The pearl

30 December 1999 | Fiction, Prose

A short story from Tutkimusmatkailija ja muita tarinoita (‘The explorer and other stories’, Loki-kirjat, 1999)

My name is Jan Stabulas. I am one of the quietest and inconspicuous workers in our department store, this giant ant-heap swarming with people. No one really pays any attention to me, although I am on show all the time. My job is quite simple: to stand in the menswear department, dressed in fashionable clothes. Now that doesn’t take much, I have heard it said. Well, try it yourself. Try standing for ten hours, without moving, in an awkward, even an unnatural, position, wishing that the air conditioning would work when it was hot, or that it would be switched off when you can feel the draught cutting you to the marrow. Think how the customers stare at you as they pass by, like an object which they cannot buy, and consider your words once more.

My work-area is a low rostrum with a view of the entire second floor. Directly in front of it is the escalator that conveys customers from the lower floors, the worlds of food and home textiles. Their faces shine with expectation, excitement glitters on their cheeks as, only halfway to their destination, they rise on tip-toe to see the things that await them on the sales counters. Sometimes the speed of the elevator is not enough for them and, shoving one another and hurling apologies, they leap up the last stairs.

No one ever stops to look at me. Passivity and silence are part of my job. I am an bystander. I do not expect thanks for my work; that is reserved for those who are visible and audible, who take care that things go forward under their own weight. For that reason I was astonished when, a couple of weeks ago, our department head favoured me with her attention. Her name is Therese Wolkers. She is a divorced, middle-aged woman who carries her years with style. She is always pleasant and friendly, and I do not understand why some of my colleagues consider her arrogant and call her names behind her back – Spinster, Hunchback or Mrs Ramrod.

Mrs Wolkers approached me along the corridor between the sales counters. She tacked in the light between the stories she wove, energetic and radiant. To her right were the shoes, each of whose steps brought a whiff of adventure, and to her left were men’s suits and jackets, without which you cannot be the most desirable man at the party. It was a quiet moment; apart from her, only a couple of people were visible. They looked like the kind of customer who, when a sales assistant approaches, says ‘thank you, I’m just looking’ and turns to fondle whatever object their fingers encounter in order to avoid having to speak with the salesperson.

Having assisted one of them – an uncertain-looking young man who had enormous cabbage ears (hopefully he was not intending to buy a hat) – Mrs Wolkers glanced around her, stepped closer and winked at me! My nose suddenly began to itch, and I almost let a smile escape my lips. The clothes I had put on that morning in the dressing room, however, demanded a serious expression, and I could not smile. Fortunately, I succeeded in controlling myself. Moving, let alone showing emotion, before the eyes of a department head would have been an unforgivable and amateurish error.

I know that I should not make a mountain out of a molehill: what, after all, could a single wink mean. My colleagues, however, appeared to envy me on its account. They teased me at the end of the day in the shower, said they would fetch the department head to wash my back. I cannot help it: I cannot get the blink of Mrs Wolkers’ eyelid out of my mind. It is as if the fluttering wing of a butterfly has caused a tornado. In two weeks, the blink of an eyelid has become a treasure, a valuable pearl, which I keep in the jewellery box of my memory and fiddle with in my thoughts. And that pearl speaks to me, whispers and murmurs, makes promises and chatters like a magic ball, and entraps me in the net of its stories.

The rest of the day, after the wink, went slowly. As I sat on my way home in packed bus and stared at the backs of the heads of the passengers sitting in front of me, I was more certain than before that Mrs Wolkers was in love with me. The wink was no doubt a sign, not merely praise or an attempt at encouragement. Perhaps she really was lonely, perhaps she sought someone to protect and comfort her. Why could I not be that person? Naturally, it would not be suitable for me to make the first move, not at work or after work. Jan Stabulas is the quiet kind, the kind that waits.

I had often considered becoming the lover of a mature woman. From an experienced woman I believed I would receive something that has been lacking in my relationships so far: everyday companionship and security. The energy of myself and the objects of my affections has been expended on flirtation and rolling between the sheets, and there has been no time for spiritual bonds. I have experienced nothing but beginnings and endings. Nothing in my lovers’ beauty, their outer shell, has touched my deeper feelings.

In the rush-hour bus, whose windows withdrew moment by moment into thicker fog, I suddenly realised I was standing on a threshold. The feeling was hazy: I had lost the old order, but had not yet found a new one to replace it. I was Mrs Wolkers’ prisoner. Her smiling face, her reddened lips, her slim fingers, flashed before my mind. I could no longer concentrate on familiar things – on reading the newspaper of the passenger in front of me over his shoulder, or wondering whether the back wheels of the articulated bus would rise on to the pavement when the vehicle turned.

After I had got off the bus, my legs carried me toward home more lightly than in a long time. At the front door, something strange happened. As I fitted the key into the lock, I felt someone touch me on the shoulder. I started and turned, but there was no one behind me. The courtyard of the terraced building where I stood was deserted. Nothing unusual was to be seen. Three bicycles stood in the bicycle rack, their saddles decorated with caps of snow. A pair of skis and two poles stuck out of the snow, and in my neighbour’s doorway a red plastic sledge leaned against the dark green cladding of the wall. The caretaker had gritted the areas by the doors, and among the sand I could make out the brown needles of Christmas trees that had been carried out into the courtyard. When I turned to open the door, I noticed a row of icicles hanging from the eaves: inside every icicle there gleamed a bubble of air, like a gleaming pearl.

In the evening, I saw more new things: tacky rings left by the bottoms of glasses on the kitchen table (I had given a party the previous weekend), the black and greasy dust that had collected on the ventilation grating of the kitchen, the lights on the front panel of the stereo, the transparent skin that remained inside the shell when I broke an egg. As I watched the television that evening, I noticed how dusty the screen was. As I went to bed, I stood, as I always did, in front of the full-length mirror in the living room. With the exception of my cheerfully gaudy boxer shorts, I was naked. There was nothing to complain about in my appearance. Every muscle was as it should be. Often, in the evenings, I imagined that my flat had turned into a studio, and my mirror image was a full-length portrait standing on an easel, depicting an unusually handsome young man. The satisfaction I derived from seeing my body was now mixed for the first time with joy because someone was perhaps interested in me in spite of my handsome appearance.

I cannot deny that I like the vision offered by the mirror when I stand in front of it. I would not have got my job, either, without my external attributes. I remember how, both proud and embarrassed, I glued a naked picture of myself to the square reserved for it on the application form. I checked that I had given all the required information about myself and took the application to the post office the following morning. After a week, I was informed that I had been chosen for the final selection, in which a couple of dozen candidates would participate.

It was then that I saw Mrs Wolkers for the first time. Together with the manager of the department store, she stepped in to the waiting room to which we candidates had been directed. We had already been sitting in the room for a quarter of an hour, eying each other warily and waiting impatiently for something to happen. Mrs Wolkers looked confident but friendly. Intelligent eyes peered out from behind her horn-rimmed spectacles. I was surely not the only one on whom her natural attractiveness had an effect. It was only emphasised by the grey suit, white shirt and pale blue tie of the department-store manager who stood next to her.

The selection process began with formalities. The manager spoke. His monotonous voice emerged from his mouth as if from a tape. Mrs Wolkers did not say a word. We were shaken by the hand and welcomed. The manager asked us to undress, and the first phase of the test began. Twelve candidates were eliminated before the next round. Excitement mounted as we stood, naked, in a row under the expert eyes of the jury. I felt our judges’ eyes boring into me, measuring each muscle, each sinew and bone, estimating and evaluating.

I saw some of my competition partners become embarrassed when Mrs Wolkers stood in front of them. I managed very well. Feeling her gaze on my body, I thought about car engines, clockwork mechanisms, frost batteries and the selection of the football team I supported. Snowshoes and the chemical formula for ice also passed through my mind. Afterwards, some of my fellow competitors sad that at that critical moment they had thought about an eight-kilo iron ball, six-inch nails, the structure of the combustion engine or a left-handed backhand at badminton.

After a wait that seemed to last an eternity, those admitted to the next round were selected. To my delight, I found my name on the chosen list. The unlucky ones dressed and left. As they went, they were thanked for their participation. As a memento, they were given badges decorated with the department store’s multicoloured logo.

The relative order of we eight was decided by a practical test. It was simple: we had to take up the position demanded by our future job and hold it for as long as possible. The goal was ten hours; that was, after all, the length of our working day. We were prepared for such a task. I had practised at home in front of the mirror, as had, no doubt, my fellow competitors. Because of the competitive situation and the tension, however, I could not manage the set time, but stopped after eight and a half hours, when a cramp started in my cheek-muscles, which were set in a smile. Nevertheless, I was selected. I was given a bunch of flowers and, with three other fortunate contenders, welcomed to the store.

A couple of months have passed since the selection examination. When I remember it now, after the wink, I recall a couple of swift, isolated glances from Mrs Wolkers. So, maybe? Perhaps her eyes had already picked me out from the crowd. Perhaps Mrs Wolkers was watching me from farther off when a bunch of roses was put into my arms, and imagining that she would soon take the roses’ place. Since the wink I have even been reconsidering my move. I have not been working in the menswear department all the time; like the other new arrivals, I began in the display window group. I had to stand in the department store’s largest display window, past which runs the wide main street of our city and a pavement swarming with people. At first I was blissfully enthusiastic. I was bursting with self-confidence, motivated and full of energy.

After my very first day at work, I realised why the experienced guard called postings to the display windows polar expeditions. It was winter. There was such a strong draught that the balls of cotton wool which the window-dresser had placed on the floor in imitation of snow jumped around in the narrow space between the window-glass and the velvet curtain. The harsh light of the lamps attached high on the curtain poles dazzled my eyes, and the radiant glow of the lamps made me feel awkward.

I felt as if I were divided in two: icy from the waist down, but bathed in sweat from the waist up. It felt as if I were cowering in the middle of an icy plain, trying not to screw up my eyes in the sun that was reflected off the snow. Veterans of the polar expeditions said they had suffered from snow-blindness and chilblains. They were all afflicted with rheumatism. Some had nightmares in which they were lost on an icefield without food or drink wearing only a bikini or swimming trunks. During my first day at work, I heard in my ears the barking of huskies, the slash of a whip and the terrible din of cracks opening up in the ice. I expected to see the sledges of the polar explorers dashing at high speed on the road that opened up before me, horrified people shrinking back from the path of crackling runners, dogs barking and growling, their gums bare, and breath steaming in a cloud around the fur-hooded faces of the men.

Then everything changed. When, one morning, I was making my way toward the window wearing a green ice-suit and a woolly hat, I suddenly felt someone touch my shoulder. Behind me stood Mrs Wolkers. Although it was early in the morning, she was as bright as a lark as she smiled and clicked the nib of a ballpoint pen she held in her hand in and out. ‘I have news for you, Stabulas,’ she said. Her breath smelled of mint toothpaste. ‘You are to be transferred to my department. Menswear, third floor. Congratulations.’ Before I had time to digest the information, Mrs Wolkers had ordered me to change out of my ice-suit and into a dark blue, double-breasted suit and had directed me toward the escalator. It was then that I climbed in to this rostrum for the first time.

During my first shift, I enjoyed the warmth as only warmth can be enjoyed. The sudden change of climate played tricks with my imagination. The panting sleigh-dogs and icefields were replaced by sandy beaches and scantily clad women, swaying palms and swinging buttocks. I fell into an erotic trance. I undressed with my eyes the women travelling on the elevator, imagining them stretched into inflammatory positions. When they passed me, I tried to capture their gazes. I remembered a friend who had studied biology remarking, as he held a plump common toad, ‘If I ever meet a woman with eyes as beautiful as this creature’s, I’ll propose immediately.’ In the first few days I spent in the menswear department, I was guilty in my thoughts of such proposals five or six times over.

Because I was struggling with my daydreams, it was only after a week that I began to wonder why it was precisely I who should have got the transfer. Perhaps it was a question of simple good fortune; perhaps the choice could have fallen on anyone at all. However, I do not believe in chance. The wink started a jigsaw in my mind. Pieces become visible, and generally, after a few tries, one finds a place for them. I do not bother my head over whether they may possibly also fit in some other place; the most important thing is to fill the gaps. My horror of openings, gaps and holes goes back to my childhood. One summer’s day I peered into a neglected well which bored into the ground at the edge of the fallow land behind our house. The well had a rotting plank cover. When I opened it, a stony, slimy coldness poured into my face. The dark gulf smelled of fusty moss. When my eyes had grown used to the darkness, there flashed across the bottom of the well a rat that hid among the ivy that cloaked the pieces of plank and cement rings. That experience has branded me ever since with a longing for order and harmony.

That order has been disturbed by Mrs Wolkers’ wink. I no longer peer into the well; I have fallen right down it. I am in the chasm; coldness emanates from the cement rings. I see, and it frightens me. In the evenings, once I get home, I conjure up the jewellery box in which I have placed the wink. I admire the roundness of the pearl. When I stare at it, it feels as if I were dividing in two, as if I were separating from my body, floating in the room and watching myself from the ceiling or on top of the curtain rail. I see beneath me a great eye that opens and closes as rhythmically as a machine. Every time the eyelid blinks, a pearl rolls out from under it. The giant eyelashes cast their shadow above it, and inside the pearl I can make out a dark shape, a naked person who looks like Mrs Wolkers. When she presses her palm against her hips, it leaves a mark, and when I bend to look, it is the mark of my palm.

When, a couple of evenings ago, I stood in front of the mirror, I noticed that there was something strange about my reflection. It was a moment before I realise what the problem was: my hips had broadened. I took off my boxer shorts to make sure. I could not believe my eyes. Before me stood a man with a woman’s hips. The sex organ that hung in the midst of the dark hair looked grotesque and out of place. As I stared at the extraordinary sight, I began to itch, as if biting midges were wandering across my skin.

Shocked, I leaped away from the mirror – and the tickling stopped. I glanced downward, felt my hips with my hand and noticed that the feminine roundness had disappeared. I stepped back in front of the mirror: the itching returned, my hips curved. I also realised that my skin had begun to age, to lose its elasticity. I dashed to the wardrobe, took out a sheet and hung it on the mirror to cover it. I sat down on the sofa, sweating, my hands shaking, and stared at the flowery wallpaper of the living room.

I was growing used to the idea. Evening after evening, I undress in front of the mirror and watch Jan Stabulas changing into Therese Wolkers. With the exception of the itching, the metamorphosis is painless. Time after time, I cease to exist and someone else takes my place. The jigsaw pieces find their places without my help. Inside me there grows a pearl that looks like a lidless eye. I have become the prisoner of seeing. I see my hips curve, my breasts well, my muscles retreat from view and my sex organ shrinks and finally disappears among the curly hair.

Today, I bought a wig. Then I bought some lingerie, and asked the assistant to gift-wrap it. They’re for a woman whose eyes are as beautiful as yours, I told the assistant. Confused, the woman concentrated, with pink cheeks, on wrapping the ribbon around the paper.

Externally, everything is as it was. I still stand on a rostrum in the menswear section of the department store for ten hours a day. The escalator brings people up from the lower floors, and in their eyes there shines the desire to believe in the stories of the the things on sale. I would like to warn them, to urge them to stand on the threshold and think, to choose things they can return if necessary.

No one knows my secret, not even Mrs Wolkers. I still see her every day. It would be wrong to blame her. The wink was a wink, a little flirtation, a friendly gesture. She probably forgot about it straight away; after all, she had more important things to think about. How could she imagine what happens in my flat at night? I succumb because it it is only by succumbing that I can rid myself of temptation. That is why I remove the sheet from the mirror and stare at the echoing well of my core. I gaze at Mrs Therese Wolkers; I gaze at myself. Now I know that this is not a question of division; on the contrary, before the mirror I become whole. My former self was only one half, and what I had believed to be harmony was merely a grand illusion.

My name is Therese Stabulas. I am one of the quietest and inconspicuous workers in our department store, this giant ant-heap swarming with people. No one really pays any attention to me, although I am on show all the time.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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