Cup of tea by a window

While Slovene writer Polona Glavan’s debut novel explored the journey of young Europeans, in the following story, two widowed neighbors form a routine that allows them to look back together.

When a few days in a row pass and Anton hasn’t stopped by, I know that means his blood pressure has spiked. He must rest, he says, getting up only for water to wash down the pills. He rises carefully so that he won’t upset his head with sudden flashes of dizziness. 

“But Anton,” I say. “What if something happens to you?”

He sits at the table in a chair opposite the window and steeps his tea. 

“As you can see, I am finally well again.” 

“Why do you never call me? You know I’d come.” 

Anton scratches his ear, fingers dancing just below the lobe. 

“When I have high blood pressure, I am unbearable. I would irritate you.” 

He laughs hard, a dry, cracked sound. 

“Come on,” I say. “You know I would understand.” 

Anton tries a sip of tea. The tea is hot, and his lip twitches. He carefully places the cup back on the table, next to the cloth napkin embroidered with roses. I have told him a hundred times that the point of having a napkin is so that you can rest a teacup on it. Every time, Anton says that this seems like a real shame. He gently pushes it away, so as not to soil it. Each time, a hundred times. 

“I don’t want you to be mad at me, Fani,” says Anton. 

We’ve known each other now for almost three years. Actually, I knew him before that, by sight. His wife, too. They moved into the apartment building a few years after Janez and me. I don’t remember when exactly. The two of them and their children, two sons. We would see each other in the stairwell. We just nodded. Even after his wife died, it took a long time before we started talking. One day, the two of us just started. We are about the same age, and we’d been alone for about the same amount of time. It would be odd if we had nothing in common.

“But what if something happens to you?” I say.

“Nothing will happen to me,” Anton assures me. “You'll see.” 

“You could fall. What then?”

“I won’t fall.”

This is how it goes every time he comes to talk to me. I know what he will say. He knows what I will say. Even so, we always say the same things. Neither one of us minds. There is something safe in this.

I am thinking about whether something happened in these three days. It is winter, and icy rain scratches the roof. It’s not snow, not rain—it’s something in between. The pavement in front of the apartment building will certainly be slippery. I am happy that I don’t have to go out today. Anton wraps his hands around his teacup, as if trying to warm them. There is no reason for this; the kitchen is warm. I have the radio on. I would say that the two of us are in a perfectly good mood.

“It will be a new year again soon,” says Anton. “As if the last wasn’t just a short while ago.” 

“God knows that’s true,” I say. 

“I retired right on New Year’s day,” says Anton. “Did I tell you that already?”

I tell him that he hasn’t. It seems to me that he really hasn’t. 

“Yes,” Anton nods. “On the first day of the year. Every January it was terribly difficult for me to get back to work. Harder than after coming home from the seaside—and that was after a real vacation. Even though it was only for a couple of days. Each new year, I said to myself: here, another ten, another five, just one more year, and good-bye.”

He clears his throat. He glances around. It doesn’t appear that he will continue. 

“And then?” I ask. 

Anton winces, as if he has forgotten what he was talking about.

“Then, when you retired,” I say. 

Anton nods. 

“Yes, yes,” he says. “Then it was even worse.” 

“How could that be,” I ask, “when you didn’t have to go anywhere?” 

“Oh, I don't know,” says Anton. “Suddenly, the days were too long. I had too much time on my hands. I saw how long and dreary the month of January actually is. The problem wasn't work—the problem was January.” 

Anton sips his tea. He tries to laugh. 

“I don’t care for January either,” I say. “It’s the coldest month. It’s so slippery everywhere that I constantly worry about falling. I’m walking on eggshells the whole month.” 

Anton laughs. He nods.

“Yes, yes,” he says. “Yes, yes, one, two, three, and your hips are destroyed.”

Anton had previously driven trucks. For forty years. He started when he was sixteen, lying about his birthday so he could drive. That’s how eager he was. He never wanted anything the way he wanted to drive, and it never occurred to him that he could do anything else. Sometimes it had been hard to go to work, but he never thought of looking anywhere else. He enjoys nothing more than talking about what happened to him on the road. The more difficult, the more he wants to talk about it. His favorite story is about Poland.     

“So I was driving to Warsaw,” Anton says. “Once in January, once in February, it was. So cold that the fuel froze in the diesel tank and daylight was gone in the blink of an eye. It was up north, what can you do? And there was no highway anywhere, of course, it was thirty, thirty-five years ago. Signs, lights? No way. You just had to get by the best way you knew how. Not like today, with our roads like airport runways. And power steering, which is smarter than you anyway. Put a stone on the gas pedal, take a little snooze, no problem. Any old lady can drive a truck today, goddammit. Grandmothers—even children.” 

Anton raises his voice. Nodding, I agree. I’ve never driven a truck in my life, never even sat in one. And yet I know that trucks today are completely different than they were before. Today everything is different: roads, trucks, water, bread, life, anything you think about, everything is different. 

“Mostly,” says Anton, when he’d calmed down a bit. “I’m driving through Poland, the second day already, the landscape the same, mile after mile: one long plain, everything covered with snow. Very little traffic, a real desert. Signs only here and there, you had to figure out yourself where to turn for the most part. Well, I’m driving and driving, and night begins to fall, and suddenly I see that I’m going to run out of gas. You have to know, Fani, that there weren’t gas stations every half-mile the way there are now. And it was even worse in the east, there were maybe ten stations in the whole country. I look all around me, no city anywhere, not even a house to be found, and I say to myself, shit, Tony, you’ll have to figure something out.” 

Anton still cannot stand the sight of a passing truck. He starts shaking when he sees one. If he is reincarnated, he will come back a truck driver. Any trucker you ask will tell you the same, he says. His wife had come to terms with this, she had no choice. Good woman, that Marija, says Anton. If she hadn’t died of cancer, we’d have gotten along well, all three of us, he says.

“Well,” continues Anton. His mood is improving. His eyes are glowing as his hands mimic a driver’s. He turns the invisible steering wheel, shifting the imaginary gear stick. I almost smile as I watch. “Well,” continues Anton. “I turn on some road like this, it seemed to me that it should have been the right one, but clearly it was not. I’m driving and driving, still no place, no houses, nothing. I start to panic, you can imagine—if I had had to stay in the cold all night, I would’ve frozen to death. Then somewhere in the distance, a light suddenly flashes. I don’t even stop to think; I go straight toward it—straight across some kind of field. I was lucky I didn’t flip over. Something’s there, I thought, there have got to be people there, I will find some help.”

I smile as I watch him. I think he is unaware he is acting like he’s in the truck right now, this very moment, not thirty years ago. 

“I drive there,” says Anton, “and I see a house. In the middle of nowhere, perhaps miles from the closest village. I stop a few feet away, go to the door, and look for the bell. I’m looking, looking, looking—nothing. They had no bell, imagine that, Fani, there was no bell to be found. As if this were the damn jungle, not the middle of Europe. I bang on the door, twice, three times—I wait. Cold cuts to the bone, such an insidious, persistent cold, when you’ve never known anything like it. A hundred years later, it seems, I leave that cold hell, and in despair, I go around the house to see if anyone is there. I see a window with a light burning and look inside to see a kitchen with a large table, and behind it are a woman and a bunch of children. My word, how many of them. About eight, ten—I’ve never seen so many in one house before then or since. No man there—he was probably somewhere else in the room or in the barn, I thought. But somehow I just knew that he wasn’t. I don’t know, something seemed off. So I look in there, and I’m a little bit scared to knock. Who knows what kind of people live around here, I think. The woman might think I’m some Russian villain and send a dog or little brats after me. And I say to myself, fuck it, if I stay outside, I’ll freeze, I’ll be dead anyway. And I knocked.” 

When Anton tells the story, everything about him changes. His smile unbends. He becomes ten years younger. His hand lifts the teacup as if it were its own person. I pour him more tea, but he does not even notice. I remember how it was when he first came to me. It was a warm day, early in September. He said that he needed sugar or coffee, something like that. I could tell it was just an excuse to stay and talk. I had the radio on, the news, actually, I recall. The balcony door was open. I remember that day well, though it wasn’t anything unusual. I offered him tea, and we talked. And it has been like this ever since. The second time, he came three, four days later. Then he came every other day. Then he started coming every day. Each afternoon, a couple hours after lunch.

Anton continues. “All at once they looked back at me,” he said. “With these wide eyes,” he says, making circles with his thumb and forefinger in front of his face. “I didn’t know where to look. A roomful of them, just eyes. Even Jesus on the wall was staring at me, I thought. I found her, a woman. She was the only one that counted. If she looks at me with hostility, aggression, I’m done for, I knew. But no. She was a little bit scared, you can’t help it if in the middle of the night someone knocks on your window, even if you’re Hercules. But even so she was kind of quiet, friendly. I knew I was saved. I was 100 percent sure of this.” 

Afternoons at my place are the only time that Anton and I spend time together. Otherwise we don’t go anywhere together. We visit the cemetery separately, and we never run into each other there. I couldn’t tell you where his wife’s grave is. I hardly know where to find any grave aside from Janez’s. When I am at the cemetery, I go straight to his plot, not stopping to look for anything or anyone else. I know the way by heart, even blindfolded, dropped anywhere in the cemetery, at any time, I could find it. There are too many family plots, and I try to avoid them and their stale odor, which looms so thick overhead that neither a sharp wind nor the steps of living visitors can chase away. 

Anton continues. Now he no longer stops, or drinks tea—he does nothing other than speak. He falls completely into his story. If I were to touch him or try to interrupt him, he would probably wince and ask how it was possible that he is here, in a warm apartment on the fifth floor, and not in the frozen wasteland of a Polish winter, long, long ago.  

“She got up and unlocked the door for me,” said Anton. “She came to the door so quietly that I jumped when it sprang open. She was tall, almost as tall as me, but she looked young in spite of having all those children. She stood, peaceful, and waited for me to say something. I suddenly panicked; I didn’t know any Polish, not a single word. How was I going to explain what I wanted? I half wanted to start in Russian, with what few words I knew, but I thought better of it before I opened my mouth. Russians are hated there more than Satan himself. Never mind that, I began in my own Slovene, saying I was from Yugoslavia, on my way to Warsaw, and that I had no gasoline; the whole story rushed out quickly, and I hoped I’d said something she could understand. She stood and watched me until I finished. She didn’t interrupt me one bit, just stood there, calmly. Then she nodded and motioned for me to step inside.” 

Anton always comes over just after lunch. Around three, three thirty. He stays for a couple of hours, until we have nothing left to talk about. Once in a while, we linger: night falls without either of us noticing. Every now and then we watch the evening news together. Anton flushes bright red as soon as they show a member of parliament. Sons of bitches, he says, cursing them, sons of bitches. How dare they show their faces to the cameras, after running the country into a ditch. Well, well, Anton, I say. Time and time again: well, well, Anton. Sometimes I get worried that his blood pressure will shoot up too high, and I would feel guilty, except that I know I have nothing to do with this. God knows if anyone in his family even knows that he has blood pressure issues. Anton never talks about his children or grandchildren, where they live, who they are. Whenever he gets sick, I go to his door. I lean against it, listening, watchful. I worry about whether everything is okay. I’m prepared to call an ambulance. I’m prepared to jump back if someone comes. I can’t hear a thing through the wall, but I know that he’s breathing. Somehow I know. I don’t want to tell him what I do. I feel as if he would not take it well. But someone must do this, I think. No one comes to see him, and he doesn’t go to visit anyone, either. I have a granddaughter, at least, who sends me postcards from foreign cities, and Lojzka is in Primorska. And my daughter drops by every so often, twice a month, maybe. Once she came to visit when Anton was over. She looked him over suspiciously from afar. Mama, she said after he’d left, Mama, you haven’t started going out with someone in your old age, have you? I laughed out loud, and heartily, I remember, in a way I hadn’t in a long time. Going out. It seemed so ridiculous that I had to repeat it out loud. My God, never in my life had I gone out with anyone. In my day, that sort of thing did not exist. I hardly remember how it was when I met Janez. We got married, and that was it. I wanted to tell my daughter that, but I couldn’t because I was laughing too hard. Who knows what she was thinking, that I’d gone crazy or something; she probably still thinks that now, though we never talked about it again. 

“The next morning,” said Anton. He keeps going and doesn’t notice that I’m somewhere else in my thoughts. I didn’t hear half the story. That’s how the recent years had been with me, being swept away. One of us talking, one of us pouring tea. One of us tidying up the kitchen, so that suddenly everything is clean and I hardly noticed, I’m so distracted. Time, overlooked, does not pass; it lingers and waits somewhere, lurking. I don’t want to think about it; I listen to Anton. “The next morning so much snow had fallen that you couldn’t step out of the house,” says Anton. “You won’t see anything like that around here, even if you live two hundred years. Foot upon foot of snow, you couldn’t see through the window, let alone start up the truck. Start it up? I couldn’t even find it. It was such a shock that I didn’t think, what now? With Warsaw and all that. I stared at the snow, I will never forget it, it was like it was the end of the world, I swear, and she said, simply, not to go anywhere—that I could stay with them as long as I wanted.”

We aren’t close enough for me to touch him. That we would need each other that much—we are not that desperate. Not yet.

Anton comes to a stop. He coughs, tentatively at first, hesitating, then can no longer hold back. He shakes, choking. He gets red in the face. My heart skips a beat. I would pound him on the back, but I know it won’t help. We aren’t close enough for me to touch him. That we would need each other that much—we are not that desperate. Not yet.

“Anton,” I shout. “Anton, everything is fine.”

Anton nods as he struggles through the coughing fit. He grabs onto the edge of the table, and the teaspoon clanks against the porcelain of the teacup. Anton waves his hand and waits for it to pass.

“It’s nothing,” he says, out of breath. “Don’t worry. I was just choking.” 

“Ah,” I say then. I am relieved; Anton can sense it. He smiles at me. “Someone’s jealous of you,” I say. “That’s what it looks like.”

“Yeah, sure,” says Anton. “They’d have to be crazy. I’d love to see that. Why would they be?” 

“I don’t know,” I say. “Because of the ten feet of snow, maybe.” 

Anton laughs. A long laugh, from the heart. “Oh that, yes,” he says. “Someone is jealous of the snow. Damn, Fani, what grand ideas you have. Yes, yes, what grand ideas.” 

I laugh with him. I pour him some more tea, well, a sip or two, just so there’s something. Anton lifts his teacup and says cheers. I don’t think of anything in particular, we’re having such a good time. Anton looks over my shoulder to the sleet you can still hear outside.

“See, Fani,” he says. “I’m going to die now.”

“Oh, Anton, please,” I say. “What are you talking about?”  

“If it’s going to happen,” says Anton, “it’ll happen. I’m only telling it like it is.”           

“Tell me how it ended instead,” I say. “Back in Poland.”           

“Ah, yes,” says Anton. “Yes. It was glorious. I was treated like a king. I stayed with them for a week, almost. I shoveled snow, helped around the house. I played with the kids. They loved me; they followed me everywhere. The little ones hid in corners and behind the door and yelled, Mr. Yugoslav, Mr. Yugoslav! The older ones taught me Polish so that I understood almost everything perfectly. It turns out the woman’s husband had died about a year prior from cancer or something like that. It wasn’t easy for her, poor thing, alone with those children. But she didn’t complain about it or anything. She had everything under control, the house and her finances, and the children, too, but in her sweet way, I never heard her yell at any of them. When I left, I offered her money, but she didn’t want to take it. Thank you very much, Mr. Anton, she said, the children were delighted to have you. I’ll be forever grateful. When I left, they ran after the truck, for more than a mile, and I thought they were going to follow me all the way to Warsaw. Mr. Yugoslav, they cried, come back, Mr. Yugoslav! Tears started to overwhelm me, I tell you. I can still see them now, all those flushed little faces. Oh, they were funny, really.”  

Anton becomes still. I grow quiet, too. Time passes by, good time. I see each second, how it disappears, I am here, I see it.

I look at him. He looks smaller, more hunched over than before. As if with the story he’d lost a few pounds and aged a few years. The creases around his eyes and on his forehead bend inward. Time passes, continues to pass.      

“I think about them a lot,” says Anton. “That was thirty years ago, but I remember them often. I was in Poland a few times after that. I thought about visiting them, but I’d lost their address. I turned the whole truck upside down, but I couldn’t find it. It had disappeared into thin air. Including their last name and the name of their village—I could not think of it to save my life. Other than that, I remember everything in great detail. Even though thirty years have passed.”

I look at him. He looks smaller, more hunched over than before. As if with the story he’d lost a few pounds and aged a few years. The creases around his eyes and on his forehead bend inward. Time passes, continues to pass.        

“You’re the first person I’ve ever told this to, Fani,” says Anton. “I never talked to Marija about this. Who knows what she would have thought. I told her once that I spent a couple of days in the cab of the truck when it was below zero, without food or water. She cried, you know. You’re not going there anymore, Tony, she said, I won’t let you, you know. But soon she forgot about the whole thing. When she died, she probably still thought that I was a hero to endure all that. But I never was, not really.”        

He falls silent. So do I. For a moment, maybe two, maybe several minutes, I don’t notice. It’s not the kind of silence that falls hard around the room. Just silence, as it should be. I’ve known Anton for three years, but I really know almost nothing about him. I wouldn’t know how to describe him more thoroughly, how tall he is, how his voice echoes. If he were to disappear, for example, I wouldn’t know how.           

“That’s how it is,” says Anton. “Now I’m going to die, you’ll see.”           

“Oh, Anton, please,” I say. “What are you talking about?”         

“If it’s going to happen,” says Anton, “it’ll happen. I’m only telling it like it is.”         

“The more you talk about it, the sooner it’ll happen,” I say.           

Anton laughs, a little bit hidden, far away.

Time, overlooked, does not pass; it lingers and waits somewhere, lurking.

“Well, I’ll tell you what, Fani,” he says. “You know what? I’ll promise you something. When the weather’s nicer, I’ll take you somewhere. In the truck. I’ll get one from somewhere, I’ll ask some guys, what the hell—I’m sure they’ll lend it to me. Then we can go for a ride. You’ll see how Tony drives, swift as lightning, oh yeah!”           

“I’ve never ridden in a truck,” I say.           

“Well, then, there is even more reason,” says Anton. He rubs his bald patch with the palm of his hand, he’s so excited. “Then you absolutely must, Fani. You’ll see, how great it is, I think you won’t even want to get out. We’ll go to the sea. Seventy-five, eighty miles an hour. Or we can go to Gorenjska. Wherever you say.”           

“No problem,” I say. “No problem.”

We laugh together. Steam rises from the teacups. It’s warm; dusk is falling outside. Somewhere, there is a lapse of time, overlooked, not passing. It will catch up with me one day, and who knows what will happen then. I can’t think about that; I don’t want to think about that.

Translation from the Slovene
By Kristina Zdravič Reardon

Polona Glavan’s (b. 1974) first novel, Noc v Evropi (A night in Europe), was published in 2001 and shortlisted for the Kresnik Prize for best Slovenian novel. She followed it with a short-story collection, Gverilci (Guerillas), in which the story published here appears. 

At any given moment, words in three different languages were heard around the dinner table in writer Kristina Zdravič Reardon’s childhood. She finds that translating literature from her grandparents’ native Slovene and Spanish to English is a challenging—yet somehow natural—pursuit. Reardon holds an MFA from the University of New Hampshire and has been awarded a Fulbright translation grant and a summer fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.