I would always find an abandoned object. A dirty toy, a dusty glass, a yellowed photo, an old magazine. People inevitably leave things behind no matter how carefully they pack. But it was these things which still carried a vestige of life to the ripped up rooms, reminding me they had been part of a home until recently. I would spend hours wandering around the empty houses, reconstructing my memories of when people lived there: of their interiors and me in them. Houses of working class people, but that’s what we all were. Small houses, mostly tidy with old-fashioned furniture, some glass decorations, matryoshki, ceramics, artificial flowers, worn hand-made rugs. The houses had preserved the spirit of the time they were built, and of their original owners, now someone’s grandparents. Once in a while, their grandchild would invite me into the shaded rooms or garden.
But it wasn’t only the children. A young woman, Maria, who lived across the street with her parents, liked having me too. Their house was different. Two-storey, with narrow stairs leading to the second floor, where we always sat in a room with huge windows. Maria had some fascinating objects: an old globe, a Russian doll with the size of a small girl, a porcelain box in the shape of a swan full of jewelry: necklaces made of transparent beads imitating precious stones. The sun’s rays would pierce them, make their colours shine, make them magic. Sometimes Maria would turn the globe and put her finger on America. She would whisper: ‘You must learn English and go to the States, a country of freedom.’ I didn’t understand why she would ask me to do that; weren’t we free as well? Leaving this space, her space, of exhilarating light and unusual calm was always difficult.
Their side of the street survived the mass demolition. The owners had acquired permission to make extensions to their houses.
‘What do you need this for?’ my mom would ask when she saw me bringing yet another piece of trash, as she called it. ‘Don’t you see that it has lived its time, it’s good for the garbage only! We don’t even have room for your toys…’
Years later, she told me Maria had been mentally ill, but now it had got worse. My visits to her had long ceased by then, as if it had all been part of an unspoken agreement for me to be the child and her the young adult; an agreement which I had broken. Some more years and my mum told me she had died in a psychiatric institution.
I didn’t want to play with the objects I brought. I stored them in the small room in the back garden. Sometimes, I would arrange them on the desk and invite a couple of children from the neighbourhood to see my exhibits. They would stare at them, not knowing what to say; they might touch them; take one in hand, take a close look, put it back. Shrug their shoulders, turn their backs. ‘Shall we play?’ they would say. ‘Maybe later. I have things to do now…’
Of course, I had nothing to do. It was summer. I just didn’t want them there, their empty dismissive eyes.
I would climb the plum tree, sit on a branch, and eat fruit, its sweet flesh sticking around my mouth and on my hands. On the bench under the tree, fallen ripe fruit at my feet, life carried promises and presentiments of the amazing, beckoning world. I would set out on a journey, cross oceans with my boat made from a tyre, be happy and free. In those foreign lands, I would pick herbs and tomatoes, cucumbers, and pepper, bring them home.
First thing upon my return, I would feed the pigeons my father kept in the wooden coop he had built. The pigeons would come out of the coop and perch on my shoulder, eat seed from my hands. They all had names. Once in a while, we would find a little corpse on the ground, identify the victim, bury it among the flowers, my father cursing the cats…
Those objects, the preserved pieces of someone’s life, told stories, but I soon realised I was the only one to hear them. That made them even more precious; they needed me to validate their souls.
It’s not only the houses that have disappeared but also some of the streets. You see this bare space surrounded by blocks? It was a neighborhood. You could hear us playing until late in its streets in the summer nights. Once – it still makes me smile – we decided to make a river. We worked for hours, digging a groove in the firm earth and covering it with stones. It was gruelling, but we were determined. Finally, the riverbed was ready. At the inauguration moment, someone brought a bucket of water and poured it into the groove. The water seemed to hesitate for a moment or two, then soaked into the soil and disappeared before our eyes. We just stood there and looked at the wet stones, avoiding looking at each other. ‘Right, who would like to play…hide and seek?’ one of us asked. And we never mentioned the failed river again.
Our house was among the last to go. It was divided into two parts: one for our family, the other one for my grandparents. My grandfather built it a couple of years after he and my grandmother had moved from their village in Strandja mountain. It had a front garden as well, full of life. I remember roses, fuchsia, crinum, amaryllis, marigold, boxwood, lilac and a spreading vine.
‘The funny thing is that we had dreamt of that day when we would be included in the new city planning when blocks would replace the houses, we would get two separate flats and my sister and I would finally have a proper bedroom. It happened when I was fourteen. Two officials came, talked to my parents and grandparents, signed some papers. A few short months later, I watched from across the street as monster machines were crushing our house. The plum tree was the last to go.’
She fell silent and looked away. Her companion, a tall guy with northern features, hugged her gently but briskly.
‘City planning wasn’t among the strengths of communism, was it? All these blocks, so grey and ugly… Great pity! Will you show me now a nice restaurant which doesn’t bring sad memories? I am dying from hunger!’