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  • Writer's pictureSimon Howard


Updated: Mar 15, 2020

‘Felix hid in here in ’74,’ says Mirek, the sweep of his arm taking in the pavilions and villas and long, long pathways of the huge mental asylum. ‘The police are not allowed in.’

‘What about the Russians?’ asks Tom.

‘Not even Russians were allowed in here. Now where the hell is Number 31?’

They stare down the splay of identical avenues with identical buildings ranged along them. There’s room for a lot of madness here, thinks Tom.

‘Let’s ask,’ he says.

‘No! They are all mad and might try to confusing us,’ says Mirek in his execrable English. ‘In Czechoslovakia you never know who’s who – mental asylum or not.’

An attractive girl walks past. Mirek gazes at the bronzed and exposed lower part of her buttocks fringed by a frayed tassel of denim. Severely cut-off jeans are the fashion in Central Europe in 1990.

‘Ah goot morning,’ he says almost in English. (It has got worse every year he has lived the exile’s life in Britain. Why he uses it while holidaying in Prague is a mystery to Tom. They’ve been here for a week and Mirek has more or less refused to speak Czech to anyone, especially women.) ‘Could you tell us way to Number 31?’

The girl’s lovely Slavic eyes dance with incomprehension and fun, and now Mirek is too embarrassed to admit his nationality. Hurriedly Tom writes the number 31 on the dazzling white plaster protecting his broken left arm. She waves them down one of the identical avenues and they watch her bronzed buttocks vanish into the shadows of another path.

Thirty-seven, thirty-six, thirty-five, thirty-four…

Are they advancing towards extremes of madness? Tom wonders what kind of people might be lurking in Villa Number One. What kind of madness could possibly be there? Then he and Mirek find themselves standing in front of a gate in a fence. Above it a sign reads 31.

‘I do not know if I will recognise him,’ says Mirek, looking at the weird assortment of men wandering about the exercise yard. A bearded figure in a cap shuffles towards them.

‘Hey, Dobra!’ shouts Mirek.

Some sort of life flickers into the man’s eyes under their worried brows.

Ahoj! You bloody fucking bastard,’ he roars back in an accent only slightly less thick than Mirek’s. ‘What the bloody hell are you doing here?’

‘I’ve come to see you, you bloody fool!’ shouts Mirek. ‘I nearly didn’t recognise you with the beard.’

A large woman in a white coat unlocks the gate, and they sit down on a bench. Mirek hands over packets of cigarettes to Dobra.

‘Why only six packets?’ asks Dobra ungraciously.

‘I was told you are allowed only the six packets.’ (After nearly fifteen years of British exile, Mirek has failed completely to master the definite and indefinite article.)

‘No – ten!’ says Dobra, frowning and scooping them under his jersey.

A round, middle-aged man with Down’s Syndrome smiles at Tom’s broken arm and waves his own hand at him sympathetically.

‘I have never been here before,’ says Mirek.

‘Neither have I!’ cries Dobra, puffing on a cigarette.

‘Were you in the hospital in England?’

‘Yes, the Royal Free – but I escaped.’

‘I heard you were found in Karlovy Vary with no papers.’

‘And no clothes. I made big fuss at film festival.’

‘Did they invite you?’

‘No. They should have had me there as celebrated Czech exile. And as ex-student of the great Thorold Dickinson.’

‘What did you do?’

‘I shouted at them.’

‘I have wanted to do that for long time,’ says Mirek.

‘So had I,’ says Dobra, blowing smoke into the cool afternoon air.

‘How did you get to Karlovy Vary from England?’

‘That is a mystery. Oh, look –’ Dobra points to a man with a round, bronzed face and a thick, tidy moustache. He is dressed in trousers and a blue-and-white striped beach-robe. ‘He is a friend of the President and he went to the Costa Brava with two girlfriends and he decided to try and drown one of them. Look, he is still dressed for the Costa Brava.’

The man in the beach-robe walks slowly towards them, a look of controlled contentment on his round, bronzed face. His large brown eyes stare at each of them in turn.

‘This is Milos Biel and he tried to drown his girlfriend,’ announces Dobra.

The man looks pleased and once more fixes each of them with his big, slow brown eyes before handing Tom and Mirek a piece of paper each, with his address written there. He gazes at Tom’s plaster for a moment before shuffling towards the building, outside which is sitting the large woman in a white coat.

‘He’s going back to his villa,’ says Dobra.

‘So, what’s it like in here?’ asks Mirek.

‘Well,’ says Dobra, exhaling a long cloud of smoke, ‘it’s worse on the outside.’ His eyes look tired and alcoholic. ‘Let us go and meet some people.’

He leads them over to a group of four men sitting on benches in the corner of the exercise yard. One of them is listening to a small transistor radio. They are all keen to know what Tom has done to his arm.

‘I broke it in Austria last week –‘

‘Rotwein, weisswein, schnapps und bicyclette,’ Mirek adds helpfully, knowing he will have to translate into Czech, but travelling there via a sort of German. Dobra is lost in a haze of smoke.

‘We were staying with Felix in the most alcoholic place in Europe,’ begins Tom, ‘where every person in every village has a vineyard and a wine cellar, and where every fruit on every tree is turned into alcohol.’ Mirek translates creatively. ‘And every vegetable too – every pea in every pod…’

Looks of recognition in the eyes of two men, one of them dressed in workman’s overalls. Both lived near the Austrian border and have terrible memories of ‘drinking madness’ there.

‘Anyway, the entire population is perpetually drunk and, every time I set foot outside Felix’s house, they poured alcohol into me. So, I started riding his bicycle instead, but they still got me. After several hours of drinking I pedalled away with a girl of six foot four on the back…’

‘Three metres high,’ translates Mirek.

‘What happened?’ ask the inmates.

‘We fell off and went to the nearest inn to recover from our injuries. We rang Felix to come and save us but by the time he and Mirek arrived, I was standing on the table reciting Shakespeare to members of the Austrian Pony Club. The fuckers didn’t believe my arm was broken and fucked off home again.’

‘Mirek behaved heroically and gave the girl a lift home.’

‘I was left drinking with the tall girl, a Viennese gangster and a Czech Nazi. I had to ride back one-armed and even drunker.’

‘Mirek called the emergency services, and I would have been lost without him. Felix was quite helpful too.’

‘I can speak English,’ says one of the men, with a smile. ‘Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Saturday Friday Thursday Wednesday Tuesday Monday Sunday.’

The man listening to the radio asks Mirek to translate for him.

‘American forces are building up in Saudi Arabia. Saddam Hussein has told all foreigners to assemble at certain points. British have been placed at likely bombing spots.’

‘He’s a madman,’ says Dobra, emerging from his cloud.


The previous day Tom was standing in front of rows of tombstones in Prague’s Commonwealth War Cemetery, part of the Olšany.

‘Your loving smile is never forgotten by us all,’ was written on one. ‘Eileen, Mum, Dad, Pearl, Beryl.’ A Hart was buried there. And a Craig. Even an Atkinson. There were Arab names from the Cyprus Regiment, and several marked A victim of the Second World War.

Arm in sling, Tom walked with Mirek along the avenues of the old cemetery, watching lame old mourners carrying flowers to the graves. A fat stone-mason chiselled a name onto a new headstone amid the Gothic tombs dappled by light and shade.

‘It is not a sad graveyard,’ said Mirek.

But it was.

They stood in front of Jan Palach’s grave, and it was very sad indeed.


Dobra is telling Tom something. Beside him, the man in workman’s overalls smiles faintly.

‘The Communists made his life hell for twenty years,’ says Dobra, ‘so he decided to burn them out. He set fire to their headquarters.’

The man smiles a little more. A tired smile.

‘They brought him here from work. He’s a builder. Look, he’s still in his working clothes. He will do up the building for us.’

Another tired smile. On the transistor radio, more details of troop movements and threats by statesmen. Dobra leads Tom and Mirek towards the building.

‘Come, I will show you,’ he says.

They step into a dark corridor, but are immediately chased out by the large woman in a white coat.

‘No visitors, no visitors!’ she seems to be saying in this usually incomprehensible language.

‘Bloody bastard cow,’ says Dobra as they approach the gate in the fence outside. He looks at the gate and says conspiratorially, but with a twinkle in his tired eyes, ‘I got out. I went for a walk.’

‘How do we get out?’ asks Mirek pragmatically.

Another conspiratorial look.

‘I can get you out.’

He whistles for the woman in white. As she unlocks the gate, a tall man with long wavy hair and a moustache appears on the other side, carrying a briefcase.

‘Dobra!’ he calls.

‘Hello you bloody fucking bastard! What the hell are you doing here?’

They talk together in Czech and, once out of sight of the woman in white, the man hands over packets of cigarettes to Mirek, who stuffs them under his cap. Tom and Mirek – out of sight, out of mind – walk along the avenue.

Thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five…


After leaving the graveyard, Tom and Mirek headed for the centre of town. At sunset they crossed the Charles Bridge, passing its tall black statues and the huge plaster bust of Stalin with an INRI sign hanging above it. A game of swans flew underneath the bridge and along the river towards the setting sun. Behind them, clouds were forming.

Tom thought about the endless battle Europe had fought between collaboration and struggle, and how exhausting it had been. He wondered how long this beautiful city had been at war with itself. Mirek, made up of Czech, Slovak, German, Hungarian, Dutch, Polish and British (by association) blood, belonged to a family which didn’t have any communication with another part of itself: members of one half were in the gas chambers, members of the other half in the SS, helping to put them there. Half Jewish, he was educated by the Jesuits and had his life organised, to some extent, by the Communists.

As dissenters, both Mirek and Felix were helped out of Czechoslovakia: Felix to Austria, to the drunken village where he worked as a potter and sculptor; Mirek to Britain, where he found perpetual sunshine in the summer of 1976 and was employed directing episodes of Coronation Street. (‘I couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand me – it was best episodes ever.’) Mirek introduced Tom to Peter Pavlov and the world of Czech exiles in London.

The clouds darkened, threatening a thunderstorm, when they ran into Václav, who had forsworn alcohol at sixty, after losing three-quarters of his stomach in an operation. He was a celebrated designer of lamps and once he made a zircon burner for the Institute for the Blind: when it was completed, the blind director ran his hands over the elegant lamp, announcing that it would ‘give off very good light’.

Led by Václav, their benign Mephistopheles, they walked along alleyways, under arches and past the brooding palaces as the storm threatened, the sky a dark blue-grey above them. An opera set. The darkest part of the cloud came to rest above the Castle on its hill. Václav led them upwards, towards the looming castle.

When at last they stood before its gates, a sudden whirlwind swept across the square, hurling leaves and dust at them. A torn cement sack flew past Tom’s face. The trees bent, the statues turned black and drops of rain fell. Tom thought of Wagner, of Verdi, of the Archangel trumpeting. Of Orson Welles. Of Kafka’s bones becoming wet down in the Jewish Cemetery. Mirek bumped into his injured arm; embers from his cigarette stung Tom’s eyes. He was certain that Václav had created all this, as the rain started to cascade, here in the city of Faust and alchemy.


Thirty-eight, thirty-nine…

At last Tom and Mirek reach the main entrance. Leaning against the wall an inmate kisses his wife passionately before she leaves the hospital, crying. Felix, who hid in here from the Russians, would approve, thinks Tom.

On a wall in the street outside, someone has scrawled in English: ‘Death and insanity’. Tom reflects on how graffiti at home never seems to be in a language he can either read or understand. They enter the greyness of a housing estate.

‘I am completely exhausted,’ says Mirek. ‘Now where the hell is bus stop?’

In the distance stands a girl of about eighteen, brown-legged against all the greyness in her cut-off jeans.

‘Ah, goot morning!’ cries Mirek, recovering his energy and striding meaningfully towards her.

The Czechs seem to pour a lot of sexual energy into making up for their emasculation by the Russians, thinks Tom. On the other hand, Mirek, like all the other men Tom has encountered at the hospital this afternoon, is getting on and doing just what he wants.

More or less.


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