In silence, we drew back the curtains and watched the bombs explode. Josef leaned his head against the wall, cigarette limp in his mouth, his round glasses askew. He didn’t look afraid, and he wasn’t curious like me, not any more.
Josef had stopped feeling. He just existed. If he clung to hope, it was a hope that something in this damn war was finally going to kill him. So he’d recently told me.
The apartment shook and some plaster fell off the ceiling. Josef didn’t flinch, so I snatched the cigarette from his mouth just to make him blink. I smiled, like a mother does to reassure a child, and took a long, deep drag and exhaled slowly. The smoke billowed over the glass while the air outside filled with dust and fire, and all I could think was how silly we were to have ever told each other that things would get better.
It probably wasn’t sensible to stand near a window, but we were past that now. During the bombing raid three years ago, we’d dived under the bed, believing it would protect us from a ton of falling bricks, protect us from everything, but we couldn’t fool ourselves any more. We would have left Prague if anywhere else in the world was safe, but there was nowhere to run to. Run or stay, we were oppressed by war. Besides, as Josef had once pointed out, we wouldn’t have been able to carry all our books. Not that this was a problem any more.
The explosions were closer now. Deafening. The glass rattled in its frame. I could feel the cold February air on my skin as it filtered through the gaps. It wouldn’t take much for the whole thing to smash.
Josef took the cigarette from my fingers and placed my hand in his. I realised I was shaking.
‘We should have gone to the shelter,’ I said. ‘We heard the siren.’
‘We didn’t know,’ Josef said. ‘That thing is always going off. The last bombing was months ago. How could we know?’
We’ve become complacent, I thought. At one time, we would have followed all the warnings and held on to the idea that if we could just survive this bad patch, then things would be normal again.
At what point did we stop thinking that? Perhaps it was when the Nazis first raided our apartment, and we learned that our home wasn’t private. Maybe it was when they burned our books. This taught us that nothing we own is ours. For months and then years, we slid down that slope, each experience a little worse than the last. We went from food shortages to murders in the street. People disappeared and no one could be trusted. Josef couldn’t continue his research. He stopped writing and now he’d stopped thinking. Our cage grew smaller inch by inch, until we were nostalgic not for freedom, but for when the cage had been bigger.
I turned away from the window as another bomb flashed further up the river. It was close to my friend Eva’s apartment. Maybe it was Eva’s apartment. I couldn’t watch any longer.
‘Why the fuck are they bombing us?’ I said. ‘What the fuck are they trying to achieve?’
Josef looked out once more and I dared to follow his gaze. More flashes across the city and plumes of black smoke all the way to the sky. We couldn’t see the planes.
I was conscious of his hand on mine, of our hands resting on the windowsill as we sought strength from that foundation.
‘What is anyone trying to achieve?’ he said.
I bit my lip as I was reminded of the old Josef. My Josef, the man who questioned everything and was never satisfied with other people’s answers. His mind saw things others didn’t and he would argue with you, no matter who you were, if he thought your fact or moral was wrong. It had got him into trouble more than once, and even more so of late.
But there was a nihilism to him now. The genius that had searched for knowledge had decided that nothing made sense. One man’s truth was another’s lie, and lies had more appeal. What did it matter anyway when years of work could be burned, and when a mind grown from a lifetime of study could be extinguished by a bullet to the head in less than a second.
This had been our latest lesson.
The explosions gave way to sirens and shouting. The cigarette had long been stubbed out, so I took a spare from the box and lit it. We’d survived, but what if Eva was dead? What if her daughter was dead too? I realised I was crying.
‘It’s all right,’ Josef said. His voice cracked.
‘No it’s not,’ I snapped. ‘Just look at it!’ I flourished my hand at the window. ‘That bomb fell near Eva’s place. She might be dead.’
‘She would have gone to a shelter,’ Josef said. ‘She’s got a child. She wouldn’t have taken the risk.’
‘But what if she couldn’t get there in time?’
‘She had time. I’m sure she’s fine.’
I didn’t believe him, but was grateful for the reassurance. It made a change from his usual pessimism.
‘Maybe we should go out and help.’
‘It’s not safe, Anna.’
‘We can’t just let people suffer.’
‘It won’t help anyone if a lump of masonry falls on you.’
‘We can’t just sit here!’
‘That’s all we can do.’
I handed Josef the cigarette and went to fetch my coat. ‘No it’s not.’
Josef decided to come along, though I wasn’t sure what he planned to do if a house did fall on me.
It was the first time he’d left the apartment since the murder. Eva’s home was several streets away, right by the river at the Jirásek Bridge, and not far from where Josef’s friend and professor František had lived. Apart from me, František was the only person I’d met who could make Josef change his mind. The two of them had been great friends, and if Josef was ever in any doubt about something and didn’t like my answer, he’d discuss it with František. František would usually give Josef the same answer but in a different way, which of course led Josef to conclude that second opinions were a waste of time, and it was better just to go straight to František with any high-minded problems.
All of that changed a few weeks ago when the SS had raided František’s apartment. Josef told me that František had written resistance leaflets, and the SS had found out. By unfortunate chance, Josef had been on his way to see his friend for a game of cards after dinner. He’d turned the corner onto František’s road and seen the guards outside the apartment block. They brought out František, a man in his fifties, and punched him to the ground. An argument ensued; František was not the sort to be cowed by ignorance, even when ignorance carried sub-machine guns. One officer lost patience and fired his pistol. František didn’t have anything to say to that.
The last spark went out of Josef that night. When he came home, it was like his soul had been ripped from him. He wouldn’t tell me what had happened, but had curled on the bed and stared the same dead stare he’d had ever since. Eventually, he explained that we’d never see František again. Living under occupation had worn us all down and stolen our fire, but after that night, not even a candle burned in Josef.
‘I think we should go home,’ Josef said. ‘There’s not much we can do here.’
I was inclined to agree with him. Everywhere we looked was devastation. There were shells of buildings half blown out into mountains of rubble. Fires still burned and the streets were so filled with smoke that I had to hold a handkerchief to my face. Even the strong wind wasn’t enough to clear the air.
If people were trapped underneath the bricks, they would probably be dead and we had no way to get to them. Nevertheless, groups of volunteers tried to dig their way into the chaos. Led by desperate family members and friends of the missing, they searched for people expected to have still been in the buildings when the bombs fell. Their cries filled our ears.
‘My sister, my sister’s under there!’
‘Help! Help me find my father!’
‘My wife! My wife! Please, she’s pregnant. Help me!’
Eva’s apartment block was still standing, though its windows had been blasted in. The buildings near it had been demolished. We checked but Eva wasn’t inside. Her door was wide open, her furniture broken and scattered under glass and dust.
‘See, she must have gone to a shelter,’ Josef said. The room echoed when he spoke. ‘We’ll come round again later and find her.’
I agreed we would check later, but didn’t want to just sit and wait. We joined a search party and tried to find an old man’s wife. After two hours we were covered in dirt and scrapes and still hadn’t saved anyone, but we couldn’t stop while the old man cried.
Eva happened upon us later that afternoon. Her daughter was safe at her mother’s and she’d come back to get a few things from home. Eva always looked immaculate, from her well-fitted clothes to the precision in which she placed the pins in her hair, but now strands of hair blew in her face and the heel of one shoe was bent. There was a scratch on her cheek and her brown eyes were wide, as if they’d seen something they couldn’t unsee.
‘We didn’t leave the apartment in time,’ she said, talking fast. ‘It was only when the bombs started falling I realised what was happening. Marie and I sheltered under the stairs. That’s all I could think to do. A window exploded right above us. It could have been so much worse. We’re so lucky to be alive!’
We hugged again, grateful that we were all safe. Our joy felt out of place amid the ruins, but it was ours to savour and hold on to. Josef put his arm around me as Eva left, and in this way we walked back home.
That evening, I found Josef seated at the table in the study for the first time in months. He was writing.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
Josef put his pen down and looked at me. ‘I’ve been thinking a lot about chaos,’ he said.
This was such an old Josef thing to say. I leaned against the door-frame. ‘What about it?’
‘We all know that the universe is chaos and we impose order upon it…’
‘Of course.’ This was another old Josef thing to say. We all know was a phrase he often used to signal that his first statement wasn’t the bit he wanted to debate, even though his first statement was usually an assumption that undermined the statement that came after. František had often pointed this out. I took the hint and waited.
‘But sometimes it’s really hard to find order in anything,’ Josef continued.
I could agree with that. ‘Especially at the moment,’ I said.
‘Exactly.’ Josef nodded. ‘But order isn’t universal. One man’s order is another man’s chaos. I’ve been trying to impose my sense of order on an ever more chaotic universe, and I can’t. All I can see is things getting worse and worse and nothing getting better. We’re spiralling out of control, and I can’t stop it. I’ve tried resisting, but they burned my books. I’ve tried ignoring it, but they killed František. All I can do is sit in this apartment day after day and hope we don’t die, but this is killing me as well. There’s more chaos inside my head than there is out there.’ He sighed.
‘So what are you doing now?’ I prompted.
‘I’m writing some thoughts down,’ he said. ‘But I’m not sure I should.’
‘Because they could get us into trouble.’
‘Why, what are you writing?’
Josef picked up his pen and tapped it against his fingers. He glanced at the papers on his desk. ‘I’ve decided that if I’m going to die, then I may as well die trying to make things better. My sense of order is a relic from before the war, and it’s not helpful. I need to fight chaos with chaos. I need to stir things up. I need to pick up where František left off, and show people that they can still have hope, that they can still think, that there is still power in the written word, no matter how many books they burn.’
‘How?’ I said. I guessed what he meant to do but wanted to hear him say it.
Josef looked at me like he had when he’d first asked me out on a date. Hopeful, but not expectant. ‘I want to make some resistance leaflets, like František did. But I know it will put you at risk too. If you don’t want me to do it, I won’t.’
‘Do it,’ I said.
Josef frowned. ‘No, I shouldn’t. It’s a bad idea. We could be killed. We could lose everything.’
I took his hand in mine and squeezed the pen into his palm.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘But all that could happen anyway, couldn’t it?’ I took the pen from his hand. ‘Come on, I’ll write some as well. Then you won’t have to feel guilty when they shoot me.’
‘That doesn’t make me feel better.’
I kissed his cheek. ‘Maybe not. But it makes you feel something.’