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Anybody leaving school these days, without a job or any further education waiting for them, is comparable to the man who has been released from prison to find that all of the world is now fortified against him, with every street closed off and every door locked up. The sunlight indeed falls strangely on the streets of his home town, the streets themselves blink with glaring new details and facades, and the poor man finds that he has faded to a ghost, walking alone in his own past. In those moments when he is not invisible, the world shudders at the sight of him. His voice is no longer audible or else those to whom he tries to speak only nod or frown at some obscure pulse of breath, rather than the aloof, bland pleading which is now the sum of all that it can say.

Weronika had known only the certainties of childhood and, deprived of school and structured study, she beat briefly at the world like a moth, only to have her paltry, feathery attack repulsed. If she really believed that there could be a job or some place reserved for her in the world, then she would crack. Relinquishing no ground at all, she withdrew from the world and into her bedroom, a room full of bears, their settled ranks like a sentinel army. The imagination of her childhood had once given life to these toys, but they now seemed to hold a terrible power over her own heart. The distant tides of carefree days still surged in their dusty scent, in their curious lightness, in their threadbare, expressionless faces. Her heart was their prisoner and they had encircled it.

At night Weronika would lie stretched out on her bed, her exasperated body itching for the activity which it had been denied during the day, whilst the sentinel bears gazed grimly on. Sleep came and went like rain over fallow fields, and it did not particularly matter when or if she slept. Wakefulness irritated her with its dull sense of an obligation to use the time and she ended up waiting for sleep, like somebody abandoned at a station counting down the hours until the next train arrived.

Yet soon Weronika’s sleep was mumbling so faintly that the slightest readjustment in the air would reclaim her from it. Her mind felt slow and heavy, as if waterlogged, but she was somewhere vaguely sure that she was owed a great outstanding debt of sleep. Her parents kept some sleeping pills in the bathroom cabinet – a grimy little pot which had settled down to wait with years of patience – and after swallowing several of the pills, Weronika was rewarded with a length of the most filling sleep, sinking down so deep that the exertion of retrieving herself had been in itself exhausting. She stirred and rolled about for what, in her sleep-specked trance, seemed an eternity; like a diver who is roaming the sea floor, only dimly aware of the distant ceiling of light.

Over a course of weeks, Weronika’s sleep grew unsatisfactory, remote, and finally so thin that, throughout its duration, she remained always conscious of disappointment. The pills, however many she gobbled down, were now dead to her body. And then her drugged brain suddenly bolted like an unpredictable horse, and her parents grew faint with anguish and relief whenever they recalled that day – when Weronika had run screaming around the garden with a kitchen knife, slashing – mostly harmlessly – at her own throat and face. But screaming with absolute despair!

Weronika’s father marched purposefully up to her and he fished the knife from her hands. Not knowing what to do with it, he threw it into the garden’s lavender bushes. She stood shaking before him like a vision of the Madonna, and he was utterly lost for words. His wife – the more practical parent in emergencies – felled Weronika with a single blow, and then hauled her off to lie on a sofa, whilst she leaned over, purring a spell that drained Weronika of all her energy. Maternal tenderness was largely alien to Weronika’s mother, and throughout this impromptu performance her eyes had sparkled with a surprised pleasure at her own resourcefulness. At the unexpected physical contact, Weronika relinquished herself entirely to her mother’s accomplished feat of affection.

They pretended that Weronika’s hysteria was nothing to do with her, but that it was something ultimately alien to her psyche, like unruly ivy obscuring a window. The hysteria had its own rules and characteristics, and one could be assured that an expert somewhere possessed the knowledge to master it. And in so far as medicine can be considered a science, an irresponsible dosage of a modish drug was applied to Weronika to deny her of the intellectual equipment needed to commit suicide.

A tiny quaking particle of Weronika had been reclaimed from annihilation, but precariously. What remained was like a soul bottled up inside a Ouija board, only able to articulate the sparsest and blandest of messages. Weronika was no longer wholly real, and some mysterious impetus carried her forward, making her act out the appearances of a useless daily routine, whilst she anxiously repeated to herself that it was important not to think, not to reflect, just to keep going. Not knowing what was holding her together, she remained fixed in an endless suspense. She was like somebody who was driving through the night, but who had forgotten where they were going so that they were now merely stuck to the road rolling through the night.

[Tychy previously wrote about Edinburgh’s unemployment in the short story “Laika.” Ed.]

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