02. 03. 2006. 11:01

War

György Dragomán

"...the question was not whether it was going to be ice cream or chocolate, nor whether it was going to be raspberry syrup or peach nectar, not even whether it was going to be a Hungarian dance or a Romanian dance but the real question was always whether it would be peace or war."

As I walked into the school gymnasium and on into the polling booth with its dark red velvet curtain, clutching my envelope and my school report book, I could hardly help laughing because I remembered what father had said when I told him that I could not go with him to the flee-market early Sunday morning because it was compulsory to go to the school and vote at the referendum and father had said it all wasn’t worth a piece of turd and the best thing I could do would be to push my pants down and shit on the floor of the polling booth and then use the voting slip to wipe my arse and then put it in the envelope and throw it in the urn to let them know what I thought about their idiotic referendum, but all of this made mother very angry and she said father should watch his mouth and think twice before he spoke rubbish like that in front of me because if he kept on doing that she shouldn’t wonder if he found himself at the Danube Canal one day, but father just laughed and said I should imagine the head of the voting committee, how he’d be up shit creek without a paddle when he opened my envelope, and that made father laugh so much I had to laugh along with him, and so when I walked into the polling booth this was what I thought of and I could almost see the headmaster’s fat moon face turning as red as the flag itself, but then I caught sight of Comrade Gagarin’s life size portrait which was neatly mounted on the back wall of the polling booth among the white doves of peace where they had written peace in ever so many languages of the world, of course, I could not read properly at the time, but even I could make out pax and paz and pace, and each dove of peace was carrying a little twig as if it wanted to make a nest, even though doves are actually useless at making nests, all they can do is say too dumb, too dumb, but Comrade Gagarin was standing there, proud as Punch, helmet in hand, as ever, and I had to reach out my hand and touch the helmet, that see-through bit at the front, and of course I knew it was only cardboard but I still had to touch it, I loved Comrade Gagarin so deeply because he had been so brave as to fly up into space to fetch us the brotherhood of nations, and when I started going to school, on the very first day we had to choose a hero and I chose Comrade Gagarin and the teacher was very proud of me and said that I had made a really good choice because Comrade Gagarin was a real hero who had done a great, great deal for peace and the brotherhood of nations, and then she asked me what I liked best about Comrade Gagarin and I said I liked his helmet best, that it was so rounded and you could still see out through the glass at the front and then the teacher said yes and if Comrade Gagarin were to visit our school he would surely let me try on his helmet, but then Ferike put up his hand and said that as far as he had heard Comrade Gagarin was dead now because they had learnt at nursery school that he had died in an air crash, but the teacher said that did not matter, because his spirit was still here with us and will live on for ever in our hearts. As I touched the helmet I could feel my heart give a deep throb and then I really, really thought that I saw Comrade Gagarin’s life size cardboard face move and Comrade Gagarin squinted his life size cardboard eyes angrily at me as if he had guessed what I was going to vote for, but I knew it wasn’t true and I was only imagining it, so I opened the envelope instead to take out my voting slip and again I was reminded of the teacher and the time when the previous Thursday, after showing us a film on the projector, she had turned on the light and stepped up on her dais and looked us all over and said, very loud and clearly, that the question was not whether it was going to be ice cream or chocolate, nor whether it was going to be raspberry syrup or peach nectar, not even whether it was going to be a Hungarian dance or a Romanian dance but the real question was always whether it would be peace or war. Then she fell silent as if she had really asked a genuine question and was expecting for someone to raise their hands and give her an answer, but nobody did, so she just went on to say that many people believe that we, in the first year of infant school, were not mature enough to understand the fight for peace, not old enough to understand that to fight for peace meant exactly that each of our little actions, each of our decisions, each and every choice we made had to do with whether we wanted peace or war. When we didn’t learn to recite our lesson word by word off by heart, we were not only giving ourselves a hard time, we were making a small step ahead on the way to war and it all added up and if we didn’t take care, soon we should be scavenging for food under the ruins like those poor children in the film and we didn’t even understand how lucky we were that this coming Sunday we were going to be given a real chance to choose directly between war or peace, because we were to understand that there was going to be a children’s referendum where we could show to the world that the schoolchildren of the Romanian Socialist People’s Republic chose peace over war, no wonder the comrade who was the party chief secretary worked so hard all the time for peace, and we all know our rhyme Ney moondream coo tot che fache, Chaushescoo pentroo pache (Our hearts swell with pride, Ceausescu is making peace), and the most important thing to remember was that the polling booths would to be opened at six o’clock Sunday morning, so we should all be there by a quarter to six, as we must get it all over with by five past six to make sure that our school was the first in the county, even we, little first year children must vote, we must not worry it is not difficult, all you have to do is mark on the voting slip which one we want, not to worry, it doesn’t matter that we cannot read properly, there will be a picture of a dove of peace and one of a machine gun next to the two little boxes and we must mark the box next to the little dove but we must make sure we write an x not a plus sign, that is all, not too much to do for the sake of peace, is it, she’d said, and so as I took out the voting slip from the envelope I could see that it was just as the teacher had said, they had stamped the top of the page, in the middle, with the coat of arms of our People’s Republic and underneath there were a  few printed lines of text but I could not read it, but had I been able to read it I might still not have understood it because it was in Romanian, but indeed at the bottom of the page there were the two little boxes with a dove over one and over the other one of those machine guns with the rounded magazine that the patrol always used, and then I thought I shall vote for war just to be awkward, no one will ever find out who it was anyway, and then I neatly put down the voting slip on top of the school desk which they had put inside the booth and I took the black felt tip pen that was tied to the desk with fishing line because just when I was about to put a neat x under the machine gun I looked up once more at Comrade Gagarin and I thought I saw him squint at me angrily, but I only thought this for a moment because when I looked closer I noticed at once that he was not squinting at all but someone had marked his picture and drawn a piece of dove-shit over his face with exactly the same black felt tip that you were supposed to vote with, so it looked as if one of the doves flying over his head had shat him in the eye, and then I noticed that the somebody had also drawn bits of shit under each of the doves as if they had shat over poor Comrade Gagarin’s uniform and face and even his helmet as they flew and when I saw this I could feel that I was overcome with anger, in fact I was almost as angry as on the day when my little brother had torn my Goyko Mitich poster off the wall and it tore so badly you could never ever glue it back together again, and I knew that I had no choice I had to correct at least this terrible mistake so I would somehow have to rescue poor Comrade Gagarin. I quickly took out my handkerchief and licked it and climbed on top of the school desk and started rubbing the dove shit out of poor Comrade Gagarin’s eye but the felt tip had dried and it was a terrible job getting it off even though I rubbed as hard as I could, and then somebody outside suddenly said what the dickens was I doing taking all this time to tick that bloody box off under the dove, one more minute and he would come in and kick me in the butt so I would fly like the dove of peace, so I said I would be right out, just one moment, and then I spat into my handkerchief once more and started rubbing Comrade Gagarin’s face even harder and in fact I had almost cleaned those few bits of felt tip dove shit off his face but as I clung on I must have somehow trod on the felt tip pen and it must have rolled under my boot because I slipped and fell against Comrade Gagarin and against the wall of the polling booth and the whole plank wall moved and I tried my best to hang on but it was too late because the wall of the polling booth also started to fall over and I could feel that Comrade Gagarin and I were both falling over and the doves of peace fell along with us and I seemed to be falling in slow motion directly toward the voting committee and I could see that the comrade who was the headmaster jumped up and screamed with a red face what the fuck is going on cheh pulah kaloolooy but by this time the plank wall and Comrade Gagarin had knocked off the voting urn with its ribbon of the national colours and as I fell head foremost on top of the urn the cardboard box suddenly broke and all the voting slips fell out, whirling around us in the air with all their little x’s and the little printed machine guns and doves and I could feel that this time I have really banged my head hard, and all was rushing and waving and whirling around me with the doves of peace cooing too dumb, too dumb, too dumb inside my head and the little machine guns seemed to be going tuck-tuck-tuck-tuck-tuck and my last thought was that I had not voted and I had not put my x anywhere and did that mean that war eternal was about to break out?  

(Written for Litera's traditional pre-New Year Eve party entitled Make your choice!, 30 December 2005.)

Translated by Orsolya Frank 

Tags: György Dragomán