(part one - fiction)
Six days ago
It was a quiet street, up a slight incline from the main road where I'd disembarked from the tram. There was no traffic along this side-street, though the pavement was lined with parked cars as far as the street's end, old cars I'd never seen the like of before landing in the Czech Republic. The buildings were all tall, grey and uniform, presumably a mix of office blocks and apartments, their ground floor windows revealing blinds and darkened rooms behind frosted glass. The doorways I'd passed, those with clear glass panels, peered into short halls that led into dark corridors and stairwells. Much like the one where I stood now. Through the window I could see the narrow corridor stretching towards the back of the building, tucked alongside a flight of stairs leading up to the next level. A few doorways offered alternative exits, though they appeared without exception to be plain and heavy looking wooden doors, without significant defining features.
I checked against the list of names, and finding the name Horáková prepared to ring once more. As I did so, I noticed a woman descending the staircase, middle-aged and wearing a long brown dress and a grey cardigan over the top, her hair braided and tied into a bun behind her head. As she got closer she glanced up, made eye contact, smiled, and crossed the short distance between the bottom step and the front door. As she opened the door a crack, she smiled once more. "Dobré jitro..." she said, wishing me good morning or something like that, the end of the sentence carrying enough inflection to suggest a question, curiosity as to who I might be.
"Hello. Mrs Horáková? I'm Ewan Brook. We spoke..."
She smiled again, nodding and pulling the door wider. "Yes. Come in, please." She stepped aside, holding the door open until I had managed to pull myself and my bag clear of the street. "It's been quite cold this week - can I get you a warm drink? Some tea, perhaps?", she offered, leading me towards the stairs. "Yes," I said, "tea would be lovely."
She led me to her apartment on the first floor, a small arrangements of rooms with windows looking out onto the street. The buildings across the street looked much like every other in the street, cold and grey and with dark windows revealling little else. "Please, please, sit down," Mrs Horáková said, motioning to the nearest chair in her small living room, then changed her mind and motioned instead "Please, your coat. Let me take that for you." Her English was good, I reflected, though basic. From what I'd heard English was not really common with the older generations this far east. I shrugged the bag off of my shoulder, and pulled my coat off, thanking her as she took it and hung it on one of several hooks by the door, alongside two others, a bright red winter coat and what looked like a man's jacket. I sat down, and looked around the flat a while whilst Mrs Horáková stepped into the kitchen.
I'd obviously arrived whilst she was watching TV, the large box in the corner tuned into the news, the co-host chatting with the lady next to him. A white symbol on the screen indicated she'd switched the sound off. On some shelves behind the TV were a number of items, pieces of glassware, small porcelain cats, an array of family photographs. Looking closer I saw that one photo, of a couple smiling at the camera as they sat in a restaurant, seemed slightly dated, then realised it showed Mrs Horáková as a younger woman.
"How has your trip been?" a voice called from the kitchen.
"Fine," I called back, "Yes, a lot quicker than I expected. It really doesn't seem like I've been gone from home that long." I laughed. "I guess I haven't really."
"Have you ever visited Prague before?"
"No," I said, glancing out of the window, my laughter faltering, as I remembered why I was here. "No. I suppose I should have, really. We never really knew, you know... We hadn't heard..."
"He spoke of you, often, you know. Michael seemed very fond of you all."
I smiled. "Yeah. He's like that. He's just, you know, never been very good at letting anyone know where he was. Especially since his parents passed away. I think it was Christmas we last heard anything, a postcard from somewhere I think. India, maybe Sri Lanka."
Mrs Horáková came into the room, carrying a tray with two mugs of tea, a bowl of sugar and a plate of open sandwiches, some sort of ham and egg on top. She smiled as she set it down on the table between us. "I thought you might be hungry after your journey."
I nodded, adding "Yes, thanks." I took a bite, the bread tasting heavy, the meat slightly peppered. Mrs Horáková let me take several more bites, then motioned towards my mug. "Sugar?" I nodded again, my mouth full, then raised one finger. She smiled, as she tipped a spoonful into my tea, then stirred it. "Thanks," I said, once I was able. She sat back in her chair then, as an afterthought, leant forward and turned off the TV.
"So," she said, after a sip of tea, "you are intending to stay here awhile." "In Prague? Maybe" I answered, before taking another bite into my sandwich. "Ah, yes, in Prague, of course. But you mentioned the apartment upstairs when we spoke on the phone." "Oh, yes, sorry. Yes," I said, putting my sandwich down, "How long has it been empty?" Mrs Horáková shrugged. "Maybe a month?" I reached towards my pocket - I'd promised that Michael's unpaid rent would be sorted out, to make up for his absense, but she waved a hand. "Do not worry about that. I have been able to rent out the apartment a couple of weeks. It is empty now, of course, so you may stay as long as you like."
I nodded. "And his belongings?" Mrs Horáková looked at me, as if waiting for me to continue. "Michael's things?" "Ah, yes, they are upstairs now. In the cupboard." She leaned forwards in her chair and pulled herself to her feet. "I'll get you the keys. You can go up now, if you like." "No rush," I said, as she walked into the kitchen once more. I heard a drawer slide open, and the jangle of keys. "No, no rush," she said, "I'll just put these by the door here." She put the keys down on a small stand next to the front door, where a wooden cat sat, curled up, asleep. As I finished the last sandwich, she returned to her seat.
"I'm sorry I can not tell you more," Mrs Horáková said, after a brief silence. "I did not see Michael for some weeks, and then I found the number for your parents when I went upsatairs to see if he had been in at all. I believe he had been learning to speak Czech for a while. Something to do with his studies. He was..." she paused and frowned. "You hadn't heard from him since last Christmas?" she asked. I nodded "That's right. I think. Well, he may have contacted my parents sometime last year but, no, I haven't heard anything." Mrs Horáková nodded. She seemed to have something on her mind, presumably trying to finding the correct words to use. After a moment, she spoke. "He was involved in some sort of art exhibition. I heard him mention something about a play, at one of the small theatres in the centre of town. Have you heard of 'Black Light'?"
I shook my head. "'Black Light'? Is that the name of the play?"
Mrs Horáková shook her head. "No, no, it's..." She struggled to find the right words, then asked "Have you heard of 'Laterna Magika'?"
Again I shook my head.
She frowned, then held her two hands apart, fingers spread, as she tried to explain. "They're both types of... theatre? They're like plays that use films on screens, sometimes puppets, sometimes dance. They're very popular in Prague, with tourists." She looked at me, clasping her hands together, as if hoping that what she had said made sense. I nodded. "I think I understand. I'm sure I'll be able to find out." She nodded, smiling. "Yes. You will find it hard to miss in Prague." Then she seemed to remember what she had begun to say. "Your brother, he had been working on several things. Yes. A painting too, I think, but most of the time he was preparing for the play... the story of the golem, I think. He was..." Mrs Horáková tapped a finger on the side of her mug as she tried to think of something. Then she looked up, and spoke very seriously.
"He always showed a lot of interest in the stories of Prague. Like the legend of the golem, or the tale of Faust. I think he wanted to somehow interpret those stories. To tell them again, perhaps to tell them in a modern way."
I put my empty mug down. "I don't really know the stories."
Mrs Horáková smiled. "Don't worry. He has his books upstairs. Come."