Tag Archives: Prague

From Czech: OPERATICS by Karel Poláček

(My translation of Karel Poláček’s short story Studující zpěvu, which was published in České slovo on 2 February 1932 and, in book form, in Soudničky [Little Stories from the Courts] in 1999)

Prague Regional Court


He’s about forty-five years old. He’s wearing a rusty-coloured raglan sweater. His bald pate is shiny. He’s standing before Judge Nedvěda in the Regional Court. In response to a question from the judge, he says he’s a student.

The judge sounds surprised: “A student?!”

Unphased, the man replies, “Yes, Your Honour, a student.”

“And what are you studying? You look rather too old to be studying…”

The man looks taken aback: “You’re never too old to learn something new, Your Honour. I’m a qualified pharmacist, but I gave that up for health reasons. I’ve always had an inclination for the arts. So I’m currently taking singing lessons in order to become an opera singer.”

The judge sounds even more surprised: “An opera singer?!”

The man in the rusty-coloured sweater nods enthusiastically: “Yes, Your Honour. What’s so unusual about that?”

(Indeed, why shouldn’t the man in the rusty-coloured sweater become an opera singer?)

“My friends tell me,” he continues, “that I’ve got a wonderful voice, that I’d be excellent as a heroic tenor. I can easily convince Your Honour of that.”

And, as good as his word, he opens his mouth and out comes: “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do, Do-Ti-La…”

He’s interrupted by the guard rushing into the court to find out what’s going on. The judge tells the man in the rusty-coloured sweater that the courtroom is a place for speaking, not singing. So…

“How do you plead?”

“Not guilty, Your Honour.”

“So what about Miss Kristýna?”

“Oh, she made it all up. She was voluntarily supporting me in my studies. I was going to pay it all back when I become a successful opera singer. I’d applied to the Royal Theatre but, before I even got a reply, I was arrested. So I wasn’t able to pay it back.”

“Did you promise to marry her?”

“Well, erm… Well, erm… I… I… She kept going on about marriage, so I didn’t want to disappoint her. I was looking for a flat for the purposes of marital cohabitation but, as Your Honour will understand, the problem with getting a flat nowadays… I spent a lot of money in the process.”

“How could you offer to marry her, when you’re already married and have two teenage sons?!”

“I was aware of that, Your Honour. A man can’t have two wives at the same time – that would be a crime. But she kept going on about marriage and I was too reluctant to hurt her feelings. I didn’t want to break her heart. I thought it would be better to break it to her slowly, she’d have a cry about her dreams coming to nothing, and I’d repay everything when I become a success.”

“Alright, but what about Miss Jindřiška?”

The man in the rusty-coloured sweater frowns: “She can speak! She offered me sixteen thousand and only gave me six. She was really demanding. I had to keep shelling out for her. And she kept going on about marriage as well. Whereas Kristýna… she was something else! She gave me twenty thousand straight up, she didn’t whinge, she was satisfied with a coffee and a bread roll. She was another story altogether! If I was single and ten years younger, I’d have married her in the blink of an eye. But she was unlucky, that’s all I can say. It’s no use going on about it, it’s fate.”

When the hearing concludes, the accused, Václav Sedmera, is found guilty of fraud and sentenced to eight months in jail. When the judge asks whether he wants to say anything, he thinks for a few moments before replying:

“Eight months is a bit much, but I’ll accept it, just to show willing. However, I’d like to ask for a slight delay, Your Honour.”


“The singing. I’m working on a difficult aria at the moment.”

He’s told he can sing in jail, and the guard leads him away.


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: DICK’S DINNER JACKET by Karel Poláček

(My translation of Karel Poláček’s short story Osudy jednoho smokingu, which was published in Lidové noviny on 5 March 1939 and, in book form, in Soudničky [Little Stories from the Courts] in 1999)

Prague Regional Court

4 March 1939


Dick Sakulajda is a good-looking young fellow who has recently graduated from business school. At present he’s selling typewriters, playing second fiddle in a group, and supporting his mother financially. He’s a good lad and deserves better luck than he’s had so far.

Bessie – full name: Alžběta Vyťápla – is a personable young lady. Slim, blue-eyed, and with a turned-up nose, she sews gloves, loves modern dance and had started learning English but gave that up in favour of trying to become a film star. Her father, however, threatened to give her what for if she dared do such a thing, and her mother said they hadn’t brought her up to be a floozy. So, as film stardom was a no-go, she would have liked to date an airman but, as no airmen were available at that moment, she made do with Dick, who took her to the cinema and tea dances.

And so their courtship continued. Dick, who was straightforward but rather sentimental, loved her to bits. Bessie intimated to her friends that she could have had any number of suitors, but she wasn’t bothered about them, even though Dick wasn’t all that much fun and certainly wasn’t a man of the world. So she kept going to see him. He’d make a pot of tea and play some of the latest records on his gramophone.



Time went by, until the day when Dick’s flat was burgled. Amongst other things, the thief had stolen his opera glasses, his How to Do Magic book, his watch, and several items of clothing, including his dinner jacket. Whoever had done it evidently knew where to find what.

Dick was furious, but eventually managed to calm himself down a bit: no use crying over spilt milk etc. But it was difficult, in particular, to get over the loss of his dinner jacket. Just to think of everything he’d been through with that coat! … sweating in it when he did his final exams, going to his friend’s wedding, being photographed with his fellow musicians. It was imbued with so many memories – too many to tell. It was as if he’d lost a close family member. He just couldn’t get it out of his head.


Once more, time went by until the day when something remarkable happened. Dick had taken Bessie to a 5 o’clock tea dance. In between stepping out for foxtrot, swing and other such delights, they sat at a little table, where she drank vermouth and he sipped a grenadine cocktail. And while he was sipping his grenadine cocktail, and watching the couples dancing, he noticed a little fellow with a slight limp, who was doing his best to guide his large, stunningly beautiful partner round the dancefloor. The little fellow seemed familiar, or rather, not exactly the little fellow himself, but something about him – something that seemed very familiar. Dick couldn’t work out what it was, so he just kept staring and racking his brain.

Then he thought he heard a plaintive voice:“Dick, my old friend! Don’t you remember me?!”

Dick turned around to try and locate where the voice was coming from, until he realised it was coming from the little fellow’s dinner jacket. The jacket continued:

“Dick, Dick! I don’t deserve this. You soaked me with sweat when you couldn’t work out that actuarial maths question in your exam, and now you don’t even want to know me. Well, that’s nice, isn’t it?!”

Now, Dick’s not one to be ashamed of his old dinner jacket, so he got up, stopped the little fellow in his twirling and whirling, and asked him how he came to be wearing that jacket. At first, the little fellow was indignant: what sort of manners was that? he’d come here to enjoy a dance, to forget everyday cares, and here he was, all of a sudden, being interrogated as if he was in a police station! But it wasn’t long before the little fellow said he had nothing to hide and that he bought the dinner jacket at Jakub Parťas’s junk shop. He then gave Dick the address of the shop and wished him well, before leading his partner into a tango.

When Dick returned to Bessie, he found her out of sorts. She said she wasn’t enjoying it any more and that she had to meet a lady friend; and off she went. Whereupon Dick went straight to the police.


It should be pointed out that Mr Parťas was notorious for buying and selling stolen goods; and, indeed, almost all of Dick’s things were found in his shop. But Dick was in for an unpleasant surprise, not to say disillusionment: it turned out it was Bessie who’d stolen his things and sold them to Mr Parťas.

Today, both Bessie and Mr Parťas were before Judge Petřík. Bessie was sentenced, unconditionally, to two months’ hard labour, and Mr Parťas, for buying and selling suspect goods, to a month in prison – also unconditionally.


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: RELEASED by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Propuštěný, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

“Do you understand, Záruba?” asked the prison director, after he’d read out the decision from the Ministry of Justice in an almost ceremonial voice. “It means you’ve had the remainder of your life sentence conditionally remitted. You’ve served twelve and a half years, during the whole of which time your behaviour has been… erm, yes, exemplary. We gave you the best possible reference and… ah… the fact of the matter is, you can go home. Do you understand? But remember, Záruba, if you put a foot wrong, the conditional remittance will be revoked and you’ll have to serve out the rest of your life sentence for murdering your wife Marie. And then not even God himself would be able to help you. So be careful, Záruba. The next time, life will really mean life.”

Moved by the situation, the prison director paused and blew his nose.

“Although we liked having you here, Záruba, I wouldn’t want to see you here again. So, goodbye. The administrator will give you your money. You can go.”

Záruba, a six-and-a-half-foot tall beanpole, shifted awkwardly from foot to foot and muttered something that suggested he was so happy that it hurt; and something rattled and rustled inside him that suggested he was sobbing.

“There now, there now,” the director said gruffly. “You’re not going to burst into tears here, are you?! We’ve prepared some clothes for you, and Málek the builder promised me he’d give you a job… What’s that? You want to take a look back home first? Ah, at your wife’s grave. Well, that’s commendable… So, all the best, Mr Záruba. And, for God’s sake, be careful. Don’t forget it’s just conditional release.”

“What a nice man!” the director said, as soon as he’d shut the door. “You know what, Formánek? Murderers can be very decent people. Not like fraudsters – they’re never satisfied when they’re in jail. I’ll miss Záruba.”


Once Záruba had left behind the courtyard and the iron gates of the Pankrác prison, he couldn’t rid himself of the uneasy feeling that, at any moment, a guard would appear and take him back. He slowed down, so it wouldn’t look like he was escaping.

When he got to the road, it made his head spin. So many people! A group of children chasing each other over there. Two chauffeurs having an argument. Dear God! There didn’t used to be so many people. Where should I go? Doesn’t matter. Vehicles all over the place, and so many women. Is anyone following me? No. But all those vehicles!

He wandered down into Prague, trying to get as far away from Pankrác as possible. He could smell salami from a butcher’s, but not now, not yet. And now he could smell a building site. He used to be a bricklayer before he was imprisoned. He stopped and breathed in the smell of mortar and wooden beams. He looked at an old fellow who was mixing lime; he’d have liked to have a chat with him, but he couldn’t summon his voice – you get out of the habit of talking when you’ve been in solitary a long time.

He carried on down into Prague. Goodness gracious! So many new buildings! Made entirely of concrete. It wasn’t like that twelve years ago, not in my day. But the pillars are so narrow! Surely they’ll collapse!

“Watch out! Are you blind or something?!”

A car had almost run him over, and then he nearly got hit by a clanging and clanking tram. Jesus! You don’t even know how to walk down the street after twelve years!

He wanted to ask someone what that big building was; and how to get to the North-Western Station. A lorry full of iron rods rumbled past, so he took the opportunity to practise saying aloud: “Excuse me. Please would you tell me the way to the North-Western Station.” No, that won’t do. It doesn’t sound at all like a human voice. Your voice box goes rusty and mute up there in Pankrác. You ask about something here and there during the first three years, but then it stops.

“Excuse me, please would you…”

Something crackled in his throat, but it wasn’t a human voice.

He stepped out and hurried into the tangle of streets. He felt as if he were drunk or dreaming. Everything was completely different from twelve years ago: it was all bigger, noisier and more confusing. Just the people! So many of them! It made him feel sad: as if he were in a foreign country and wouldn’t be able to make himself understood. If only he could get to the station and take a train home. Home… His brother had got a cottage there, and children.

“Excuse me, please would you…”

But only his lips moved. Oh well! I’ll get over it when I’m back home. I’ll start speaking again. If only I can find the station.

Suddenly someone shouted at him and pulled him back on to the pavement.

“Why don’t you walk on the pavement, you idiot?!”

He wanted to reply but couldn’t. He just coughed and hurried forward. Kept to the pavement, but the pavement was so narrow. People, I’m in a hurry! I want to be back home! Please, how do I get to the North-Western Station? Probably through the busiest street, over there with all the trams. Where have all these people come from?! Crowds and crowds of them, all going the same way. The station must be that way. That’s why they’re running, so they won’t miss the train.

Záruba the Beanstalk sped up once again, so he wouldn’t be left behind. And just look at that! These people can’t keep on the pavement either! Rolling along down the middle of the road. What a packed and noisy crowd! And new people appearing all the time. Running and shouting something. And then the voices became one mighty voice.

The din makes Záruba dizzy. Dear God, how beautiful! So many people! Up ahead they’ve started singing a marching song. He gets into step with the others and feels happy, marching alongside them. Yay! Everyone’s singing now!

His throat is thawing, and something’s pushing its way through it. It has to come out. And it’s song. He’s singing. Singing without words. Humming. Da-da-da-ing in a deep bass. What’s the song? It doesn’t matter. I’m going home, I’m going home.

He’s got to the front row. He’s singing. Not words. But it’s so beautiful. “Da-da-da,” he trumpets, arm raised. Trumpeting like an elephant. The song resounding throughout his body, his stomach like a drum, his chest like a double-bass. And it feels so good in his throat, so good. As if he’s been drinking, or crying for joy.

Thousands of people are shouting “Throw them out! Throw them out!” but Záruba can’t make out the words. He just trumpets “Da-da-da!” At the head of the marchers, head and shoulders above the rest, he waves his arm, braying like a donkey, shouting, singing, thundering, beating his chest, and the noise he makes is like a great big banner. “Roo! Dey! Ow!” is what comes blasting out of his mouth. He’s totally immersed. He’s crowing like a cockerel. “Ow! Aah! Hoorah!”

And now the crowd’s come to a halt because something’s blocking the way. They retreat like a seething wave flung back on itself. But Záruba holds his ground, eyes closed, lost in that great, liberating voice from deep within. “Ow! Aah! Hoorah!”

Suddenly someone grabs him, and a breathless voice hisses into his ear, “I’m arresting you in the name of the law!”

His eyes open wide. A policeman is dragging him by the arm, away from the panicking crowd. Záruba cries out in horror and tries to pull his arm away. The policeman twists it. Záruba yells with pain and punches the policeman in the head with his free fist. The policeman’s face turns red. He lets go of Záruba, but then a truncheon hits Záruba on the head. And again. And again. And again. Záruba’s fists wheel round like a windmill, connecting with various heads. Two men in helmets are hanging on to him like bulldogs. Grunting in terror, Záruba tries to shake them off, kicking and wriggling like mad. But the two policemen are dragging and pushing him somewhere, his arms twisted behind him, through an empty street. Left, right! Left, right!

And now he’s like a lamb. Excuse me. Please would you tell me the way to the North-Western Station. I need to go home.

In the police station, they almost throw him in front of the desk.

“Name?” The voice is unpleasant and cold.

“Záruba,” Záruba wants to answer, but all he does is move his lips.

“I said, ‘What’s your name?’”

“Antonín Záruba,” he wheezes.


Helplessly, he shrugs his shoulders.

“Pankrác. Solitary.”


It was highly irregular, of course, but this is how it was. The judge, the state prosecutor and the defence counsel got together to discuss how to get Záruba off.

“Best if he just denies it,” said the prosecutor.

“That won’t do,” said the judge. “In the interview, he admitted fighting with the police. What an idiot!”

“What if the police say they can’t be sure it was him?” said the defence counsel. “That it could have been someone else?”

“Do me a favour!” objected the prosecutor. “You want us to teach the police to lie?! When it’s clear as clear could be they recognised him? … I’d go for insanity. Suggest he undergo a mental examination.”

“Well,” said the defence counsel. “I’ll suggest it. But what if the doctors don’t find him to be mad?”

“I’ll have a word with them,” said the judge. “It’s highly irregular, of course, but – damn it! – I wouldn’t want Záruba to spend the rest of his life in jail for something stupid like that. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I’d give him six months without batting an eyelid, but, colleagues, I’d hate to see him spend the rest of his life in prison.”

“But if insanity won’t work,” said the prosecutor, “it’s not looking at all good. For Christ’s sake! I’ll have to prosecute it as a crime. What else can I do?! If only the fool had dropped off somewhere in a pub! Then we could put together some sort of defence of inebriation…”

“Colleagues,” pleaded the judge. “Please think up some way of me letting him off. I’m an old man, and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for… You understand.”


But there was no hearing. That night, Antonín Záruba hung himself, evidently from dread of returning to jail. Because he was so tall, his corpse was hanging in a weird way. Almost as if he were sitting on the ground.

“A wretched business,” muttered the state prosecutor. “A damned stupid business. But at least it wasn’t our fault.”


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

In Ñspel: The Guardian view on Liz Truss and Europe: a first fragile step

Leaders pose for a group photo at the first European Political Community meeting at Prague Castle. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Līdrz pǒz fr a grūpfoto at ɖ frst Yṛpiyn P’liticl-Cḿṇti mītñ at Prāg Casl. Foṭgraf: Anadolu Ejnsi/Geti Iṃjz

Ɖ Gardịn vy on Liz Trus n Yṛp: a frst frajîl step

(Transcription of an editorial published in the Guardian on 6 October 2022)

Ɖ prîm̦inistr wz rît t mīt uɖr līdrz in Prāg. Bt it wl tec mć mor wrc t rper ɖ damij t Britn’z repyteśn

Ʈrzde 6 Octobr 2022

It wd b fūliś t s’poz ɖt ɖ dêloñ gaɖ̇rñ v Yṛpiyn līdrz ɖt tc ples in Prāg on Ʈrzde wl solv ɖ probḷmz fesñ ɖs continnt. Ɖ probḷmz r tù hyj n presñ fr ɖt. Ɖ dōntñ list renjz fṛm ɖ wor in Ycren n rleśnz wɖ Ruśa, ʈru ɖ gasśorṭjz n hî prîsz fesñ Yṛp ɖs wintr, t ɖ yṇvrsl ʈret fṛm clîṃtćenj n ɖ ćaḷnjz v mîgreśn fr a continnt marct bî struġlñ icoṇmiz.

Nvɖles, ɖ mītñ v ɖ Yṛpiyn P’liticl Cḿṇti (YPC) z a hlpfl bt modist step fr ɖ continnt az a hol, n fr Britn’z rleśnz wɖ it. Ɖ mītñ, cnsivd bî Prezidnt Macron v Frans, bròt tgɖr ɖ Yṛpiyn Yńn’z membrstets n nonmembrz on an īql besis. It mcs betr Yṛpiyn daylog wɖ importnt stets on ɖ conṭnntl p’rifri mor poṣbl. Ɖz includ Britn az wel az Ycren, Trci n Norwe, alñ wɖ ɖ non-YY stets v ɖ wstn Bōlcnz n alñ parts v Ruśa’z suɖn flanc.

Xpcteśnz r inevitbli modist. Uɖr xistñ alaynsz n insttyśnz, includñ Nato, ɖ Inṭnaśnl Munitrifund, ɖ YN’z Cop27 sumit n ɖ YY r betr plest n rzorst t dīl wɖ ptiklr ćaḷnjz. Ɖ YPC mst nt dyplic̣t or dstract fṛm ɖz, bt it cn suplimnt ɖm. Ɖt dpndz on gd feʈ n riylizm.

F ɖ Prāg mītñ z nt t hv bn pyrli fr śo, ʈri ʈñz wr importnt, wn v ɖm presñli, ɖ uɖr tū in mor loñ-trm wez. Ɖ presñ iśu z ɖ eṇjimarcit. Ruśa’z wor n its mnipyleśn v ôl n gas s’plîz hv drivn an eṇji-prîs crîsis acrs n bynd Yṛp. Ɖs hz bn sirịsli xasbetd ɖs wīc bî ɖ Opec+ ôlpṛdux́n cartel’z dsiźn t cut pṛdux́n in ordr t drîv p prîsz stl frɖr. Ʈrzde’z wornñ v wintr pǎrcuts bî ɖ Naśnl Grid śoz hǎ mć z nǎ at stec.

Ɖ 44 cuntriz ɖt met in Prāg śer a probḷm. Ɖe nīd t d evrʈñ ɖe cn t rspond coopṛtivli t śorṭjz n t avôd nīdlisli drîvñ p prîsz – n ɖ lîclihd v pǎrcuts – stl frɖr. It wd b nîīv t pritnd ɖt ɖs z īzi. Ć guvnmnt z rsponsbl t its ǒn votrz. Hvr, ć olso hz a rsponsbiḷti nt t ple Vladīmir Pūtin’z gem v dvîd n rūl. F Prāg streñʈnd ɖt rzolv, it wz a gd de’z wrc.

Ɖ frst loñ-trm em mst b t enśur ɖt ɖz mītñz cntiny. Ɖe śd b reğlr n ysfl. Ɖs rqîrz a flex̣bl aproć, rspct fr difṛnt naśnl aproćz, wilñnis bî ptisipnts nt t granstand fr ɖer dmestic ōdịnsz n an axptns ɖt ɖ YPC z nt an antirūm fr ɖ YY. Nn v ɖs z īzi îɖr, bt it śd b atmtd.

Ɖ uɖr loñ-trm em aplîz sṗsificli t ɖs cuntri. Brexit hz tecn ples. Bt Britn rmenz a Yṛpiyn cuntri. Undr Boris Jonsn, w wr nt trustd, wɖ gd rīzn. W nīd t rībild rịlistic, practicl n rwordñ post-Brexit rleśnśps wɖ Yṛp n ɖ YY.

F Liz Trus riyli wonts betr rleśnśps wɖ Yṛp, az ś śd, ś mst wrc at it. Ś wz rît t g t Prāg. It snt a gd signl, loñ oṿdy. Bt it z onli a smōl start. It śd b maćt bî uɖr ax́nz acrs guvnmnt, startñ wɖ wrcñ mor closli wɖ Frans ovr mîgṛntbots, n cāmñ ɖ Norɖn Îrḷnd proṭcol dspyt so ɖt pǎrśẹrñ cn rzym. It z hard t b hopfl aftr ɖ anti-Yṛpiyn lîz n paṛnoia v rīsnt yirz. Bt Prāg casl hz witnist piṿtl ivnts in hisṭri bfr. Phps – jst phps – ɖs mītñ me hv bn ɖ start v anɖr wn.

Instroduction to Ñspel

From Czech: A MURDEROUS ATTACK by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek’s short story Vražedný útok, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

That evening, Councillor Tomsa was sitting downstairs enjoying listening, through his headphones, to a beautiful recording of Dvořák’s Dances on the radio. But no sooner had he said to himself, Now, that’s what I call music!, when there were two loud bangs outside and glass came raining down on his head from the window just above him.

Whereupon he did what I suppose any of us would do: first he waited to see what would happen next, then – when nothing else did happen – he took off the headphones and glowered as he tried to work out what had actually happened. And it was only at that point that he really took fright, because he realised that someone had fired two shots through the window. A bullet had lodged itself in the door opposite. His first impulse was to run out into the street and grab hold of the hooligan by the collar; but when you’re getting on in years and cultivate a certain dignity, that impulse tends to give way quite rapidly to a second: call the police.

“Hello, send an officer immediately. Someone just tried to murder me.”

“Where are you?” said the sleepy, indifferent voice.

“I’m here, at home,” shouted Mr Tomsa, as if it were the policeman’s fault. “It’s scandalous – to shoot out of the blue at a peaceable citizen who’s sitting at home minding his own business! This has to be investigated most rigorously, Officer! It would be a fine state of affairs if…”

“OK,” said the sleepy voice. “I’ll send someone.”

The councillor’s impatience knew no bounds; it seemed that he was waiting for hours, but in fact it was only after about twenty minutes that a cool, calm and collected police officer turned up, who proceeded to inspect the holes in the window with great interest.

“Someone shot at the window, sir,” he said matter-of-factly.

“I already know that!” spluttered Mr Tomsa. “I was sitting by the window, wasn’t I!”

“Seven millimetres calibre,” said the officer, as he prised the bullet out of the door with a knife. “It looks like from an old army revolver. Look, the fellow must have been standing on the fence. If he’d been on the pavement the bullet would have lodged itself higher up. That means he was aiming at you, sir.”

“How odd!” Mr Tomsa replied sourly. “I was almost convinced he only wanted to hit the door.”

“And who did it?” asked the officer, without missing a beat.

“You’ll have to forgive me,” said the councillor. “I can’t give you his address; I didn’t actually see him, and I forgot to invite him in.”

“That makes it difficult,” the officer replied calmly. “So who do you suspect?”

That did it for Mr Tomsa. “Suspect!” he growled. “I didn’t even see the scoundrel, man! And even if he’d waited for me to blow him a kiss through the window, I wouldn’t have recognised him in the dark. Do you really think I’d have bothered you if I’d known who it was?”

“I quite understand,” said the officer soothingly, “but maybe you could think of someone who, say, would have something to gain from your death, or who’d want revenge for something… I mean, it wasn’t an attempted robbery; a robber doesn’t shoot if he doesn’t have to. But perhaps someone’s got it in for you. It’s up to you to tell us, sir, and then we can investigate it.”

That stopped Mr Tomsa in his tracks; he hadn’t thought about that side of things.

“I haven’t a clue,” he said hesitantly, as he contemplated his quiet life as an official and a bachelor.

“Who could possibly have it in for me? On my honour, I’m not aware of having any enemies at all.”

He shook his head.

“No, it’s out of the question. I don’t have any disputes with anyone, Officer. I live alone, I don’t go anywhere, I don’t stick my nose into anybody’s business… Why would anyone want to take revenge on me?”

The officer shrugged his shoulders. “That I can’t answer, sir. But perhaps something will occur to you by tomorrow. You won’t be afraid here, will you?”

“I won’t,” said Mr Tomsa.

How strange! he thought when the officer had left. Why, indeed, would someone want to shoot me? I’m virtually a recluse; I do my work in the office, and I go home – I don’t really have anything to do with anyone. So why would they want to shoot me?

He was starting to feel very sorry for himself. And very bitter.

The ingratitude! There I am working my socks off, taking work home, hardly spending anything on myself, not living it up, like a snail in its shell, and – bang! – someone wants to kill me. Dear God! Where do people get such anger? What have I ever done to anyone? How could someone hate me like that?

But then – sitting on the bed and with the shoe hed just taken off in his hand – another thought occurred to him:

Perhaps it was a mistake. Yes, of course! A mistake. They got the wrong person. Whoever it was thought I was someone else, someone he had it in for!

He sighed with relief.

But the original thought returned: Why would someone hate me so much?

The shoe fell out of his hand.

Well, there was that, he remembered, feeling a little embarrassed. That stupid thing I said the other day, but it was just something I said without thinking. Roubal is my friend, after all. I shouldn’t have said that about his wife. But everyone knows she’s seeing other men. He even knows it himself. It’s just that he pretends not to. But I shouldn’t have let that slip, idiot that I am…!

The councillor remembered how Roubal has swallowed heavily and had dug his fingernails into the palm of his hand.

Dear me, how I must have hurt him! He loves his wife. Loves her like crazy! Of course, I immediately changed the subject. But the way he was biting his lips! He certainly has cause to hate me.

Councillor Tomsa felt like a heap of woe.

But I know he didn’t try to shoot me. That’s impossible! Even though, I could hardly wonder if…

Councillor Tomsa stared gloomily at the floor. And then he remembered something else, something he’d have preferred not to remember.

The tailor! Fifteen years he’d been doing my tailoring, and then they told me he was very ill with TB. It’s natural, isn’t it? that you wouldn’t want to keep taking clothes so that a consumptive can cough all over them. So I stopped going to him… And then he came begging, that he hadn’t got any work, that his wife was ill, that he needed to find places for his children. Please would I give him my custom once more?

Christ! How pale he was, and how the sweat was running down him! “Mr Kolinský, I said, look, it’s no good, I need a better tailor, I wasn’t happy with your work.”

“I’ll try to do better, sir,” he muttered, sweating with fear and embarrassment. It’s a wonder he didn’t burst into tears! And I… I of course sent him away with a “We’ll see” – something these poor fellows must be only too familiar with.

Mr Kolinský might well hate me. How awful, to have to go and beg someone to help keep body and soul together, only to be dismissed with such indifference. But what was I meant to do?

I’m certain it couldn’t have been him, but…

The councillor’s conscience was weighing him down more and more. And something else he remembered:

That was awkward as well, the way I laid into the office servant. I couldn’t find that file, so I called the old fellow up and shouted at him as if he was a naughty boy. And in front of the others! “What a mess, you idiot! I said. It’s like a pigsty! I’ve a good mind to sack you.”

And then I found the file in the drawer of my own desk! And the old man just stood there, stood there trembling and blinking…

The councillor came out in a hot sweat.

But you don’t apologise to subordinates, even if you’ve been a bit unfair. Although you could hardly be surprised if they hate their superiors! How about if I give him some old clothes? Except that would be humiliating for him…

The councillor couldn’t lie down anymore; even the blanket was suffocating him. He sat on the bed with his arms round his knees and stared into the dark. And then he remembered something else:

That incident with that young Moravian in the office. He’s educated and writes poetry. But when he didn’t draw up that document properly, I said “Do it again” and I meant to throw it on his desk, but it fell under his legs, and he went all red – even his ears – as he bent down to pick it up… I could kick myself! After all, I rather like the young fellow, and to humiliate him like that, even if unintentionally…

Then another face popped up in his mind: the pale and puffy face of his colleague Wankl.

Poor old Wankl! He wanted to be office manager, the job I had. He’d have got a couple of hundred crowns a year more, and he has six children… Apparently he’d have liked to have paid for singing lessons for his daughter, but he couldn’t afford it. But I got the job because he’s such a plodding old workhorse – and his wife’s a real old shrew, terribly thin from all that scrimping and saving. All Wankl eats at midday is a dry bread roll.

Poor old Wankl! How must he feel when he sees me, with no family to look after, so much better off than him? But is that my fault? I always feel rotten when he gives me those resentful looks…

The councillor wiped the anxious sweat from his brow. And then he remembered something else:

Yes, the other day the waiter in the pub swindled me out of a few crowns, and I called the manager, who sacked him on the spot. “You thief,” he hissed at him, “I’ll make sure you never get a job in any other pub in Prague!” And the fellow sloped off without saying a word… You could see his shoulder blades under his coat.

The councillor couldn’t even endure sitting on the bed any longer; he went and sat by the radio and put on his headphones. But the radio was mute, there were no programmes at this time of night, so he put his head in his hands and remembered the people he’d met, all those strange people, all those young people, who he’d never understood and never thought about.

In the morning he stopped at the police station, rather pale and embarrassed.

“So,” asked the officer. “Have you remembered someone who might have something against you?”

The councillor shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said hesitantly. “You see, there are so many of them, so many, that…”

He waved his hand disconsolately.

“Look, a fellow has no idea how many people he’s wronged. I certainly won’t be sitting by that window anymore, that I can tell you. But I just dropped by to ask you to forget about it.”