Book of the Festival
"The Sunset Lady" by Birutė Mackonytė
Translated from the Lithuanian by Irena Jomantiene
The melody of a cell phone broke the silence of the empty yard of St James’ Hospital. The number was unfamiliar. So was the husky voice of the elderly male caller.
‘Aldas Gailušis? Is this the right number?’
Through heavy breath, the man rattled with determination.
Aldas spoke slowly, hoping his quiet tone would calm the agitated man down. Keeping the phone to his ear, he looked at the pink glow of the church wall on the other side of the hospital’s flower beds.
‘Thank God I’ve found you.’ The accent was pure Suvalkian. ‘I got your number from Gustavas Vlodarskis. Please let me explain why I am bothering you on such a beautiful evening.’
Indeed, it was an exceptionally sunny and warm evening. May evenings paint the walls of all the world’s towns in the same tender colours as in Vilnius. However, even well-travelled Vilnius dwellers believe that here the sunset spreads its light over the church spires and buildings in a different way, reviving, for a short moment, a beauty that was devastated for decades. Aldas had just finished talking with a patient in the hospital, and was reluctant to abandon the tranquil mood of the evening.
‘I’ll do everything in my ability to help you, sir,’ he said. ‘If your business is of a serious nature, I doubt we should go into detail on the phone. Let’s put it off until tomorrow.’
‘My dear sir,’ begged the voice. ‘What I have experienced is very serious and very urgent. If there is the slightest chance, please meet me right now.’
‘Well … if it’s really necessary,’ Aldas still hesitated.
‘Where are you now?’ the stranger asked in a commanding voice. ‘How long will it take you to get to the old Žvėrynas Bridge? I’ll be waiting in the patch of ground in front of the Orthodox church.’
Aldas gave up resisting. A taxi took him to the agreed location in five minutes. He got out of the taxi and was looking around when a tallish and stout man approached him. He was wearing a new grey overcoat and a black beret over his grey hair. The man saluted Aldas like a soldier, raising two fingers to his beret. His slightly wrinkled face, tanned in the spring sun, and the sharp glance of his dark eyes spoke of either a restless nature or a temporary state of anxiety.
‘Thank you for coming.’ He turned into Vytautas Street. ‘I’ll tell you everything when we get there. It’s not far. When you see it for yourself, you’ll know why I wanted to speak to you here.’
Aldas overcame his doubts and followed him. He had not walked along this street for a while, so he gazed with curiosity at the two and three-floor houses across the street. They had all been constructed before the Second World War, or even earlier, and each one looked more beautiful than the rest, as the evening sun bathed them in a glowing light; unobstructed, too, as on the right lay a deserted sports ground. Last in the row, and equally lavishly lit, loomed a mansion constructed by a famous architect in the interwar years. Aldas stood dumbfounded when he saw the skeleton-like remnants of the house. The chimneys stuck out, bare and pathetic now that the roof had been stripped. Not only the windowpanes, but also the frames of the windows had gone, and black squares gaped in the walls like empty eye sockets. Only the balcony on the façade had survived intact, and not a single rod was missing in its graceful metal railing. A two-metre-high fence of plywood around the building prevented anyone from getting a closer look. It sent the signal that this place had a new owner who was going to apply the forgotten words of the Internationale, ‘we’ll change henceforth the old tradition’.
The engineer Zigmuntas Dubna, as he finally introduced himself, would not allow Aldas to ruminate on the changing world for long.
‘Have you had a look? Now try to imagine how I felt when, not even an hour ago, I passed this place on my way to the river and saw on the balcony a friend of mine whom I thought had passed away four or five years ago. He was sitting on the chair reading a book. The chair is still on the balcony … Can you see it?’
Aldas could not conceal what he was thinking. He shot a glance at Zigmuntas. The latter understood him and shook his head.
‘You’re wrong. I’m sober and I have all my wits about me. If anybody told me something similar, I too would doubt if the person was in his right mind. But please be patient with me. When our eyes met, I thought it was a ghost … It occurred to me that I must have been losing my mind. In shock, I looked around at the other buildings, and at the sun … When I looked at the balcony again, there was nobody there. I called out his name.’ Zigmuntas laughed at himself sadly. ‘I approached the gate in the fence, over there, at the corner. I would have broken in, but the gate was locked. My arthritis makes it impossible for me to climb fences. Then I recalled what Vlodarskis had told me about you, and how you had found a family relic that had disappeared half a century ago. So I called you.’
The man now looked almost appeased, and spoke simply, matter-of-factly. Although not trusting him completely, Aldas decided to behave as if he had no more doubts about the man’s mental health.
‘You probably know that there are instances of incredible similarities between individuals outside any family relationship,’ he said probingly.
‘That is not the case. He recognised me, and, I think, he looked afraid.’
‘Whoever he is, he might be a watchman here.’
Zigmuntas shook his head.
‘I’ll tell you what he looked like and you will think again whether I am seeing things. He wore a greasy padded cotton jacket, of no particular colour, and checked rag-looking trousers, what a person might pick out of rubbish container. I don’t know what shocked me more, his look, or the fact that I recognised him as my childhood friend. He was several years younger than me, but when we reached our teens we didn’t feel there was any age difference. After each of us got married, we enjoyed a sincere and friendly relationship.’
‘But why are you so sure that he passed away, what’s more, so many years ago?’ asked Gailušis finally.
‘Because just a couple of days ago I visited his grave in the old cemetery close to his parental home. The tombstone carries the inscription ‘Steponas Šumilas’. Is this a cruel, crazy mistake! I cannot understand why his family should lie to me in such a sinister way, claiming that he has died. Maybe Stepas was in prison these five years. Or, even worse, maybe he was put in a lunatic asylum … But no, that’s absolutely unthinkable! If only you had seen his face when our eyes met! Clever and sad eyes, and how fearful they looked once he recognised me. What has happened to him that he should become a tramp?’
Aldas cast a furtive glance at the second floor of the next-door house. In the open door of the balcony he caught a glimpse of a plump, blond creature with a flowery apron. Not even the most garrulous neighbour would speak as openly with two people as she did eye to eye, so it was necessary to give her this chance.
‘You are too tense just now, sir. Why don’t you find a place where you can relax and recover? In an hour or so we can discuss our situation and what possible avenues we can take,’ he said.
As soon as he saw Dubna round the corner of the sports ground, the plump lady emerged from her backyard. She had taken off her apron and was carrying a light watering can.
‘Did you used to live in this house?’ she asked, with what sounded like understanding.
‘No. I used to exercise here with friends, and sheltered in the corridor when it rained.’
‘So maybe you’re one of its present owners?’
‘Alas! I am not so rich,’ Aldas laughed.
‘Do you know them? It’s time they cleared it away. We’re sick and tired of those vagabonds looting the place.’
‘You mean there is no watchman you can ask?’
‘There’s nothing left to steal, as you can see. There’s been no sign of a watchman ever since they put up the fencing. But lately, on these warmer days, I’ve noticed two men snooping around the place, looking like rubbish dump scavengers. Only one of them doesn’t belong to a dump. He just dresses like it.’
‘Why do you think he doesn’t?’
‘You can tell immediately. His face is pale, like a sick person’s. These people from the dumps are usually the colour of tanned leather. He might live in an underground pipe. I’ve seen it on television, how some people live in them.’
Aldas stole a glance over his shoulder at the deserted house. The balcony door, in contrast to the windows, was still there, and closed! He looked at the sun above Vingis Park almost touching the tops of the trees. It seemed like the right time to visit the temporary residence of Steponas Šumilas, or his double.
At the corner of the plywood fencing the tarmac road turned into a gravel path leading down to the River Neris. A field, dark with impassably thick burdock, stretched to the right; to the left, all the area between the embankment and the fencing was densely overgrown, with thick, high grass, and with occasional old fruit shrubs and rose bushes reverted to the wild sticking out of the grass. Aldas was looking for a way through, and found one. The vegetation, lavish as if from a radiation leak, was just slightly trampled, and the feet sank into the squashy dirt. Half-crouching, he slowly made his way, though hardly a single passer-by would have taken any interest in a stranger foraging in the brush. On approaching the fence, he discovered that he could use the pole joining the slabs as a support and climb over the fence easily.
While he was hesitating whether to venture into the unknown, a mobile phone broke the silence. Not in Aldas’ pocket, but on the other side of the fence. A low and irritated male voice answered the call.
‘Hello. Stepas. Who else could it be? What bug has bitten you? I asked you not to call when I’m on business … I’ll be finished some time soon. Stop fretting and go to bed. I’ll be back.’
A trivial conversation between a man and his woman. Yet if he were now to nimbly swing over the fence and run into an intruder, who knows what his reaction would be? Such an encounter would be very unlikely to elicit a polite conversation. Half-crouching, Aldas waded back and started playing the romantic loner loitering on the upper road of the embankment.
When darkness started falling he heard low voices in the brush. Looking at the red glow in the windows of the high-rise buildings across the river, he turned round lazily. Both wore rather dirty windbreakers, baggy trousers and battered training shoes. The taller one had a green cap set low over his eyes, and probably because of this his face looked weird, green and pallid in the thickening darkness.
The second one, who was chubbier, eyed Aldas scornfully, shook his scruffy hair, and started a conversation in his own way. ‘If you, friend, have taken it into your head to kick the bucket, you’d better climb down. It will be easier to jump from there,’ he said to Aldas.
In vain, he welcomed this as a chance to start a conversation. However, the focus of his observation grunted impatiently: ‘Let’s be off.’
His cohort followed him, leaving behind the lingering trail of a distinctive slum smell.
Whatever course events would take, Aldas was provided with sufficient evidence that Steponas, although on the list of the dead, was nevertheless a real person. So he told Zigmuntas, who was waiting for him in the lobby of a three-star hotel with a glass of beer.
‘So, you say that close-up he doesn’t look like a tramp or a scavenger? Why hasn’t his widow then … I mean, his wife … ever mentioned to me that he might be alive? What are they hiding?’
‘If you know her and even keep in touch with her, you can ask what’s happening now that you have seen the man.’
‘Oh, no,’ Zigmuntas Dubna moaned. ‘It’s impossible. I was going to marry her. I have been widowed for many years. And it is time for me, as they say, to find a sunset lady.’
‘Then it is even more important to sort these things out,’ Aldas assumed a slightly patronising tone. ‘The eve of the marriage, be it formal or factual, is the right time to take skeletons out of the cupboard. To get rid of secrets that could sour your marital happiness. By the way, I’m positive that between her and the man it’s all over.’
Zigmuntas shook his bowed head.
‘To ask for an explanation would be equal to staking my future hopes of happiness. Justina is such a sensitive soul. If she is innocent, that is, if she was sure that her husband had died, the slightest implication of suspicion from me will hurt her badly. It is also possible that he is alive physically, but due to his way of life or mental illness is deemed dead. In that case, my dear chap, we have to act in a more subtle way. Only you, an outsider, can untangle this dramatic knot. I say “dramatic” because there is no tragedy in it, as Stepas is alive and that is what is most important. In the worst scenario, my hopes of spending the rest of my life with the woman I love will be shattered.’
He let go a painful sigh, but pulled himself together and went on.
‘She lives in the centre of the town and used to work in a cosmetics store. I’ll give you her business card. She has just left the job, as she intends to go with me to Finland where I have a house. When I saw Stepas the last time, he worked for one of the car pools and was planning to open a vehicle repair shop. For that he purchased several old garages on the outskirts of the town. That was late autumn in 1998. When half a year later I returned from my first stay in Finland, where I was on a scholarship, I was told he … that they had buried him two weeks before.’
Zigmuntas gave him a card of a peach colour, with a silver pattern around the edge. Silver letters announced: ‘Justina Šumiliene, Manageress’. Then he pushed aside his beer, put a checkbook on the table, produced a rather expensive fountain pen, and looked at the detective like a man who had done everything that was expected of him.
Now Gailušis shook his head lightly and with dignity, demonstrating that he was not going to abuse the new client’s generosity.
‘There are too many unknowns in the situation. First of all, you should tell me everything you know about the circumstances under which Steponas Šumilas …’ his voice faltered, ‘that is, when and why they decided that he had died.’
Dubna shrugged helplessly.
‘I learned it from his family. But I had no reason not to trust Justina, even less Stepas’ sister and his father. I knew that he was a long-distance driver, made frequent trips to Russia, and usually carried smuggled goods, like cigarettes, or something similar … On one of these trips he arrived back having escaped death by the skin of his teeth, and had a bad wound in his head. A serious nervous breakdown rendered him legally incapable. He spent several months at a psychiatric hospital not far from his parents’ home. I was told that he died in the hospital. The story brought back so many facts and sounded so true that I did not suspect anything. Unfortunately, I cannot question those who provided this version. Steponas’ father is dead, and his sister has taken a job abroad. I have already told you about Justina. I have no idea how I should tell her that I have seen her husband alive. Last week we went to the farm of Steponas’ parents. It has been rented out. We visited the nearby cemetery. The tombstone, with the dates of his parents, also carries the date of Steponas’ death: the fourteenth of April 1999. That is all I know.’
Zigmuntas pulled his glass towards him and took a long drink, as if hoping to recover from some torturing doubt.
Then he asked: ‘What advance payment would be acceptable to you?’
Gailušis lifted his hand. ‘Why the rush? So far I cannot imagine exactly how I can help you. What is it that you really want? Do you want me to arrange a meeting for you with Steponas Šumilas? Or to leave him alone and focus on the role of Justina in this sinister story?’
‘I want to know the truth. That is, as much of the truth as is possible.’
‘About Steponas? Or all the truth about Justina?’
‘What’s the difference?’
‘The truths might be different.’
‘Then I want both, as you say, versions, whatever the price.’
On a May morning, bathed in sunlight just like the previous afternoon, Aldas Gailušis set off for the Širvintos region. In a situation where you have only a victim, and the agents in a premeditated or not committed crime are still out of reach, it is best to inspect the scene of the alleged crime. Following the modern fashion, the hospital was renamed the Care and Assisted Living Hospital. It was situated in a deserted mansion that nobody so far wanted for anything else. He found the hospital, and its administrative office was easily accessible.
‘Steponas Šumilas … He died five years ago?’ the middle-aged deputy director furrowed his brow and cast a suspicious glance at the visitor.
‘I wasn’t working here at the time. Our director is quite new, too. Why are you digging up these dusty papers? Are you a journalist? Who do you work for?’
Aldas promised that he had nothing to do with the media. To back up his words he produced his professional lawyer’s ID card and said he was employed in the probate department of a commercial company, aiding the relatives of the diseased in a tedious inheritance case. The deputy had no idea what ‘probate’ meant, yet agreed to lend a hand to people pursuing the right to their inherited property. Moreover, Aldas was asking about somebody who had died long ago. The dead, as we know, usually do not bother their superiors by filing complaints.
Never before had Aldas Gailušis read a certificate stating the death (endorsed by signatures and stamps) of a person he had seen the day before down by the Neris. One important document was missing in the folder, though: an autopsy statement. The individuals who had testified to the fact of the death with their illegible signatures seemed to have no doubts that Steponas Šumilas, their patient with an untreatable mental illness, had died of a severe stroke.
Aldas decided that he was not going to track down these fellows in order to find out what had led them to sign a forged document. Was it a monetary bribe, or a bottle of vodka? He’d rather leave this headache for the lawyers or judges, who would have to deal with Steponas’ claim to restore the legal rights of a live person. Zigmantas was expecting an answer to a different question: who profited from the paper death of this person?
He left through a rusty gate that had not seen a new coat of paint for ages, and looked around. From the gate, a two-hundred-metre alley of old lime trees led across an open field and stopped at the first buildings of the neighbourhood. He parked his car and went on on foot. He felt like a carefree pilgrim, until he found a bar and an affable local in it. It was nice to be in the sunshine with a refreshing breeze coming from the fields where the larks were giving a concert. The church bells ringing nearby completed the idyllic picture of a spring morning.
Aldas took a field path leading towards two crosses that were shimmering in the sun above the verdant trees. He had a bad conscience that, as a professional, it had never occurred to him where one could often find precise information on people’s lives.
Except for its stained-glass porch windows, the single-storey, wooden presbytery looked like other nearby wooden houses, a surprisingly rare modesty on the part of the clergy. The presbytery and the church, which was also humble, with its simple towers, looked as if they belonged to the remote past.
The priest, a rotund and robust chap in jeans, was sitting on the steps, and there was nothing except for a white patch under a double chin to show that he was a cleric. A black cat was drinking milk from a bowl at his feet. Another one, thin and ginger, was licking its paws on his other side.
‘Hello,’ said the priest. ‘The cat has been washing itself, and here comes our visitor. What brings you here on this heavenly morning?’
‘Problems quite out of the ordinary, Father,’ replied Aldas. ‘I represent a person in an awkward situation. Let me introduce myself.’ He handed to the priest one of the cards that said ‘Private Detective’.
‘I’m used to lost sheep coming to me personally.’ The priest did not look impressed by the unusual profession indicated on the card. ‘But sometimes they also send their intermediaries.’ He chased away the ginger cat. ‘Please take a seat here, next to me. Now we can talk eye to eye, without witnesses, like in the confessional. First of all, is the person who sent you a parishioner?’
‘Not right now. But he used to live here. He was staying here for treatment.’
‘Was it long ago?’
‘Five years or more.’
‘That means I must have known him. It’s seven years that I’ve worked in this forgotten and – Lord, forgive me – God-forsaken corner.
Aldas thanked the Lord, for sending him a priest who had been in this place long enough and who had told him every detail of what he had managed to learn and to see from last night until today. When he finished, the priest kept quiet for a while, stroking the black cat that was purring on his lap.
‘I knew that con would eventually resurface,’ he said finally. ‘You say the hospital showed you the folder with the death certificate? That means they took you for one of those people whose name people were afraid to say out loud a couple of years ago. Or they thought you had come on their behalf.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Aldas was startled by his words.
‘Now people call them “a group”, but earlier they were just “a gang”, a “pack of hooligans”… This happened six years ago, I had finished my first year in the parish. Šumilas, with the help of Justinas’ parents, was planning to open a decent garage with a petrol station in one of the towns in the region. That way he became a serious competitor of these bandits who were planning something similar. Not without stolen vehicles. He was in danger of being brutally eliminated. He left for Russia for half a year, but no sooner had he returned when he was attacked. He escaped death with a serious head injury. So he was taken to this hospital and declared mentally disturbed. But the gang did not stop harassing him, and the family decided that Stepas had to run away, and for a long time. The hospital fabricated his death certificate. Eventually, the gang came to believe the rumour, though they snooped around the hospital and his home. A year ago, just as you might have expected, they all were caught and sentenced. Stepas is back, this much I know. But I cannot believe my ears when you say he is living like a tramp or something. It sounds like rubbish! And … are you also saying that Justina is going to marry somebody who is living abroad? Is that true?
‘Dubna was talking with all seriousness of buying wedding rings. Immediately after the wedding both will leave for Finland.’
‘Fancy that,’ the priest snorted with indignation. ‘I never heard of her officially divorcing Steponas. Well, she could become this businessman’s mistress … as they say these days, “a girlfriend”. Yet madam must have fancied becoming a foreigner’s wife and violating the Lord’s and the people’s law by being married to two at the same time … I can tell you, you can expect it from this woman. She surprised me five years ago. Not every woman can watch passively as the name of her husband is being chiselled on a tombstone. However, if you meet her, try to stop her from committing this new sin.’
‘If the woman is so steadfast, the chances are slim that somebody could make her change her mind. She can produce her husband’s death certificate and marry another.’
‘No, she can’t! The document was forged and produced with the sole purpose of cheating the gang that was hunting Šumilas.’
‘Still … you can never know.’ The rector became pensive. ‘Years ago they bought the signatures to certify his death, so she can obtain a copy of the certificate for herself. So, please, warn her against this. Do it in my name.’
That didn’t add much to the truth about Steponas, thought Aldas as he was driving back to Vilnius. Wherever he had been hiding all these years, he was living and travelling with his real documents. Why would he not go to his lawful wife, but instead chose the company of tramps, sheltering in their makeshift hovels at night?
As he got on to Ukmergės Street, Zigmuntas rang. Aldas had asked him not to be impatient, but to wait calmly.
‘Excuse me, Gailušis, but it is all too stressful for me.’
What could be putting even more pressure on the poor soul than there was yesterday? Aldas wondered.
‘Any new light on the matter? I’m sorry but my future is at stake. Justina is demanding an early marriage. She says somebody is after her, and she’s even scared to say the names. She’s begging to come as soon as possible to my place, where she will be safe with her son.’
‘She’s got a son?’
‘Yes, and I’m ready to become his stepfather.’
‘Who’s his father?’
‘Steponas … of course.’
‘How old is he?’
‘He’s a schoolboy, then. School’s not over, so he should not be leaving now.’
‘That’s not my decision. I’ll do just what Justina wants. You were planning to go to the hospital where … Did you find out anything?’
‘I only found out that Šumilienė’s story is half the truth. I’ll tell you more after I’ve found who scared Justina just now. I’d like to talk to her.’
‘But if she’s not telling me, will she reveal it to you?’
‘I can see no other way out, Zigmuntas.’
Dubna kept silent for so long that Aldas thought they had been cut off. He answered when his Mazda was already at the bottom of Šeškinė Hill.
‘Okay. I’ll try to persuade her. But what should I do about the rings that I’m supposed to buy today?’
‘Are you going to buy very expensive ones?’
‘No. Middling price. Without those stupid so-called diamonds.’
‘Go ahead and buy them. If you’re out of luck this time, you’ll have them for when you find another sunset lady.’
‘Your jokes are cruel, Aldas. But I have the feeling that you really want to help me. I trust you. Now I’ll go and see Justina and try to arrange your meeting.’
While he was waiting to see if the meeting with the stubborn and sensitive lady was going to take place, Gailušis decided to check out Steponas’ and his friends’ shelter. It was a bright afternoon. He parked the car next to the house of the observant and plump lady. He saw her on the balcony, and waved to her like a conspirator. She tried to make a sign to him. Then she tried shouting, but the boys on the sports ground behind the wire fence were too noisy for Aldas to hear her. She stepped inside, only to reappear after a moment at the front door.
‘He’s come,’ she announced in a low voice. ‘He’s just passed by the first floor windows, which I have a good view of. It’s half past one. Sometimes he appears on the balcony at this time.’
Aldas was wondering how this nosey lady could have guessed who he was interested in. Maybe she had known him as different even earlier. He was there. He was not scared and not hiding. It was likely that he wanted to speak to somebody. He might also have spotted Gailušis with Dubna through the empty windows yesterday.
Aldas went up to the fence. Steponas Šumilas was sitting on the balcony on a solid-looking chair, reading a newspaper. He wore a dirty windbreaker like the day before. The front door of the half-ruined mansion was in the shade, the sun was pouring in through the openings of the windows. The view was worthy of a talented surrealist.
‘Hey!’ shouted Aldas. ‘Steponas!’
The man raised his head. When he saw Aldas, he folded his paper and rose to his feet.
‘Please don’t run away!’ Gailušis called. ‘I’ve come on behalf of your friends, and from … Zigmuntas.’
‘Why hasn’t he come himself? What scared him?’
‘Let’s talk, if you don’t mind,’ Aldas interrupted.
‘Then come inside please, if you’re not afraid of breaking your neck.’
‘You take the same route?’
‘Have you been snooping around?’ Šumilas was not surprised at the gibe. ‘All right, I’ll let you in through the gate.’
The lock on the gate was just for show, and Steponas simply lifted the bolt from the inside. He gave him a brief, cautionary look, found him probably all right, and invited him to sit down on some neatly arranged wooden planks. From close up, his face did not look so sickly, with almost ruddy unshaven cheeks. In his thin face you could see the regular features of a handsome man.
‘What does Zigmuntas want?’ he asked immediately. ‘I’m not going to meet him until I’ve sorted it out with my ex.’
‘Zigmuntas knows nothing about any debts between you and Justina, and I know even less. But I’d like to know, because I’m …’
‘I don’t care who you are,’ Sumilas retorted rather bluntly. ‘Dubna will learn in due course. Maybe it won’t be too late.’
‘When would it be too late?’
‘After they get married, of course.’
‘This marriage is impossible. You two are not divorced.’
‘There’s nothing that bitch cannot do. She managed to officially send me to the other world and to become a widow.’
‘There are no proper documents to testify to the death of Steponas Šumilas. Just some poorly forged ones.’
‘Oh!’ he groaned. ‘With these bad forgeries, as you call them, she managed to gain all of my parents’ wealth, their property, their buildings and their savings. I learned of it several months ago, on returning from … it doesn’t matter where from. Until then she kept sending me messages about her longing for me. Why do you claim that the documents are badly forged?’
‘I’ve seen them.’
‘I believe you. This is what I expected. All these forgery stories need to be opposed and put right so that nothing remains of it.’
‘I agree. But you haven’t filed anything in court? Have you gone back to that hospital since you returned?’
‘Don’t pretend to be an idiot, sonny. You need money for that. A lot of money. I’ll need a good lawyer, access to the judges, and so on. I’m saving for that.’
‘So is it to save money that you hang around these ruins?’ Aldas sneered. ‘What else brings you to this hole?’
His face grew tense and the lips trembled. Aldas had never seen a grown man’s lips tremble.
‘You want to know that also? You see these teenagers in the playing field? One of them is my son. He goes to school over there, behind the playing field. She has hammered into the child’s head that his dad is dead. I don’t know how many times I have stopped myself from running up to him and telling the child I’m his dad. But that would only complicate things even more. I’ll win him back some other way. Justina will give the boy to me of her own accord.’
‘Have you got a plan?’
Steponas nodded. ‘I’m not even afraid to reveal it, as it’s not going to change anything. Justina wants to marry a rich businessman and to live abroad. Zigmuntas is just her opportunity to do so. Luckily, I found out about her plans early enough and told her my conditions: she must give me the money I need to reclaim my rights and the parental home. But the most important thing is that she must leave our son in Lithuania for a year at her sister’s, so that I can start a normal relationship with him. Otherwise, her desired Dubna will learn what snake in the grass he is planning to let into his luxurious nest.’
‘Does Justina know your conditions?’
‘Yes. We met yesterday.’
‘What was her reaction?’
‘She promised an answer today.’
‘You hope she’s going to agree with everything, don’t you?’
‘She has no other way out.’
So he was the ‘perpetrator’ who started threatening Šumilienė and provided her with a shot in the arm to pursue her goal. The kind priest was right: she must be an extraordinary woman. However, her old – or current? – spouse also impressed Aldas. Only the latter’s gullibility, bordering on naïve kind-heartedness, he found difficult to comprehend.
‘Well, I wish you luck,’ he told the man who had just revealed his plans.
‘If you don’t mind me giving you a piece of advice, I’d recommend you not to be so open as you have been with me. I approached you on behalf of Zigmantas Dubna, and my actions might be more in his interest than yours.’
For the first time in the course of their conversation the gloomy man smiled.
‘Is this a hint that you’re going to reveal how I faced up to Justina? Relax, old man. I know you’re not a friend of his, but, I’d guess, a very well-paid detective. A private eye. Zigmuntas has never wasted money. I can see how it took you just a day and a night to find out almost everything about me. You even looked at the documents in the archive of that hideous hospital. I haven’t managed to access them yet. For that I feel especially grateful to you, and I suggest that you make a contract with me. Very soon I will really need somebody like you. Zigmuntas can have fun with that bitch from hell. How come I know all this? Even your name? The priest called me as soon as you said good-bye. Then I started waiting for you.’ Šumilas became quiet, and cocked his head slightly. ‘The playground is silent. So now we’ll have a cup of coffee somewhere, maybe the Rustika. But let me change first.’
Only after a coffee, thought Aldas Gailušis, would he be able to consider all this properly.
© Birutė Mackonytė. All Rights Reserved 2005.
Journalist and writer Birutė Mackonytė was born in 1928 in Vilnius to a family of intellectuals. Graduated from Vilnius University in 1951, where she had been majoring...
2005. Nordic Council of Ministers Office in Lithuania. All rights reserved e-solution: gaumina