TE21 Serbian Moments

Nana Ekvtimishvili

The Pear Field

at the start of the week. She goes in alone when the laundry’s done and the children have all had their baths. When she pulls her unwashed clothes back onto her freshly washed body, it feels as if she’s climbing into an old, familiar skin. The rancid stench of enormous grease-spattered gas stoves permeates thedinnerhall, anunremitting smell thatvariesonly according to that day’s menu: porridge, borscht, fried potato with onions, or maybe what they call ‘fake cutlets’, made from stale bread, potato and herbs. The admin block smells of nothing at all, unless you count the odour of rich leather that comes from the panelled doors, the occasional whiff of an unwashed child on theirway to class and the suggestion of Tiniko’s perfume. On some of the doors, the leather panels have been slashed open to reveal a soft yellow filling, handfuls of which have been torn off by the children to use in their play. The gatehouse smells of Tariel. What else could this tiny room possibly smell of? It is filled with his musty clothes, mothballs, the smoke from his papirosa and his dinner. Between the wash block and the dormitories there’s a wide green field covered in small pear trees. Everyone, young and old, stays well away. The trees produce pears every yearwithout fail and everyone stays away from them too,for the lovely green field is permanentlymired inwater.Whether it’swaterflooding in from an old broken pipe or rising up from an underground 198

spring, nobody knows. At first glance, the water seeping up through the soil is barely visible. The field looks so enticing, especially to new arrivals at the school, who run out onto the field and then slow involuntarily, ominously, as their feet sink into the waterlogged soil. So the pear trees just stand there with their knotted trunks and tangle of low-hanging branches, alone and forsaken, and every spring they bring forth large, shinygreenpearswhich nobody touches. Thepears rarely ripen before the weather turns cold but instead remain rock-hard; those that do ripen never turn sweet but bear the taste of the peculiar groundwater that seeps into their flesh. If climbing the spiral staircase transports Lela to a fantasy world, running onto the pear field fills her with terror, the fear that she might not make it across, as she imagines the branches taking hold, throwing her onto the ground, pulling her body into the soft boggy soil, the roots snaking around her and swallowing her up for ever. The day after Sergo’s burial, Tiniko calls Lela into her office. She offers Lela some chocolate. Lela declines. Tiniko thanks her warmly for her support at such a difficult time. She starts talking at length about something, using words like ‘outlook’, ‘prospects’ and ‘aspirations’. The school is officially responsible for the care and educationof school-agechildrenwithnofamily.Afternineyears, thechildren are expected to leave and start new lives. In the communist era there were vocational and technical colleges and employment schemes that were legally obliged to accept these children. 199

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