Wednesday, June 12, 2019

'Brno is for Lovers', Jack Stephens Win BSSWC-3

Brno is for Lovers”, written by Jack Stephens, was the unanimous selection as the winner of the Third Annual Brno Short Story Writing Contest.

“It was my love letter to the city,” said Stephens, who will receive the 6,000kc first prize.
Stolen Moments with Kings”, written by Adam Sweet, was selected as the runner up and he gets 3,000kc. Sweet won the 2017 BSSWC with “New Year’s Evey”.

Two stories shared third-place honors: “Just Google It” by Hana Pačesová, a Brno-native who is currently on maternity leave, and “Heartbeat” by Simon Botten, who also finished third in the 2018 BSSWC. Both receive 1,000kc.

Anonymous donations funded the initial 10,000kc prize pool. Another anonymous donation allowed for both third-place authors to receive 1,000kc. Brno Daily (brnodaily.cz) and the Brno Expat Centre (brnoexpatcentre.eu) were both media sponsors.

Stephens, who hails from London, earned Honorable Mention with “The Last Time” in 2018. “Brno is for Lovers” moved him to the top of the list.

“I wanted to capture all of the different kinds of strong emotions that people feel in the city and capture the experience of being here from many different perspectives,” said Stephens, who works as a teacher and journalist. “I wanted to create an overview of how love functions in the city. I wanted it to be something that as many people could relate to as possible.”

Four additional stories were awarded Honorable Mention:
• “Where The Heart Is” by Jennifer Stahl
• “Bleeding Heart” by Veronika Opatřilová
• “Stalker of my Brother’s Dentist” by Jan Váňa
• “Love in the Time of Dystopia” by Jan Cymba

The Third Annual Brno Short Story Writing Contest asked writers to address the theme, “The Heart of Europe”, in some significant way. It was a free contest, with only one entry per person. The short stories had to be in English and 2,500 words or less. The deadline for entries was May 26 Forty-five entries were submitted.

The jury included a cross-section of local cultural icons and writing enthusiasts: Don Sparling, a co-founder of the Brno Expat Centre and a longtime leader in the local expat and Masaryk University communities; Tomáš Kačer, a teacher in the Department of English and American Studies at MU, and a translator; Anna Formánková, a translator and a book editor at MOBA Publishing House; and contest co-founder and Brno Writers Group co-founder Lee Adams, the At the Movies blogger for the Brno Expat Centre.

The jury was instructed that the contest was focused on creating a story that included the theme “The Heart of Europe” in some significant way. The story was the most important aspect, including writing, originality, character development, and plot development. It was understood that most of the entrants would not be native English speakers and that, in fact, this may be their first attempt to write creatively in English. All entrants were to endeavor to adhere to the rules of English; however, spelling and grammar was not be critical for success.

WINNER — Brno is for Lovers

By Jack Stephens


In Brno, the city for lovers at the beating heart of Europe, love takes many complex, mysterious forms, which confound and surprise, break and rebuild, and occasionally hurt more than you can bear. But the city never stops breathing love.

 

The city breathes love, especially in the springtime. Martin and Zuzka, newly wed, strolling among the koniklece in Nový Lískovec. Zuzka suspects, but can't be sure, that this might be the last April for just the two of them. Eliška and Tereza, both 16, hanging out in Lužánky Park after school like every day, discussing Plath and Woolf and Tomáš Klus. Tereza suspects, but can't be sure, that she has never felt this way about anyone before. Lad'a and Majka, dressed to the nines, holding hands at the opera in Janáčkovo divadlo, like every Wednesday for the last fifty years. Lad'a suspects, but can't be sure, that this could be the best version of Verdi's Aida they've seen yet. José, on Erasmus from Valencia, and Jana, on her sixth tequila, making love fully clothed on the dance floor at Two Faces. Jana suspects, but can't be sure, that five tequilas would have been enough. A mile away her boyfriend David is making love fully clothed on the dance floor at Tabarin to... Katka? Jitka? He suspects, but can't be sure, that Jana is cheating on him.

***
Alex arrives in September 2013, aged 24, with wide eyes and not a single accurate preconception. Like most British people, he had never heard of Brno, until he saw it on a job advert six weeks earlier. But he's here now, with a job to do: patiently explain the difference between present simple and present continuous all day every day to a bewildering array of people, from IT technicians to electrical engineers to mechanical engineers to heating engineers. And another job to do: drink his bodyweight in Polička each month. And another job to do: repeatedly remind everyone in his family that he lives in the Czech Republic, not Czechoslovakia, not Chechnya, and certainly not Croatia. And another job to do: not fall in love 300 times every day, when every tram carriage contains more human beauty than the whole of Chelmsford. Some jobs are harder than others.

In September 2013, Míša is just starting at Masaryk University, studying international relations. She dreams of seeing the world and fixing the world, putting countries back together and healing their pain. She reads Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Marquez. Life is a trip, new friends every day, hot guys, wild nights. She feels the whole world at her feet, the excitement and energy of everything, of being a woman in a world where women can do things her mother and grandmother never could. She thinks about becoming a vegan; her mother is not impressed.

In May 2014 Alex has a crush on his student. He has never met anyone like her, she is captivating, she could be The One. He learns she's been dating a guy in the same class for the last month, a guy Alex has been out drinking with a few times. He feels like his world has ended. His best friend in the world with the love of his life? It's almost too much to stand, he feels like he'll never love again. In June 2014 he falls in love again.

In September 2014 Míša meets Olivier, a handsome French guy studying at her faculty this year. His mother is Czech so he speaks the language fluently, she has never met a French guy who speaks Czech before but it's incredibly hot. Before long they are kissing outside Špilberk Castle, by night, the lights of the town sparkling below them. Míša feels like maybe she's in love for the first time. She reads Proust and Camus. They spend Christmas with his mother and sisters in Rennes. Her mother is heartbroken, but she cooks them carp the day before they leave and pretends it's fine.

   In December 2014 Alex is agonising... Brno is full of surprises, a maelstrom of weird, wonderful people with exotic back-stories, but at what price? To live in a country where everyone shares your context, shares your references, watched the same children's TV as you, it's a psychological comfort blanket conspicuous by its absence here; he feels rootless, nomadic, shorn of his past. He dreams of finding a partner-in-crime.

In May 2015, Míša and Olivier only have one month left together. She can barely breathe imagining him leaving. Her course has been boring lately, should she go with him? France always seemed so much more romantic than here. Her mother is horrified but always supportive. Two weeks later she discovers Olivier has been fucking her best friend, and everyone else in the city. She feels like her world has ended. Her best friend in the world with the love of her life? It's almost too much to stand, she feels like she'll never love again. Her mother claims she told her so, but she never did. Míša cries for three weeks, but then gets laid on a girls' weekend in Lipno, and suddenly Olivier can go love himself.

In November 2015, Alex is in Metro with his crew. They've got a feeling that tonight's gonna be a good night, that they will find love in a hopeless place, that the city can't hold them. That same night, Míša is also in Metro. Two months into her final year, she has met some inspiring girls, strong women, they form a posse and decide they're feminists. They read De Beauvoir, Friedan, and bell hooks. Her mother is secretly proud of her, but they have a massive argument about it anyway. 

***
The city breathes love, especially in the summertime. Martin and Zuzka, decorating the second bedroom neutral green (for 2019), stopping to kiss approximately every 28 seconds. Martin suspects, but can't be sure, that it's gonna be a boy. He's daydreaming about Kometa season tickets, of building a house and planting a tree. Eliška and Tereza, spending every long hot summer day in Lužánky, talking about Kurt and Courtney and daydreaming out loud about what they want to be in their lives. Maybe writers? Maybe poets? Eliška suspects, but can't be sure, that she has never felt this way about anyone before. Lad'a and Majka, at their cottage near Přehrada. Lad'a wonders how many more books he will get through before he croaks. Should he start choosing them more carefully? Majka's been at him to fix the drainpipe. She suspects, but can't be sure, that the old goat is deliberately ignoring her. David and Jana, at Majales with friends, on their fourth argument of the day. David suspects, but can't be sure, that Jana wants to fuck that guy from her Spanish class, whether she admits it or not.

***
In June 2016, the day before he goes home for the summer, Alex's country, protesting against itself, decides to delete its own future. That night Brno's Britové gather in disbelief; the beer flows, the slivovice flows, the tears flow, but he still has to fly back the next day, leaving a city that breathes love for a country that sweats cursed history and belches privilege. He has never felt more Brňák than now, and he spends the summer telling that to everyone he meets.

In June 2016 Míša graduates, and the future has never looked brighter. She is researching internships in Brussels, Geneva, maybe even New York! Her mother, through gritted teeth, says that New York would be a wonderful opportunity. There are more and more foreigners around and it excites Míša to see what's happening to her city, throwing itself open to the world, the hidden gem at the heart of Europe, so different to the city of her childhood. But not everything is better, she feels her people are losing their individuality a little, and also their innocence. Everything seems American now. They say it would be worse if everything were Russian, and of course it would, but still, do we have to do everything they do?

In September 2016 Alex starts a new job at Kiwi. He never imagined himself working somewhere like this but he is surrounded by young, beautiful people, every day brings something new and exciting, every night is a party. This city is changing so fast, even in the three years since he arrived, and it's exhilarating. He can't walk through town without knowing someone. The perpetual internal debate about whether this is the right place for him fades gently into the background.

***

 The city breathes love, especially in the autumn. Martin (nervous) and Zuzka (enormous), fending off advice from every relative and friend and relative's friend. Zuzka suspects, but can't be sure, that none of these people have any idea what they're talking about. Eliška and Tereza, marking the last of the glorious weather with a picnic in Lužánky, golden leaves and whispering winds enveloping them in a heaven of unearthly colour, the air between them solid with unspoken words. Tereza suspects, and Eliška suspects, but they can't be sure, and this pregnant silence is so comfortable but so maddening. Lad'a and Majka, in a wine cellar in Hustopeče with old friends, toasting their health, reminiscing about the good old times. They shouldn't have been good times, but they had their health and their youth and they made them count, made the best of what they had. They learnt something about resilience their grandchildren won't. Majka suspects, but can't be sure, that this cough is nothing. José, BSc., back from Valencia and working for IBM. How could he stay away from este ciudad marveillosa!? He messages Jana, one of his favourite girls in Brno. David reads it first. Jana suspects, but can't be sure, that David is cheating on her with that slut from his work.

***

In January 2017, Míša meets The American. A psychologist ten years her senior, he has a wife and child, but seems to only have eyes for her. By day he makes her laugh, makes her heart shiver, takes her breath away with how well he understands her. By night he makes her come but he also hurts her, sometimes in ways she likes, then sometimes in ways she doesn't. Her friends don't approve and her mother can never know, but he casts a spell over her and that's how she likes it.

In January 2017 Alex starts an affair with a colleague ten years his senior, a wild, liberated goddess who dominates him and teaches him things he never thought possible, about himself, about life, about sex. She tells him she's using him but he doesn't listen, he has never met anyone like her, she is captivating, she could be The One. Five months later, in the darkness, she tells him it's over. He feels like his world has ended. It's almost too much to stand, and he feels like he'll never love again, for real this time.

By October 2017, The American is gone. “How could you have taken so long to realise?” say her friends. But you can never understand what happens between two people when they feel the power. Míša doesn't know where he is now, likely pickling himself in a nonstop somewhere, but he doesn't try to see her anymore, at least, though she still receives 4am messages, choleric, poisonous missives designed to control her and keep her on a long leash. But gradually the tears start to dry and she understands that Brno is for lovers, and this was never love.

In February 2018 Alex is still searching for an explanation for what happened. This woman ruined love for him by setting the bar too high, he wishes he had never met her. OR even if they are never together again, at least she showed him what love could be, how life could be, he's lucky to have met her. His head's a mess. He wasn't designed to be happy, nobody will ever love him. OR this is a city that throws life at you and dares you to catch it, so be ready. Either or, either or, everything's a mess.

On 14th June 2018, a date she will remember forever, Míša's mother dies, and Míša feels like a part of her has died too. How can anyone survive this pain? She's too sad to feel, too numb to cry, and even the sunshine is hued grey. The next months, nothing makes sense, drinking doesn't help, sex doesn't help, crying herself to sleep every night doesn't help. She feels herself growing colder, harder. Only time helps, says everyone, but time never seems to come.

***

The city breathes love, especially in the wintertime. Martin, Zuzka, and Olivie, celebrating Olivie's first Christmas with a never-ending flood of shitting and puking and tears (Martin's) and nappies and love and puking and tears (Olivie's) and love and shitting and visits from in-laws and tears (Zuzka's) and love and love and love. Martin didn't know until now that fatherhood is like coming home when you never knew you were away. Zuzka knows that the future is a book they are going to write together. Eliška and Tereza, not listening to the radio in Tereza's bedroom, fumbling nervously with buttons for the first time. Eliška knows that if art were a person, it would be Tereza. Tereza knows that if she had to die, she would prefer to die kissing these lips. Lad'a, alone in his flat in Lesná, staring at the barren trees outside, sipping a beer. After a whole life with her, inoculated against loneliness, this is overwhelming. Thank you for everything, miláčku, I love you. José, in Naproti with Jana and her friends, teaching him čeština. If he's gonna stay he should learn, let's start with “dám si pivo, proseeem”. José knows he made the right decision coming back, Jana knows she's trading up. David is in the shitty dive bar over the road, he knows she's over there with that fucking cizinec.

***

In November 2018, Míša is invited to a birthday party, a guy from school. They're not friends, Míša remembers all the names he used to call her, but her friends are there so... Alex is also there, drunkenly invited by the guy last week at a pub quiz. He barely knows him, but his friends are there so...

Alex lends Míša a lighter outside. She looks familiar, but Brno is a village. As they talk, a spark lights. She's charmed by his stupid jokes, his lop-sided smile, his awful attempts to speak Czech. He's charmed by her glamour, her piercing, intelligent eyes, her rants about capitalism. They both suspect, but can't be sure, that they have never met anyone like this, they are captivated, this could be The One. Because here, at the beating heart of Europe, love can find you at any moment and breathe you in. And it can build or heal, confound or surprise, and sometimes leave you exposed and broken, but breath follows breath like night follows day, carrying with it 402,991 love stories, 402,991 entwined narratives, which form complex, mysterious shapes that piece together into a city which breathes love, a city for lovers.

SECOND — Stolen Moments with Kings

By Adam Sweet

A man is invited by a strange acquaintance to drink cognac and view a famous stolen painting. Their tense conversation revolves around what to do with it.



“I’ve got ‘The Heart of Europe’ on my wall.” An interesting way to begin a phone call.
“What’re you on about? It’s almost midnight, sod off and let me get some sleep.” I answered, quite reasonably I thought, given the fact that a man I only occasionally meet for a quick coffee was ringing me at quarter to midnight.
“I’d like you to come over and see it. I’ve got a bottle of Louis XII to share, what do you say, mate?” Whenever Marcus ends a sentence with mate, it hangs awkward and unfeeling in the void, eerie and forced. Like an automaton crawling out of uncanny valley, it doesn’t convince you it’s genuine and just like you, but spotlights an alignment just slightly out of sync.
I’m not one to turn down the chance to sip a bottle of £3,000 cognac, despite my unease at being invited to a place I’ve never been in the middle of the night. After pulling on some clothes and stumbling downstairs, I was in a black cab on my way to Marcus’s Knightsbridge flat for a still-murky and likely unsettling reason.
Speaking with Marcus is unsettling – conversations are dominated by half-truths, omissions, carefully crafted sentences with hidden meanings obscuring even deeper lies, with a full truth sometimes dropped in to make sure you’re paying attention.
And when he opened the door to his flat just prior to half twelve, he began his verbal dance with, “Aiden, you will probably get more out of this than I will, thank you for coming.” I still had no real idea why I was there. “Please, get your bearings and then we will go into the living room together, I cannot tell you how spectacular it is, mate.”
Once my coat was on the hook and my shoes placed neatly by the door, a tumbler of cognac suddenly appeared in my hand and Marcus was coaxing me further into his world. We rounded the corner and entered his living room – surprisingly sparsely decorated, the same Ikea sofa, Ikea bookshelf, Ikea vase filled with glass beads that you would find in a millennial’s flat in Croydon or Haringey.
Except for the painting.
The painting – the subject of millions of descriptions, analyses, controversies, and conspiracy theories over the years, it would be a disservice for me to try to describe it in detail. Almost five square meters of colour and majesty and history, right in front of me. And the awe, well there are simply no words to describe that.
“Marcus, you literally have ‘The Heart of Europe’ on your wall.” I managed to stammer out, after what was an uncomfortably long lapse of speaking.
“Certainly, mate. Did you think I was lying to you?” Of course I had thought he was lying, or playing a word game, or just being Marcus. It had not actually crossed my mind that perhaps the most famous stolen painting in the world was actually on his wall.
Jan Matejko’s majestic ‘The Heart of Europe’, depicting a triumphant Jan III Sobieski of Poland leading the cavalry charge against the Turks at Vienna, holds a special place in the hearts of Central Europeans. The victory of the Siege of Vienna was their greatest moment, and this painting is the way they remember it. A great warrior riding down his enemies, preserving the heart of Europe for its people. Poles, Austrians, Czechs, Hungarians, Slovakians, Germans, Lithuanians – it is their artistic, cultural, historical pride and joy.
And no one had seen it since 1977.
It disappeared from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna during routine preservation work, and the whos, hows, whys and whereabouts a constant matter of discussion inside, and outside, the art world.
And I was looking at it.
“What is it doing here, how did you get it?”
“I’m holding it for a friend, just for a night.” Marcus makes having a priceless painting in his living room sound like he’s cat-sitting. My gaze of utter disbelief finally prompted him to continue, “Someone I have had the opportunity to work with was concerned that, for what I assume are very good reasons, tonight it would not be safe in his possession. It’ll be gone in the morning, and that’s why it was so urgent that you come see it tonight.”
The thing is, Marcus isn’t a criminal, per se. Oh, he’s undoubtably committed dozens of crimes, but not real crimes. As a professional valuation surveyor, he runs a small (legal) business appraising commercial real estate. But that sort of profession doesn’t give you the means to buy a posh flat in one of the trendiest parts of London or casually buy a £3,000 bottle of cognac.
In the years since I met Marcus while working on the Docklands redevelopment, I’ve gleaned from bits of our carefully-curated conversations that his clientele is extremely diverse. After all, any enterprise, criminal or otherwise, needs its solicitors, valuation surveyors, drivers, plumbers – ISIS even had a social media manager and glossy magazine.
Picked up some jewelry in a smash-and-grab? You need to know how much you can sell it for. You get an offer to trade five kilos of cocaine for a Maserati? You need to know if it’s a good deal. Want to use a famous painting as collateral for an arms deal? Better make sure that painting is worth it. And Marcus has the skills, and the moral ambiguity, to be able to answer those questions. For a modest renumeration, of course.
“So few people have had the chance to view this masterpiece over the past forty years, and those that have usually didn’t appreciate what they were looking it. Tonight, we have a unique opportunity to enjoy it. With your love of art and history, you were the one person I know that I could trust to share it with.” Despite his association with the darker elements of society, Marcus was gentle, not someone built for harm. But he certainly knew people who were more than happy to harm, and I was not ignorant of his subtle threat.
Marcus gestured to the sofa, and for some time we sat side-by-side, sipping cognac and taking in the momentous artwork. The sinewy veins on the neck of Sobieski’s horse, the subtle hues of the background indicating which men still stood and which had taken their final breath, the pure grandeur of seeing thousands of men putting their lives on the line for the Heart of Europe.
And it wasn’t right for just the two of us to enjoy it. In a few hours, the painting would return to the underworld, used again as bargaining chip or collateral. It will spend time in the backs of unmarked vans, languish in moist warehouses, get rolled up in the garage of a villa in Biarritz. No one else would have this experience again.
“You should call someone, get this painting returned to its rightful place. We shouldn’t be enjoying this alone.”
Marcus chuckled – chuckle is one way to describe this odd, mechanical sound. It was more a cross between a maniacal supervillain laugh and a coughing fit. “Aiden, you know that’s not possible, mate.” He said softly.
“I have my livelihood to protect, and the police tend to ask questions if you walk into Scotland Yard to innocently return valuable, famous, stolen artwork. Moreover, while my friend does not see the cultural and artistic value of this painting the way you or I do, it may still be useful to him in the future. He might lose his trust in me were he not to see it returned.”
He was right, of course. Simply to return it would put him in an extremely uncomfortably at best, and extremely dangerous position, at worst. But Marcus also shouldn’t have the right to decide that.
“I get it Marcus, I do. But maybe we can leave it in the park and call in an anonymous tip or something. Or pretend someone broke in and stole it from you. There has to be a way.” Bargaining is a sign of giving up, but I had to try.
“No mate, it’s not going anywhere.”
“But think of the millions that will enjoy it again, versus a few geezers who keep it covered up and only unearth it use it as a bargaining chip. What’s the discomfort of one person for the benefit of millions?”
“Look around you, mate. Being selfish is what we do. People are happy to say they want to fix climate change, but suddenly don’t want to do anything about it when it means they have to ride the bus to work and give up their aircon in the summer. People want to help immigrants, as long as they don’t come to our country, of course. Helping the poor sounds great, but there would be riots if taxes were raised so that we actually could help the poor.”
Despite that being the most I’ve ever heard Marcus say in one go, he continued, “Look at this masterpiece on the wall. What does it show? It shows people protecting what they already have and keeping others out. Whatever you might want to believe, ‘The Heart of Europe’ is looking out for yourself. And that’s what I’m doing, mate.” Never has Marcus’s robotic ‘mate’ been so out-of-place, so forceful, so menacing.
“So, Aiden, you must understand that this stays here. I’m more than happy to enjoy a bit more cognac and spend some time with this masterpiece, and I’m so glad I can trust you in this manner, mate” I took the threat seriously this time.
And so we sat in the dim light of an Ikea table lamp and swallowed our cognac and did out best to remember every single detail of a painting that neither of us will ever have the chance to see again, and which no one of you will ever have the chance to see. And as the cognac warmed me and Matejko’s subtle brushwork intoxicated me, I realized that I was experiencing something special, and it was just for me. And my heart too, is selfish.
At quarter past two I stood to leave, and without really thinking through what I was saying, told Marcus, “Thank you for giving me this opportunity.”
“You’re welcome, and thank you for sharing this with me, mate.”
Years later, I understand from the moment I laid eyes on the painting that it would never be returned. Those moments with Marcus, Louis XII cognac, and Jan III Sobieski charging across the field of battle are something never possible in the halls of the Louvre, Rijksmuseum, or National Gallery. And I would not have traded that for the joy of millions.
‘The Heart of Europe’ remains unaccounted for, and for me, it’s better that way.