Stories - Prague Series

Prague I: Sun Paintings by Charles Bridge [Part 1] (A Story by Jan Decena)

Amy Bristow was often known as someone who did things by halves. So when she was pressured to go to Singapore to pursue a high-paying teaching opportunity that her own mother found for her, she instead went to Czechia to work in Human Resources for an international school. Her mother had been ambivalent about the choice but that worked just fine for Amy. She only contacted her mother on birthdays and Christmas ever since her plane at Stansted Airport took off.

Although she could quite admit that her plan to move to Prague was rather spontaneous, Amy decided that it was not all that bad. She managed to find a place near the Old Town, managed to settle everything in her flat within weeks, and managed to get her head around the currency, the markets, and even some of the language. Of course, those were rather hectic first weeks but Amy did not think that it would be all easy anyway. Especially when leaving her friends behind in Coggeshall – their late night kebabs at the parking lot; their summer gatherings around the lake in Chelmsford Central Park; then all of them lying in the grassy field of nowhere and just looking at the stars. They all have little lives, Amy admitted, but she knew that all of them were living them big.

However, that was all behind Amy now and she knew that she might never see them again. Even the calls and live video feeds wavered in the end. Amy could not help but to feel a little betrayed.

“Just look at the sunset and move along,” Amy whispered to herself as she leaned onto the walls of Charles Bridge, taking in the view of the deep amber sky marred by trails of wispy clouds. After a while, Amy’s mind was finally, deliciously blank.

It has been a habit of hers for a while to just wander around the Old Town, watching all the citizens and tourists alike bumbling around in the busy city, then taking languid steps to Charles Bridge where she would watch the sunset descend behind the horizon. Amy was not quite sure how her habit came about exactly and she would often find herself simply ambling towards the direction of Charles Bridge. However, since it was something that did not exert much out of Amy she might as well continue it. Might even bring her Canon to picture just in case the sunset was pretty on the day.

The sun was now gone behind the hill where Amy guessed the Strahov Monastery was located. After looking out for a few more minutes, Amy straightened and set off to her apartment. She was not tired just yet and to be frank, she was tempted to head over to one of the red light district bars. I don’t have the right dress for it, Amy reasoned in her head, I don’t have the right money and tomorrow is still Tuesday. Thus, it would be best if Amy would go on Saturdays instead.

Amy’s thoughts were caught off-guard when someone slammed on her shoulder. When she toppled, she whipped her head and was about to give the offending person some sharp words. But any of her curses vanished when she saw the person fumbling around for the pieces of paper fluttering in the air. A piece floated towards Amy’s direction. She caught it and discovered that it was a sketch – that was putting it lightly as it was quite a morbid piece of drawing that Amy had ever seen.

“Ah!” a voice called out, startling Amy. The person was a man, who was looking at Amy’s direction with a mortified look. “May I have that please?”

With one last look at the piece of drawing in her hand, Amy walked towards the man and handed the paper over. “Did you draw that?” Amy could not help but to ask.

“Me?!” the man exclaimed, caught off guard. Then, he looked away and shuffled on his feet. “Err… Yeah.”

Amy smiled and bit her lower lip, stifling the chuckle that bubbled up in her throat. “They were good,” she said, “They are very… abstract.”

The man, however, did not take to that comment too kindly. He glared at Amy then placed the pieces of paper inside a folder. “Thanks for the compliment,” he replied drily, “but I think I don’t need it.”

“I’m sorry,” Amy said in haste, just before the man had the chance to walk away. Whilst afternoons do make Amy conjure up unnecessary habits, there was no exception nor an excuse for her to be rather crude. It seemed that it was something that she would need to remind herself every now and then.

Luckily, the man did not walk away. But he did sigh deeply and then looked back at Amy in exasperation. It made Amy feel worse.

“No, no. I’m sorry as well,” the man said, cradling his folder up higher and rubbing his temple. “Many other people are also not impressed by them. Some gave me grief. I am just not strong enough to take the criticism.”

“Oh, I see,” Amy mused.

They fell into an uncomfortable silence with both of them shifting in their spots and scratching their heads. Amy was desperate to get away but despite the buzz of the crowd around, she felt as if they were eyes trained on her. They were judging and pinning her with accusative stares as if her existence made a lot of things worse in their worlds. Amy did her best to keep her head down. They were still hard to be brushed off.

“You know,” the man started again. He took a pause, his flittering everywhere else but at Amy. When he seemed to have gathered himself up as he took a deep breath, he finally faced Amy at last.

“You know,” the man continued, “it seemed like I am doing a wrong profession, in the wrong place, and in the worst time. I love art and I love it too much that I maybe should not mar it with my involvement. Not that there are any much involvement, it seems.”

“But you can practice until art will love you back,” Amy replied to the man.

The man shrugged. “That is true but what would be the point anymore?”

The man hiked his bag over his shoulder and gripped his folder tight. With a nod and a thin smile towards Amy, he went on his way. Impulsive thoughts tend to get the best of Amy in these afternoons as she wished to run and embrace the man, who was looking very defeated in his hunched shoulders and small, slow strides. It was just her good luck that the saner part of her mind won over and with one last look at the retreating man’ s direction, she trudged onto the opposite path in a more hurried steps than usual.

Maybe, this would all be behind her when she finally entered her abode. Or that maybe that man would finally move on – either by practising some more drawings or by getting a new job (which he might not like entirely but at least he could reason that it would pay the bills). With that thought, Amy brought a little spring back in her step. Moving on was what human beings do best or so Amy reasoned. It was only natural. Thus, Amy had no reason to be so down about this afternoon.

Amy managed to return back in her flat and she was proud that there were no more accidents and her sanity was in check. Once she had shut her front door and sunk to the floor, Amy sighed a deep breath and thought that she should maybe start looking over her unnecessary habits. Then she had cooked her dinner that evening and slept well enough. When she had fallen asleep, Amy reasoned once more that she glad that she did not do much damage.

Five minutes after turning on her telly, Amy stood in shock and dropped her bowl of porridge. Her palms became sweaty and her breathing became laboured. But her attention did not divert from the news.

The man that she met last afternoon was called Gabriel Prochazka. He was a student at Charles University, and was someone who sells paintings of sunrises and sunsets by the Charles Bridge. His friends recalled him being late on his rent and being depressed day by day. He was about to see a psychologist in two weeks.

After his illustrations were rejected by a small publishing company, Gabriel jumped off Charles Bridge and into the Vltava. Gabriel had never learned how to swim.

Amy sunk into the floor, not caring about the spilled porridge underneath her. Her heart continued to sink as the news went on. Gabriel committed suicide around seven in the afternoon. There were still many tourists and citizens alike around and many attempted to pull him off the wall of the bridge and into safety.

“But he fought each of us like hell,” one American tourist commented. “We were all trying to grab him and pleading to him, ‘Don’t do it, man! Don’t do it!’ But, you know, he just wouldn’t listen…”

Gabriel did not hit the water. He fell just as a cruise boat was passing by and his head struck the bow. Many of the passengers told of the shock inside the boat, the sound, and the blood. An elderly man was near at the front of the cruise boat and when he saw Gabriel splattered all over the window, he reported that he nearly went into a cardiac arrest. There was also a small boy who was said to be traumatised so bad that he was still wailing in the afternoon. Then, there was the captain of the boat who cannot look at his own pride and joy at the same way.

Gabriel jumped off at around seven in the afternoon. Amy was sure that they had been talking around ten minutes before.

When her stomach heaved, Amy’s unresponsiveness was at last broken as she dashed to the toilet. She vomited just off the toilet seat but there was no room for decorum at the moment. Amy hurled and spat until her inside gave her nothing more. She moved on to crying, her mascara from last night turned her tears black. She did not even try to wipe them away.

Amy spent a good hour in her toilet before walking back out with puffy eyes and her pyjamas soaked in porridge and vomit. The news of Gabriel’s suicide was still running. Amy turned her telly off but she knew that even though she could look away and cover her ears, her consciousness would never relent. The image would loop over and over again and she would continue to witness Gabriel’s head spilling its brains all over the bow of that approaching cruise boat.

Saddled with a moral burden that she thought she would never have to deal with in her life, Amy finally resolved to clean herself up. She rang her workplace and asked for an emergency leave due to a bereavement. Of course, her dear old grandmother was still ready to take on the world and far from entering the afterlife but Amy seemed that it was the only good explanation to her employer at the moment. After making sure that everything was turned off and closed, Amy head out of her flat.

Stepping onto the familiar cobbled pathways and listening to the buzz of the usual morning crowd, Amy walked straight into the Old Town. It was a morning with a blue sky and no patched of clouds in sight. Walking by the Old Town Square, she was greeted with the usual tourists with their phones and cameras pointed at the astronomical clock, and pretty much at everything else as well. When Amy strolled a bit further, she watched as the numerous tourist stores open as they were swarmed already for postcards, key chains, and many more. Going down further into a small pathway to Karlova, there was the smell of the bakery that always make their trdelnik fresh on the spot. It was unfortunate that Amy had no time for their baked goods at the moment. Turning into the main street again and into a bigger crowd, Amy spotted the iconic towers of Charles Bridge. She strode a little faster, almost pushing everyone who was in her way. The news from this morning was reeling in her mind and her heart was still in her stomach, but it would be unconscionable for Amy to simply turn around. If this was going to ease Amy’s moral battle inside her, then it would be wise to proceed.

A police tape closed off the entrance of Charles Bridge when Amy reached the bridge. Investigators were talking to the police, some of the police were trying to pry off the most curious of the people outside the police tape, and there were many talking to each other about the incident. Amy was in a tight crowd and she found herself pushing against many others to get near to the front. She heard slivers of the conversations around her; how shocked they were that this came to happen, what state the family would be in right now, and if there was something that pushed him into jumping. Amy winced at the last part.

Now that Amy was right exactly where she wanted to be, it struck her that she did not actually know what she was going to do. Maybe, impulsive thoughts were not only on afternoons after work. Amy stood on her spot and the chattering and the vivid colours of Prague reduced into white noise.

“The brother is here,” someone on Amy’s left voiced out. The white noise suddenly disappeared.

Amy watched as the crowd parted ways when a distraught man barged into the fray. He was wearing a suit but dishevelled as if he had ran from his house just to get here. He then went under the police tape and headed straight to the investigators. Many of the police dashed to hold back the spitting man. Even from where she was, Amy observed that they were some similarities between him and Gabriel. It was not a comforting thought and she wished for the white noise to come back.

When the chattering of the crowd became louder, many of the officers on site strode over to the police tape and began shooing the masses away. Amy stood at her spot, hands sweaty and fingers trembling. She watched as Gabriel’s brother broke down onto the floor and sobbed. She swallowed she clenched her hands. There was cold sweat on her brow and her mouth had gone dry. However, Amy’s feet moved. Her eyes did not leave the grieving man on the ground. She ignored the police officer that tried to stop her. She evened out her breathing despite the thumping of her heart. She was approaching him closer. Her breath hitched a little when she spoke but it was sure and steady.

“I believe that Gabriel told me of his last words before he died,” Amy blurted out when the man looked up to her with deep bloodshot eyes. Her voice maybe trembling at the edges but she was proud and surprised that it was still bold. “There is a small bakery by the Klementinum if you want to talk.”

The man on the ground continued to look at her with such an incredulity that made Amy’s spine cold, from the base of her neck and trickling slowly down. She looked at the spot where it was believed where Gabriel jumped off from. The coldness in her spine grew and Amy rubbed her neck to relieve it a little. It did not work, however, and she became more conscious of the police officers all giving her a stern look and the gaze from the man below her that turned blank.

Amy was not going to be given a reply, it seemed. But at least she met at the half-way point and for her, it should all be fine. So, she turned on her heel and went back home.

A day after Gabriel’s death, Prague became its normal, busy self and Charles Bridge was open again for eager tourists and citizens alike. Amy was still taking her walks to the bridge in the afternoon but her sights was not on the beautiful sunsets. Amy would now instead lean over the wall and look down at the rippling waters of the Vltava, wondering if Gabriel’s body was still swimming by the riverbed. Amy reasoned it was a silly thought. Gabriel’s body was dragged out of the river and straight into the morgue in the afternoon of that incident. However, the image of his bloated, rotting body remained a vivid imagery in Amy’s dreams.

The sun was already down for hours and the crowd around Amy were starting to disperse. Amy did not move on her spot and kept staring down at her reflection upon the black water. Her mind was not in a torrid state anymore like the day before but there was a horrid blankness to it that made Amy shiver from time to time. But she put up with it and hoped that she would be back to normal again soon. And as a precaution, she reached into her pocket and drew out a 1 Kč coin. She twirled it between her fingers before flipping it into the water. Then, she wished.

“You did not turn up,” a voice called to her.

Amy turned around and her eyes widened. There standing next to her was Gabriel’s brother, also looking down onto the depths of the river. His eyes were less bloodshot than when Amy first met him but his hair was sill dishevelled and his hands were still trembling visibly.

“I was waiting in that bakery for two hours,” Gabriel’s brother told her. “They make very nice chocolate twists. I had like five of them and a very large mug of hot chocolate.”

Amy smiled thinly and drummed her fingers against the wall of the bridge. “I recommend their trdelnik,” she said, looking away from the man beside her. “Although the ones that you get in the Easter and Christmas markets were better. But the ones in that bakery are nice nonetheless.” She took a pause, watching the water ripple below her again before speaking again. “And I am sorry that I did not turn up. I did not think that you would really go and meet me. I assumed you just thought that I am this crazy woman who did not know better.”

The man, much to Amy’s surprise, chuckled a little. “You were a crazy woman who did not know better,” he said, “and judging from the hours that you spent just looking down at the river, you must still be a crazy woman.”

Amy wondered if she should take offence from that statement. However, she found herself not knowing who she was nowadays so she let Gabriel’s brother off. She kept quite as she stared down at the river more.

“What makes you say that anyway,” Gabriel’s brother mused.

Amy shrugged. “I don’t know myself,” she admitted. “At that time, what was the only important thing to me was to gratify my guilt somehow. I did not think how.”

“That was evidenced,” the man said and his sarcastic tone made Amy’s eyes roll.

Then, his breath shuddered and his hands trembled a tad more. But the way he forced out his voice when he spoke and the way his eyes were focused on Amy suggested that he was a person that was not about to break down. Not like the last time at least.

“You…,” Gabriel’s brother started. He took a pause, licked his lips and swallowed. “You said that Gabriel said his last words to you. Were you certain about that?”

Amy nodded, “Yeah. I am pretty sure. He did it just right after I got home into my apartment. Ten minutes before he jumped.” She remembered that conversation and she remembered her urge to wrap her arms around him. Amy cursed that she did not listen to her impulsive thoughts that night.

The man took a quiet moment, staring at Amy. He looked away before speaking, “Two minutes before he jumped, he called me. He said that he got rejected again. He counted that it was the sixty-sixth time. It was not even from a large company – an indie one where it should be easy grant him some… artistic freedom. But it seemed that did not work.”

He reached into his pocket. A box of cigarette and a lighter later emerged in his hand. He brought one cigarette in between his lips and lit it. He inhaled deep and drew out the smoke in a languid fashion. Amy, however, could see the holding the cigarette trembling.

“At the phone call,” he continued, “you can say that I may somewhat harsh to him on the phone. I would say at the time that I am giving him some motivational speech. Told him to suck it up, search for a new job, that he was a hopeless case.” He inhaled. “He told me he was going to kill himself. I did not take him seriously – nor my parents as he had always been saying that too many times in the past.” He swallowed. “I laughed on the phone. Then, it happened”

With quaking fingers, he lift his cigarette to his shuddering lips once again. Amy watched as he inhaled his cigarette for a long time and when she started to get worried, he exhaled, chuckling and coughing. He licked his lips and tapped his cigarette onto the wall. Amy watched as the ashes dropped into the river.

“I laughed on the phone,” Gabriel’s brother repeated. He started sniffing and chuckling low. “I laughed out loud when I saw his sun paintings – and he did them here, on this wonderful bridge. I laughed when he admired the way the sun rises behind the towers, and how it shines upon St Vitus Cathedral, and how it lit up this colourful city that he lived his life in.” He chuckled some more. “I laughed at how full of life he seemed to be and I laughed because he was naive, and stubborn, and so unrealistic.”

The man’s laughter started to become louder and hysterical. Amy watched with unease as Gabriel’s brother sunk to the ground and the memory of him brokenly weeping came back to her at full force. It left a bad taste in her mouth and it made his stomach stir. Because she would not let her self-conscious half to get in the way, she joined Gabriel’s brother onto the floor and enclosed her arm over his shoulders. He was still cackling but there were tears coming out from his eyes now and Amy doubted that was from laughing out too loud. She felt a weight as the man unconsciously lay his head upon her shoulder.

“I laughed! I laughed my head off!” the man declared, waving his arms around and his cigarette stuck between his lips. “I laughed my head off then off he went into the afterlife!”

Amy did not dare to interrupt him but she began to rub the man’s arm if he was to take even a little comfort to it. She remembered the time she first picked up that piece of paper and then the mocking afterwards. Then she remembered her time before she moved to Prague; the dispute between her and her mother at the day she left; the accusations from her best friend; and the times where she would avoid the dinner table so she would not have to look at her father. Unknowingly, she squeezed the shoulder of Gabriel’s brother with her own trembling hand.

The man’s voice had started to hitch between the laughter. Then, he chuckled low with his hands pressed on his face. Amy felt that the quaking of his shoulders had gotten stronger. His low chuckles reduced to hitching and silent sobbing. It did not stay quiet for long as his sobbing increased, letting out a loud wail now and then. The hands on his face clenched as if he was to claw it out. All Amy could do was to move closer and cradle his head more into her shoulder.

The nighttime air in Prague stayed cool as few people come and go on the iconic Charles Bridge. Only the few clapping of heels against the cobblestones, the rippling of Vltava’s waters, and the rustling of the nearby trees accompanied Amy and Gabriel’s brother in the night. There were no stars that accompanied them that night nor there were any words to the couple of people huddled together onto the ground. The sun had long set behind the hill by the Prague castle and Amy wondered how long it would be before it rose up again.

Well, this is rushed again. And yes, this is part one. No idea when part two will be coming out. The idea of my blog will be random posts and on random days per week (I admit, there was a moment of doubt on whether Sunday is the last day or if it is the first day of the week – decided that it is the last week purely because it is part of the weekend).

Welcome to the first story in the Prague series and writing this really does something to my craving for the place again. When I was in University, I still remember the time I first saw the astronomical clock by the Old Town Square and the going under the first tower of the Charles Bridge with my creative writing friends. Then taking a lot of panoramic pictures on  the hill where Strahov lies and on the Petrin Hill.

That place… is simply magical.

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