Fear: An account of terror on top of a coal stack; by Franc Bider

[This story is by my dad, about his experience in the 1970s as a student in Kranj, Slovenia. What follows is my translation of the original Slovenian, performed July 29-30, 2016, blatantly without permission. The original must have been written, in its current telling, in the weeks before this. I added footnotes and the subtitle.]

If I try to describe it very precisely: I was squatting up there, all the way up there, on a pile of coal. With my head wrapped in spiderwebs that dangled from the sooty ceiling. In agony, I huddled into the dark corner, away, away from the meshed narrow window that shone its betraying light. My heart was pounding so hard I could hear it. It made an echo. And slowly sliding down the stairs to the cellar was Mrs. Fani...

I had never been so afraid in my life. Not before, nor after.

Oto proclaimed he would never live in that death chamber. By this, he meant the seven by ten feet of gross square footage, the worm-eaten nightstand by the tired bed, with that tall Franz Joseph-era altar for a headboard, and a wardrobe well known from black-and-white vampire movies. This comfort also comprised a green plastic wash basin, and four pints of water from the pitcher per day. And Mrs. Fani.

Neighbor Oto, who was to study vocational trade, gave up the tempting offer in a blink. And so, on these seventy square feet, my best student years unfolded.

Every morning, exactly at half before seven, Mrs. Fani knocked on the door and placed on the table a cup of hot malt coffee.1 Then, she journeyed to Mass on foot. On a shelf in front of the door, already waiting were all the relevant newspapers and magazines of that day. Each and every day in the villa under the Water Tower began that way.

I did not have a key to the front door. Nor a bathroom. I had a pitcher of water and the sound impression that I'm living in harmony with creation and the universe, inhabiting an old bourgeois villa infused with a ghost of some former culture and civility. Four of us intellectuals lived under the same roof: upstairs was Mr. Hubert, retired law man and professor of People's Self-Management, and on the ground floor were Mrs. Fani, her boisterous cat, and me.

Mr. Hubert spent evenings playing cards with friends, reading late into the night, and waking up at nine in the morning. For breakfast, he ate two bread rolls with ham and drank a white malt coffee. In his younger years, when his mamá still lived, he had already firmly embraced the wisdom that "beyond the second day, a guest shall not stay". In this, he gave no leeway. He would be especially consistent when it came to a female audience. He liked to travel, but he did not burden his bed in the second floor with a plural presence.

He set the curfew at ten thirty in the evening. When the last bus from Ljubljana arrives. Upsets at later times, he did not tolerate. When I was once ringing the bell at half past midnight, he went into such a racket that Mici the cat was not being herself for days.

Sometimes, rarely more so, he invited me into his heavenly kingdom. I remember relating to him my bicycle trip to Prague. I was scorning presumptuously the Czech standard of living at that time, their monuments to "the Russian army - our liberator". He disciplined me severely. That the standard of living is not just the number of different toothpastes at the grocery store. That the standard of living is also the number of schools, kindergartens, clinics and physicians that are available to the lower classes. So.

Whenever he thought that Mrs. Fani was offering me too detailed instructions about picking apples, cherries or plums, he benevolently scolded her: "But, Mrs. Fanči, Franček knooows..."

This became a folk saying which I later, when I was already deeply married, repeated several times myself: "But, Mrs. Fanči, Franček knooows..."

Mrs. Fani was from our parts. Of the Kódels from Negojnica. In Kranj, with the Korošec family, she had already served 40 years. Tirelessly, she slid up and down the stairs. In the kitchen, she kept house and friendship with Mici, the cat, who was a mighty curious cat and kept urging frivolously out of the kitchen into the world. So it was that Mrs. Fani had to, each and every way, unlock the kitchen door, reinsert the key on the other side, and again lock behind her. And in reverse, every time she returned.

As said, a rich forty years.

One time, Mr. Hubert asked me discretely if I would check about the wide Upper Savinja Valley, in case there seemed to be another, younger trustworthy lass, of which to keep a record. Because you never know... Of course, it soon turned out that the concern was unnecessary. As she had faithfully kept house for him, so Fanika buried her master, while he argued in his will granting her a lifetime right to stay in the old villa. The grieving others then slightly adjusted this lifetime right to their own desires and needs, handily chasing her out of the house within 14 days of the funeral (Ivan Cankar: The Servant Jernej and his cat Mica). Mrs. Fani continued to visit me occasionally for a number of years at the church house in Rečica, so that we reminisced together the idyllical life in Kranj. After forty years, the memories of Mr. Hubert were everything that was left of her life. And smooth cheeks. The face of her younger (married) sister was ornamentally interweaved with wrinkles, while the visage of Mrs. Fani remained tranquil and smooth all her life, like the face of Miša M.2

Ooh, yes...

Therefore, it could be suspected that visits in my room were not exactly desired. There wasn't space anywhere other than the bed, anyhow. Yet, it is understood that my future wife wanted to spend as much quality time with me as possible. We had both always decidedly strived to persuade one another into something.

While the stateroom was small, the window was just large enough so that the tiny creature could smuggle herself, without difficulty, into my student abundance.

As said, there was the most space in bed. Perhaps that's why we were mostly there. She had a number of good arguments, so discussions could draw late into the night. In those times, my arguments, too, were occasionally quite solid.

In the morning, at the arrival of coffee, she usually hid in the closet. Just till the danger left for church.

One day, though, the affair took an itty-bitty complication.

I don't know if the coffee was too hot, or her lips were too enticing, it seemed like chaplain Janez sped along with the Mass urgently - Mrs. Fani was, all at once, back at home. It happens.

Here, I must mention a few geographical facts: my room was on the ground floor, right by the kitchen and next to the stairs to the floor above us; a few stairs lower were the vestibule and a small room with the latrine; and there were also the stairs to the cellar.

When Mrs. Fani had gotten a hold of the newspapers and bread rolls and headed to the upper den, the two of us opened the door silently, ran slightly downstairs to the vestibule of the front door; the key was still in the lock.

But as if cursed - someone rang the bell just then. Mrs. Fani was already heading down the stairs, down, down, down...

My love swiftly hid in the water closet, I hesitated for a moment, missed the opportunity and stayed in the vestibule. I pretended as if I'd just come from the latrine, and slithered back into my room. Mrs. Fani unlocked the front door, took delivery of the home-raised eggs, and recompensed the neighbor. Mrs. Fani was tormented by occasional incontinence, but this time, thank god, she did not turn to the toilet. And she most likely also had to store the eggs to a cool place.

As soon as the lane was clear, I run to the water closet to set the frightened girl free. But in her haste, she had locked herself in, and now the key is stuck...

In a moment, Mrs. Fani is again out of the kitchen and in the foyer.

She asks, am I heading for classes?

Confused, I say y... yeaaa... yes.

She unlocks the door, waits for me to exit elegantly, then closes and locks behind me.

I'm locked outside, girl locked in the toilet!

When the cornered bird finally hears Mrs. Fani singing to her cat, she manages to unlock the latrine and hastily bustles her way out, out into the daylight of Kranj.

But dread, now the front door is unlocked. There is the dire hazard that the cat might get an inkling, crack open the unlocked door, and - goodbye! We'll be searching for her again over the entire city. There's no alternative: I have to get into the house! The door can't be unlocked!

I take a deep breath and return to the vestibule. Carefully and silently, I lock the door. And then, of course, into my room and out the window... Some other time!

The traffic is killer. Fanika is barging in again, from upstairs to ground floor. She's probably going to the kitchen. It would be nice if she went to the kitchen.

Of course she doesn't. She goes right past the kitchen, straight to the vestibule. Okay. So I sneak down into the basement.

Maybe she's gonna pee? Oh no! She's not gonna pee. She, too, is driven by some fatal attraction into the basement. Will she turn to the chickens? Will she grab pickled fruit? Will she feed the furnace?

As far as dear god can see, I have nowhere to hide. I climb on all fours up the coal. Further up. All the way up. I coat myself in spiderwebs. I'm squatting on top of the coals. Just under the ceiling arch. The cellar echoes the drumming of my heart. I'm dying of horror! Now, now, Mrs. Fani will turn the corner, grab the coal shovel, and get an eyeful of me hanging out there.

A few minutes ago she let me out of the house. She wished me farewell and god's blessings. She conscientiously locked the door behind -

And now he's squatting here in the cellar, on the coals, as pale as death!!

- How is it possible?

- What on Earth is he doing there?

- And he seemed like such a decent lad?

- They said he's from a respectable, pious family?

- We brought him coffee in bed... And on Sundays even Sunday lunch, because the eateries are closed, ostensibly -

???

And as if Mrs. Fani had sensed a dreadful, grave calamity, in that fateful moment she judiciously turned to her chickens.

Since then, I believe something exists above us.



1 Coffee substitute, common in Slovenia at this time. There's no real coffee in this story.

2 Miša Molk - a Slovenian TV presenter known for her eerily obvious cosmetic surgery.

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