Previously in Graffiti, Blue Tattoo and SCWIJ
As usual, the TV screen was flickering, bathing the lobby's tiny anteroom in a pale green light. Zítko's neat round head was silhouetted against the back of the low sofa, where he sat watching another of his endless games of soccer.
The door creaked behind me and he jerked his head in my direction, a clockwork-toy motion typical of him. His broken teeth glistened wetly in the semi-darkness. "Hello my fren' from England that is not England."
This was his nightly joke. When he'd told me that he was from Bratislava, which made him a Slovak rather than a Czech, I'd responded by trying to explain the difference between Wales and England, with small success. He clicked on the little table lamp and I could see he had been holding my book in his hand.
"It is a very good book, this one. Formidable - the farmer goes to sleep one night and Pooff! next day his animals are able to speak to him."
Not many would have summarised Orwell's Animal Farm in quite this way, but it did suggest he'd made some attempt to read this one. I had wondered whether he'd looked at the books I'd lent to him at all, especially since we were now on our third lending cycle: I only had half a dozen books in my room, half a mile away, near the cemetery.
"Do you have the other book? The one with the yellow cover? That is the one I like best of all."
The one with the yellow cover was an old anthology of verse, but Zítko never referred to it in that way. He'd seen me reading it one night when he came to relieve me after my shift as night porter in the Hotel Edouard Cinq, and had asked me so many questions about it, and looked at it so longingly, that I'd had to let him borrow it. This was when it had all started.
"It helps me with my English. My wife and daughter like to see it, too, even if it is not so easy for them to read."
This was only the second time he'd spoken about his family. It was strange, because Alain, the manager, had told me they were still in Czechoslovakia, where there'd been some "bad business". As for Zítko, Alain told me he lived alone in a room above a café somewhere not far from here.
We exchanged books, and as we did so my glance was drawn to the gleaming fountain pen he kept in the top pocket of the once-smart navy blue jacket he always wore on duty. This was the pen that he'd been using to write his, what were they - notes? messages? epitomes? aphorisms? - on the flyleaves of every one of my books.
The first one, on the flyleaf of the book of verse, had simply read Zítko, a poor but honest son of the soil. Some had been much longer, with a meaning quite impenetrable to me. Although I was surprised and even annoyed that Zítko could think he was entitled towrite on my books, I said nothing. They were only cheap paperbacks. Zítko said nothing, either. In fact, although we seemed to be on good terms in a way, we exchanged few words. Those we did mostly concerned our odd literary transactions.
I'd meant to engage him in a proper conversation tonight, but already he was slipping out of the anteroom, muttering something about some obscure French football team, and heading for the pavements of the Rue du Montparnasse, leaving me to my questions. I flipped open Animal Farm and read the wispy handwriting on the flyleaf:
Servitude has its obligations.
That was one of Zítko's early writings. It was followed by others I'd seen before, added at intervals over the six weeks of our strange relationship:
Drink not too deeply when the wine-cup
glistens; what shall be found at the bottom?
A small chamber and never a sound. Where is an end to it?
and more, equally strange. I looked at the bottom of the page, and there was the most recent inscription:
Zítko wields his pen, yet all the world is blind to his
words. Now he is one of the dumb, and cannot speak.
The poor man was obviously desperate. And here was I, treating his cries for help like some sort of crossword puzzle. I made up my mind. Fortunately, there were few guests in the hotel: an American couple, who were never back until the small hours, and a school teacher from Chateauroux who always bolted herself in her room before nine o'clock. I locked the door of the hotel and followed Zítko out into the night.
It was raining, but there were still as many people as usual thronging the street. For a moment I doubted I'd have much chance of catching up with him. Then I caught sight of the small round head bobbing through the mass, its jerky motion at odds with the easy swell of the Friday night crowd.
I pushed through, ignoring the casual waves of acquaintances. For a while I lost sight of him, but then I saw him in the distance, turning off into a side street.
When I reached the corner, he could not be seen. I guessed he'd gone into the Bar du Globe, a large but run-down establishment garishly proclaiming its neon existence in the otherwise dark side street. Reaching its door, I hesitated. This wasn't purely because the Globe was known as much for bottle fights as it was its cheap wine and pizza. I had arrived here without really thinking about what I was going to do. The truth was that now I was starting to feel a bit foolish about the whole thing. But Marcel, the Senegalese doorman known for his quick fists and boots, was looking at me keenly, so in I went.
I sat down and got a beer. The Globe was much bigger inside than I'd thought it to be. It was full of people. At first I thought Zítko hadn't come in here after all. Then I saw him, sitting at a table in the opposite corner. He was holding his shiny pen rigidly between the fingers and thumbs of both hands, a few inches from his face, staring intently at it, or into it. A reflection from the light above his table danced up and down over the bridge of his nose and eyes; his hands were trembling.
For a long moment I watched him. Then, rather suddenly, he took the pen in one hand and bent his head, shielding his eyes with his free hand. He was writing. Now I was even more at a loss about what to do. I felt it would be wrong to interrupt this intensely private moment. Anyway, he'd be horrified to know I'd left the hotel unattended. Perhaps I should go back. I should try to speak to him tomorrow, ask him to come for a drink or something. I was fairly sure he hadn't seen me.
At that moment a large group of young people, students by the look of them, came in and positioned themselves noisily in my line of sight. It was minutes before they'd all found themselves tables. When I looked over to Zítko's corner again, he'd gone.
There was a metallic glint on his table. I knew it was his pen, and briefly wondered if he'd simply gone to the lavatory or something. I soon realised he'd left the bar and walked over to where he had been sitting. The cap was off the pen; Zítko had certainly been writing. There was my book, open at the flyleaf. And there were his latest words, only two of them this time, in a shakier hand than usual: Zítko asks. The ink was badly smudged. It may have been no more than a splash from his cognac and water, unfinished there on the table. I don't think it was that.
I waited for an hour, and then returned to the hotel. Alain was already there. He sacked me on the spot for leaving my post. Some trouble with my own landlord kept me from returning Zítko's pen the next day. When I did go back to the hotel a week later, there was a young Algerian in his place.
I never did return the pen to Zítko.