The Alley Boys

excerpt  3. THE INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES OF STING AND STUNG Sting and Stung came into being in a jar of mustard, on the very first morning after I'd dreamt of serpentine road bends and devils. Had it been necessary to invent a realm for them to come forth from – a couple of translucent earnest-looking blobs, faceless and ageless, and generally possessing no other quality save their existence – then the jar, of the kind Mom used to wash thoroughly as soon as the mustard was gone out of them for subsequent use as glasses, and thick, ugly, heavy-duty glasses at that, the jar I was fixing with eyes still dazed by sleeping and dreaming would have been by far the most appropriate.I've learned one thing, though (no book was needed to that end, just a tiny amount of attention), and namely that when miracles occur, even small-sized miracles like this one, it is never enough to focus on one aspect only. Just to show you I'm not being funny, or trying to pull your leg, or just having you on, or anything, carried away with the thrill almost every grown up succumbs to the moment they put pen to paper, I do assure you I'm fully aware of how unlikely it is for two characters to come into being – hey, presto! – in a jar of mustard. Granted, t'would be way more convenient were things to happen that way, yet I'd feel somehow uneasy about it because 1. t'would mean throwing truth down the drain and 2. I'd no longer be able to look you in the eyes (to say nothing of Filip, who'd never want to hear from me again, and that's a fact). For his sake then, if not for your own, and ultimately for my own sake, I'll do my best to clarify, as tactfully as narrated miracles demand it, the genesis, of Sting and Stung in a jar of mustard, on a dull Sunday morning, in October, most probably, at 8 o'clock.To sum up, Sting and Stung came into being on a dull morning, following the night I had that dream with serpentine road bends and devils, a dream that has kept following me (with almost wizard-like persistence) to the present day. The dream in question, which I wrote down in a poem quite some time ago, looked something like this:or then as if down a slide made of wooda descent in slow motion dreamt as if through ashell coated with darkness lit up bystrip lights I would walk down the serpentine road bends towardsthe inverted nightfall(can't tell why it appeared to me like a) membrane (or whatever)pulsating with the breath of some creaturegigantic and hiding beyondthe brink of the chasm with smoke still rising up fromthe ashes of a fire named John (John was a sort of saint whom I'd write my poems to) whencethe tongues of coiled devils continued to shed light.You're perfectly entitled not to like the stuff, I'm not too keen on it myself, truth to tell, but I was much, much younger when I wrote it (how's that for an excuse?), and back then poetry was, to me at least, a touch more refined than prose (now it only appears to me to be lying: for instance, why on earth did I fail to mention that the strip lights were flickering with a faint glow, the way they did in our bathroom, thus causing me to sense the advent of terror like a subtle, ponderous threat? And why ever did I have to say "beyond the brink of the chasm" when my dream clearly featured a meadow covered in a sparse growth of stunted grass extending to the edge of the chasm?). Anyway, I don't think it makes any sense to dwell on that dream for too long. All I know is that I woke up in a dazed state (I've already told you that), flickering strip lights and coiled devils weighing heavily on my mind, grabbed a picture book without too much text, Snow White, and made my way into the kitchen. Mom was toasting bread on the gas stove, and the resulting fragrance together with the burning light bulb (it was a dark, overcast day) made the kitchen, how shall I put it, appear like the first and the last place on earth, the only place whose existence was beyond all doubt, as if in the beginning God had not created the light, the waters and the dry land, but that kitchen of ours with Mom toasting bread in it, prior to summoning me out of sleep, story book in hand. I don't know what that book had to do with it all, I didn't as much as glance at it, I knew it by heart, yet, I feel bound to say it again, when you're dealing with miracles even minor details are there for a purpose. Filip was not there, could be it wasn't even Sunday, but when it comes to the jar of mustard (which my eyes penetrated without a hint of alarm), the morning and the fragrance of toast, you should not for a moment doubt them. I could of course claim that I was hearing, filtered to a high pitch through the window pane, the clip-clop of horses drawing a Gypsy wagon on the asphalt, and the garbled street cry of the Gypsies asking for empty bottles to buy: tiche goae, ooo![1], yet something tells me I'd be superimposing images, and superimposed images is the last thing I need right now.I had no particular expectation that morning, the dream had slowed down to a distant throb – that's where the poem isn't lying at all (there was a gigantic creature the throb of whose breath I could still feel) – I was sitting on my chair at the table, staring into the void, until the void I was staring into sucked me in with a thoroughness enabling me to realize that what I was actually staring at was the mustard in a jar.I don't know whether you've ever had the curiosity to attend to what's going on in a jar of that description, but I'm telling you that, to begin with, you're not going to notice much except a mass of something which could be only described as yellow. If the mustard jar has already been opened, the view is much better, of course: the mustard spoon has carved into the mass a network of tunnels, paths, highways. At this point it is quite easy to lose yourself into their maze, stained yellow and damp though they might appear to you. And since a miracle (unfortunately or fortunately) can almost always be explained logically as well, I don't think it's going to be a major challenge for anyone to come up with the following question: "what's the use of all those tunnels and crossroads and lanes if no one's living in there?" I do believe that's what I must have asked myself. And just like that, in a most natural sequence of events leading from the answer to a logical question to a miracle with the fragrance of toast, without Mom, her back turned to the whole thing, even remotely suspecting what was going on in the kitchen of flat 40, Sting and Stung, the two inseparable friends who were to become the trustworthy companions of my childhood, came into existence. I didn't whoop with excitement, nor did I whoop with terror, the light bulb didn't flicker like the strip light in our bathroom, the window didn't burst open with some unaccountable gust of wind, and the dogs in the street didn't as much as give a whimper when from down there, from deep inside the jar of mustard, the following conversation echoed for the first time in Drumul Taberei[2] and, it could be, in the whole of the universe (how am I to know?):"How you doin', Sting?""I'm doin'fine, Stung.""And how's Mrs. Sting doing?""Oh, she's doin' fine, too. And what about Mrs. Stung?""She's doing fine. Bye, Sting.""Bye, Stung."I'm telling you the truth, I listened to them talk without batting an eyelid. That was another thing I'd just learned: miracles are easy to get used to. In that particular age, at least.It's elder brothers that are always the problem. It's not as if they had anything against our miracles, frowning upon them, like, or that kind of thing. Not at all. It's simply that they find miracles somewhat hard to comprehend. And if a brother happens to be eleven years your senior, now that's definitely a case when you have to take a break and fill him in nice an' easy, so that on future occasions you will be sure to avoid all kinds of surprises. But be that as it may, I've got to take some time off at all costs. Make a detour. Digress, divagate, stray from the subject. Open that thing we commonly call a parenthesis. Or whatever. Here are some points (7):· little brothers have their own reality, distinct and not to be tampered with· notwithstanding the unquestionable credit that goes to them for having watched Mom's belly getting bigger and bigger (with you inside), having pushed you around in a pram, having listened to your priest-like gurgles and the like (the list could go on for many pages), elder brothers have no right whatsoever to as much as hint that your memories (vaguish though they may be) are, in actual fact, erroneous;· when that kind of thing does occur, nonetheless, it ought to be properly acknowledged as such, so as to remove the slightest shade of suspicion. Consequently, such ambiguities as "I'm afraid I don't really remember" should no longer occur on the same page with statements of such obvious certainty as "he's been laying it on thick, way too thick";· objections, reservations and misgivings would be much easier to accept if we, the little ones, were granted, even for just one moment, the right to decide what's true or false regarding certain episodes in the child-life of the big ones (for instance: Filip + Alexandra Ştefănescu; Filip + Comrade Ulărescu).In conclusion:· little brothers are envious of elder brothers;· little brothers and elder brothers can never be equal;· it's all got to do with Sting and Stung. 4. SOME OF THE MIRACLES GRACING THE BIOGRAPHY OF ELDER BROTHERS The trouble is I've never seen Sting and Stung for myself, could be because I'm wearing glasses, could be for different reasons altogether. Now I did hear Matei talking as he moved round the flat but, why should I lie to you, I thought he was talking to himself. (…) As for the theory Matei advances in the previous chapter ("It's elder brothers that are always the problem"), I happen to believe the exact opposite. And in order to prove that it's younger brothers that are always the problem, I'm going to give you my own list of points (also 7): for a while, younger brothers firmly believe there is only one reality, and it's only brothers that fall under two different headings – younger and elder; younger brothers wouldn't suspect for a moment that, in the distant past, elder brothers did all sorts of things in close communion with their own angels and elves; timepieces tick independently of both brothers' will each age has its own miracles, each miracle – its own witness, each witness has a brother (or was on the point of having one).Consequently: brothers can write a book together, but can never come across the same angels and elves simultaneously; even when they grow up, younger brothers stay younger than elder brothers; younger brothers never forget having their butts kicked by elder brothers.Furthermore, there is that portion of the elder brother's biography which younger brothers can only have access to via stories. It is a wedge of life, but it appears to be a wedge of cake, and younger brothers imagine it as quite juicy, having chocolate icing and raisins and nuts galore. Are elder brothers privileged in any way? Well… they know what there is to know about the unknown portion of their biography, and they also know what there is to know about all the known parts of the younger brothers' biography. Exactly because they witnessed at first hand the whole childhood of their younger brothers, bit by bit, older brothers cannot imagine any of the bits as a piece of confectionery. And if they do make so bold as to have memories of their own, and muddled ones at that, (mixing up a 4-0 score with a 6-0, granted, without questioning the names of the winners and their superiority on the field, the Băiuţ Alley, that is) you've seen for yourselves what they have to put up with. They're treated like pathetic dotards who've lost their marbles. What am I to do, then, I, Filip, hidden so far behind the elder-brothers mask? The only thing left for me to do me is reminisce nostalgically about how I used to kick the buts of younger brothers, immerse myself in my own miracles and serenely swim among them.Miracle A: there's no doubt about it, we walked out of the house where I was born (and since it's a house it could not be in Drumul Taberei), returning in the dark from a visit to my cousin's, it must have been quite late, because Mom was carrying me in her arms (and Mom only carried me in her arms when I was dropping with fatigue, and I would only drop with fatigue when it was quite late), we were alone in the courtyard, just behind the gate, when we suddenly saw the moon rising above the house fronts, the gables and the streetlamps, above the trees and rooftops, a huge full moon, at the centre of which another Mom was carrying a child in her arms, actually she was holding him on her lap and rocking him gently, a sleeping babe he was. They were the Mother of God and Baby Jesus, know what I mean? They were watching us from the sky with such friendliness, and Mom and I watched them back for a long, long, long time, until I fell asleep in my turn. Mom would insist I was dreaming, and that continues to be her view of things to this day, when I have a bald patch and I'm no longer five years old, while she watches each full moon with the joy of the blind suddenly seeing the light. Now it may well be that I was dreaming, but I know for a fact what I saw, and there's no doubt about it.Miracle B: on that Sunday I discovered what a huge mistake it was for someone living in the block of flats No. H 3 to walk down the CernaValley when bumble bees are humming, when sunbeams are sifting through the foliage of birches spangling the river with sparkling dots, when you walk through a drove of horses and your heart is pumping with joyfright as if each of the horses were both dragon and prince, when Mom and Dad are kissing, when you're poking at anthills with a stick, when you're munching on pink Serbian chewing gum shaped like a filter cigarette, when you walk barefoot into the ice-cold water and are out the next moment, aghast with the shock, while your parents are laughing. Well, after all this, on coming back home (and that's where the mistake becomes apparent) you find a sea of poop and pee flooding the whole flat and coming almost up to your knees, a flood of the first degree caused by makeshift plumbing (the way grown-ups explain it), a condition you describe as makeshit, and thus, due to Mom's linguistic joy, you set once again the course for laughter.Miracle C: when kindergarten was out, and Ramona was also on holidays, in other words when we were not holding hands and not descending from the coal mound in the yard to the applause and cheers of all the others, as we innocently played, benignly smiled upon by the kindergarten attendants, at being Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu descending from the presidential plane, they'd lock me up in our flat (as I've already told you). One day, on a Thursday, let's say, when the three evil hours[3] were nowhere in sight, nor were we supposed to be fasting, Dad came back from the factory for a file he'd forgotten, and found me outside our block of flats. I had neither broken the lock, nor picked it. I'd simply exited the flat via the kitchen window, our tiny second-floor kitchen boasting a gas cylinder. It was not my idea, to be honest. It was Cerasela who'd instructed me to tie two bed sheets together and then waited for me on top of the ledge above the entrance to our block (it was, after all, the first abseil in my life, and a premonitory one at that, since, unbeknown to me at the time, I was to be drafted into the Mountain Guard troops). From the ledge we entered the staircase through another window and thus managed to get out, granted, with no possibility of getting back into our flat. It was a lucky thing Dad came home unexpectedly – apart from boxing my ears with the equivalent effect of eight Moldamin shots, he had the door keys in his pocket.Miracle D: summers are so hot in Severin, so muggy, that you're trying to stay in the shade wherever you can find it. We found it behind some bushes in the graveyard, spread our mat on a very big stone (on which someone had carved some letters and numbers), distributed our things around the house, and started cooking a meal in a rusty tin (which someone had used for lighting some candles), I fetched four earthworms, snapped them into small segments and allowed them to simmer in our stew, the girls chopped rose petals, anemone buttons, iris leaves, folded in some gravel and dirt, stirred well so that the stew wouldn't stick to the bottom of the pot, and when everything was ready, we put the food onto plates (torn out of newspaper sheet so as to approximate round shapes). Next, since we were playing moms and dads anyway, we had to undress and lounge naked about the house, watch TV, hang our clothes on the peg, a wooden cross (on which someone had carved some letters and numbers), but still something was missing, as the mom and the baby had no willies, so we looked around for two twiggies, adjusted them properly, so that Cerasela and Lori would also have their willies like all human beings.Miracle E: the beige Pobeda[4] would drive off its patch of packed earth in a cloud of dust, would charge through puddles splashing right and left like a speedboat, would drive off through the snow leaving deep ruts in its wake, yet it would always grind its way back to the same spot, so that I could see it from our windows, parked sideways outside our block. And there was also Fane from the sixth grade who, as a rule, would hit me repeatedly across the back of the head saying my head looked like a watermelon, and who, after each football game, league or international, would chase me till he caught me, twisted my arms behind my back and unleashed a shower of fillips upon my ears (and such lop-ears, too!) until it hurt so much that I started crying. And then one Wednesday, when the championship was off and no one in Severin remembered the cup because Rapid[5] had beaten Ştiinţa[6] in the last game and they say you shouldn't trouble the dead for forty days after their demise, Fane lent me his catapult. And said I wouldn't be able to hit the Pobeda. Now the Pobeda was no longer parked sideways, for I wasn't upstairs, in either the large or the small room, but down on the packed earth, where I could have a front view of the Pobeda. And you can bet your bottom dollar I hit the target, hit it spot on, I did, first shot I took, I shattered its windshield to smithereens, showering the hood with tiny bluish glass shards (like fish scales), and Fane chased me till he caught me, twisted my arms behind my back till the owner came followed by his wife (the nurse who'd once given me moldamin shots when I had a bad cold); they were screaming their heads off, red in the face like boiled lobsters, he was wearing his pyjamas, she was wearing a housecoat, then everyone came and Fane told them I was supporting Dinamo[7]. Some time later Dad came (he was supporting Steagu'[8]), then he left, not straight away, but in two days or so, left for Bucharest to buy a Pobeda windshield with his holiday money set aside for our trip to Sarmizegetusa.Miracle F: Harun-al-Rashid had been at war for some time, he loved his country and wanted to defend it. But he also loved his wife, and so, although he had the eunuchs guard her against evil men, Harun-al-Rashid, without letting her know, had also arranged for his faithful jinnees to guard her, just in case. And guess what happened. The eunuchs he'd hired were not really eunuchs, they just pretended to be eunuchs, but in actual fact they could do all sorts of things, and as the woman was pining for what Harun-al-Rashid used to do to her in times of peace, she came to an agreement with the eunuchs that they should be doing those things to her, or, well, that they should just do them to each other. T'was a lucky thing the jinnees were there. They got terribly angry about what was going on in the bed chambers, and squeezed under the palace (where the foundations were, I guess) and started shaking it with all their might, hard, real hard, so as to punish Harun-al-Rashid's wife and the eunuchs who'd lied about being eunuchs. And at that very moment, as I was reading how the palace was shaking and how cross the jinnees were, everything started shaking for real, although the block in the Băiuţ Alley was not exactly a palace. The walls and the furniture were making creaking noises, the lamp was swinging as if I had climbed upon a chair and given it a shove with my hand, toys, notebooks, books and pencils were galumphing on the shelves, on the brackets and on the table, my reading lamp was hopping up and down at my bedside, and even I, no matter how hard I was trying to keep to one place, was sliding towards the edge of my bed, but what I found worst was the noise, the windows rattling in their casements, the doors threshing on their hinges, a series of thuds culminating with an explosive one, a racket coming from somewhere else, the objects that, having had enough of galumphing, had now started dropping to the floor, the jinnees were truly going berserk, no matter how faithful they were to Harun-al-Rashid, they were behaving too much like the evil spirits of Crihala and had now stampeded into Drumul Taberei, I could not for the life of me figure out what I'd done wrong, I was a nine-year old child after all (and quite harmless compared to the eunuchs), and I threw my blanket to one side and jumped to my feet and along the corridor I ran into Dad who was reeling towards me, shaken out of his sleep, in his underwear and with no glasses on, then Mom was there too, coming out of the bathroom, all wet, with nothing but a towel wrapped around her body. I was trying to tell them about the jinnees (make them understand), I was stammering, shaking, unable to get the right words out, the three of us were rolling as if on board a ship in the storm, Mom was hugging me in her arms, caressing my hair, she suddenly understood what I meant with those jinnees and told me we had an earthquake. There was an earthquake going on, you know, a big, big earthquake, and on being given that particular piece of information, I no longer worried. Dad was fully awake now, he dragged us into the door frame (Dad was an expert on what had to be done in the event of an earthquake), he was steadying us with his arms, and we just stood there clinging to one another for a long, long time until the objects around calmed down, the creaking noises, the galumphing, the rattling, the threshing and the thuds came to an end, the lights went off, only the moonlight stayed on (a large reddish moon), and now people started galumphing, spilling out of their blocks like ants out of their anthills, screaming and running. I guess no one had told them it had been an earthquake and not the revenge of the jinnees that had hit Drumul Taberei. Later on we discerned by candlelight what had caused the explosive thud following the series of lesser thuds; it was the TV, whose screen had shattered like a Pobeda windshield hit with a catapult. Before I fell asleep, Mom told me a story about a white-dotted mushroom out of which a mass of dwarves were spilling out, running among the tiny flowers and grass blades in the meadow, and screaming happily, just like the people outside.Miracle G: the Spanish teacher was sitting with her legs crossed, the Spanish teacher's skirt had slid back, I was standing next to the teacher's desk watching how the Spanish teacher was correcting my essay in red ink, the Spanish teacher's left thigh was bare, the day was sunny, the Spanish teacher's high-heeled shoe was quivering slightly, on my essay written in blue ink all sorts of red signs were throbbing, the Spanish teacher's left thigh coloured brown whenever a passing cloud obscured the sun, I wished I had written a long, long essay, with plenty of mistakes, because the Spanish teacher's left thigh had dozed off, it had dozed off for sure, one could tell by the way it was breathing, and it would have been such a pity to wake it up. "I feel a different man, with warm blood and an intelligent heart, seeing Filip and Matei Florian's nonchalant naming of important things, objects and beings alike, all that moves or moves not, mothers, fathers, grandparents, younger brothers, bicycles, gossamer, teachers and the Football Minute by Minute radio show, Sunday after Sunday, the figments and delusions and miracles, and even that magical call in the street: "tiche goae, ooo!" (Radu COSAŞU in Preface)
[1] Romanian for "Buying empty bottles" (Sticle goale cumpăr).[2] Drumul Taberei, administrative district of Bucharest.[3] Romanian superstition, according to which bad luck is expected to strike on Tuesdays and Fridays, in the course of three, previously unknown hours.[4] Soviet make of car.[5] Romanian soccer team.[6] Romanian soccer team.[7] Romanian soccer team.[8] Romanian soccer team.

by Filip Florian (b. 1968); Matei Florian (b. 1979)