Jānis was awoken again by that fucking noise! That insistent tapping, that annoyance, that NOISE! He lied in bed, going through his mind what it could be. It was not coming from his floor, that was for sure, his mother would not have allowed it. But she was gone now, so perhaps it was from the ground floor, or perhaps even their, or now his, apartment. The sink? Perhaps. But no, not here. It was coming from outside the two rooms he had shared with her. The two rooms, with one bed he now inherited. Six years of sleeping on that pakulas sleeping mat after his wife left. But no more folding it out on the cold brown lino, not for a month now. Now he wakes in his mother’s bed, now his. Listening. That noise! Upstairs? No. Too far. Closer. Not the kitchen. Although, that bastard neighbour may have broken the tap again. Padauza! But no, not there. The basement maybe? Some cat or fucking rat! You live on the ground floor, with scum, animals; what to expect. Above floors, sure they are ok, the higher up the cleaner. But the bottom floor! One step from the street, fucking animals! And him? Animal? Maybe. Well closer with every day.
Jānis rolled himself from bed. Yesterday’s Hektors littered the floor, the shadow of his drinking problem haunting his vision, while his mind sought more. He reached for a bottle, some left. He drank. Eyes closed. What was left of the bottle now finished, he knew he would need more soon. Dirt and piss stained pants on he entered the shared hallway. Share with animals you excuse the mess. Toilet, also shared. Toilet broke so he pissed in the tub. Tub shared. Who cares! Naked feet on dirty tiles, he sweated through the pain of pissing. FUCK! The burning continued as he made his way back to their, his… his room. Inside again. Small room. No bigger than twelve foot by fifteen. Near empty. Filthy. He entered the bedroom. Smaller again. Dresses. Shirt and jacket? On the chair. Tie? Not there. FUCK! Where? She would have told him, his mother, had she been there. As she had done so many mornings. She always insisted on a tie, even playing on the street for spare change, he wore his tie. He found it and dressed. Am I so far past it since I lost her? Yes. Maybe. I drink, but I always did, although now there is no one to say stop. Do I need to stop? What else is there? Helēna, his wife, had drunk, well not at the beginning, but after it happened. After that horrible day. She probably did now for all he knew. It was the one thing they shared, towards the end. That, and blame. Not enough. She still left. Jānis reached under the bed and found it where it always was, always should be, where his mother always kept it. He placed the battered case on the bed, still enjoying the moment, even after all these years. Forty-four now, thirty-six years of playing. Perhaps, there is this, he thought as he opened the lid. He placed it to his lips and played. His Russian rotary valve trumpet, all he had. His mother’s gift. His mother, dead now a month.
Jānis left. No mirror. No need. With snot caked to beard, and piss stained pants, he needed no confirmation or assurance of appearance. Warm out. Good. He needed that. They don’t stop to listen when they are cold, when wet. But soon, FUCK! What then? When the Daugava freezes, where would his money come from? Last year, he had her, his dead mother. She provided, found money as she always had. The milking van. FUCKERS! Now, years later his mind casts back to those times she waited with the milk. They would carry the can together down to the pick-up. In Latgale. He only eight, just started playing, not knowing he had a wife, dead son, and drinking problem for a future. But then eight, a future untarnished by being. Back then, his mother made sure they had enough, made sure their milk got picked. Often on her back. Or, that time he spied on her, on her knees. But she made sure they got paid what was theirs. Fucking Soviets! Only way to stay alive then was on your back, or knees! Collective farming meant collectively fucked.
Jānis was hungry. Milk soup with dumplings would be nice. What to eat today? That depended on how much they discard in the case. Time of year, a few drunk foreigners can make a good day. Drunk British or Germans, or Finnish. All here for cheap good times. Part of a thing called Europe now, no more Soviet this and Soviet that. Now it is a new European Latvia, a new collectiveness; a new way of getting fucked! A tram, he hopped on, not knowing where it would go, but in Riga, most end up passing Milda. No need to pay, no money to pay. The tram was nearly full, but silent. A nasty silence, he knew he created. A silence he knew all too well. Fuck them! What right have they to judge? He let the silence engulf him. He stood. If he sat down, he knew it would win. What difference does it make? The silence, he saw them for what they were, and knew that they judged him in opposition. Jānis also knew what he was. A bomzis. A drunk. They feared him. To them, he was all the hardship the city could be. The failure it offered. They, or their families, had survived the tough times, they had made it; prospered in the new Latvia. They feared that he would approach. That he would beg, shout, curse, attack!
‘Lūdzu, iedod man kādu santīmu?‘
‘Nelieti, dod man naudu!’
They knew the vocabulary, knew his sort. His was an existence that they and theirs escaped. Jānis stood in defiance; he knew he would not need to beg. Not yet. He played for his way of living. His self-destruction. Yet, he stood, buried in the silence, slowly hating himself.
He got at out at Vērmanes dārzs, and entered the park. The tram never passed Milda. Pity. He still enjoyed looking up at her. She is yours, she is for all Latvia. That is what his mother had said when first they arrived in Riga. He was there also with her during that summer of 1987. They, like countless others, laid flowers, and watched as a new country took root. In 1990, then married, they stood again under Milda’s raised arms. Now she was Brīvības piemineklis, a monument of freedom. She represented all, no more Soviets! Finally, they had a freedom, a future that was theirs to take, to shape as they see fit. Jānis played his trumpet that day, under Milda’s gaze, an emblem of freedom gazing down with approval. He played the songs of his new country. The ones his mother had taught him, ‘Saule. Pērkons. Daugava.’, ‘Div’ dūjiņas gaisā skrēja’ and even ‘Kur tu teci, gailīti mans?’. He played that day, while those around sung along. They swam in the music together, and enjoyed a new freedom. You could have built a country on his shoulders, he was all. He was twenty-two, in love, free, happy. A future beckoning.
And now, twenty two years later, Jānis sat on a bench, a shadow of that man whose future beckoned so brightly. Future? If only he knew then his future, his great new Latvia. His all. A son born soon after, and sooner again dead. A marriage poisoned by a hatred that was fattened by blame. He never knew why he blamed her, nor could he understand why she blamed him. Or did she blame him? Jānis always felt she did, but now he was not so sure. Now he sees it for what it was, it was their fault. They were tēvs and māte, and he was their dēls, it was their job to protect him from man, or beast, or even the illness that killed him. But they didn’t, so he was no more. His mother had told him that it was just the way. Some are born without a future, they exist only for a moment, and then are no more. So you make more, another child, another dēls or meita. You take your love back from that what was, and you give anew. It’s like that song I taught you when you were only a boy, ‘Kur tu teci, gailīti mans?’ You remember it?:
‘kur tu teci, kur tu teci, gailīti mans?
kur tu teci, kur tu teci, gailīti mans?
no rītiņa agrumā, no rītiņa agrumā?’
The rooster is going to get his hen, you remember, he gets up early so he can have her, and marry her, and make little ones. Then he will be happy. Even if you fail, and the little one dies, you try again. You get up early, and give again. She even told how she had done that, how he was a second born, but he knew it was a lie. He always knew when she lied. Jānis loved her and hated her then. So he struck out, he hurt and blamed, and drank, and drank, and drank, and kept drinking, till his Helēna also drank, and then left, and he was left on his mother’s floor, sleeping on a piss covered pakulas.
Yesterday. Jānis played outside the great domed cathedral, Kristus Piedzimšanas pareizticīgo katedrāle. Those who kneel before the three-bared cross of Russia are often generous, so he did well. He enjoyed playing there. His playing needed no great care, those who gave, did for charity, not for the beauty he sought to bring into being. However, there was a beauty in their giving. Those women, hooded, so as not to offend a caring deity upon leaving their prayers, gave what little they had. Their charity, a way of keeping their sense of marvellous salvation alive. Jānis played and collected. Playing, he wondered was here a hope for happiness, for an existence of sorts. Surely, no worse an opiate than drink. All thoughts are prayed to some beast, so why not? He could become them, those who pity, those who seek salvation. But no. This future was not his, he could not be a slave to Russia’s church. Not with his past, his probable source.
His playing had become imitation. Jānis knew this. He was once great. This he also knew. In youth, while playing to Līga and Jānis at midsummer, he was the player who shone through. Being Jānis in name also, he was awarded a special place, dressed in oak leaves to celebrate a legend. But once he played, he became Jānis also in character, in beauty. And those who listened loved him for it, and cloth him in flowers also, as they all celebrated a country still under another. Now. On the bench in Vērmanes dārzs park. He needed to play again, to imitate what he once was. To begin. Yet, he waited. Struck by the beauty of the place, the later summer roses being matched in beauty only by those who passed. The new Latvian. He often watched them while playing. Their dress. Their assuredness. A coldness still there, they are Latvian after all, but, a warmth emerging. He envied them, yet hated also. A duality his mind fought, while he played. He greeted them often. Pleasantly,
‘Lai tev jauka diena!’
Or, offer a grateful Paldies if they placed money in case. Most often, though, they would ignore this greeting. Fearing him, courtesy above them. Of course, many were surprised to hear him adopt a Latvian tongue, expecting a Russian one. Surely all the drunks are Russian? Or those Russians that were left behind after independence. What are they? He wondered. Not Latvian, not Russian, so what? An other sort, a placeless sort. An unwanted sort. One-in-five like this, but who? The drunks? Yes, some, but not all, he was proof of this. Yet, in his darkest hours he wondered was he one of them? He never knew a father, a man from whom he came. His mother would not say when asked. He is dead! That is all you need to know! That was her response, and no one else to ask. Latgale, that farm. A source? Perhaps. The governmental workers, maybe one of them, those proud Soviet animals. His source? She did what she had to do to get their milk taken. Those animals decided fate, decided who got paid, who ate, who lived. Maybe from them he also came, his source a tarnished seed, received through brutality to an unwanted host. If so, why live? He was loved in life, by mother, by wife, but what does this matter when this was a source. Unsettled, Jānis began to play.
Something easy to start, ‘Rīga dimd’ a song he often played. One he knows pays its way. People pass, some discard a few cents, but most did not. Across from where he played, a statue of the folk collector Krišjānis Barons sits. Jānis watched him while playing, his mind again casting back. Barons the collector, is this a song of yours? This is what you did, yes, you took all our music and kept it alive, and for what? So that years later a mixed breed bastard like me can play to a deaf audience. Today would be a bad day. Jānis was close to an end. Why go on? What for? A few months ago he came close to going in the Daugava, wishing his body be washed away to the Baltic Sea. No more questioning. No more past to haunt. No more future to mock. No more pain. Yet he failed in dying also. But what about today? Maybe it was time. What is there to live for? He stopped playing. A tear in eye. Looking in the case, not enough for the bottle of Hektors he desperately needed. Just fucking play! Placing trumpet to lips, he began. He played poorly, eyes closed, as a tear rolled down his face. Unable to look at those who passed. Tired of what he saw in them, what he might have been, what may have been his. NO MORE! LET IT END! The playing stopped, Jānis opened his eyes, and checked. FUCK! Still not enough. He needed a drink. Face cast down. Broken. He knew it would be today. His end.
Jānis stood. Silence. His mind now formalised his way of dying. Where? Bridge not far, just a walk through Old Riga. When? Straight away. Why suicide? This was a question he often asked, but only that day found an answer; why not! What is there here? Maybe in death, then peace will come. Or, at the very least, Jānis knew that in this way, his end would be his to control. His past, his future, and his end, all in his hands. That was all Jānis had left, so why wait? Resigned to his choice, he looked at his trumpet and remembered the day it was handed to him. For you, his mother had said, to bring happiness. He smiled. Either it failed him, or he failed it. Yet, he decided to play one more time. He owed his mother that, and he owed his trumpet that also. It would come in the river with him, he was making sure of that, so it deserved to be played one more time. But what to play? As soon as he asked himself, he knew it would be ‘Kur tu teci, gailīti mans?’ It was the song he learned in youth, had played under Milda’s gaze while he and others celebrated freedom, and, it was the song on which he hung memories of his dead child, and a past that never existed; a past with a happy family, tēvs, māte, and dēls, together in health and freedom. Eyes closed. He played.
Jānis played beautifully. This pleased him. If these were to be his final notes, they should be beautiful. Eyes closed, the lyrics struck him. A children’s tale, nothing more, about a rooster and a hen. Yet more to him somehow, a story of beginning, of hope even. But, what place has it in this world! Just then, Jānis heard singing. One voice, then two, then ten, maybe twenty, all young, distant, yet getting closer. He opened his eyes, a school party of children with a tired teacher walked close. Jānis often saw such outings in the park, a nice way for the kids to spend the morning. He watched as they got closer, not knowing that they had learned this song in school, as so many children before them had, and will continue to do. Sixteen in total, boys and girls, none older than eight. Smiling. Their excitement growing as they neared Jānis, their voices grew louder, excited as they recognised what was their song. By the time they stood with Jānis, they sung with a passion and beauty matched only by his playing. Passers-by stopped, enthralled by the performance. Smiling. The children sang:
‘kur tu teci, kur tu teci, gailīti mans? …’
Jānis played. Without fault. With great care. With great beauty. His eyes closed, a tear again rolled down his face. Smiling. Not today! Death can wait. The song ended, and Jānis opened his eyes. The children looked up, some clapping, some laughing, all pleased with his, and their performance. Jānis looked at them, and took a bow. Those who gathered clapped, while Jānis thanked his little choir. Paldies, my chickens. Some tried to put money in his case, but Jānis insisted that his choir get it. For ice-cream, he told their teacher. They all left. Jānis again stood alone. Yet, happy. He played. No, not today. After-all, at least I have this!
Copyright © Mike Lydon, 2015.
Michael Lydon is an Irish writer who is currently studying at Cardiff University, undertaking an MA in ‘Music, Culture, Politics’. He is a graduate of National University Ireland, Galway, and is a frequent contributor to the Wales Arts Review. ‘Kur tu teci, gailīti mans?’ is his first short-story and is partially based on a true event witnessed while in Riga, where he is a frequent visitor.
Image: Copyright © Jo Mazelis, 2015.