He was tall, too lean, always wearing a baggy T-shirt
and jeans that made him look like an old forgotten newspaper in a
well-kept park. Each time, after his English lesson, he handed her a
bank-note, his white almost translucent hands trembling nervously; and
when she came around to give him the change he only shook his head. She
assumed he was a very pampered young man. A son of rich divorced parents,
who by all means had to speak English fluently, although he lacked any
sense of the words and sounds of human speech.
Elena did not like him; the gloomy narrow study where
she taught him grew narrower and hotter on account of his embarrassment.
Emil made no progress whatsoever. His memory could not hold any
linguistic knowledge, as if there were innumerable apertures in it
through which all new words wriggled in slippery rivulets out of his
mind, and were lost in the black chaos of ignorance. Grammatical tenses
tortured him like narrow shoes that constantly pinched, and it was very
hard for Elena to control her anger and not shout at the top of her
voice, "Go away and never again set foot within my house! Forget
there is English language in the world. You are the dullest person I have
ever taught in my whole life. You not only waste my time, you prove to me
I am an absolutely incompetent teacher. But that is not true! Perhaps
somebody can teach a kitchen cupboard to speak English. The cupboard will
start speaking the language more quickly than you will. You, however,
will remain forever with the phrase 'My name is Emil.'"
But at the end of each lesson, the bank-notes he
handed her in his long translucent fingers were a convincing restraining
argument. She desperately needed that money. The heaps of unpaid bills in
the mail box every week; her daughter's pretensions, interminable like
gray water going down drains; her husband's multiple threats that he'd go
to a business trip and never come back home. Her home, that volcano of
squabbles, swamp of eternal penury and central heating radiators that
were cold like sepulchers made her accept Emil each Thursday at 6 PM,
waiting for him at the front door, a smile of rubber on her face. She
adored the moments when the money passed from his hand into hers. The
cold whiteness of his fingers appearing almost blue sent a caravan of
icebergs to her shoulders, freezing her for a moment; but the unpleasant
sensation was soon drowned in the torrent of the rustling bills.
She imagined she went to the fashion store in Victor
Hugo Street and bought the most beautiful scarf. It was sad, she had been
dreaming of it several years now. But the money was spent of course on
the electricity bill, on the telephone bill, on the bills for central
heating and water, or on foodstuffs that later she diligently turned into
meals for her husband. Abject horror often seized her for she feared she
could lose him. It was not so much their relationship that was
obliterated almost completely in the avalanche of quarrels and constant
lack of money; it was his presence that made her feel secure and think
she had a close-knit family as strong as an alloy of steel. But in
reality her family was not as strong as steel; it did not disintegrate
only because the heaps of rust simply remained in their places pressed
hard to the floor under their own weight. Her daughter suffered
perennially from unrequited love, if one could name as love two or three
consecutive nights with bearded blokes in her room, a place Elena
painstakingly avoided. Her daughter stored various notepads that were of
enormous sentimental value to her, and if Elena entered that room by
accident wry faces and sore looks sprouted up in her wake. Poisonous
mushrooms of long silences enveloped her home, their cold shadows
reigning days and weeks on end. Her husband spoke of preparing himself
for the business trip that was to liberate him forever from her. Elena
went to work at her office with the same rubber smile she kept for Emil.
She was quiet, kind and very convenient for "Convenient people never
lose their jobs, my dearest" as her best friend advised her a long
time ago. Elena relied solely on her sad salary of a
translator/interpreter in a busy Greek firm because her husband's money
sank into the sands of endless meetings with friends at the bar. On the
days when she got paid her daughter's silences turned into joyful
chirruping which grew progressively shriller with the decrease in the
bank-notes in her mother's purse. So Elena expected with some trepidation
6 PM on Thursday — the moment when the stream of icebergs breaking
off her private student's white skin flowed to her shoulders after she
touched his cold, translucent fingers. The whisper of his money was her
"That is for you," he told her the last
time, instead of preparing her fee, and caressing her with the sounds of
rustling bank-notes. His cheeks shouted with billions of red blood cells,
which had rammed into his face, leaving the rest of his body utterly
colorless. Elena sighed and felt the whole city rush towards her throat
to bury her under the weight of its paving blocks. Emil, her dullest
student, was handing her a marvelous scarf. A soft autumn was in it,
quiet rain, obedient tinges of yellow leaves and a premonition of a long
winter. The scarf was a magic leap in the dark of colors serene and misty
like the eyes of a man in love, a work of art she had been dreaming of
"Why..." Elena tried to object but the
paving blocks of the city squashed the words she was about to utter.
"Take it. I know you have dreamt of it."
"How could you know that?" she asked and he
started to speak faltering and balking uneasily. Each time during
lessons, in between exercises with the present continuous and the present
perfect tense she had always mentioned something about a scarf. He had
seen her sigh after that, he added. All the sentences she used as
examples were about some autumn scarf, soft and ethereal, inconspicuous
and gentle like the spring that would never come back in her life.
"I cannot accept this instead of my fee,"
Elena said firmly. "I'd prefer if you paid me the way we had
"The scarf is...." the words again wriggled
out through the invisible apertures in Emil's mind, leaving slippery
ambiguous silence in the narrow study. "That is the...."
Now the meaning of the words became clearly distinct
to Elena. The rustling capriccio of the bank-notes sounded in his hand
and she was going to transform it into a lamb stew and salad or into
several bottles of make-up for her daughter. She even forgot the scarf
and enjoyed the invasion of the magnificent sounds of money.
After the lesson Elena decided to express her
gratitude to her student and descended the gloomy stairs in the old block
of flats, which she detested. She related the twilight in it to the cold
rooms in her apartment and looked forward to returning to the kitchen
where she was going to make the lamb stew. That young man had given her a
present, a scarf, that closed a three-year cycle of distant dreams in her
life and he deserved that little effort on her part.
Emil stopped moving and at that moment he looked even
taller. His disproportionately long arms and even more disproportionately
big feet made Elena steal a glimpse in silent embarrassment as if they
were a product of her own creation. The light was dim and his white face
that had almost no color now seemed nondescript. She was cold and that
made her angry. Emil was a silent neutral shadow by her side.
"I love you," he suddenly blurted out.
She looked at him cross and stiff on the gloomy
staircase not knowing how to react.
BIO: Bulgarian author Zdravka Evtimova has published three
collections of short stories and two novels. Her short stories have been
published in the USA, UK, Canada, Germany (where she won the special
prize Lege Artist Foundation short story competition), France, Poland,
Czech Republic, Russia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia.
She works as a literary translator from English and German
into Bulgarian for the ministry of Culture in Bulgaria and has translated
more than 20 novels by American, English, Canadian and Australian authors
At work on her PhD these on Toni Morrison's novels, Zdravka
lives in Pernik, Bulgaria, with her husband, two sons and her daughter.