Apasionata from the volume Vepra letrare 6, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1972, p. 222-249, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie
I did not even tell Mira of my decision. She knew that the music conservatory was not the right place for me and that I might fail the year. She knew that the dean’s office had met three times to discuss my work and had decided in the end to let me stay. Nonetheless, I wanted to leave at the beginning of the semester. In fact, I had never really wanted to attend at all, but my father insisted. He was impressed by the reputation of the National Institute of the Arts and considered it an excellent school. In his view, an artist in the family was proof of superior intelligence. Although he holds an important job, my father is still a child in many ways. Just as children tend to imitate their parents, my father enjoys imitating great intellectuals with their broad cultural horizons. He never misses a concert even though I know for sure that he knows nothing about music, especially symphonies, but he goes anyway. I find that irritating. Perhaps I’m wrong; perhaps my irritation is simply reverse snobbery. At times, when boredom gets to you, you can act like a snob and take a dislike to whatever your family does. I find many things my father does quite senseless, though they might well impress an outside observer. One time, he brought home a painter. He showed him through all the rooms of the apartment and, standing before one of the walls, he ordered four paintings: landscapes and a still life. If he had found a good painter I wouldn’t have minded, but he came up with a real amateur.
So, there was a possibility that I might fail the year. In desperation, I told my father that I intended to quit the conservatory because I did not like it. He turned as frigid as winter. Stuffing his hands in the pockets of his trousers, he paced back and forth in front of me. I sat there staring at the short legs hidden under his trousers. With a frown, he stroked his beard and then put his hands back in his pockets. I knew that all this posturing was designed to put psychological pressure on me.
"I am going to quit the conservatory," I declared, sitting back in the armchair.
He altered his pose to look hurt, and then frowned again.
"When did you come up with this insane idea?" he asked.
I was irritated by his pompous tone.
"What’s so insane about it? I’ve thought the whole thing through again and again," I countered, imitating his pomposity. He looked me in the eyes, as if to study my reaction, and said nothing for quite some time. It was a look designed to convey an impression of profound reasoning, but I knew it was nothing of the kind. An ironic smirk crossed my lips. My father stopped his pacing and halted in front of me.
I thought he was going to sit down in his armchair, but instead he headed for the front door, opened it slowly, went out, and shut it behind him. I remained alone in the apartment. Neither my mother nor my sister were at home. I took a book from the shelf and tried to calm my nerves by reading. A mixture of rain and snow was falling outside. It was February. The first few pages of the book contained a description of a fine sunny day. It was the story of a farm manager and a milkmaid, which I did not find overly impressive.
I closed the book and got up. Standing at the window watching the sleet fall, I recalled that my mother, who was from the countryside, had her own word for this mixture of rain and snow. She had only gone through primary school and had never had much education. She was a good-hearted soul, even now, although she had adopted some of my father’s shortcomings. She too had become a bit vain and liked to boast about my father’s work. She would confide in the neighbours some would-be secret about a staff member at one of the ministries, about goods for import and export, or about politics. It depressed me to see her influenced by my father’s vanity. She considered him the most competent and most important man in town.
One evening I got angry with her. Someone had phoned to talk to my father. My mother answered:
"Mr Reufi is not available at the moment. May I transmit a message?" I was not so upset about the ‘transmit a message’ as about the ‘Mr Reufi’.
"Aren’t you pushing it a bit, mother?" I said with a gesture of impatience.
"What do you mean?"
"Mr Reufi," I jeered.
"Your father is an important figure, Arthur," she replied.
I disliked the pretentiousness of the name Arthur, too. It had been my father’s choice.
I stood at the window, looking down at the wet boulevard. People were rushing in all directions, huddled under their umbrellas. I could hear the rain gushing from our balcony onto the pavement below.
The radio was playing the Appassionata. I loved that piece. It never failed to move me, though I am certainly no composer myself.
The next day I was intending to go to the dean’s office and tell him that I was quitting the conservatory. I have no talent for music. I was majoring in composition, and to be a composer means to be a creator, and I am not a creator of music. My father’s vanity had made me an object of ridicule among the students. Mira, too, knew that they made fun of me. She is studying piano and holds the promise of becoming a good pianist. But what promise do I hold? None. A composer? I am thoroughly convinced that all possible combinations of keys have already been discovered and used, and that there are no new ones to be found. Thousands and thousands of songs, symphonies, sonatas, études, operas, operettas and cantatas resound all over the continent. A universe of sounds had already been created and to enter this universe you needed the right uniform. I had simply not found the uniform. Mira had. So had Burhan. But I haven’t. I could build a bridge or mount a turbine. Why should I have to compose a symphony or even a song?
I thought of going to the women’s residence and of telling Mira that I was quitting the conservatory. I was sure that she would approve of my decision, and be relieved and happy about it. She would no longer have to listen to the others making fun of me or asking me with a smirk, "How many keys are there between do and ti, Arthur?"
But who knew what Mira was doing now at the residence? Perhaps she was wading through a history of operatic music from Verdi to Wagner to coach the others. Go ahead and coach them, Mira! I’ve read books about Verdi and Wagner, too, but not to be able to parrot the information. I just read them for interest. Like history books. It’s funny, isn’t it?
With Mira on my mind, I was about to go out when I heard my father’s footsteps.
My father took his coat off, hung it up in the hall and entered the room. He had a sombre look on his face.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"I was just going out to meet a friend!"
"Sit down for a moment," he said, motioning to a chair.
I sat down. He took a packet of cigarettes and a lighter out of his waistcoat pocket. I could smell the tobacco and the lighter fluid.
"Every stage of life," he said, "is subject to many factors."
I could feel the word ‘but’ on its way and decided to counter-attack: "Factors can change and improve."
He raised his eyes under their thick eyebrows and gave a big laugh which I was not expecting. He took out his striped handkerchief and wiped his eyes. Lowering his head, he placed it back into his pocket.
"Very clever," he murmured, taking his hand out of his pocket.
I rose to my feet.
"Sorry, father, but my friends are waiting for me."
He made an impatient gesture which betrayed his anger.
"Sit down!" he ordered.
I hesitated for a moment on my long legs and sat down.
"You have been hiding things from me," he said gravely.
"I told you frankly enough that I am quitting the conservatory."
"You are hiding things from me, son," he repeated with a note of displeasure in his voice. "I succeeded in getting you into the National Institute of the Arts without you going through the entrance exams. You entered on the recommendation of influential people. A whole ministry acted on your behalf. And now, after a mere five months, you intend to trample on everything we have done, all the favours and assistance. If my colleagues find out what you have decided to do, they will be put in a very awkward position. And it will be extremely embarrassing for me, your father. I inquired at the dean’s office and they assured me you had talent but that you were wasting your time on matters incompatible with your studies, a fact which I find revolting."
I gave my father a pitying look. His forehead was perspiring. Drops of sweat had formed around his mouth and under his nose at the edge of his moustache. What he said was true.
"Revolting!" he shouted.
"I’m surprised," I said.
"You have no reason to be surprised! Revolting! Now they tell me that your thoughts are not concentrated on your studies, your sonatas or solfeggios or whatever you call them, but on the fair sex."
It was obvious that my father was furious. He stammered and repeated himself, but I was still not too sure where he was leading.
"The fair sex?" I asked.
"The sair fex! Girls!" he shouted, bathed in sweat and foaming at the mouth.
I couldn’t keep a straight face. I got up and laughed out loud. In his hysteria, my father had committed one of his spoonerisms.
"Shut up and sit down!" he ordered. "Revolting, I tell you! It’s all this television! This hippy generation! Aping everything from the West! East and West together!"
I bit the back of my hand to keep from laughing again.
"Get that hand away from your mouth!" my father shouted and jumped up.
I had to keep my hand in front of my mouth to prevent myself from giggling. My father grabbed my arm. My giggling stopped at once.
"You hippy!" he cried, and turned his back on me.
He stopped at the door, turned towards me and added in a calmer voice, "This girl you’ve been seeing at the conservatory - Mira is her name, isn’t it? All right. Do whatever you want! Go ahead and concentrate on the girls and forget your solfeggios and studies. You’ll see what a mire this Mira is going to leave you in." With this, he left the room and stomped down the hallway.
All alone, I was indignant that Mira’s name had been drawn into the matter. Why should she be involved?
The next day I was at the conservatory early in the morning. The first two hours were taken up by our third lesson in the ‘basic principles of aesthetics.’ These lessons I enjoyed because they were less monotonous than the rest. It should have been the other way around, but as I had no talent for music itself, I didn’t enjoy the practical courses at all. The basic principles of aesthetics interested me. In fact, Mira suggested that I should change my major and become an art critic. But this seemed to be an arduous field, too. What I was aiming at was the Faculty of Engineering. What would I gain by becoming an art critic? Even if I did have the talent for it, it did not interest me sufficiently. I could have written reviews on different composers for the cultural periodical Drita and they would have turned up their noses at me whenever we met at the Writers’ and Artists’ Union. Why bother? I would rather construct apartment buildings or dams anyway! And I have no talent for music! My father is obsessed with the idea that I am a musical genius.
Pale and worn out, I met Burhan and Mira in class. They asked if I had been ill but I told them it was simply a lack of sleep. It was during class that I whispered to Burhan,
"I’ve decided to quit the conservatory."
Burhan stopped writing in the thick notebook in front of him.
"You would be better off to wait until the end of the semester. There are only three or four more exams to go," he said.
"No! I’m leaving now," I replied.
"You shouldn’t. Wait until the end of the year. After the summer break you can register at the university. I think you’ve made the right decision. Everyone has to find his own niche in life. But just wait another three months," Burhan advised.
I liked Burhan. He was a sensible, level-headed person. He never learned anything by heart, but approached everything with logic and reason. We all liked him. He may have been a bit conservative. He disliked all the flirting between the sexes at the conservatory, and believed that love must wait until after the conclusion of a mission undertaken. Strangely enough, he never took me to task for being in love with Mira, nor did he reproach her for being with me. He spent a lot of time with us, and even made me jealous on occasion! I had the impression that he was in love with Mira, too, but I never let my jealousy show. Nor did I say anything to Mira.
"I can’t wait anymore! I’m not staying at the conservatory any longer. Don’t you see that I’m making a fool of myself, Burhan?" I said.
Burhan said nothing. He began taking notes again. I pretended to be listening to the professor and continued talking to Burhan from time to time. The professor noticed us but was a lenient man and said nothing. I tore a page out of my notebook and wrote a couple of lines: ‘Mira, I’ve decided to quit the conservatory.’ When I finished writing, I passed the note to Mira who sat on the bench behind us.
A few moments later, she stuffed a slip of paper into my pocket. I opened it: ‘Good idea’ it read.
Although her response was objective enough, it irritated me. It seemed to me that she was waiting for me to leave so that she would not be embarrassed by my bad marks and my lack of talent. Obviously, I said to myself, Mira is glad to get rid of me. She is going to leave me and fall in love with Burhan, if she hasn’t already. I was furious at all women. I was also furious at Burhan sitting at my side. Simmering with wrath, I said nothing more until the end of class. At the Faculty of Engineering I could be the best student and here I’m the worst, I thought to myself, my anger extending now to my father. Why this pretentious fascination with music when he knew absolutely nothing about it? He was completely ignorant in this field. Mr Reufi, the music lover. What a clown! It saddened me to be calling my own father a clown. He had done so much for me and here I was calling him that. It was I who was the clown.
At that moment the bell rang. Noise filled the auditorium and the three of us went out. I walked along with my head lowered, hoping to avoid having to talk to anyone. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and stared at my legs which were advancing mechanically.
The three of us stopped by the window. The courtyard in front of the conservatory was wet with the February rain. Neither Burhan nor Mira spoke. They, too, gazed out onto the courtyard. As we stood there, a cream-coloured car drove up. It swung around and parked in front of the entrance. I recognized it as my father’s limousine. Yes! A moment later I saw my father himself descend from the vehicle. Dressed in a heavy winter coat and a black hat, he began climbing the stone staircase. He mounted slowly, step by step, with the air of an important figure. My friends recognized him, too.
"Look, there’s Mr Reufi!" cried Burhan and looked at me.
"Yes, it’s my father all right," I said calmly and turned away from the window. Mira followed me.
"Are you going to go and see him?" she inquired.
"Why should I bother? I see him at home every day," I replied coldly.
"Do you love your father, Arthur?" she asked.
"What a question!" I countered.
"I only asked because whenever he comes here you look distressed," she noted.
"The shadow of my father distresses me," I added.
"What does he think of your leaving the conservatory?" she asked.
"He understands," I lied and regretted the irony in my voice. I did not want Mira to know about the chilly relations between my father and me, but she seemed not to notice that anything was amiss.
The bell rang and we returned to class.
Burhan and Mira accompanied me almost all the way back home and were just as uneasy as I. These were my last days at the conservatory. Although it was my own wish to leave, my heart ached at the thought of no longer seeing my friends, the auditorium, the staircase. If I had had but one ounce of inclination, if not to say talent for music, I would not have left. But I knew that I had been in that temple of the muses too long already. There were others who knew they had neither the inclination nor the talent and yet continued to follow the herd. They gravitated inertly towards the more talented students, spent all their time with them and considered themselves talented. They would adopt the attitudes and views of the gifted students and turn up their noses sceptically at what others were doing in art. They were snobs. Snobs for me are people who play the part of apes, or apes who play the part of people. That is something I simply cannot do. I could turn up my nose at others, but I refuse to do so.
"If you leave now you are going to be bored stiff at home until the new school year begins. You can’t start university in mid-semester," said Burhan.
Mira was listening to him. She turned to me and waited to hear what answer I would give. I was slightly offended at the idea that Burhan thought I would sit at home or loiter around in the streets doing nothing. He thought that since my father had an important position I would be choosy and would refuse to accept just any job. I turned towards him, sensing from his expression that I must look worn out.
"I don’t intend to wait for the new school year to begin," I said.
"Well, what are you going to do then?" he asked.
"I am going to get a job in a factory. I like machine and tractor plants, for instance."
Burhan stopped. He gave no sign of surprise, but I knew that he did not believe a word I was saying.
"Mr Reufi won’t let you," he said.
I was not too pleased by Burhan’s view of my father. I do argue with my father but I don’t accuse him of faults he doesn’t have. What made Burhan think that my father wouldn’t let me work in a factory?
"Look, Burhan, my father wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth," I said.
"Sorry," replied Burhan, "What I meant was that your father wants you to continue your studies, and he won’t be too pleased at the idea of your getting a job instead of going to university."
"Yes, that’s what he meant," Mira broke in, placatingly.
I looked at her, thinking, "Why does she always have to take Burhan’s side?"
I was hoping that he would leave so that I could be alone with Mira. "Burhan is so thick! Why doesn’t he leave the two of us alone? What if I wanted to hold her hand or even kiss her? What is he waiting for? He’s a good friend, but still..."
Burhan seemed to understand that his presence bothered me, and as we were near my home, said he had to be off because he had a friend to meet to meet a friend.
I remained alone with Mira. Slender and wrapped in her blue coat, she walked beside me in silence. The wet street and the dampness in the air seemed to have penetrated the marrow of her bones. From time to time she shivered and huddled close to me as if in search of warmth.
"Are you cold, Mira?" I asked.
"A bit," she replied.
"Mira, I am going to quit the conservatory, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t see one another," I said taking her hand. Her little fingers were lost in my palm. They were cold and I squeezed them. I could feel a current of warmth and sweetness pass through my body. Mira lowered her head. Her black hair covered one eye and half of her lovely face. She was the only girl I had ever loved. She had come to the conservatory from Korça and we had met in the very first days of the school year. Of course she could not know at the time that I had no talent for music. I may have looked talented and sensitive but something was lacking in me. I didn’t have the soul of a musician. And yet I was sure she would love me even if she discovered my lack of talent.
It pained her to hear the others making fun of my weakness in music. Sometimes she would go red in the face and become furious. But she loved me anyway.
We heard footsteps behind us. It was my father in his heavy coat and black hat. He caught up to us and stopped. Mira cowered behind me. I could sense her quivering.
"So you are out for a walk instead of at your studies I see," he said in a huff.
"Our classes have just finished," I replied coldly.
My father was silent for a moment. He gave us a look and then, backing off slowly, departed with a solemn stride.
"I didn’t know what to do!" said Mira slowly.
"There’s no reason to be afraid," I said.
"Your father is an imposing figure."
"He plays the part professionally. He considers us and everyone else his subordinates," I said.
"How can you say that about your father, Arthur?" Mira chided.
"I was just joking," I said, giving a laugh.
I walked Mira to the bus station and then returned home.
My parents were having lunch. I sat down and watched the movements of their spoons. My father was chewing and his lips were making a noise like someone treading on muddy ground.
"You’re back?" he said without raising his head.
"I’m back," I replied.
"So you’re back!" he repeated.
"Yes, I’m back," I said again.
My mother interjected:
"Do you want something to eat, Arthur?"
"All right," I replied.
From their attitude I saw that they had been talking about me. My father had no doubt been playing the prosecution and my mother had been taking the defence.
She loaded my plate with food and I went to sit down at my father’s side, the two of us munching away, he loudly and I quietly.
"Are you tired?" my father asked.
"Yes, I am," I responded, my eyes fixed on my plate and the spoon in my hand.
"Tired of walking the streets," he said, wiping his mouth with a serviette.
"You’re right, and I’m also tired of hearing your accusations," I answered calmly.
My father rose from the table, his cheeks scarlet. He did not like my answer although I had not contradicted him.
"You’re wasting your valuable time with that little tramp. You may have talent for women but no talent for music," he uttered, gradually bringing the tone of his deep voice to a crescendo.
"Enough now. Let him eat his meal in peace!" my mother broke in.
"All right, I should leave him alone, should I?" said my father sarcastically.
I ignored him and continued to eat. It infuriated him to see me eating calmly while he was so upset.
Approaching the table, he seized my spoon and hurled it to the floor.
"I am talking to you and you sit there eating your lunch as if nothing had happened!"
I could feel his heavy breathing on the back of my neck. I rose and said:
My father gave no reply, nor did my mother. I stood in front of him defiantly. I could feel that I was paling.
He stood in front of me for a moment, then turned and went off into his bedroom. My mother and I remained in the kitchen. I could not bring myself to sit down again. I stood staring at the blank wall for several moments. It was like the sensation I had at the conservatory after an exam. I was the last student to be examined. All the others had gone. The students had left and the professor was gone, too. I stood there clutching my notebook and staring. There, face to face with the auditorium wall, I felt my total defeat, the futility of all my efforts. I became aware that my presence in that auditorium was a huge mistake. The longer I stayed, the more I would suffer. I would suffer all my life from an inferiority complex, from a feeling of being a mediocrity, a boor. On graduation I would join the ranks of those with diplomas of higher education who are neither specialists nor intellectuals. I would become a statistic in a yearbook and nothing more. I did not want to be a simple statistic. I stared at the wall with the notebook in my hand and began to shiver. Suddenly I felt relieved, relieved to have found myself. "This is not my road in life," I said. "There are other roads." I put the notebook in my pocket and departed. It was that moment I recalled as I stood in the kitchen, as my mother sat silently at the table, as my food remained uneaten on the plate, and as Mira sat at home at the women’s residence.
"Listen to your father," said my mother. "He knows what he’s talking about."
I sat down on a chair. It was only then that I became aware of what my mother was saying.
"I don’t want to become a statistic!" I said.
My mother stared at me:
"A statistic!" I repeated.
She had no idea what I meant.
I did not return to the conservatory the next day. I lay on the couch with my hands behind my head staring at the ceiling, daydreaming. The other students were now in their second class. Mira was sitting on a bench and writing. Burhan, with his pronounced jaw, was sitting behind her, taking copious notes. My father was at the office perusing important documents about important meetings of concern to the division he headed. They all say that he works hard and expects everyone else to do the same. I have no doubt about that. My father is a hard and conscientious worker all right. I have seen him work both at home and at the office. Whenever he has a report to write he is all keyed up like a child. He writes, gnaws nervously at his pencil, gets up, sits down. He is daring in his criticism. He once criticized his superior, Shemsedin, for wasting money on building a public library for a small town, a building which, as my father predicted, became outdated within ten years and had to be rebuilt. My father was right, I know, but what would Mira be thinking now? She would perhaps be thinking that I would never return to the conservatory. Maybe the time had come for us to go our separate ways. I would become an engineer and she would be a musician. We would have nothing in common. Unless of course I married her. My wife the musician. I gave a loud laugh, and my mother came into the room.
"What’s wrong, Arthur? Why are you crying?" she asked anxiously.
She stood beside me and stroked my forehead, saying calmly:
"Leave the conservatory, son. You’re just torturing yourself," and took out a handkerchief to wipe a tear off my cheek.
"How you frightened me! I haven’t heard you cry since you were a child."
"I was laughing, mother."
"That was no laugh," she said and left the room.
I trembled in confusion. I am not superstitious but was taken by an ominous foreboding. It was true, I said to myself, I had been crying.
At that moment the telephone rang. My mother went to answer.
"Yes? Mr Reufi? No, Mr Reufi has no meeting today. He will be back at two-thirty this afternoon. Where are you calling from? The conservatory. I’ll give him your message. All right," she said and hung up.
I studied the expression on her face.
"You see, mother? Mr Reufi! Why do you call him Mr Reufi on the phone? At home you just call him Demo."
She looked at me tenderly.
"Everyone calls him Mr Reufi on the phone. It’s just become a habit."
"Well, it’s a bad habit."
"But tell me, Arthur, why do you want to quit the conservatory?"
"I simply have no talent for music, mother." I said seriously.
"You have no talent? And what about Burhan, that simpleton? You are surely more talented than he is. Isn’t there some other reason? Your father said you have been chasing girls and neglecting your studies and that was why you wanted to quit."
"That isn’t true. I simply have no ear for music."
"Don’t be silly! Burhan has sandals for ears. Why should he be any better?" she asked.
"What are you smiling at?" she asked. "You’re an intelligent boy. Why shouldn’t you finish your studies at the conservatory?"
"What would you prefer, mother? For me to have a prestigious job and be worse than everyone else or to have a less impressive job and be just as good as everyone else?"
My mother shook her head.
"For you to be just as good as the others," she admitted quietly.
Just then, the front door opened and I caught sight of my father’s hat and black coat. He shut the door quietly behind him and entered the room, looking out towards the balcony. He took off his coat and hat and sat down on a chair without saying a word. Giving me a quick glance, he turned to my mother.
"Did anyone phone for me?"
"The conservatory," she replied.
"About him," he muttered, pointing to me.
"I don’t know," said my mother.
"But I do," he said, turning towards me. "So, you were not at the conservatory today, young man. You prefer to spend the day in bed or whatever it is you’ve been doing."
God, I thought to myself, he is going to start up with that ‘whatever’ business again.
"All right, all right," he said, turning to my mother. "Let’s have lunch."
A heavy silence fell on the room, broken only by the clatter of plates and cutlery. Our arguments always seem to be preceded by an overture of clattering plates and cutlery.
"So," said my father, sitting down to the table, "we have to waste our time dealing with our son’s escapades, as if we didn’t have enough work on our hands. We get to follow his adventures at the dean’s office and the rectorate. A fine repayment for all we’ve done for him!"
I thought it was best not to say anything.
"Eat your meal, Demo," said my mother.
"It’s like poison. I feel like I’m eating some well-prepared poison."
My mother gave me a frightened look.
"I have been told a lot of things about this young man. They say he is supposed to be capable, talented. But unused talent is the same as no talent at all. Has he been given an opportunity to use his talent? Yes. It is not the government’s fault. I have been told that he is not attending classes. He has been chasing after one of those miniskirts, one of those wiggling, giggling bits of skirt," he shouted, rising to imitate a young girl.
This was one of the funniest scenes ever to have taken place in our house, but I was careful not to laugh. My mother gave a laugh though and was repaid with an angry glance as he sat down again. He had not yet touched his food.
"He has come up with one of those girls I was talking about, has abandoned his studies, and now he wants to quit the conservatory altogether. The dean’s office and the rectorate should never have allowed girls like that into the conservatory. It’s unbelievable!"
"Don’t insult a nice girl," I interrupted dryly. My father turned to me, his heavy eyebrows frowning over eyes sparkling with fury.
"We often defend those who are unworthy of defence in order to defend ourselves. That is what you are doing," he said.
"We often give others the blame to save our own skin. You’re blaming her to defend me because things have to be the way you want them to be. There is a fundamental error in your thinking. I already told you. I have recognized the fact that I have no talent for music. It was clear to me from the very start that this road is not taking me where I want to go. If I continue down it right to the end I will have to go all the way back eventually, and that will make it all the more difficult for me. So I’d rather choose another road now. You think it’s because of her? Well, let me tell you," I began to tremble, "I don’t need you to tell me what to do at every step I take in life. It was you who pointed me down that road and I obeyed. But it was a mistake. Now I’m taking my own road. And I don’t need you anymore."
My father stared at me, rose to his feet and began pacing back and forth. Steam was still rising from the dishes full of food. Then he stopped and looked at me as if I were a complete stranger.
"Me telling you what to do?" he murmured. "You have learned some strange ideas. Is that the way all young people think nowadays? The right road, self-knowledge, awareness of your talents, of your limitations. Do you think you have justified yourself and convinced me?"
He sat down and took up his spoon, saying no more. I could hear it clattering in the soup dish.
Several days passed. I did not return to the conservatory. My father reported to the dean’s office that I was ill. I had made up my mind not to go back and had even applied for a job at the tractor plant until the start of the next academic year. The head of personnel said I could start work the following week. I had learned how to use a lathe during extracurricular production work at secondary school. I did not tell my father about my applying for a factory job because I was afraid he would stop me.
I spent those days at home reading. I was also teaching myself English, poring through elementary texts and noting all the words of vocabulary I didn’t know. I spoke the texts out loud and listened to lessons on the tape recorder my father had bought for me. I had several plans. I wanted to start with English and then learn French, too. Two languages are enough. Any more than that is a waste of time unless you are a linguist.
While I was reading in my room, my mother came in and told me that Burhan wanted to talk to me.
"Is he on the phone?" I asked.
"No, he’s at the door," she replied.
I ran out. He was standing in the doorway with an umbrella in his hand.
He entered slowly with his hand to his chin. He walked down the hall to my room silently and sombrely.
He sat down in the armchair across from me.
"What’s new at the conservatory?" I asked.
"Nothing much. Have you decided to quit for good?"
"Yes, I’ve made my decision, Burhan."
He rubbed his forehead and crossed his legs.
"Mira wanted to come but she couldn’t leave her father alone," Burhan added.
"What, Mira’s father is in town?" I asked.
He did not answer immediately. He looked over at the tape recorder on the table and at my English course.
"You’re studying?" he asked.
"A little bit," I replied.
"The dean’s office asked him to come," said Burhan.
"It’s hard to explain. It’s a bit complicated. They want to expel Mira from the conservatory," stated Burhan.
"It’s complicated, Arthur."
"You already said that. Tell me what happened?" I shouted, upset at Burhan’s composure.
"They say she’s a bad influence on the male students," he replied.
I blushed. It was only with me that Mira was on more than just friendly terms.
"What male students?"
"You! They say she is responsible for your neglecting your studies and quitting the conservatory. Now they want to expel her to save you," explained Burhan.
I jumped up angrily.
"What a senseless sacrifice!" I said.
He looked at me quizzically, so I explained:
"They want to sacrifice someone else to save me? In history there is a story about a woman who sacrificed herself for an ideal. She was locked in behind four walls and sacrificed her happiness for the sake of her husband who was very talented. But it was at least her own choice. They want to sacrifice Mira for me and I don’t even have any talent. I am only the son of a director..."
I went on at length, expounding ideas which had been pent up within me for a long time. Burhan listened patiently with his jaw resting in the palm of his hand.
I thought of my father. There was another aspect to his move against Mira. He did not want me to marry her and raise a family without finishing my studies and having a professional career first. He saw my relationship with her as the prelude to marriage. To save me from throwing away my future, he would sacrifice Mira by separating us. The motives were complex indeed!
"They called Mira’s father to tell him about his daughter," Burhan said. "He was devastated. Poor man, he was completely confused. At first they gave Mira a choice: stop seeing you or be expelled. Then they changed their minds and decided to expel her no matter what. Her father has come to take her home. What do you say?"
Burhan studied me, waiting for me to reply.
"They can’t do this to her! They can’t expel her!" I cried.
"That’s what I thought too, but I am afraid they have, Arthur. Your father’s been to the dean’s office several times," he added.
I was red with shame and rage. My fingers moved nervously back and forth over my knees.
"So what do we do?" I said to Burhan.
He was silent.
I still did not want to hear anyone criticize my father. Burhan was my friend but I would not let even him speak badly of my father. Yet of course Burhan was right. It must have been my father who made them expel Mira from the conservatory. Only now did I begin to think about my father’s conversations and his criticism of her and of girls he considered a bad influence. But I did not want Burhan to discover the full truth.
"Listen, Burhan. My father wouldn’t do a thing like that," I said, blushing at my own lie. I hoped he would not see through it. Would my father go that far? Would a man known at work for his honesty descend to such depths, I wondered, as Burhan, wise, kind Burhan, sat in front of me.
"I have my doubts, Arthur. Don’t misunderstand me. I respect Mr Reufi, but he is the one responsible for this. He’s the only one in a position to apply that kind of pressure. He is a powerful person, Arthur, and is capable of doing it..." said Burhan thoughtfully.
"Why are you so suspicious?" I broke in.
He frowned. I realized that he was offended.
"What do you mean ‘suspicious’? The future of an individual is at stake. Should we just look the other way?" he said slowly, containing his anger. I blushed. His words were convincing. More convincing than those of my father.
"You have the right to believe whatever you want. Everyone does," I replied evasively.
Burhan rose to his feet.
"Don’t go yet," I pleaded.
"I must go," he replied coldly. "Sorry to have bothered you. Go back to your books!" He picked up his umbrella and left without saying another word.
Alone in my room, I realized what he meant. Someone’s future was being destroyed on my account and I was sitting here studying English. I should have run after him and gone to see Mira.
I threw on my coat and rushed down the stairs. My mother called after me:
"Arthur, where are you going?"
I ran and ran.
I never caught up to Burhan. I took a bus going towards the women’s residence. I thought of nothing but Mira all the way. I blamed my father, but I still could not believe that Mira would be expelled from the conservatory. The misunderstanding had to be cleared up. One accusation was not enough to decide someone’s fate.
I got off the bus and walked up the lane that led to the residence. I had walked up this lane many times with and without Mira. The whole neighbourhood was verdant on those spring evenings, and the air was filled with the sound of girls laughing, talking, and singing the occasional song. Now on this cold and rainy February day, it was quieter.
At the entrance stood a short man with a brimmed hat. He was waiting for someone. He was smoking a cigarette and had his eyes fixed on the building. I was sure it was Mira’s father, though I had never actually seen him before. He studied me and then turned away and began to walk down towards the little courtyard.
He was a few metres away when I went up to the doorman and asked him to call Mira. He nodded in silence and came out of his booth. Quite unexpectedly he turned towards me and said:
"Her father is waiting for her, too."
"Is that right?" I said and looked over at the man pacing back and forth with his eyes fixed on the ground and a cigarette in his mouth. I was tempted to introduce myself but I decided to wait for Mira. He looked like a wise man but one who was carrying a heavy burden.
At that moment, Mira appeared in the little garden, dressed in her blue coat. I glanced towards the man. When he realized that I, too, was waiting for her, he appeared to shrink, as if he were trying to withdraw into his cream-coloured dufflecoat.
Mira gave me her hand. There was a gleam in her eyes despite the sadness of her expression. She seemed to think I was bringing good news.
"My father is here, too," she murmured and approached him timidly.
"Let’s go, daughter," he said in a shrill quivering voice.
I stood a little apart from them. Mira turned towards me and said to her father,
"This is a friend of mine from the conservatory."
We shook hands. He looked at me with his little eyes as if wondering: "Is he the one?" But he retained his composure.
We started off down the lane. Where were we going? What should I say to him? How could I find out what had been said at the dean’s office? What could I do to speak to Mira alone? It would be difficult to separate the two of them.
As we were walking, he suddenly asked me:
"Whose son are you?"
I live in Tirana but my parents are from Korça. My father moved to Tirana right after the liberation."
"Is that so? What is your father’s name?"
"Demosten Reufi," I replied.
"Really? You are Demosten’s son?" he exclaimed.
"Do you know him?"
"And how! We were in the same battalion during the war. Good old Demosten!" the old man exclaimed.
I smiled for a moment. Then I frowned and said no more. Mira’s father knew my father! I blushed. How complicated things could become!
"Good old Demosten! We were once both wounded on the same day. They put us on a cart and drove us to the partisan field hospital. We were treated by a doctor - what was his name? Oh yes, Dr Vasil Karakuli. I wonder what ever became of him?"
"I haven’t heard of him in Tirana," I replied.
"How is Demosten anyway? I am getting a bit older," he said.
"He is fine. He has aged, too," I added.
"Good old Demosten! Tell him that Take Doko sends his regards. Tell him we were wounded together and treated by the same doctor, Vasil Karakuli," said the old man.
The fact that my father had been wounded with Take Doko upset me more than anything. Without knowing it, my father was wounding an old comrade, someone who had lain beside him in a field hospital and who had served in the same battalion. I shivered at the thought. The old man followed his daughter’s footsteps. It was a cold February day.
"Mira," I said, "where are you going?"
"My father is going to visit an old friend of his and I am taking him there," she explained.
"I’m going to ask him if there is anything he can do at the conservatory to help," he said. "It’s not the girl’s fault. She is a good student. I don’t believe a word they said. I may be old-fashioned but I don’t believe it at all. They say she has fallen in with a group of bad girls, and all sorts of other things."
"Who said that?" I exclaimed, forgetting myself momentarily.
The old man, startled at the tone of my voice, stopped and looked at me apprehensively.
"Someone at the dean’s office. Wait a moment, I’ve forgotten his name."
"Durgut!" said Mira in a weary voice.
"Yes, that’s right, Durgut," repeated the old man.
"How dare he!" I cried passionately.
"You think so, too? It’s nothing but gossip, I tell you. Your fellow students said so," he added, turning to his daughter. I noticed a new gleam in his eye. He shook his head slowly, smiled and said, "Gossip!"
I began to admire this man who had such faith in his daughter. I had expected to find an old man furious at his daughter, a father come to tear her hair out in front of Durgut. Instead he shrugged off the accusations with one word: "Gossip."
We stood at the bus stop. Take Doko told Mira to go back to the residence, that he would visit his friend alone. Mira looked at me and turned to her father, saying:
"Are you going to spend the night at a hotel or at your friend’s place?"
"I imagine Nasi will insist that I stay," the father said and got onto the bus.
We waited until the bus departed and began to walk. The sky was cold and grey. There was snow in the air.
"My poor father," said Mira.
"What’s happening, Mira?" I asked, feigning ignorance.
Mira trembled as if she were frozen.
"It is all so unbelievable. Durgut called me to his office this morning and accused me of being indecent. He said that you had gone down the drain because of me and that I was responsible for impeding the education of a cadre. He also claimed that I had brought other girls to the conservatory to meet the male students and that we have been spending our afternoons in ‘immoral’ activities. He said I would have to post a statement of self-criticism on the notice board, saying that I had recognized my errors, that I would put an end to my immoral ways and that I would not see you again. Otherwise I would be expelled from the conservatory. He notified my father, too. Of course he didn’t tell him everything he told me. He beat around the bush. I have never been so insulted!" said Mira, biting her lower lip and with tears welling in her eyes.
"Are you really going to put a statement on the notice board?" I asked.
Mira looked at me in amazement.
"The statement of self-criticism Durgut wants? How could you think I would do such a thing, Arthur?"
I took her arm and drew her towards me.
"You mustn’t write so much as a word! It’s all nonsense. I won’t allow such slander to spread no matter who started it. Don’t worry, Mira!" I said, stroking her hair. She stood silent and I could feel a sense of relief in her.
"Arthur, I am embarrassed to suggest it, but could it be your father who made these accusations?"
My right shoulder twitched as if she had struck me.
"You mustn’t think that, Mira! I’m going to get to the heart of the matter myself," I said without explaining any further.
We walked for a while in silence, each of us pondering. Until then, my only worry had been how to quit the conservatory, but now, new and much more complicated problems had arisen. Yes, my father was behind it all!
When it got dark, I accompanied Mira back to the residence and returned home.
I found my father lying in his pyjamas on the kitchen sofa. He had his glasses on and was reading a book. He did not raise his head as I entered. My mother told me that Burhan had been looking for me again. I said nothing. I sat down at the table with my forehead in my hands.
I had a headache.
"Where have you been?" my mother inquired.
"I went for a walk in town," I replied coldly.
My father said nothing. Looking at him on the sofa reminded me of Mira’s father, who had lain beside him in the field hospital. I tried to imagine my father as a partisan. Even now when the weather was damp he would complain of the aching caused by the scar.
"Take Doko sends his greetings," I said suddenly.
He didn’t hear me. I repeated what I had said. My father raised his head.
"Take Doko? Is that right?"
My father put his book down. He stretched his legs, stood up and wrinkled his brow.
"Take Doko? I think I remember him," he said with his eyes fixed on the wall.
"I met him by chance and he told me to convey his greetings to you. You were together in a partisan field hospital," I said.
"Oh, yes! We were both wounded on the same day. We were together in one trench. We were shooting at the Germans and at the National Front. A shell exploded right next to us and we were both wounded. That was a quarter of a century ago. Take Doko! He was a good fighter. Quite the hero! Why didn’t you invite him home? We could have talked about old times," said my father, lost in memories.
I was fiddling with a pencil on the table, deep in thought.
"If only you had invited him over," said my father.
I raised my head slowly and looked my father in the eyes. He looked back at me. We seemed to be studying one another.
"I should have invited him over?" I asked without blinking. "I couldn’t have. I would have been too ashamed," I said.
A nerve twitched on my father’s face, near his nose.
"What do you mean, ashamed, Arthur?"
"I would have been ashamed, father. You have wounded Take Doko to the quick!" I said.
"We were both wounded by the same mortar shell. You are talking nonsense!" said my father.
"Take Doko is Mira’s father."
My father blushed. He ran his fingers through his hair and wiped off the droplets which were breaking out on his forehead. I studied him in silence. His face turned redder and was already covered in sweat. He sat up slowly on the sofa. The redness on his face vanished and he grew pale. My mother became anxious. She knew nothing about Mira’s troubles. She bit her lip and looked at me reproachfully for having upset my father. She came over and laid her hand on his shoulder.
"You had better lie down, Demo!" she said and turned to me. "What is wrong with you, Arthur? Must you always upset your father? The two of you are constantly at one another’s throats."
"We weren’t fighting. I spoke quite calmly," I noted.
"Calm words can hurt all the more," she said.
My father rose again, speechless, opened the door, gave me a look full of pain and suffering and turned away. My mother, unnerved, followed him into the bedroom.
The clock on the kitchen table was more audible than ever. I sat there counting the ticking. From the bedroom I could hear my father’s low voice, a succession of sighs and lamentations, interrupted only by my mother’s own sighing. The clock talked to me in the only words it knew: tick tock!
[Apasionata from the volume Vepra letrare 6, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1972, p. 222-249, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]