And on we went, staggering along the asphalt like a multi-headed, multi-legged Charlie Chaplain, sunk in the mirage of that hot day, chained like slaves in a land-galley steered by that pink umbrella held up ahead of us as she led us onward without permitting us even to speak.
“Korean War Memorial. Vietnam War Memorial.” We harldy caught the corroded voice as we walked on and on; our ears failed, our legs gave up, our muscles complained, there was a real danger that we might become a part of that marble wall on which were written the names of the many young martyrs now babbling from their common cemetery – envying us and pitying us.
And then came relief, unexpectedly and from nowhere, without any agreement, without any conspiracy, without anything.
“Brolly, Brolly-olly…” rose from the column, and immediately it bubbled round her like the first of the wine impatiently awaited by the thirsty guests at some village celebration, to sip, to taste, to gurgle down their throats and settle in tender pleasure.
“What are they saying, what are they saying?”
“They’re christening her, they’re christening her Brolly Brolly-olly,” I translated, and was amazed at the precision of the term. This fine synecdoche, this fresh voice in the desert which had burst out so unexpectedly, like a full spring, and refreshed the dragon-headed group in its fata morganic doze under the monotonous blows of boredom and aggression, it was this that opened our eyes, satisfied us, brightened our faces, relieved our tiredness; and now we were walking along aware that we held a life-saving antidote.
“Fifty thousand and … men and seven women!” her voice hit at us, and then at that repeated “What did she say?” from Simon I translated, “Fifty thousand men and maybe more perished in Vietnam, and seven women. Brolly-olly doesn’t like women. She said ‘seven women’ unthinkingly, without the slightest pity.”
“Brolly, Brolly-olly,” the murmur circled around in the air like a pestilence, and the nickname corroded the arrogance of the surrounding buildings, it ate away at the stability of great America, it threatened to infect the broad Potomac and suffocate it with unbearable laughter.
Simon suddenly began to shake his head, he waved his hands; I don’t know whether for a moment he was angered by the nickname that had taken such a hold of us all and that I had so quickly accepted and applied – because suddenly he flushed more than usual, reacted, something had struck him, something wasn’t quite right for him, I could see. I looked at him, and at that moment for the first and last time during our stay in Washington I wasn’t sure whether he was in Macedonia, whether he was hunting does, whether he was sitting in thought over his typewriter, or whether – secretly – all the time he had been and was there, looking, listening, rooting himself into that huge American meadow we were walking through in a babbling, teasing crocodile from which was heard, in many languages, from moment to moment, as if by a common command, “Brolly, Brolly-olly!”
“We’ve had enough of this Vietnam! As if they’re the only ones who know what war’s like: what the hell were they looking for there?” said Simon, but it seemed to me that the bitter anger that suddenly rushed into his voice was aimed at something else.
“Brolly, Brolly-olly,” rumbled around.
“And now the Lincoln Memorial,” stammered the old woman, and pointed to the many steps that led up to the monument as if she hadn’t noticed that some unpleasant murmur aimed only at her was coming from the column that stretched out behind her, falling about with laughter but yet shy, like children who have prepared something insidious for the teacher who’s about to enter the classroom, their hands over their mouths, laughing quietly.
When we reached the foot of the memorial, the guide suddenly turned round to us, as if she wanted to tell us something, to scold us maybe, to explain her own behaviour, to explain the possible misunderstanding, or her own life – who knows. But she didn’t say anything. She simply turned her back and slowly, with the open umbrella, set off up the steps.
“Christ, why do I feel like a schoolboy?” Simon repeated, as if all this referred only to him. He squeezed his jacket that was hanging over his left arm, and he went on wringing it, as if he wanted to force some reply out of it – this, or that – it didn’t matter.
“Brolly, Brolly-olly,” hissed the venomous yellow-black-white serpent behind the guide’s back, impatient to give the coup de grace to the already wounded prey.
At the top, right at the entrance to the memorial, the guide stopped; I thought that she’d certainly do something: the authority invested in her was in danger, her vanity, her life, maybe. She took off her sunglasses and turned her wrinkled face to the raging sun, as if she wanted it to iron out this injustice, or something else that came into her disturbed head. Then, as if she’d remembered something, she pointed the finger of one hand at Simon, who was standing there right in front of her, at the very head of the mocking beast, and with the other pointed to the clenched fingers of the statue of Lincoln, placed up on the wall above a door that looked like an altar.
“Look at his hands,” I translated, partly for Simon but mostly to suppress the discomfort that had siezed me and prevented me from breathing.
“His hands! Look at his hands!” the Miss or Mrs trembled, enraged with a strong fury. Then she came down one step and took Simon by the hands, pressing them, kissing them, and repeating: “His hands, his hands!” Simon stood frozen to the spot. He’d been caught off his guard, he didn’t know what to do with this woman who seemed to be out of her mind, and when he came to himself a little he withdrew his crabbed fingers from her grip and gently but in a manly way drew her towards him, embraced her and held her like that for a long time, until he felt that she had calmed down, had relaxed, had taken possession of herself again, of her life, huddled like this in the secure embrace of a foreigner, there under the clenched fingers of the sculpted Lincoln.
The next afternoon, when we boarded the aircraft on the runway of Dulles International Airport, while each of us was overcoming our pre-flight nerves, I wanted to tell Simon about my previous night’s dream in which I had seen Miss or Mrs Umbrella, young and smiling, in place of the statue on top of the Capitol, grasped round the waist by a dark-haired, slim Simon – but just as I opened my mouth, he rudely cut me short.
“Pigs!” he said. “If she’d been young you’d have looked at her hips and her bottom; if she’d been middle-aged you’d have admired her hair; but because she was old, all you saw of her was her umbrella.”
I wanted to say something, something by way of an apology, but then I relised there was no reason to ask him for his pardon. I simply looked at his stern, white-bearded face, and my murmur was soon lost in the awful noise of the airbus which suddenly took off, rose and carried us, woozy, towards the shortest night of our lives, somewhere there over Greenland.
Translated by: Margaret Reid