got off, they remained seated in the carriages, waiting for the 'lectric current to be restored. Each of them was thinking that once they'd paid 5 lei for the ticket they were entitled to wait for at least one hour on the premises… So it wasn't until midnight time, when the tram operators and the fare collectors had long been gone and were already at home or god knows where, that the passengers started getting off one by one while also making pornographic allusions to the mother of the Power Plant.'The bastards!…It's a scandal!'And the carriages ended up all alone in the obscure fluidity of the autumn night – as big blocks of clotted darkness. Wild geese astray from their flights gave sinister cries high up over the city, in the tar sky. At times, a black wind swept over the deserted streets. The clock struck the midnight hour at a slow pace from some remote place at the top of a tower bathed in overflowing showers of darkness…And, here, on a tram's platform there has appeared an agitated shadow - the last passenger's nightmarish creature; he fell asleep inside and, while still in his cataleptic trance, he was relayed along the carriage cable the vision of the disaster at the Power Plant… Mad with terror, entranced like a medium, the unfortunate fellow raised his arms skywards and started to ramble prophetically in the gruesome quiet of the night:'The trams power plant has been burnt down!…Soon the Central Post Office will be a heap of ashes…and the University… and the Tobacco Factory! An earthquake will pull down the Palace of the Exchequer over the Town Hall… The National Theatre will cave in covering under the debris the two hundred free-ticket spectators which have still remained faithful to it… The students will destroy, one of these nights, all the peddlers' stalls in the Tirgu-Cucului, giving a bad pain in the nose to a firemen's first sergeant and to other Christian authorities… The Copou Park will slide down over the Ripa Galbena, because of the rainfall, thus terminating the entire lower district… The pest will appear, then the scythe of the choler will reap thousands of lives - and the piles of corpses left unburied will attract from the vicinities packs of ravenous wolves showing their monster tongues… And all this never-ending hell will wreak havoc until the last inhabitants of the city, man and woman, seized by the amorous frenzy that takes hold of people in times of greatest disaster, will tear at each other with their teeth…Dixit !The Central Post Office has burnt down. We are expecting, with our hearts in our boots, the events to follow.

by George Topîrceanu (1886-1937)