Simon Barker’s work has recently appeared in Liars’ League and Prick of the Spindle and can also be found in the decomP archives—“Tarzan of the Danube.”
In the tumult of the Spring uprising Karl Farben did not return to his apartment for several days. When he unlocked the cast iron gate using his brass key the mail was protruding from his box in the entrance hall. The postal service, he observed, continued operating even though the government had fallen. On suddenly recognising the first envelope’s handwriting he tore it open. The letter was from Katya but it did not give the required answer. She wrote that she remained devoted to her husband, Anton, and could never think of leaving him, besides which there was their infant son.
Karl Farben crumpled the letter and leant against the wall. Anton, her husband. Their infant son—it was after glimpsing Katya feeding this infant that Karl Farben had become obsessed. How could she write to him about devotion? The idea of never possessing her was unendurable. He began racking his brains.
Not long afterwards, tanks appeared on the streets, brutally restoring the country’s historic freedoms. Late at night the police knocked at Karl Farben’s door. The old, skeletal doorman inhabiting the ground floor closet had admitted them. That same night Anton Vek was also arrested. The pair were driven across the bridge to the old prison fortress and placed in separate cells where they were informed by the commissar that unless they signed a denunciation they would remain.
At first Karl Farben refused. He had played no part in the uprising. He must have been caught in the sweep of suspects by accident. Like Anton Vek he was an architecture student. When classes had been disrupted he had languished in the cafes along the quayside, obsessively dwelling on Katya and redrafting his letter. The uprising meant nothing to him. Katya was all he could think of.
For weeks Karl Farben paid little attention to his imprisonment. The hateful idea that he would be denied Katya was killing him. How could he live? One morning he woke, glanced at his hands and noticed his fingernails were growing into talons. He wondered when he would be released. But what good was his freedom?
While he agonised over this matter, a violent storm rolled across the city. Thunder sounded like distant artillery. A lightning bolt made a direct hit on the prison tower as if trying to crack open the world. Electrical power surged through the wiring in Karl Farben’s cell. He gave a start as sparks shot from a socket. The light above him pulsed before extinguishing. In the darkness he smelled ozone. After the restoration of power the light returned. Karl Farben woke the next morning in his usual world, except that the clock on his cell wall had worn itself out and broken. It was then a plan sprang into his brain.
At the next interrogation Karl Farben agreed he would sign a denunciation, on one condition.
“And what condition is that?”
“I get the wife of Anton Vek.”
The commissar took a moment to digest this answer and demanded, “How do you expect such a thing to come about?”
Karl Farben replied instantly, “With time.”
Anton Vek never learned what his friend had told the commissar. His cell, in which he remained isolated, was narrow enough to be crossed in three paces. The concrete walls were damp, as if below ground. Bereft of other distractions he occupied himself thinking of his wife Katya and their child, of the apartment they shared, of his father and mother living in the countryside. He thought too of his friend Karl Farben. When he had exhausted these topics he turned to the project he had been given to complete his architectural studies, the design of the ideal house. He outlined the plans in the dust on his cell floor.
And so it went. Anton Vek had no calendar. By counting the hours on the clock he alone kept track. A week passed, a month, half a year. Sooner than he could have imagined, an entire year was gone. Then several years. Somehow Anton Vek sustained himself through this period of imprisonment by reflecting he was young and his wife also was young and the child she had given birth to would only now be starting school and his parents—he had no reason to believe otherwise—would have remained in good health.
A decade elapsed, an absurd length for imprisonment without reason. Anton Vek had now lost his remaining youth. But he nourished hope by considering he had the majority of his years to live, and surely his freedom must come. He kept despair at bay by dwelling on his architectural plans. As a student he had read Stevenson’s essay on The Ideal House and patiently he recalled and elaborated every detail.
Another decade passed. Anton Vek did not abandon hope. He felt the day must come when he would be allowed to take up his life again. In his bare cell he had no mirror. Only the glass of the wall clock showed him an indistinct reflection and what he saw did not devastate him. He knew middle age loomed. He recalled his father’s words, that forty was the young man’s old age but the old man’s youth. His wife, at forty, might still be attractive. Yes, certainly, and it was possible for women of forty to bear further children. Their first-born must be at university, but still in want of a guiding hand. Above all, to keep from being overwhelmed, Anton Vek continued drawing house plans in the dust, slowly perfecting the ideal.
These plans remained Anton Vek’s private resource until the commissar’s unexpected visit.
“Are you plotting your escape?” he demanded on seeing the outlines Anton Vek had not erased. Anton Vek anxiously explained their significance. He pointed to the reception room, the eating-room, the passageways, the studio, the gymnasium, the bedrooms—all he had perfected after years of meditation.
The commissar scrutinised the plans then, turning to Anton Vek, said, “But you are mistaken. Don’t you know that the ideal house is a temple?”
Left alone Anton Vek realised to his astonishment the truth of the commissar’s words. The ideal house was a temple. It could have no eating-room, no gymnasium, no studio. Only an ideal being could dwell in an ideal house, not any mortal. His efforts had been in vain.
From that moment Anton Vek succumbed to hopelessness. Reflecting on his situation his confidence vanished. The realisation he was passing his third decade of captivity dumbfounded him. His wife would be beyond child bearing. Their lone offspring would have married and moved away. His parents’ health would have declined. Perhaps death had carried them off. It would be impossible to take up his old life. He and Katya would be strangers. He would never be an architect. His career had ended without beginning. Within weeks Anton Vek sickened and died.
At last, Karl Farben rejoiced. He had waited patiently. For him, however, the waiting had not been as lengthy as for Anton Vek. Herein lay the wonder of his plan. In the days after their arrest, when Karl Farben had experienced the lightning strike, a strange thing had come to his attention. The lightning had damaged, but not immediately destroyed, the mechanism of the electric clock on his cell wall. Once power had been restored Karl Farben had seen the clock’s hands begin whirring without regulation, fast as propeller blades. Instead of seconds ticking by, minutes and hours had whizzed away until shortly, as he watched from his bed, an entire week elapsed. That night the clock’s hands had continued racing so that by morning the clock had worn out its life and broken.
Anton Vek had counted the years of his imprisonment by noting the clock in his cell. Unbeknown to him, that clock, from the day Karl Farben had signed his denunciation, had been deceiving him. The movement of its hands had been accelerated so that, without realising, Anton Vek had travelled far into the future. His life had hastened towards its end while the lives of others had proceeded at their common tempo. He had died, worn out, while his parents were still working, his child at school and his wife awaiting his release.
Having stolen Anton Vek’s life, Karl Farben now planned to live it out himself. Freed from prison he took the tram to Katya’s apartment. He could barely contain his triumph. Whenever his progress slowed he fought the urge to jump out and run to the tram he glimpsed ahead.
Yet crossing the bridge, Karl Farben felt suddenly afraid. He was possessed by the irrational notion he also had aged. What if his plan had been too perfect and he had deceived himself as well as his friend? He lunged towards the tram window to catch his reflection and saw it unchanged. He stared at his hands. Unwithered.
Finally he reached the apartment block. The doorman who had been sorting mail admitted him and he apprehensively took the elevator. He rang the bell and heard a child running to the door. A small boy opened and on recognising in the boy’s face his dead friend’s likeness, Karl Farben rejoiced. When he asked to see Katya the boy shouted shrilly, skipped away along the rug and vanished into a side room. A minute passed before a figure appeared at the corridor’s unlit end and walked slowly towards the entrance.
“Excuse me,” Karl Farben addressed the woman, impatiently. “I’ve come to see Katya.”
A stare greeted him. An uncomprehending stare. “I am Katya.”
Then instantly Karl Farben recognised her, white haired and ancient as she was. Once a great beauty, she had aged.