New Year's Evey
Synopsis: A man grappling with the death of his wife spends New Year's Eve at a hidden place in Brno near the birthplace of Bohumil Hrabal where he searches for solace and where the unbelievable comes true.
It's a half hour till midnight and the sky above and below me is repeatedly punctured by the premature blasts of fireworks impatiently awaiting the promise and hope of the new year. On the table beside me sits a bottle of Evey's favorite champagne – our tradition had always been to pop the cork at midnight and sip directly from the bottle, and Evey loved her traditions.
If you ever want to get to where I am spending this New Year's Eve, and I do very much recommend it, take the number two tram east from Brno's main station, get off at the last stop, cross the main road and walk up a nondescript street behind the school. At the top, homes give way to a further climb up a wild, unkempt hill while a vast cemetery unfolds to your left.
At the corner of the cemetery you'll also find a modest monument marking where the writer Bohumil Hrabal was born.
Years ago, while on a train from Toulouse to Paris as part of one of Evey's signature overly-ambitious vacations where reality could never quite equal her romanticism, Evey found a copy of Hrabal's I Served the King of England under her seat. Despite never having heard of it, she eagerly flipped through the book and as we pulled into the Gare Montparnasse she snapped the book shut on the final page. Over the next few days, as we meandered among the bistros and bohemian shops of the Latin Quarter or strolled along the Seine she would constantly repeat the last line of the book, saying how our time in Paris really was the unbelievable come true.
For you to also experience Hrabal's unbelievable come true, continue on past the marker up the hill. With the cemetery on your left pavement soon gives way to dirt and urban life falls away below you. Keep right and you'll find yourself among garden plots dotted with sheds and shacks in various states of repair, some well tended with new coats of varnish, others slowly surrendering to time, nature, and memory.
Soon you'll find a metal gate listing drunkenly to the side, tarnished with years of neglect. Push past that gate and walk no more than a few dozen paces and prepare to be astonished. The city of Brno will suddenly explode into view below and you can see everything – Brno's short, stubby castle on a short, stubby hill – the spires of Brno's cathedral – every park, house, building, shopping center, pub, gas station, factory, and statue which make the city what it is.
It was a bright-blue Easter Sunday earlier this year when, during an aimless walk of escaping and forgetting, I stumbled across the Hrabal monument and the cemetery and made the trek up the hill beyond the collision of birth and death. While the faces of the dead enameled on their headstones stared blankly at me from the left, trees and bushes blooming with pinks, purples, yellows and whites ripped right from the pages of a greeting card dotted the hillside to my right as I slowly meandered up the hill, up away from the frivolity of Easter of which I had no desire to take part.
Lack of purpose, more than curiosity, made me slip past the gate and brought me to the precipice over Brno – a city where I had never loved and never been loved and which failed to stir my aching emptiness. Where most people would react with awe at the first sight of this stunning vista, I registered only disappointment.
At the beginning of this year my boss offered me a work assignment in Brno. I had always previously said no to such assignments – San Francisco was Evey's city with her job, her friends, her family, her Edison-bulb hipster cafes, her tucked-away little diners which still served unlimited coffee for a dollar, her little hideaways where she found the magic in the otherwise mundane, and as long as Evey was there, San Francisco was where I belonged. But her side of the bed had been cold and empty for six crushingly long months and San Francisco was just as alien to me as Brno, a city on the other side of the world which seemed to lack character as much as it lacked vowels.
Evey would have found the magic in this place, up the hill from the intersection of Hrabal's birthplace and the resting place of thousands, where lost and wild Brno gazes down on the modernity and progress and where the unbelievable comes true. She would have loved the rickety shack just a few paces from the edge, no larger than a side-of-the-road fruit stand, with its creaky old chair and dusty table. I, on the other hand, was simply disgusted by the years of filth of passers-though using the shack for their own needs who had left a layer of beer cans, chip bags, condoms, syringes, and plastic of a thousand shapes and colors strewn over the floor.
Later that night, as I sat listlessly in my apartment in the nearby communist-era behemoth painted green and orange in a futile effort to mask the stagnation inside, local plum brandy stung my throat and my thoughts turned back to the shack, the edge, the view.
A nagging feeling came over me – Evey would have sat down in that aging chair and stayed awhile; she could always see the romance and magic in the routine and unspectacular. Even at the end, when her head was bare and she coughed too much, she still tried to grasp every moment and hope for the unbelievable to come true. Even if for nothing more than the sake of her memory, I vowed to return to the shack.
Despite the April weather making an abrupt about face back towards winter, the following Sunday I gathered some cleaning supplies and a bottle of plum brandy and trudged through the rain and snow and howling wind past the Hrabal monument, the rows of sodden dead, the deserted sheds, up to the shack on the edge of the hill. While the rain whipped across the mouth of the shack, I cleared out the years of detritus so that all that remained was the chair, the table, and the shack. Then, as Evey would have done, I settled into the chair to see what would happen.
When you do come here, it is important to sit and wait awhile – only after hours of sitting, watching, contemplating, does the unbelievable come true. For me, on that damp and windswept day, I sat for hours sipping plum brandy and staring into the bleakness of the city shrouded in fog and clouds and sorrow and disappointment and regret, desperate for something to happen.
Then, as the light faded and the last of the plum brandy settled acidly in my stomach I felt a feeling rise in my chest – a spark, a shiver, a thrill that coursed through my body. Then I heard it – a sound, a formless whisper above the wind, tickling my ear and triggering a flood of memories of love and warmth and loss and despair.
“It's really rather beautiful, isn't it?”
Evey's voice, low and roughened by years of smoking trendy clove cigarettes, was unmistakable. The shock I felt sprang not so much from the unbelievable coming true but from resentment for her relentless optimism, as if she was mocking me. I snapped back, “Don't talk to me about beauty. How can you look at the beautiful when you left me alone here in this ugly place? Besides, you know how much I hate the rain.”
“Oh, I know. But you always seem to look at the negative. You focus on the bleakness of a city in winter, on the boredom of your life, on the loss of a loved one. Where's the bright side? You have to learn to see the beauty in the rain and the love you still have in your heart.”
This time there was no need to answer. Evey was right. She was always right. And that was all she said to me that first day in the shack on the hill where the unbelievable comes true – no declarations of love or advice for the future or apologies for deserting me – but I also somehow knew that she had so much more that she wanted to tell me. So every weekend since I've made the climb past the birthplace of Hrabal and the resting place of thousands who survive only in names, stones, burnt-out candles and withered flowers and sat, waited, drank plum brandy and spoken with Evey.
She wanted to talk about me – she asked about my work and colleagues, made sure that I was cleaning my apartment regularly, admonished me for drinking too much alcohol and not eating enough fruit, inquired about her family and friends back in San Francisco. Mostly, though, we talked about the past. We rehashed candle-lit dinners at the marina, commiserated about a vacation to Mexico spent primarily in the bathroom, laughed at stale inside jokes that suddenly became funny again years later. We lived and relived our life together every weekend.
As the blossoms of spring fell away and gave way to the steamy warmth of summer, Evey's sense of adventure urged me to get out and explore Brno like she would have. By then, her influence had already started to take hold and from the vantage point of the shack on the hill above the birthplace of Hrabal and the cemetery, Brno had become more beautiful, more alive, with a character and soul that in the depths of my winter had gone ignored.
I began taking a walk every Saturday to somewhere in the city. I strolled around the reservoir where any warm day seemed like an excuse for the entire city to come and eat ice cream and drink beer and take a naked dip in the still-chilly water. I sat on the grass in Luzanky park, watching romantic picnics and children frolicking. I walked the old city center among the throngs of people working and shopping, discovering the hidden nooks and crannies of the city that Evey would have adored.
Those Saturdays were always slightly tainted by an anxious impatience, however – a clawing need to summit the hill on Sunday and speak with Evey as if, without her voice, the newfound beauty of Brno would slip away back to crumbling grayness.
Soon, autumn blustered in with its stunning menagerie of colors and I was spending every waking minute of every Sunday at the shack. I even started to find that on Saturdays, no matter where I started my city walk, it always seemed to lead me here, to this shack, this hill, this view. Evey disapproved of me spending so much time at the shack, as well as the two bottles of plum brandy I drank every weekend, but continued to visit with me nonetheless.
A ritual set in – Evey made me wait hours while I plumbed my memory of her and us until finally she became voice and we would spend our time playing out the remembrances of our relationship and our life together and reveling in each other's company and love until long after the sun dipped behind the hills and night settled over us.
As the days grew short and the leaves fell and the chill of winter crept into the air I delighted in the twilight when the lights of Brno gloriously appeared below, even more vibrant with the addition of twinkling Christmas decorations. The city took on a life I could never have imagined in January – locals drank mulled wine and ate sausage and laughed with friends and lovers among the quaint booths of the Christmas markets – a scene straight from a story-book which no one in San Francisco would believe actually exists. But Brno is a place where the unbelievable comes true.
The day before Christmas, when Czechs come together with their families to feast on the incongruous meal of fried carp and potato salad and see what baby Jesus leaves under the tree, I too was with my loved one, in the shack on the hill above the birthplace of Hrabal and the cemetery. After the now-routine hours of waiting and a bottle of plum brandy, a familiar voice caught the wind, “Merry Christmas”.
“Merry Christmas,” I replied. “You know, today is also the feast of Adam and Eve here, so anyone with the name Eve gets extra gifts beyond their normal Christmas presents.” After hesitating a moment, I continued, “I didn't really know what to get you though, I'm sorry.”
“Don't be sorry. In fact, I have something that I want to give you. Come here on New Year's Eve and I'll give you your present. And don't forget the champagne.”
So here I am. Five minutes till midnight. Suddenly, reassuringly, I hear Evey's voice, just a whisper caressing my ear, and her first and few and final words to me are a truth that I've known for so long yet ignored. Her words fill me with clarity and love and regret and joy and sadness and unlock something inside me that I thought would remain locked forever.
“You're right, Evey. I love you too.”
And so now I realize that this will be my last visit to the shack on the hill above the birthplace of Bohumil Hrabal and the cemetery where the unbelievable comes true. The shack will always be here, though, and you can come and visit any time. I'll leave it nice and clean, with just the chair, the table and the unbelievable. And maybe you too will find what you are looking for – a loved one, a truth, an end, or a beginning.
The fireworks over Brno are building to a crescendo as midnight hurtles closer and when it comes I will pop the champagne and let the golden elixir bubble over my hands to the hard ground without bringing it to my lips. To tell the truth, I had never really liked champagne in the first place.
One minute to go. Thousands of exploding stars fill the night below me, above me, illuminating the city in all its glory and this is the last moment that the unbelievable will come true for me here at the shack and it fills me with a warmth I can hardly bear to stand.
Evey would have been delighted by the fact that there is a word in Czech, ahoj, which means both hello and goodbye.
Happy New Year.