From the city of dolls
Photo: DM Vyleta
A short story by Mike McCormack

If you ever go looking for this pub here's where to find it. Come off the Charles bridge into Karlova, pass the torture museum and turn left into Liliova. The first of three pubs on this short street you'll find it behind heavy wooden shutters under a yellow Gambrinus sign. During my stint there as a regular it played home to a crowd of hard drinking expats, mainly British IT workers and American real estate sharks who'd been lured to the city on the foot of a property boom which was just about hitting the downside when I got there.

One crowded afternoon I gathered up my newspaper to make space at the table for a beautiful woman in her early twenties who had materialised above me. Her height and bone structure were an immediate give away. Cheekbones, a former girlfriend had assured me, Slavic women have these great cheekbones. Whatever about cheekbones, six weeks casual observation in pubs and on the streets had convinced me that, should the need ever arise, the world could draw on this city's standing army of lingerie models and off duty action movie heroines. Pulling off her coat this particular one motioned to my copy of The Guardian.

'You are English?'
'No, Irish.'
She smiled keenly. 'Sorry.'
'It's ok, we can start again.'

Beneath her coat she wore a scoop necked T-shirt over a grey skirt and black tights. My gaze snagged at the top of her left breast where there appeared the scaly sheen of what I took to be scar tissue; during the next few minutes I tried not to stare at it. She stirred her coffee, turned towards me and we fell to talking in that easy way of strangers who are glad of any contact in a heavy crowd. I told her my reasons for being in the city and she told me about a waitressing job and English lessons across the river in the Berlitz school. Then, without warning, she paused in mid sentence, dipped her head into both hands and yawned hugely.

'I'm so tired,' she said, surfacing abruptly and shaking her head. 'I slept badly. The phone ringing all night, my flatmate is having trouble with her boyfriend.' She yawned again and then added dozily, 'But at least I didn't faint like I used to.'

I was flummoxed - phone calls and fainting - I couldn't see the connection. Before I could say anything she went on, speaking now in the distant tones of one who was recalling some absent version of herself with more than a trace of bemusement.

'When I was a child I used to fall down in a faint whenever I got a fright: doorbells or sudden crashes or even someone coming up behind me and tickling me... down I'd go. But I wasn't the only one - my mother and older sister did the same thing.' She tapped her chest with a narrow index finger. 'It's a heart condition, a weakness which causes it to shut down whenever its rate rises suddenly... It closes down, shuts off the blood supply to my brain and I would fall to the ground in a faint.' She shrugged. 'It was just a part of my childhood, something I did, something we all did as a matter of fact. One day the phone rang in our flat and myself and my sister stood there and saw each others' eyes roll up into our heads before we passed out. My mother in the next room, came in and pulled the fruit bowl off the kitchen table on her way to the floor. That evening my father came home and found the three women in his life in a heap on the floor. Two months later he took off to a clerical job in alignite mine in Slovakia.' She screwed her face into a querulous frown, 'High maintenance, you use that phrase?'
'Yes, we use that phrase.'
'Well that's what we were, three high maintenance girls.'
'Three women,' I blurted, 'three women falling down in a faint...'
'Yes, three women, you can read all about us in medical journals, we're well known in the cardiac community. And my mother is the one with the looks by the way, my sister and I are only so so.'

I didn't remember arguing the point but I let it go. By now she'd emptied her cup of coffee and before I bethought myself I had called for another one and a second beer.
'Is that allowed? All that caffeine...?' I motioned vaguely with my hand.
'No.' She touched the scar tissue above her breast. 'In the early nineties this new technology was developed and my mother and sister were among the first to be fitted with it. It's an electrical device, it kicks in with two hundred and fifty volts whenever your heart rate falls below a certain threshold.'
'Like a jumpstart,' I said.
'Yes, like a jumpstart. I was only sixteen at the time and they didn't know whether it would be safe to fit one for me - no one so young had had it done before. But my fainting fits were becoming more frequent and the periods of unconsciousness were getting longer and longer. They were afraid I might fall down one day and not wake up. So shortly before my seventeenth birthday I had this thing fitted in my chest.'

She reached over and took my hand. Hers was cool and dry, as if it had just been dipped in talc.
'You can feel it here.'
She pressed my hand to the top of her left breast, making it yield under the firm pressure. Pressing hard on my index finger she ran it up and down beneath the seam of her T-shirt. Something wouldn't yield; a narrow rib, thicker than an artery but with a synthetic hardness ran vertically from beneath her collarbone then seemed to sink behind the mass of her breast. Feeling that synthetic hardness beneath her warm flesh I had this crazy thought - this is how you turn into David Cronenberg I said to myself, someone's head is going to explode now any moment.
'I'm proud of my scar,' she said, releasing my hand. 'Four or five teenagers have gone on to have this implant. But I was the first.'

The warmth of her breast hummed on my fingertips. It took me a moment to gather my thoughts.
'It must affect your life, there must be so many things you cannot do?'
She was now openly enjoying my astonishment: her smile broadened.
'I have this little manual,' she said, 'all the things I cannot do. Cycling up hills, sprinting, swimming... it's a long list but as yet I've never tripped it. My mother has though. One day we were hurrying to catch the Metro in Mala Strana, walking quickly, not running. I was two paces ahead of her at the top of the stairs when she called out to me. When I turned around she was sinking to her knees against the wall. Then it kicked in. Have you seen the movie Blade Runner?'
'That scene where Harrison Ford...'
'Dekard, yes. That scene where Dekard hunts down the replicant and she lies dying in the rainy street, kicking her life out. That's what it was like for my mother, really scary. She was thrown to the ground kicking, trying to tear open her blouse. I stood over her trying to keep people away from her. You cannot touch her because she is...'
For the first time she faltered over a word. After a moment's hopeless groping she gave up and held up her hands beseechingly.
'Live?' I said.
'Yes, live, that's the word. She was very embarrassed but she recovered and that was the main thing.' She fell silent for a moment and when she spoke again her voice had a different, giddier timbre to it. 'But there is one way of tripping it that I would like to experience... if you make love very hard it trips the mechanism and... the man is supposed to find it very pleasurable.' She was looking me straight in the eye now and to my embarrassment I found that in my early thirties I was less a man of the world than I had thought.
'But,' she said with a sharp giggle, 'my boyfriend tries very hard.'

I lowered my head to let a complex wave of embarrassment and disappointment pass through me; when I looked up she was on her feet wrapping her scarf around her. I heard myself offering to pay for her coffee and I heard her thanking me. She wished me luck and, with what I fancied must be the fluid grace of an enchantress, she moved off between the tables to the door.

Five minutes later I stepped out into the leaden day, my head still swimming with what I'd just heard. Half way across the old square I pulled up suddenly and looked around me. The penny dropped, it suddenly dawned, a light went on... Of course I thought - this city of dolls and mechanicals, this city of robots and golems... where else would you go to meet an electric woman? As I stood there laughing I became aware of the cold and pulled my coat up around my ears. It was the middle of the afternoon, grey skies snagged in the steeples of the cathedral. The crowds drifted through the square. Three months from now this city would throng with German and Japanese tourists making its narrow streets impassable. Coming here in winter had been one of my better ideas. And turning a full three sixty, watching all those women move smoothly over the cobbled paving in high heels and short skirts, I thought then what I now know - that should I live to be a thousand I would never again visit another city with such a company of tall, beautiful women.

Six weeks later, back home in Mayo, I stood at the bottom of my garden feeding page by page a sizeable manuscript into a small fire. All curdled inspiration and nonsense, every page of it hopeless whimsy, the work of ten weeks. And as I stood there peeling off the pages and dropping them into the flames I thought back to that young woman in the pub. And the thing that came back to me clearest of all wasn't what she'd told me or the strangeness of what she'd told me. No, what came back to me clearest of all was the fact that one day in a strange city a beautiful woman stepped in out of the cold, in out of the blue, sat down beside me and told me a story. And when she had finished she picked up her coat and left. As simple and as graceful as that. That's what came back to me clearest of all.

Published in Transcript 21 by kind permission of the author

© University of Wales, Aberystwyth 2002-2009       home  |  e-mail us  |  back to top
site by CHL