Jan picked up his bag. He had it across his shoulder even before he’d seen the bus coming. Not a second, he thought, pushing his hand across his head to flatten his sleep ruffled hair. Not a second more would he waste in this sorry town.
He looked at the town for the last time, what he could see of it. The low buildings, the pine trees in the park, the ancient children’s playground with its battered rides, peeling paint, rusted brown and faded colours, almost completely dull now.
Lifeless, it was as if the town were a corpse laid out on a slab in a mortuary. Not a sound either, except the low drone of a wood pigeon somewhere nearby but out of sight. He wouldn’t miss it here, not at all.
Jan pressed his face against the clammy window of the bus as it hissed out of the stop and onto the wet road. It was fitting that he should leave on such a grey day. He passed his old house, which would stay empty now. How he had once loved it here, the pub where he had worked before gaining employment at the hotel by the station.
Jan closed his eyes, he couldn’t bear to look at the hotel, an elegant, tall building, the words Hotel Prague embossed into the facade above the door in elaborate lettering, painted gold on green. It was as pretty as a wedding cake, yet old. The paint was chipped, soot clung to the creases in the stucco facade and the windows were blackened and cracked. Still, it was the pride of this miserable town, most of which was built in the nineteen sixties, prefabricated, built not to last.
Jan had finished working in the kitchen of that hotel only hours before, four hours to be precise. He could still smell the bleach under his nails from scrubbing the worktops one last time.
What a way to remember the place, he thought as the bus picked up speed and almost immediately the town was out of sight. Jan inhaled more deeply through his nose and tried to pick up a scent more pleasing, more fitting to the work that he had once loved.
He imagined he smelt herbs, oregano and thyme, the smell of lime, red meat, wine, seafood, even though expensive and had to come such a long way from the sea, Jan had cooked it all, tasted it all too, which was what had attracted him to cooking in his youth, the opportunity to taste such fine foods, to be surrounded by them. He had seen the chefs in the kitchen of Hotel Prague through the window when he was a young boy, had seen chefs on TV, surrounded by hanging hams, strings of garlic, sausage and wooden crates stacked full of fresh green vegetables. Jan knew, even when he was nothing more than a youth, that chefing was the career for him.
It had been easier than he had expected to get started. It was as if fate itself had listened to his years of dreaming and had agreed with him, because the day Jan knocked on the kitchen door of Hotel Prague, intending simply to ask about a job, he was given one that same day. At once he was taken inside, given an apron and set to work.
The job was only washing up of course, but Jan didn’t care. The money was dreadful, but to Jan it didn’t matter because he had no bills to pay, living alone in a tiny house that had belonged to his mother before she died.
In a matter of weeks Jan had been promoted. It seemed no one wanted to work in the Hotel Prague and chefs kept leaving with no one wanting to replace them, something that Jan could never understand. He was promoted eventually to Chef de Partie and couldn’t have been happier with the opportunity. He was even, after a while, given responsibility and soon was inventing and preparing dishes without supervision.
For a while everything was perfect at the Hotel Prague. Jan dedicated himself to his work, rarely finishing work when his shift ended, instead preferring to put in extra hours, sometimes working late into the night, perfecting his culinary skills.
At home Jan read nothing but cookery books, watched nothing on TV but programmes about cooking. He constantly questioned the head chef, a tall man with black, thinning hair and who had instantly taken a liking to Jan.
Jan became an excellent chef. Almost daily he received compliments from customers, some of whom were influential people about town. Mr Svoboda, for example, a ruddy, rotund man, always with a confident smile, a businessman of some sort who was friends with the mayor, he was so in love with Jan’s cooking, that he visited the restaurant every lunch time without fail.
‘Chef Cerny!’ he would exclaim through the kitchen hatch, ‘Chef Jan Cerny, another excellent soup!’ he would cry, or ‘a sensational risotto today, Mr Cerny, you certainly are a superior chef.’
All these compliments, all Jan’s hard work, dedication, ended in him being hated. The other chef’s in the kitchen, driven by jealousy, set out to make Jan’s life miserable. At first they merely teased him, called him names, tasted his cooking and spat it on the floor saying it tasted disgusting, ‘like rat piss’, they would say about his soup, of ‘rat crap!’ they would exclaim laughing after tasting his risotto.
Although, none of this bullying bothered Jan, at least not at first, for he knew it was only teasing, and besides, the customers were full of compliments for his work. However, it wasn’t long before things became more serious. Soon it was more than just words and Jan would finish his shift to find his change of clothes had been hidden, or his house keys had been taken, or once he even found a real dead rat in the pan of soup he had left simmering for the hotel lunch.
After a few months the chefs, all of them except the head chef, who had needed to work less and less in the kitchen since Jan had started, stopped whispering about Jan, stopped teasing him with practical jokes. Eventually they began telling him openly what they thought of him, began telling him that he should leave, that he wasn’t wanted here.
It was too much for Jan, and after a miserable last shift, at two in the morning when he was the only chef left in the kitchen, Jan decided to go. He would go to Prague and find a job in a kitchen there, somewhere new and somewhere in the big city, where Jan had never been, where people were different.
So after going home, packing the few possessions he could take and barely sleeping for half an hour Jan was standing at the bus stop and, within a few minutes, on a bus to Prague.
The journey took four hours and Jan was too excited to sleep. He sat instead watching the Czech countryside pass. Green and rolled, like a crumpled rug that had been carelessly dropped onto the floor. Hills. valleys, rivers beneath high bridges, the specks of brown houses, clumped together to form little villages and towns, each complete with a spire or a water tower. The scenery was beautiful.
It was true though, that the towns became uglier as the bus approached Prague, uglier and bigger, and Prague itself, as the bus arrived in the outskirts of the city, showed itself to be as drab as rows of giant concrete blocks, roads completely wide and straight, with faded painted lines and dusty pavements and dusty trees.
Jan rented a room in a small hotel on the outskirts of the city. It was a giant hotel, no character at all, just a concrete block with tiny black eyes for windows, hundreds of windows – like insect eyes, and it had intimidated Jan when he first saw it, as had the area where the hotel was located. Patchy grass and litter, rusty brown coca-cola bottles and plastic bags wrapped around dead trees.
If it hadn’t been for the people, Jan would have left immediately, because it was the people after all that Jan had escaped from. In Prague people never spoke, never looked at each other, and Jan felt completely alone because of this, anonymous. It was heaven compared to the town he had come from, with its gossiping and bullying and life without walls, where everyone knew everyone else’s business and nothing was private at all.
I will start again, Jan thought, as he strode with confidence out of the hotel for the last time two days after arriving, for he had found a job in a pub by the zoo, had seen an advert that was hand written on a tatty scrap of paper on the notice board in the hotel lobby. After a very short conversation on the phone with a woman called Frau Granger, he had secured the job of Head chef and even been offered accommodation.
‘Come.’ The voice on the other end of the phone had said, ‘Come today, if you like then you stay. The pub is by the zoo.’ The woman’s spoke fast and imperfectly, deep like a man’s and when she coughed, and she coughed several times during the interview, Jan heard the phlegm rattle in her throat. She was not Czech, and for a reason unknown to Jan he was pleased at this, perhaps because he wouldn’t be alone, wouldn’t be the only one who didn’t fit in.
It was again as if the hand of fate had played a part, Jan revelled in the idea, sitting on a city bus that wound and bobbed about the traffic filled streets of Prague. He would be a chef in his own right, he would be in sole charge of his own kitchen, a head chef, head chef Jan Cerny, the though send needles up his spine, to be responsible to no one except himself and to work with no one else.
Jan was in a fine mood when he stepped down from the bus outside the city zoo. It was late in the day, so late that the afternoon was turning to evening, but with the warmth of the afternoon sun still glowing in the air and the sun still floating in the sky, but low and sinking fast behind a tall green sloped vineyard that rose up behind the zoo like a mighty green wave.
Outside the zoo’s entrance sat a small low building with white walls and a red roof. It looked old, as old as the solid looking wall that made the perimeter of the zoo. It had a terraced garden in front of it, cluttered with white plastic chairs and white plastic tables.
This was the pub, Jan stood for a moment looking at it. A black trunked oak tree hung above the building. Its long spidery branches, like fingers, looked as if they were scraping the tiles on the roof, and its green top, bright green, lush despite the tree’s bark being so black and so old, it glowed green. In fact, Jan was surrounded by green, like countryside within the city.
The smell of fields too, a hint of manure and stagnant water that stands in dirty, muddy ponds. All the smells of nature and Jan felt so at home. He belonged here.
There was something else too, a low smell, a quiet smell, yet powerful. A lull of animal, thick and rich and old, exotic, strange. The smell of a zoo permeated into the air, this smell of beast. This zoo was so old, had been here forever, famous, one of the best zoos in the world, it was said, second only to Moscow, biggest in central Europe, more animals than either New York or London.
Jan walked to the gate and took hold of the iron bars with both hands, peered inside. He could see nothing beyond the open space of the entrance square, complete with a ticket office and kiosk that advertised ice creams and beer, snacks. The zoo inside was too thick with shadows for Jan to see any further inside.
Although, he felt an urge to go inside. Strange, sudden and unexplainable, a longing form deep within, low down in his abdomen, to run naked towards the heart, to explore, to find the source of that smell, warm and rich, drifting on the air from somewhere deep inside. The smell of straw and over-ripe fruit and unwashed animal skin, and to push his face into the fur of the animal whose smell was so strong, so powerful.
Jan was jolted to reality when he entered the pub. It smelt so typical, so dull. Smoke and sweat and the chemical smell of toilets. Jan was straight back in the dining room of the Hotel Prague, with all its faded grandeur.
It was a disappointment. This pub, despite Jan’s high hopes before he arrived, it was nothing more than a dirty boozer by the zoo. Empty too, every table, complete with stained red check table cloths, chairs still pushed back from when the last customers had left. A menu was on the table nearest him and Jan picked it up.
Just ordinary pub food. Fried grubs and fried cheese, smoked eggs and jellied bacon. No wonder the pub was so sorrowful and empty, no one was eating here, drinking here, no one had reason to, no one except a woman, who sat at a table at the furthest end of the pub. She read a battered red book, her face hidden by shadows but lit momentarily by the red glow of a cigarette tip. A cloud of smoke hung in the air above the table.
A waiter, he couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old, meandered away from this solitary customer, moving sloppily between the empty tables, bumping into one and sending the pepper pot onto its side. In one hand he had a full ashtray and an empty glass in the other. His thin wrists drooped beneath the weight of the thick glass of the ashtray and from the other hand he slopped dregs of beer onto the floor. He narrowed his eyes at Jan as he passed.
Jan said hello, gave a nervous smile, but the boy gave no answer, as if he hadn’t heard. He pushed through a door at the back of the pub and was gone.
Another man was behind the bar, shorter than the boy and thicker and older. He had thick brown hair, thick and dark and lush and his eyes were small, close together. He looked at Jan and a smile slopped across his chin. He wore a brown leather apron and it wrapped tight around his protruding belly. He hunched his frame across the steel bar top as he looked at Jan.
‘ahoj.’ he said, leered with a wet-lipped-slack jaw, his mouth hanging open after he had spoken.
‘Hello.’ Jan replied, finding it difficult to not feel intimidate by this man, the way he looked at him, the slur in his voice, the wandering of his eyes, ‘I’m Jan.’
The man just eyed Jan with his piggy eyes and sloppy grin, wet mouthed and simple. He said no more.
So Jan repeated himself, ‘I’m Jan. I’m here about the job. I’m the chef, the new chef.’ And he fished in his pocket for the scrap of paper with the name of the manager he had spoken to earlier. ‘I’m here to see Mrs…’ but the paper must have fallen out somewhere along the way from the hotel, ‘I’m sorry, can I see the manager>’ Jan said, beginning to feel helpless, and knowing by the vacant staring look on the man’s face that he wouldn’t be able to help him.
Poor soul, Jan thought, the man was clearly demented and Jan, aware that he was staring at him, at his misted expression and idiot smile. A head as empty as a ping pong ball, this man’s head, but then he spoke, more a grunt than a word and a little spit looped across his chin when he spoke, his words as indistinguishable, an animal growl and not real human words.
‘Sorry?’ Jan felt awkward at having to ask the man to repeat himself. ‘Sorry, was that your name?’
The man grunted again. The same sound, but clearer now and Jan thought perhaps the man was saying his name, simple as he was, probably the only word he knew.
‘Gregg?’ is that your name?’ Jan said, picking the closest sounding name to the noise the man was making. ‘Gregg? Is your name Gregg?’
‘Gregg.’ the man repeated after Jan, but louder, ‘Gregg, Gregg, Gregg.’ He repeated, each time even louder, like a bark. ‘Gregg!’
Jan stepped back from the bar and in doing so upturned a tray that had been set on a table behind him. It clattered to the floor. A glass shattered.
The man’s excited state aroused further by the commotion, lunged forward, jumped onto the bar top and, still shouting the name, saliva wetting his chin, his eyes wild with frenzied delight, jumped up and down on the bar top so that his feet hammered on the stainless steel, a shower of spray from the wet beer tray.
‘Stop!’ a woman’s voice, sudden and deep and commanding.
The barman froze, looked at where the voice had come from. Jan looked too.
A woman had appeared. She was short and stout and had a bitterness to her face. Broad shouldered and with short hair. She marched between the tables towards them, chest out, shoulders back, arms swinging and as sure of herself as an army sergeant major.
‘Get down form there at once.’ She said, not shouting, but her voice was loud enough to punch through the air with such forced that the man got down from the bar immediately, apologetically wrinkling his brow and clutching his big hands in front of his chest.
The woman didn’t need to say anything more, she simply looked at the man, only for a second, which must have seemed like a million years to the poor demented man, who couldn’t keep eye contact with her and instead looked down at the floor, at his hands as they squirmed against each other.
The woman turned to Jan then, looked down at him because in the shock of the moment he had fallen backwards into a chair.
‘You must forgive my barman.’ The woman said in a low voice, holding out a hand to help Jan to his feet. Jan recognised her voice from the phone conversation earlier ‘Gregg is a simple man,’ she went on. ’He sometimes finds it hard to control his emotions, but do not worry, he will never hurt you.’
Jan smiled and awkward smile, not convinced by the woman’s words.
‘You are Jan.’ She said, clutching Jan’s hand and pumping it, nearly crushing it with the immense strength of her fingers. ‘Come,’ she continued, ‘I will show you to your room and you can put your bags down.
Jan moved to follow and felt the crunch of broken glass beneath his feet.
‘Leave it.’ the woman said, sensing that Jan was about to stoop and pick up the broken pieces. She shouted towards the kitchen door in a language that Jan didn’t understand. To which the boy came out again, moving more quickly, aware of the displeasure in the woman’s voice and when she spoke to him, address him by the name Ethel, he moved with the same floating movements, looking at Jan as he passed him. The barman was looking too, although not smiling this time.
Jan was pleased to leave and followed the woman up a set of stairs, which were dimly lit and creaked beneath Jan and the woman’s weight.
‘Is it usually this quite.’ Jan said, feeling the need to speak.
‘Yes.’ She said, keeping her back to him.
‘I mean,’ Jan went on, ‘is it always this quiet throughout the year, even in Summer, or on public holidays?’
‘Yes, always this quiet.’ The woman said, making it clear that she didn’t want to be drawn into a conversation. She led him along a corridor to a room at the end of the building. It was small but contained a double bed and a window that overlooked the zoo.
She talked then, about the pub, telling him everything he needed to know, which wasn’t much. There were rules of course, about not making a mess and not having guests, but Jan had expected that. He had begun to feel tired, didn’t have the energy to listen properly and as soon as the woman had gone he opened the window and lay down on the bed. He soaked himself in the smell that drifted in from outside. The smell of the zoo. Sweat and skin and unwashed hair.
The smell wrapped itself around him, smothered him like a blanket, warm and coarse and safe. The smell of the jungle, the African planes, the ice capped iceburgs that float in the salted frozen seas. He was there, all at once in all these places, yet at the same time here, listening from afar to the distant sounds of drums, the cracking of melting ice caps, of lonely saddened roars.
Jan fell asleep thinking these things and despite it being early, he slept; a dreamless sleep, long and deep and peaceful. Thinking as he drifted off, that the animals in the zoo slept too, that all around him, animals lay snug in thick piles of straw, warm and secure.
The following morning Jan awoke suddenly. When he opened his eyes it was with a panic, not knowing where he was, and it took several seconds before he recognised the room he was in, blinking in bewilderment, and his head aching with a pain so intense he was forced to close his eyes again.
He sat up in bed, shielding his eyes with his fingers and he peered between the gaps. The room was familiar from the night before, but he had no memory of arriving here. It was as if he had been drunk last night. He felt sick, his mouth dry, so dry he had to prise his tongue from his pallet.
A foul taste in his mouth, Jan staggered along the hall to the bathroom, a small wood panelled room, damp and cold. A window, too high to see out of and made from frosted glass was open above the sink and when Jan reached up to try and close it, he found it wedged open, the frame so rotten it wouldn’t ever move again.
The water stank, ripe like cabbage and an egg smell rose up in a green cloud when he lifter the toilet seat. It was so disgusting Jan thought he might vomit, and when he left the bathroom to go downstairs, to begin his first day as Head chef at Hotel Zoo, a job he had thought would make him feel proud, he felt more dirty than before he had entered the bathroom.
‘Aha, good morning.’ a cheery voice greeted him as soon as he stepped through the door at the bottom of the creaking steps into the pub.
‘Morning.’ Jan murmured, at first not recognising the barman from last night. He stood smartly behind the steal topped bar, exactly where he had stool the night before, shoulders straight with an alert smiling face and with his hands he was polishing a wine glass. Jan could barely believe it was the same person.
‘Did you sleep well?’ the barman enquired, placing the glass he had been polishing on the bar top and picking up another, which he began to polish, spitting and then working it into t a shine.
‘Yes, thank you.’ Jan replied, and the memory of this man from last night, a hazy memory of him begin wild like an animal, deranged and stamping with his feet on the very bar that he was placing polished glasses onto this morning, flickered like an old film through his memory. Like a dream, distant and sepia.
‘You alright,’ a chirpier voice still, ‘looks like you could do with a cup of tea.’
Jan looked up to see the young waiter, wide eyed and excited looking. He too, like the barman, stood with his shoulders straight and his small chest inflated beneath a crisp white shirt, clean and smelling of washing powder.
‘Sit down.’ he said and ushered Jan into a chair, which he pulled out from beneath a table by the kitchen door. ‘You look like you’ve woken with a bad head.’ he went on, smiling at Jan with youthful politeness and an intelligent city twang to his voice.
‘Gregg, get him a cup of tea, would you?’ he said, to which the barman, smiling in reply, bounced on his heels with a bow, hands in pockets and bending at the waist, ‘certainly, Sir. One cup of Prague-Zoo-Recovery-Tea coming up – strong, black and with two sugars.’ He laughed.
Jan watched then as the two men, one young and spritely and the other middle aged and cheerful, moving about the bar. The young one laying tables, setting out menus, polishing cutlery and the older one cleaning glasses behind the bar, running clear liquid from the beer taps. All the while both smiled, both making cheerful remarks as they worked.
‘Lovely weather,’ one of them said. ‘Wonder if it’ll be busy today,’ was another comment, or, ‘how do you think her ladyship will be feeling this morning?’, which was a remark that sent both men into reels of laughter, loud and confident and as jolly as school girls.
Jan could barely believe what he saw, barely stand it either. It was the same too men from last night, he was sure of that, but so different in how they acted. It was as if some sort of joke had been played on him, as if last night they had wanted to frighten him by pretending something had been wrong with them, that they were ill, disturbed. It all seemed so distasteful, so pointless, and for a moment Jan was back in the Hotel Prague with his bullying colleagues and their tedious games.
‘Hadn’t you better get in the kitchen and get started?’ the barman asked in a less jovial tone, interrupting Jan’s thoughts. Jan was half way through his tea and he looked up at the man.
‘No, I thought I ought to wait for Frau Granger to arrive before I started. Is she normally this late?’
‘Well,’ the barman scoffed, ‘you can wait if you like, but I wouldn’t recommend it. She’s not normally here until late but you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.’
‘But she ought to be here, especially on my first day, at least to show me around.’ Jan thought, but didn’t say it. The barman had spoken with such conviction, sounding genuine, that Jan thought he better follow his advice. He picked up his half drunk tea and went through into the kitchen.
It was a poorly lit room, a naked bulb hung above a steal worktop in the middle of the room, and it glowed a weak yellow, barely providing enough light it was so coated in grease. The window too, like the window in the bathroom, was too high to look out of and it was also so coated in dirt, that must have splashed up from the window ledge outside, that it was as misted as a pane of frosted glass.
Jan set to work. Perhaps they were playing a joke on me, he thought, looking through the tall fridge, which was almost empty. After all, they’ve been very nice this morning. He looked in the pantry, a small room which led off the side of the kitchen, and found enough ingredients to make a potato soup, and leaving it on the stove to simmer, he pushed through the door to the bar and told the barman that he should write it on the specials board.
‘Right-o.’ The barman replied.
However, Jan needn’t have bothered. He cooked nothing during his first shift that wasn’t deep fried and from the freezer. All day, plates came back from the bar smeared with grease and ketchup. The waiter, still cheerful, stacked them by the side of the sink with a clatter, smiling a sympathetic smile as the pile became higher and seeing Jan’s disillusionment, tried to cheer him up.
‘Chin up, mate.’ He would say, or ‘Never mind, at least it’s nice weather out today. Not that we’ll be seeing any of it.’
He had a keen wit, the barman, able to judge Jan’s state of mind without him needing to say anything.
‘I’d watch out if I were you.’ He said, leaning forward and whispering through a cupped hand in a theatrically conspiritol manner. Jan strained his back so that his ear was facing him, eager to hear what he had to say.
‘She’ll be here in a minute and she won’t like all this mess.’ He nodded to the pile of plates beside the sink.
It wasn’t the plates that concerned her though.
‘What’s this about soup?’ she snapped as she entered the kitchen, not waiting for Jan to turn from the worktop before speaking.
‘Soup?’ Jan had forgotten about the soup he had prepared this morning. The pot still steamed on the hob, the only thing in the kitchen that gave off a flavour of any kind. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, sensing by her face, screwed up like a fist, that he needed to apologise. ‘I made it this morning. I thought it might be popular. I don’t know why no one has order –‘
‘In this pub you’ll stick to the menu.’ She interrupted him. ‘I don’t care what fancy food you’ve cooked before, but here you’ll do what I say.’ And with that she left the kitchen, the door swinging behind her.
When Jan left the kitchen at the end of the day, his head hanging from his shoulders and dropping his apron across the edge of the draining board, not caring that he had put it straight into a pool of greasy water that had slopped from one of the plates still stacked by the sink, he knew he had made a mistake.
Although the chefs in Hotel Prague had hated him, he thought, passing Ethel the waiter who was now slumped in a chair with a self rolled cigarette between his fingers, and although the dining room was as dirty and dilapidated as this pub, with its check table clothes and burn marks on the floor, yellowed wallpaper and dust stuck by tar to the blades of the fan that cut lazily through the smoky air, at least it had good food.
What hope is there for me here, he thought, looking in through the window of the pub, having walked outside and seeing Frau Granger in the corner she had sat in last night. She was crumpled into a chair with her back to the wall, looking all the more like a burnt and busted stub of a cigar.
A thin ribbon of smoke rose above her and she scribbled in the same red bound book she had scribbled in the night before. How he hated her, Jan glared through the glass at the woman who had deceived him with her offer of a job, grandly titled Head Chef. There was nothing in the slightest ‘Head-ish’ about this job. He was a frying grease monkey, heating orders of horrible processed food to order.
Frau Granger must have sensed him looking at her, either that or heard what he was thinking, because she looked up suddenly and screwed her face at him. Jan immediately looked away, may have even smiled an apologetic smile, so used in his nature was he at trying to make a good impression.
He turned from the window just as the last bus full of zoo visitors was leaving. It whirred out of the small square with a strained roar, like an old horse that’s been worked too hard in a job it didn’t feel it was ever born to do, and Jan empathised with it.
He walked across to the gates and found himself standing in the same position as last night and as he looked, watched the inside of the zoo, which looked as empty and as shadow filled as it had last night, he smelt something familiar in the air.
Slow at first, a quiet smell drifting coyly from behind the kiosk that sold snacks, moving between the bins that were overfilled with rubbish and not yet emptied, across the footprints in the loose gravel around the ticket office.
It flicked at Jan’s nose, as shy as Jan himself was, teasing him unobtrusively, trying to be unseen as if it were ashamed of its very existence; but then it began to caress Jan and all at once he was surrounded by it, smothered by it. The smell, it was all around him.
The smell of the wild, so strong it became a sound, the sound of the wild, distant jungle drums and lonely roars. The sound of animals moving, shifting so that fur rubbed across fur, black leathery shiny skin on black leathery shiny skin and the colours all so green, so green they shone fluorescent , and the smell.
Sweat, sweet and as individual as a finger print. All at once Jan saw them all, all of these animals kept deep inside, out of sight beyond the entrance to the zoo. Fifty crowns to come inside and see them, fifty animals suddenly inside Jan’s mind and he could see them all, the small rat like rodents, the dog like prowlers, the tall skinny giraffes with their nervous laughs.
But from deep inside, deeper than any of the other smells, he saw the biggest, blackest of them all. Sixteen feet tall and locked inside one thick cage within another cage, paced silently, half mad through boredom, a gorilla, the gorilla Utongu.
Barely fit to walk, Jan staggered back to the pub. Unbelievably tired, his legs were made of stone and he walked through water, as thick as the soup that lay untouched on the kitchen stove, a thick skin with the texture of rubber forming a plug across the top.
Ethel’s head was lolling to the side in the big armchair. His tongue lolled too and a silver thread of saliva, thick like that of a big spider’s web, hung down so that it connected his face to his shoulder.
He eyed Jan with the same pie eyed expression that he had eyed him with the night before. Fixing a drunken gaze on him from across the table he sat behind, through the haze that wasn’t made of smoke now, not like it had been during the afternoon, but more the misted green of a smell, that smell from outside, made of straw and dirty animal dreams.
The barman too, behind the bar (as he had been every time Jan had seen him, Jan realised now), and just as the waiter, he was wet lipped and stupid and he hunched his shoulders over the counter.
Sweat glistened on his face, his shirt gaped open beneath the leather apron he wore, revealing a damp hairy chest, hair in matted clumps, unwashed and gelled with sweat into peeks, and he laughed.
Deep and from his gut, air sputtering gently through his idiot smiling lips and crooked teeth, foul and sour breath, billowing in an invisible cloud around him. Yet somehow he didn’t seem as frightening as he had seemed last night.
Then suddenly a voice. ‘Sit down, beast.’ the manager’s voice from somewhere behind him, ordering from her dark seat in the corner, ‘before you fall down.’
Jan didn’t have the energy to turn and look and it was a long moment before he understood that she was talking to him.
There was nothing funny about this, the way he felt, and Jan wasn’t laughing as the other two were. Even Ethel had started, a half smile on his open mouth and he huffed out a rhythmic laughing air. It felt weird, everything felt strange and Jan fell into the chair opposite Ethel. He tried to smile at him but couldn’t be sure if he was able to, his face completely numb and he felt it with his hands and it made a slapping sound as his wet palms, sweating now, hot, he felt so hot, wet palms made contact with his face.
‘You smell it too?’ Jan tried to speak, but the words came in a slur, and anyway the barman and the waiter weren’t listening, too busy laughing, too lost in their delirium, which made Jan laugh too and it sounded like the barman’s laugh.
This made the barman laugh harder and he banged his fists into the metal of the bar-top, causing a crashing sound. The stack of glasses chinked like the high hat on a drum kit and then he began stamping his foot like a bass drum.
An exciting sound, it echoed inside Jan’s head. Jan was on his feet before he could stop himself, he howled with delight, felt spit loop from his mouth onto his chin.
This is it, he thought, this is bloody well it. I’m in I’m one of them, and he howled again, felt like an animal in a pack and he was right because the barman howled too and jumped on the bar.
Jan climbed up onto the table in front of Ethel who, still unable to move, looked up at Jan and laughed a slack-jawed laugh, noiseless above the sound of Jan and the barman’s shouts, howls, stamping of feet.
Forget Hotel Prague, forget you pathetic, miserable bullies in pathetic white hats, pretending to be chefs, playing a game, playing with me, forget you all and your miserable jelousy.
Suddenly Jan could see them all, looking at him across the kitchen, but not laughing now, not pointing, teasing, crowding round as he choked on some spice they’d slipped into his tea. Instead they cowered from him, timid with worried faces and Jan danced all the harder on the table top, Ethel below him clapping his spastic hands.
Jan was alive, Jan felt free, but he didn’t see the manager come up from behind him, he only heard too late.
‘Down, Pigs.’ She shouted and in the second it took for Jan to register and to turn round she had fired something into his leg. The red feathered head of a dart stuck out from his thigh. He clutched at it but his arm flapped like a disjointed limb of a child’s puppet.
As he fell he heard the swoosh of a second dart, presumably for the barman, who howled with pain at the same time as Jan crashed face first into the floor.