THE TOWER BRIDGE TURRETS
One fine day Peter Iron-Fist told us that as far as he was concerned, her breasts were the size of the turrets on London’s Tower Bridge. I have no idea where he got his information about London’s landmarks. Not only was he the biggest bully in eighth grade, he was also almost as dumb as dirt.
When he made this unlikely, erudite comparison we were still seventh graders, and truth to tell, we appreciated his insight almost as much as she did. Those monumental turrets had begun to cast lengthening shadows when we were still in fifth grade, but we were all sexually naïve then. Instead of lusting after them we laughed at them. What did we know about the hallowed hollows of the flesh or the depths of the soul? It goes without saying that Rubens was far from our favorite painter in those days.
We gave her a predictably degrading nickname – ‘Milky’. The milk shop Edelweiss close to our school sold yoghurt in big aluminum containers shaped like slanted cones. The shopkeeper ladled the yoghurt with broad, flat scoops into tin mugs that we took home. On its way from the cones to the tin mugs perched on the scales, the yoghurt would shake in the scoop like Milky’s burgeoning turrets in physical training class, when she had to race from one end of the playground to the other. Her bulging white gym shirt always crossed the finish line well ahead of the rest of her.
Had Milky’s magnificent architecture been of less epic proportions, we would have thought of her as a tall, slim, good-natured, and very intelligent girl. She got straight A’s in all her subjects, including physical training. Her face was almost Greek but not quite, since her nose was a little too prominent, but the line from her forehead to her chin flowed smoothly and serenely. That admirable profile, combined with her large, limpid brown eyes and raven hair, would have given her a regal air. But ever since fifth grade, the older students had forgotten her many admirable qualities and become totally preoccupied with her bodacious bosom.
Milky’s laughter could be heard a block away from the school on one side and from the far end of the yard on the other, all the way to the three mulberry trees. Nobody had a laugh like hers. As it began it sounded like a cat purring, then it got faster, like a zesty Bulgarian folk dance. It ended in a gasping contralto, as if she had just scaled Mount Blanc, at the very least. Then the purring would begin again, followed by the quickening crescendo….
As the school year progressed, to prove we were men of the world we felt obliged to put our hands on those majestic turrets, and we also did whatever it took to ignite that volcanic laughter. Before long, half of the school was bragging that they had managed both. Her laughter echoed constantly from one corner of the school playground to the other, making us wonder if the other girls had begun imitating her or if we were experiencing auditory hallucinations. We had all heard the stories about how this or that guy had approached her, how they flirted before he put his hands on her breast, how he rubbed it in a slow circle until the nipple was aroused. We all knew those stories were nothing but outright lies and tall tales, but we also hoped and believed that there was a grain of truth in them too.
When I started seventh grade I was given the singular honor of serving as her carrier pigeon, delivering messages to Peter Iron-Fist about where they would meet after school. Just thinking about their secret rendezvous excited me, though I still wonder what she saw in him. The only halfway intelligent thing he ever said was his crack about the London Bridge turrets. Well… so what!
And truth to tell, she honored a few guys with such notes every day, and I wasn’t her only carrier pigeon. It was just that Peter Iron-Fist would butt into breakfast line ahead of me and snarl, “Listen, little dude, make sure Tower Bridge Turrets sends me a note today. Got it?”
“Got it,” I answered, so quietly I could barely hear my own words, as often as not getting out of line without even buying the cheese pancake I was waiting for. I trotted dutifully between them quite a few times, and that was enough to put me in their good graces. I haven’t seen The Go-Between, and I don’t know the name of the carrier pigeon in that film. What’s more, I also delivered notes to some of her other boyfriends. My devotion to Milky was enough to earn me an invitation to a party she threw at her place.
When I walked into her spacious apartment on Vitosha street, I wasn’t in the least impressed with the furniture, carpets, crystal table ware, pictures, or photos on display. There was a picture of her grandfather as a student in Germany, and one of her grandmother in France, but I couldn’t spot a picture of her mother and father. I only remember that I lit a Pall Mall – the first one in my life, started coughing fiercely, had a couple shots of Courvoisier – totally tasteless. Then somehow I ended up sitting next to Milky on the floor. We were listening to some awesome music – the Bee Gees, Smokie, Grand Funk, the Eagles… When the song “Hotel California” came on, Milky couldn’t contain her emotion. She grabbed my head and drew it close to one of the turrets, all the while gently swaying to the rhythm, apparently transported to the lovely place the song spoke of. My ear was cradled deep in her breast, and it felt as hot as if it were resting on an electric heater. I could barely breathe. The warmth quickly spread from my ear to the rest of my body.
I was transported to an exotic place, complete with tour guide. I was amazed to find that my body had turned into a huge ear nestled in the blissful sanctuary of an all-inclusive hotel. When the song ended, Milky pushed me away somewhat abruptly and turned her attention to her other guests. But I had touched the turrets and joined the ever-expanding charmed circle. What can I say? I had graduated from abject carrier pigeon to suave young stud!
I remained her devoted servant for a few more months. Then she enrolled in the English language school, and I went to the German school. Years later we met a few times at Sofia university, had coffee, and recalled the craziness of our school days together. She had thrown herself into a whirlwind affair with a Nigerian, and even married him. But after a week in Nigeria she decided the risks outweighed the rewards. She returned to Bulgaria a second-hand rose, but as far as I could tell, the misadventure did little to shake the sense of self-worth resident behind her proud turrets. I also noticed that now she carried those turrets grandly, fully aware of their magnetic power. The awed gaze of men followed her wherever she went.
She was bursting with ideas, plans and projects. Apart from her ongoing studies at the university, she was working as a translator for some English company. She was out to conquer the world, not just enflame men’s desires. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise about what I was doing. She just wasn’t interested. I was no more than a roadside thistle that had blown across her path – her path was more like a superhighway to the great future she had planned for herself.
She managed to steer the conversation to a twenty-page document about building materials that she needed translated into German, in two days. She did it so skillfully that it almost sounded like I had volunteered. The project cost me a sleepless night, as I let her know in no uncertain terms when we met the next day.
“I could have been holding you all night, instead of choking on jargon about German building materials.”
The turrets seemed to nod sympathetically as she progressed from purring chuckle to folk dance laugh. There was no gasping crescendo, though. Instead, she thanked me profusely and assured me she would remember my good deed for the rest of her life. B I was the one who paid for our coffees in the Viennese coffee bar, as usual.
She disappeared down a crowded street, and I head nothing more of her for twenty years. I had long stopped staring at particularly well-endowed women. I had come to prefer the pleasure of smaller, firmer forms. I had published three books of poetry – attempted atonement for a catalogue of spiritual sins. I reluctantly ended my years of heedless bachelorhood, founded an advertising agency that went bankrupt, then took shelter at a highbrow newspaper, offering regular pronouncements and analysis on the state of the economy.
Then one fine day I saw her again on Vitosha boulevard, coming out of a boutique, burdened with purchases. I had just finished a gloomy forecast filled with dire warnings about the welfare of all Bulgarians for the next twenty years. It had left me with a sour taste in my mouth, as if I had just swallowed a handful of coarsely ground Brazilian coffee beans. I was happy to see her, though for a long time afterward I wondered why. She had hardly aged. She was now a loyal subject of Her Majesty the Queen of England, settled in the center of London just north of Hyde Park, not far from Oxford Street, a short stroll to Padington Station. It was obvious that all her shopping had worn her out, and she could barely manage her bulging shopping bags. She suggested we get coffee at a bar nearby.
She told me her husband manufactured construction equipment. She had tried a few different businesses herself, and now owned a catering agency. She was chairman of a Bulgarian-English cultural organization, helped organize exhibitions of sculpture, pottery, and wood carving. She said the British greatly admired Bulgarian works of art.
“But enough, about me. How are you, what have you been doing, lately?”
I don’t remember what provoked her sudden interest in me. It might have been because I offered her a wry compliment, comparing pottery and woodcarving to the sweeping curves of her body, adding that curves like hers would always stoke the furnace of men’s desire.
Then for the first time she said she wanted to share something private and intimate with me. It made me a little teary-eyed. “I’m not very sure that I can be much of a help to you”, I started to apologize trying to find a way out. “Don’t be so modest. You’ve published three books, haven’t you? I saw one of them in Peter’s office. You remember Peter from school?”
How could I forget Peter Iron Fist and his Tower Bridge turrets? He had opened a small car body repair shop. Once when I took my battered Skoda to him to fix some dents, I gave him one of my books, foolishly hoping that he might reduce the repair costs. Though he praised me, insisting that even back when he was butting in front of me in the cafeteria he knew I’d amount to something. But my hope for a discount turned out to be a chimera.
“Promise me you’ll take a look at my manuscript and tell me what you think of it.”
I promised to give it my closest attention. What else could I say? At least this time she paid for the coffee.
The next day a large manila envelope arrived at the office. Pricked by curiosity, I tried to decipher the smudges of a number-two pencil that had produced an illegible scrawl. When I got home, I opened the envelope; what I saw ruined the rest of my evening. Even my gloomiest premonitions about her “intimacy” now seemed as sanguine as a rosy weather report just before an unexpected storm. After a few hours of wrestling with three pages of her penciled hieroglyphics, I finally managed to make out a word or two. It was as painful waiting for her call as if I had been sitting on a cactus.
“Hellooo…” A long, loud, energetic contralto. “What are you doing, handsome?” Before I could come up with a diplomatic refusal, she blurted, “So when shall we see each other again? How’s six tomorrow evening, Schweik’s for French fries and beer? Deal? Gotta run, a million things to do today. So see you there.”
I too had my hands full trying to get to the bottom of some municipality scam to do with land given as a concession to some likely characters. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t handsome, that if I made the office more attractive it was like a cactus in bloom and nothing more. I wanted to tell her that there was no need to meet at all, that I had already promised to take my wife and daughter to Happy for a bite to eat. Once again I felt like a shitty, acne-ridden seven-grader with my hands full of her love notes, a pathetic carrier-pigeon. The best thing I could do was not to show up at all.
But I was there exactly at six. I was almost finishing my first beer I saw her two turrets quake at the door, followed by the British subject herself, burdened with a big paper bag with a gleaming label that said Beauty. There were a few drops of perspiration on her upper lip. With an elegant gesture she removed a packet of tissues from her purse. I could smell a touch of rose oil mingled with the dew on her skin. Then she brushed a hand across her high forehead, discretely opened the neck of her blue checked summer dress and dabbed deep at her regal cleavage.
“Unbearable heat, isn’t it?”
About thirty degrees I answered dutifully, ever her faithful servant. “Don’t be angry with me, handsome. I had to deal with some of my tenants in a shop I own on Solunska street. Tiresome, I’d say. They always say the same thing: “We’re short of money.” She put her hand on mine, gently walking her fingers up and down.
“In England people have learned to manage perfectly well without watches, I gather.”
“You’re trying to scold me. It doesn’t become you.” Her fingers continued their walk on my hand. I’ll call the waiter. Do you want beer? Tell me what you think about what I’ve written.”
“I don’t think anything about it.”
“And why is that?” She almost hiccupped with surprise. “It’s true that what I’ve scribbled is unpretentious, but...”
“ As a rule we are quick to praise those who admire us.”
“What do you mean by that? I can’t understand you. I feel terrible. It seems it’s not worth talking to you about it…”
A shadow of anxiety darkened her pampered, serene face. For the first time I felt like the master of the situation with her, and my soul puffed up with an almost indecent Schadenfreude. I had my microscopic revenge for not being able to eat pizza with my wife and daughter.
“I thought I noticed affinities with Labrouet, by way of Larochefoucault, but most likely I was wrong to refer your work to the moralists of the seventeenth century.”
That made her smile more calmly. “Oh, was that what troubled you? Wait a minute, I’ll try to remember… Uh huh, I did have something like that in mind. Certain shortcomings produced judiciously shine brighter than virtue itself.”
Now she had really leveled me. I had to admit that I didn’t have a clue about what she meant. I don’t know whether she was play-acting, but suddenly her wide, almond eyes filled with tears. And to confirm that stupid ideas never travel alone, I stupidly gave her not one but two suggestions. She could type her text and send it as an e-mail attachment. Or she could record it as an audiocassette. It turned out that she was returning to London in just a few days, and she said it would be impossible to find a Cyrillic typewriter. That remark almost made me cry. So she didn’t even own a computer. The woman was more tragic than farcical. So the best thing to do would be to make an audiocassette. How brilliant I was! Especially since seventh grade, I added, to remind her. I told her I could transcribe the text from the cassette and edit it at the same time. She would find some way to thank me. That remark caused her V-neck to open provocatively, and under the table I could feel the warmth of her thighs.
Then to my surprise, since the question was uncharacteristically thoughtful, she asked if I had time to write “just for fun.” By this time I was dizzy and drained, so I shot her a look of manic gloom and pushed my latest book in her direction as tribute.
“Well, well, it looks great, absolutely great! I’ll read it with pleasure.”
I was sure the inane cackling was deliberate. And why not think about publishing my absolutely great book in England, with the help of her foundation? At this point, I confess that I took the bait. The scribbler hasn’t been born who doesn’t nurture a little Narcissus in some dark corner of a perverse subconscious. And that voice deep within me whispered why hide poems in a drawer with thread and sewing needles, like that reclusive fool Emily Dickinson? I was no such shrinking violet. So we chomped fries and wet our whistles with beer, the liquid men like most, letting the horses of literary ambition gallop freely, while my family waited less and less patiently at home for me to deliver the pizza I had promised. They weren’t overjoyed to see me when I showed up two hours late.
After only a fortnight, the chief editor’s private secretary advised me that she was about to put through a call from London.
“ Hellooo, helloo, handsome! Is that really you? It’s as drizzly as usual here and the fog – unbelievable. How are you? How is your Slavic soul?” I had long grown accustomed to her spate of rhetorical questions and knew she didn’t expect me to answer, so I just waited for something more substantial. “Your idea was terrific, I want to kiss you all over. I recorded the first cassette and will send it to you. It’s going well, as you’ll see. Most likely I’ll record at least five cassettes, maybe more. I’m sending the first one today with someone who is going to Bulgaria. He’ll probably get in touch with you tomorrow. I send you oodles and oodles of kisses.”
“Kisses,” I answered, ever her idiot echo.
Her courier found me the very next day. He was a member of parliament who had visited her for a few days. He insisted we meet at exactly noon behind at the guard station, but I had to wait more than thirty minutes to take the sacred parcel. He no doubt thought of me as little more than a wheeler-dealer janitor. Still, such a strange hybrid merited his special attention, so whether out of duty or idle curiosity he invited me for a cup of Pickwick tea at the parliament café. He sadly reported that he had failed to gain an audience with the Queen, but he had hobnobbed with people almost equal to her in rank. He had visited the British Museum, Parliament, Westminster Abby. He showed me pictures of himself in front of Big Ben, and Tower Bridge. I didn’t let on what the last landmark meant to me personally. He eloquently assured me that Milky had been the perfect host in her cozy cottage, where they carried endless, profound, and profoundly moving conversations. I made my escape before he could plumb the depths of my hybrid nature or bore me to death with all the details of his selfless generosity as our mutual friend’s diplomatic, deeply humble courier.
In the privacy of my apartment I turned on the tape player and computer, then inserted the cassette. Staring blankly at my monitor, I listened long and hard without the least result. For three hours I struggled, rewinding the tape again and again, finally managing to transcribe just one page’s worth. Her recorded voice was rough and hollow, and she swallowed some of the words. I couldn’t understand certain expressions no matter how many times I replayed them. On the top of all that, the fact I was using only my two fingers to type made the procedure so tedious as to be physically painful. So I suspended my devotions, subconsciously preparing myself for her next long-distance “hellooo.” I didn’t have long to wait. As before, the head editor’s secretary informed me in her trembling contralto that she was connecting me with New Zealand.
“Helloo! How are you doing, handsome? Did you get my cassette? Have you finished transcribing it?
I wondered what evil spirit had chosen me as the butt of this inane joke, but managed a jocular remark or two of my own, even though to hear that she was now in New Zealand unnerved me. It seems she had taken up residence there or on some island near there to await the coming of the new millennium. She had decided to witness the event where it would dawn first.
I had nothing against the new millennium, or any millennia that might follow. I couldn’t stop their arrival any more than I could obliterate millennia the human race had already witnessed. So I humbly and honestly turned to the business at hand.
“It isn’t going to work. If I have to transcribe the cassette by myself, it’s irrelevant to me what part of the world you call me from next.”
“ And what is that supposed to mean?”
“It means I need to find somebody to do the typing for me before I edit it.”
“No problem. Hire somebody. We’ll settle accounts later.”
“I hope you aren’t trying to proposition me, at least not from your island off the coast of New Zealand.”
“Go back to work, handsome. I’ll pay you whatever amount you name. You should have the second cassette within fifteen days. Lots of kisses and ciao for now.”
“Kisses.” Again the faithful echo, this time to a voice from New Zealand. As soon as I hung up, it dawned on me who could help me – Mira. Nobody else would do. She had once transcribe the BBC news, and could type with ten fingers. She had left the newspaper long time ago, since our womanizing editor had decided she was “over the hill” when she turned 35.
My current female colleagues in their enticing short skirts lived their virtual lives in front of their computers screens, pecking at the keyboard with two highly polished fingernails, their beautiful, vacuous sanguine faces a testament to their heroic journalistic efforts.
Mircha was a good woman, though she had been seduced and abandoned with two children. Chalk it up to in experience or stupidity. I asked around and came up with her present employer. She now worked on a small street off of Vitosha Boulevard, in a tiny, dim shoe store populated with local Turks, an outlet for our local shoe factories. We were glad to see each other. We had spent more than one night shift together. We kissed hello. She had no interest in taking on the task, or in doing any more typing of any kind. She was taking classes after work and had her hands full at home. I knew in the end that she would agree, but I felt bad about taking advantage of her good nature. I week later, I visited the badly lit shoe store, occupied by just one stray fly, describing weary circles just above our heads, a sad testament to a lonely life.
“This text is a pure rubbish,” she insisted. “I had to rewind it again and again, and I still couldn’t get the meaning.”
“I couldn’t agree more. But I didn’t hire you to review it, just to transcribe it.”
“You’re terrible. I’m just sorry that you have to waste your time on it too.”
“You got that right. It’s been nothing but trouble from the start.”
I continued to visit Mircha’s store with a regularity that struck me as slightly deranged. And the calls kept coming, that heartbreaking “helooo” would arrive from New York, Madrid, Caracas, Paris. Then the next delivery, with its specific instructions from the next stranger, telling me how I would recognize him and where to meet. They were a gaggle of powdered critics, nimble-fingered surgeons, thick-fisted butchers, suave professors with undistinguished profiles, chairmen of exotic associations, or swaggering businessmen. All were as united as the United Nations in their insistence that they were making a large sacrifice of their free time to run their errand, and all were excruciatingly polite and most were comfortingly punctual. They conveyed my friend’s torrid greetings and handed me the next small parcel with its resident cassette.
I acquired the nickname Pepo after the call from New Zealand from my esteemed colleagues at work. Notwithstanding her unflagging generosity, Mircha became more and more discouraged, gloomy and dismal when I darkened her shoe store door. Even when I paid her for her work – shortchanging her as friends tend to do – her smile of gratitude was as feeble as a skittish sparrow’s. But I was blind to the chicken or sparrow inhabiting her countenance, and ignored the warning sign like a preoccupied passenger on an express train ignores the blurred countryside. As Mircha handed me the typed pages that she had so meticulously transcribed on snow-white, A4 paper, I was as tender as a bibliophile holding a virgin manuscript just unearthed from the Library at Alexandria. My hands grew hot at the touch.
After all, Milky had become a citizen of the world, and I genuinely envied her that accomplishment. With the help of the pages in my hands, I could sup at a Times Square restaurant in New York owned by a Bulgarian with peculiar personal preferences, climb the stairs of the Guggenheim Museum and dive into the pop art, stroll on Rivoli Street or scale the Alps, whether Austrian, Swiss or French. I could wile away a rainy day in Basel or bask on a sunny one in Nice, shrink to a dot in front of Claremont Ferrat and Gap Cathedrals, regard myself in the tranquil waters at La Frey or Lindau. The pages were an international airlines schedule, a pocket guide to museums and landmarks. I had the almost blasphemous feeling that the Pope was regarding me benevolently from a mere fifty centimeters away, that Lady Di had the restaurant just fifteen minutes ago, hounded by the paparazzi to her death. I could dine with the incumbent Bulgarian president, the guest of honor for the evening in this or that country, and he would inform in hushed tones that “we rely on our citizens around the world,” while those citizen surrounded us, flattered to eat Easter lamb with all the trimmings as they did their part to ensure Bulgaria’s future economic security and cultural ascendance.
The schedules and itineraries alone were enough to make it a honey of a story. Faced with the facts of contemporary jet-set life, even Larochefoucault couldn’t have convinced me that things were never as bad (or as good) as they seemed. The histrionic stew she had concocted, equal parts patronizing gossip and feeble philosophizing, bestowed on me from a personage with permanent residence on a frivolous Mount Olympus, laced with frippery and rhetorical pretension, was as hard to swallow as a rich borsch laced with cyanide.
Editing the first ten pages took about as much time as it would have to write a three-volume novel, and even then I wasn’t happy with the result, because weeding wasn’t enough. My newly planted seeds weren’t enough to balance and fortify the wild flora of her exotic garden. I started to take on a wan and sallow look. I had less and less time to enjoy the company of my daughter or talk to my wife. Until recently, we had been happy to gather in the living room, just the three of us, the Christmas tree of our mutual joy radiating delight. Now I didn’t take the time to help my daughter Raddy with her homework, an essay on Mamma’s Child or To Chicago and Back, and not because I opposed the limits of our educational system. I wasn’t in a hurry to help make the salad either, to cut the tomatoes, cucumbers and inevitable head of lettuce. And this had been my one and only contribution to the evening meal, other than laying the tablecloth and taking the brandy out of the refrigerator. No more. Now I rushed away at the first opportunity to weed those tangled hothouse flowers.
The other day, my wife Sonya dropped a large china dish on purpose. While she was sweeping the white porcelain into an orange dustpan, she looked at me over her shoulder, her gorgeous neck a question mark.
“You are not in love, are you? You’re not hiding yourself away to make some momentous decision, are you?”
“Aren’t you acting a little crazy?” I tried to be civil. Like Danko, Gorky’s forgotten hero, I wear my heart on my sleeve, like it or not. Milky had just roused me from my editorial torpor with a manic “helooo,” to inform me that since she couldn’t visit the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, she would go to the House of the Virgin instead, and when she got back to Bulgaria from Turkey she would stop to see how our project was progressing.
Sonya stood up as I gave her my ridiculous explanation, still holding the orange dustpan with its freight of white china. When I finished, she quietly asked.
“Why do you need all this?”
“Didn’t I already explain it to you as best I could? The project had its sentimental value, described a worldwide journey, maybe something more.” I didn’t mention that we hoped to make a buck or two on the memoirs, nor did I confess that I had already paid Mircha for her work out of my own pocket. “There’s no way you can understand it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I graduated from the school for morons. How could such an idiot understand such subtleties? If you think that Raddy should go live with her grandmother, you should tell me so, plain and simple. Ill understand that.”
“Why are you talking nonsense? Can’t you understand?” By now Sonya had tuned me out and was walking away to deposit the white shards in the garbage can. Most likely, women can sense the storm long before it appears, while I personally continued to live in ignorant unawareness. Next evening, Milky Come-Hither Helooo appeared on our doorstep.
Sonya’s knitted eyebrows didn’t stop my globetrotting friend from barging in like an American soldier in Iraq.
“Well, Pepi, what a beautiful wife and gorgeous daughter you have. I’m so happy to finally meet them. You are a lucky man and I envy you. I have a few small presents for all of you.”
She had brought Raddy a plush teddy-bear key holder, for Sonya she had an elegant paper shopping bag emblazoned with the word “Paris”, containing a bottle of toilet water, a miniature bottle of shampoo and soap for a single use, and a shower cap tucked into a small paper box. The set had obviously come from the room of some budget hotel, a fact that hardly endeared her to Sonya. For me she had a painting of my favorite Tower Bridge, 25 by 10 centimeters, apparently the creation of some not particularly gifted street artist. Out of politeness we chirruped our thanks and admiration for the presents, repeating that she needn’t have done all this for us. Sonya hadn’t discovered the shower cap yet.
Without any further ado, Milky and I made ourselves comfortable in the living room, turned off the TV (disregarding Raddy’s frowning face and Sonya’s unspoken protest), spread out the white pages of the transcription like a Chinese fan, and started discussing the changes. For the next two hours I steadfastly refused to admit that there was no chance to improve the dodgy manuscript. Milky wouldn’t hear of any major changes, nor would she agree to develop some of the stories that cried out to be enlarged. Whenever I suggested we delete a sentence, it provoked her to relate an episode a hundred times more interesting than the story itself. Raddy fell asleep on the arm of the chair, so I moved her to the bedroom. Sonya, who long tired of serving us snacks and beer, placed a copy of the Anthology of Contemporary Bulgarian Literature on the bookshelf next to us, along with a recent purchase, Why Men Lie and Women Cry. Then she said quietly, “You probably have a lot more to do. For me, it’s bedtime.”
“Honey,” Milky addressed her as she left the room, causing Sonya to cringe, ”I’m really sorry to steal your husband like this, but by noon tomorrow I have to leave for Istanbul, and there’s no other way to finish this. Please forgive my intrusion and don’t be too mad at me, will you?’
“I won’t be,” answered Sonya convincingly, since she still hadn’t found the plastic shower cap at the bottom of the elegant paper bag from a cheap Paris hotel.
We had edited just fifteen pages, and the corrections were shamefully, offensively superficial. It didn’t really matter to me, but as a self-educated man of letters, I still fondly hoped I could turn her ugly duckling into a swan, though she kept insisting it had been dashed off without any literary pretenses. Still, my effort was dismal. To console myself, I let myself enjoy Milky’s lyrical reminiscences. After all, she traveled the world – Wellington to Reykjavik, Caracas to Rabat, Papua New Genie to Bhutan, San Marino to Costa Rica. My heart ached with envy.
By three o’clock, after two packs of cigarettes, the edited pages had grown to thirty, which is to say we had made no progress at all. I was all but asleep at the table, despite her insistence that we attempt further textual conquests. I offered to make her a bed on the living room couch, but instead she called a cab to take her to the Sheraton. I settled in for a short snooze.
Very short. I dragged myself into the publishing house just before noon, in need of matchsticks to prop my eyes open. Before I had swallowed a second gulp of poisonously strong black coffee in an effort to sober up, who should appear at my desk like a caryatid transported bodily from the Erechteyona exhibit at the British Museum but her majesty Milky, in an ecologically friendly fake silver fox coat. I couldn’t begin to count the layers of make-up, the creams and unguents and aromas, but she was definitely bursting with a surplus of energy.
“ Did you sleep well, handsome? Your wife and daughter are terrific. You know that in half an hour I’m off to Istanbul, so I wanted to clarify…”
Obviously had no interest in my answers to her questions and no time to listen to them. I chose not to tell her that the first thing Sonya did when she woke up was deposit the shower cap in the garbage can, along with the rest of the hotel bric-a-brac, muttering, “Apparently that woman thinks of us as aborigines from the lower Volta.” Milky commandeered the manuscript to look over my changes en route to her next port of call, saying she would return it to me next time she was in the country. Meanwhile, she expected me to talk to a few printing houses, so that we could choose the best of the lot.
After a week or two (here I lose track of time a little), she again passed through Sofia, this time on her way from London to Athens, where she planned to refresh her memory of Zeus’s temple, Lord Byron’s monument, and the Acropolis before continuing to Crete and Rhodes. She announced that it was time finished our collaboration.
My attempts to interrupt her proved futile, as usual. The book should be published in hard cover with a transparent dust jacket, no wider than her palm, much longer than most books, a matte finish to resemble antique manuscripts or the Lindisvon Gospel printed before the invasion of the Danes. Had I commissioned a notable artist to do the front cover? Why not a reproduction of the famous singing group La Mystère du Voix Bulgare, or the even more famous Valya Balkanska in deep space?
“These things aren’t done as quickly and easily as you think they can be,” I finally managed to interject.
“What do you mean? Can’t I count on you? You who have been thumping your chest, claiming you can do anything? I trusted you, even though I had a thousand possibilities. I did all this for you, not for me.”
My dingy sense of decorum was all that prevented me from sending her straight to hell with her 999 other possibilities. Instead, I calmly repeated that it takes time to accomplish each stage until the book is finished.
“Deadlines are something human decide, aren’t they?” I answered evasively yes and no, hemmed and hawed, spouted more polite nonsense. She turned brusquely on her heel in her sumptuous eco-coat, leaving behind a ponderous after-image, a Milky hangover, and dim forebodings.
When next she materialized on my doorstep, this time from Turkey, Sonya quickly stuffed a bag with a few necessary items and took Raddy to her mother’s. Milky asked innocently, “Was your wife a little nervous tonight? I hope I’m not the cause.”
“ Not at all,” I lied through my teeth. “She had promised her mother that she would visit and she’s just keeping her promise.”
Now completely at her ease in my living room, Milky did her best to wear me out until four in the morning, regaling me with tales of her travels to the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, to the North and South Pacific, across oceans to desert islands and distant lands. It was like a pleasant dream, disturbed only by my recollection of Sonya’s dark look as she left the house.
The remaining days before the book came out were a pitched battle. Milky constantly bombarded me with telephone conversations and new demands. The artist we found, who had worked not only with Bulgarian publishing houses but also internationally, gave her ten options for the cover before he finally gained her approval with the eleventh. He confided to me that in his twenty years of experience he had never run into anyone as demanding as she was, and that it was only because of me that he had made the sacrifice. I had to be as soft as cotton with the proofreader and the woman who did the preliminary mock-up, as the deadline grew ever nearer and Milky’s pressure intensified. Wherever Milky and I went, from the printing house to the national library to secure an ISBN, scandals followed us. Those we dealt with were not as stupidly devoted as I was and refused to cater to her whims. And while before Milky had suggested that I visit her in London so she could help me translate my latest book of poems, now that the publication of her book was at hand she seemed to have totally forgotten that promise.
The book was supposed to come out on the occasion of her beloved husband’s birthday, a fact that gave me no room to maneuver. To speed things along, I took a whole case of hard liquor to the printing house, but things still hung by a thread until the last minute. What’s more, my dear friend haggled like a gipsy over every expense, ignoring the fact that the price was already a bargain, owing to my personal contacts. If she had been on her own, they would have skinned her alive. A few times my nerve failed, and I told her straight to her face to take her precious book and publish it in merry old England. But my opposition was feeble and futile. She simply confronted me, a wide grin on her face and shaking her tower bridge turrets, though I had lost all interest in those monuments long ago. When she asked me how much I wanted for my work I told her I couldn’t set a price on it. When she bestowed on me a token sum I objected. that I hadn’t done it for the money, believe it or not.
But let all that go. The book was published right on schedule: a small, elegant object, comfortable to hold and appealing to the eye. But who judges a book by its cover? The time of troubles continued, as Milky now took herself seriously as a published writer. She started arranging for media appearances, beginning modestly enough with the local cable networks and working her way up to the national BTV channel. The book launch took place at the city library. It was obvious who would introduce it, though I did my best to resist. I informed my editor that I had to go to the library to check some facts, which was at least partly true.
Sentimental relatives and distant acquaintances with rheumy eyes gathered in the hall. I spoke briefly and with only moderate distaste about the qualities of the text and much more effusively about the way the project had begun as a cassette and become a book. Nobody listened to what I had to say anyway, since they had all come only to honor their famous relative from England. Kisses and flowers were the order of the day, and in the congenial commotion I managed to slip out the back return to the office.
But it turned out that my presence at the event had not gone unnoticed after all. The next day, a few stations had the bad taste to broadcast the event. My editor was offended enough at my participation to summoned me to his office and give me the cheery news that my services were no longer required.
So that’s just about the whole story, folks. I should add that my wife saw fit to take up permanent residence at her mother’s. These days I help this or that graphomaniac publish a book from time to time, and run occasional errands for printing houses and cable networks. Of course I never heard from Milky again; thank heaven for small favors. I gave the street artist’s picture of Tower Bridge to Peter Iron-Fist, and he promised that my next car repair would be free of charge. I avoid women with big breasts like the plague. If I so much as accidentally glance at a well-rounded hill or promontory, I am instinctively filled with remorse.