He didn’t fall asleep until shortly before dawn. He’d spent all night traipsing through the empty halls, unable to find a moment’s rest. He halted in vain in front of the glass cases with exotic animals, where he once used to imagine all the happier scenarios his life could’ve followed if only he’d acted differently at this or that particular juncture… Quiet, cold corridors, dark storerooms and that gruesome cellar – all the places where he’d done his nightly rounds for his thirty years as watchman at the Natural History Museum: whichever way he went and wherever he sat down for a smoke, he’d be shadowed by an anxiety which seemed greater than any he’d known before.
He could never understand people who complained about not having enough time. So much time for so few things – that’s what I have. This thought kept coming back to him all night, like the refrain of a song heard in passing that stays in one’s head, or like an echo in an empty room, whose presence we feel even when it dies away.
He was woken by the heat of the morning. It came in through the dark, heavy curtains. Stanka had spent days choosing the material for them. She had resembled a girl while she sewed those curtains – so cheerful, so lovely. That was Stanka: a girl in the ponderous body of a woman. Everything he could see in his watchman’s room had been put there by her. As if it was another room of their house.
‘You live there at night. As long as I’ve got the strength, I’ll make sure things are clean and orderly for you,’ she said.
He hadn’t always slept at work. No: he was a good, conscientious worker. But ever since Stanka had fallen ill he worked during the day at a building site, so he needed the night for sleeping. He’d go straight from the museum to the building site and from there to the hospital to visit Stanka. It’d been like that for months. A few more days of that routine and one afternoon he’d go from the hospital to the cemetery. He’d plod behind Stanka’s coffin and nothing would matter any more. From the cemetery he’d go to the museum and start on his rounds, like he had so many times before: a man who walks among stuffed animals. It seemed everything would stay the same. Everything would be the same, except that he wouldn’t be able to bear it any more. He’d felt that sense of weakness for the first time when they told him Stanka was going to die. It was as if he no longer had the strength to live. He knew that when Stanka died he’d no longer be able to do all the things needed to survive.
It took so much to survive: there was so much indignity, suffering and injustice – both what others cause to us and what we cause to them. We’re meant to give so much to others, but there’s so little for us. That’s the whole truth. If he’d been different, Stanka might have survived – that was the truth. A different man would’ve had friends willing and able to help. A different man would’ve earned more and wouldn’t have been satisfied with a poorly paid job. If he’d been different, he and Stanka wouldn’t have lived in poverty which had meant that she, although weak in health and getting along in years, had had to go out cleaning. If he’d been different, she wouldn’t have had to kneel on cold floors and wouldn’t have come down with the infections which, unhealed, would ultimately kill her. A different man would’ve had money for doctors who’d do more for her – if only Stanka had had a different man as a husband, not a night-watchman. Now he worked to exhaustion at the building site and spent all he earned on medical bills. That was all he could do. But a different man could’ve done much more. In the end, even if we give our all, it won’t be enough, he thought. Sooner or later life eats us up. It swallows us, and there’s no one to save us: all the people we knew have gone and there’s no outstretched helping hand, only eyes glowing in the dark.
He thought he should call Tanya again. The last time she’d been rude, as Tanya often was.
‘Why are you calling?’ she asked.
‘Your mother’s in a bad way,’ he told her.
‘It’s been ten blissful years of not hearing from you. You shouldn’t be calling me,’ she said.
‘Your mother is dying,’ he emphasised.
‘When I moved out, or rather: when your primitiveness and stupidity forced me to move out, what did I tell you?’
‘That you’re not going to call us, and we mustn’t call you,’ he remembered.
‘Exactly. So why are you calling now?’
‘Your mother is dying.’
‘I told you: I’m never going to call, and don’t you ever call!’ she snarled and hung up.
The resolve of her ‘never’ and ‘ever’ stuck in his mind and he decided not to try again.
He turned on the television and switched to Animal Channel. There was a programme about ‘the everlasting hatred between lions and hyenas,’ as the narrator called it. It was night, somewhere in Africa. The camera followed a male lion. He stalked through the dark until he spotted a hyena cub in a thicket. The cub tried in vain to flee and called helplessly for its mother, which at that moment was probably butchering the cub of some other animal in a different bush. The lion killed the hyena cub slowly, enjoying the suffering of the mangled runt clenched between his teeth. Its agony lasted five minutes. When the cub’s body began to go cold, the lion spat it out. He licked the drops of young blood from the sides of his brown lips and then scratched the ground with the claws of his hind legs. He was leaving his mark, the commentator said. Before he left into the night, the king of the animals urinated on the dead cub.
The next scene showed hyenas coming out of the dark and circling the corpse. Just a few seconds later they sank their sharp teeth into the meat. Cannibalism is natural among hyenas, the narrator explained.
Children’s voices in front of the museum warned the watchman that it was already eight o’clock. Students from the nearby school had arrived for a visit. He turned off the television, quickly took off his uniform and donned his overalls. He opened the massive front gate. A column of ants was arrayed there in front of him – children standing at attention and beaming in the September sun. Good morning, their teacher called out and smiled to him. Good morning, the choir of children’s voices repeated after her. Good morning, he said and beckoned them inside.
He turned round and cast another glance inside the museum, at all the animals and plants behind glass like paintings at a gallery. The children gathered around the black bear, staring in awe at its bared teeth.
‘Now, children: what are the three main things we need to know about nature?’ the teacher asked.
‘Everything in nature is in balance. Everything in nature happens for a reason. We should learn from nature,’ the children recited.
He lit a cigarette. In the distance he saw the cranes of the building site where he was to spend another day. The steel constructions looked like the feelers of an insect closing in on its prey. As he walked through the park to the bus station, the sounds of the morning became louder and louder. The shouts of people, the rumble of cars, the beeping of cash machines, the melodies of mobiles and the tolling of church bells all merged into one deafening cacophony. The city roared.