Mate

Appologies for the long silence, though I don’t have much of an excuse beyond too much travel and not enough motivation.

Here’s something I wrote a few months ago and just went back to and polished up now. More (new) stuff soon. Promise.

* * *

It’s not too late, maybe midnight, closing in on 1am, and even though it’s a Friday night,  the night tram heading in the direction of Vršovice  – which is the direction of the suburbs and home, rather than the next pub – isn’t too full. In a couple of hours, it will be packed with passengers either half-asleep or singing. Those who don’t make the seats will be dangling from the straps and swaying with both tram movement and booze. After 3am the night trams are Prague’s refugee camps. Strangers are jammed into other strangers’  personal space, all with the air of communal understanding that comes from a common affliction and a common goal – a whole shuddering, jerking vehicle jammed to the rafters with people just trying to beat the sunrise home.

But at 1am I get a seat easily, and only one or two people have fallen asleep, and everyone’s being pretty civilised. The off-key tone sounds to announce the stop, then the familiar female recording: “Ruská. Příští zastávka: Vršovické Náměstí.” I slip my book back into my bag and get off. Several others get off with me – maybe five or six – and we all start in roughly the same direction down Kodaňská street, towards our flats and beds.

Two fairly drunk guys jostle each other to the left of me. They are speaking something that I don’t recognise as Czech, though they’re not saying much – mainly communicating in a series of grunts that could be any language. It’s cold, and I’m wearing a beanie with this kind of bobble thing on top of it. The bobble must have a similar effect on one of the two that a cat toy has on a cat, because he decides to make a lunge for it. I pull back and shoot him a dirty look.

It’s a look that is supposed to be as preventative as it is withering. With it, I am intending to communicate something along the lines of, “Really? You’re trying to pull my hat off? What is this – primary school? What are you – six years old? You’ve lost a great deal of dignity with that move, and certainly my respect, but the best strategy from here would be to quit while you’re only a little bit behind, forget that it ever happened (which includes forgetting me as well), and go back to jostling and grunting with your friend over there.”

But I guess through the blur of streetlight and alcohol, he instead reads, “Oi! Ya wanna fuckin’ go mate?” – or whatever his cultural equivalent. So he makes another lunge at the bobble. Althogther, the two lunges form a swinging movement. An initial lunge, a falling back towards his friend and then a pendulum swing back towards me and my beanie. I dodge him again, and then, as a reflex, without thinking: “Fuck off mate.”

And with that, I engage. With that, all the childhood lessons of a younger brother vanish. I am back on any one of innumerable long car trips, reacting to subtle, parent-proof provocations with squirms and a stream of “Stop it! Stop doing that! Mum – Mum, Eamon’s being annoying!” instead of the much more effective ignoring tactic, while he giggles and giggles and giggles.

And Mum’s terse reply of, “Doesn’t sound like my problem,” is the three or four other people who got off the tram with us disappearing into side streets, until it’s just me, an empty 1am, and two guys drunk enough to be lunging at a bobble on a stranger’s beanie. Who I have now just told to fuck off. Mate. Who I’ve just told to fuck off mate.

“Why you say this word?” I must have been right about the language – their accent doesn’t sound Czech either. “I do not like this word – ‘fuck off’. Why you say this to me?” He’s from somewhere else, I think – probably one of the many booze tourists who come to Prague to take advantage of the $2 beers and herna bars and the many other darker traditions this city keeps.

“Hey! Hey! Why you say this word?”

I mumble something lame back, something about leaving me alone maybe, in a tone that betrays my anger, probably some of my fear too, and keep walking towards my flat. The last of the other people from the tram swerves up Estonská Street and we three are left alone.

“What about: Fuck of bitch!” He yells after me. “To make it the same, huh? Fuck off bitch!”

I fumble with my Mp3 player. I just want to get something loud in my ears to block them out. Maybe if they see I can’t hear them, they’ll leave me be. But they’re following me, I can tell, and I realise that by blocking my ears I’m blocking a fairly important defence, so I pull my headphones out again and rest them on my shoulders.

“You should not say this word – fuck off.”

Strangely, I am not all that scared. I’m more angry, I think, and there’s another emotion that must be my female ration of testosterone rising up in blind, combative defence. Pride, probably. Most of me, though, is engaged in the concentrated focus of obliterating, as quickly as possible, the distance that separates me from the space behind the lockable door of the lobby in my block of flats.

I turn left into Finská and hope they don’t follow.

“We are coming after you mate. We know everything about you. We know where you live.”

The last sentence is such a perfect imitation of that timeless Hollywood phrase, and it is followed by a sloppy bout of laughter. In my pocket, I have moved my sharpest key into position between my right middle and pointer fingers, with the rest of the chain gripped in my fist as a handle. I turn into Bulharská and up my pace.

There is impact of something wet against concrete beside me. It sounds like an egg or an orange or something like that. There are excited cries of protest but I can’t tell what they are saying because I bolt, I stop this walking pretence of calm and fucking bolt – up and around the corner to Mexická and my door, which I shove my key into, slip behind and double lock behind me.

Upstairs in my flat, I switch my light on and dump my bag, pull my jacket off and leave it on the floor. I go and open the window to see if I can still hear them. Realise they would know which flat is mine by the light. Go turn the light off. Pace over to my window. Lean out.

I can’t tell if they followed me around the corner to Mexická but everything is silent outside. As it should be in Vršovice at night. As it has been on the countless occasions I have walked home alone at much later hours. Walked home through this suburb, my suburb. My safe, uneventful, inoffensive suburb.

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