My lipstick is sticky from the heat. It slips over my lips too quickly, forcing me to scrape the edge of my mouth with a fingernail to remove a smudge.
My sister Anička frowns when she sees me.
‘What are you planning to do? Flirt with them until they agree to leave our country?’
‘What?’ I shrug. ‘You don’t think it will work?’
I know Anička thinks I’m being flippant about the situation, but honestly, I’m not. I just think that if a girl’s world is going up in flames, she should see it out with cherry red lipstick on.
Anička glares at me, her slim brown eyebrows lowering, her sharp cheekbones looking fierce.
‘Bye then,’ I call, walking towards the door.
‘You’re going to work?’ She tosses aside the Rudé Právo newspaper she was skimming, sitting on our sagging yellow couch with her legs curled under her.
‘We still have to pay rent you know, regardless of who’s running the country.’
I walk down the stairs from our seventh-storey apartment, my heels making a satisfying click on the cement stairs. Outside I pause to tie my blonde hair up loosely. I work in a pub, serving greasy food on cold plates during the day and singing in the evenings. I mostly sing Czech pop songs; Eva Pilarová’s soulful tunes are a personal favourite. Many young people prefer the music coming out of America and Britain, which is loosely tolerated by Dubĉek’s government, so sometimes on a Friday night I cradle the microphone and croon Bob Dylan to the audience.
The pub is in Old Town, four tram stops and a short walk from the suburb where Anička and I live. We moved to the city together, telling our nervous and confused parents, who couldn’t understand why their adult daughters would want to leave home, that we intended to make something of ourselves. We both view the leaking grey mass-housing complex we live in as a necessary but short-term step on the way to better things.
I always enjoy the tram ride into Old Town, seeing the buildings outside my window transform from drab blocks into a colourful historic tableau. Here the streets are narrow and winding; old stone buildings crowd on either side, leaning in as if they don’t want to miss any of the goings-on in the street. They’re like curious relatives at a family gathering who crowd you, hoping to pick up tit-bits about your life you wouldn’t willingly have shared with them. I like to think of the things these buildings have seen, the stories acted out on these streets, the stone walls the only remaining witnesses; I like imagining they can still see the breath and hear the voices of those long-gone ghosts floating above the cobble stones. Mozart resided here for a few months, composing Don Giovanni and premiering it in The Estates Theatre; these buildings are the only members of his audience that still stand.
Inside there are pubs with dark walls, low roofs and cheap beer, restaurants that serve piles of meat in brown sauce with stodgy bread dumplings and not a vegetable in sight, cafes with high arched ceilings, plush seats and elegant waiters eager to bring you a coffee or the daily paper.
Anička works as a typist for a firm with offices on the second level of one of these buildings. I’ve only been there once, when she was trying to convince me to apply for a position. The sight of all the girls sitting in rows with their hair pulled back in severe buns, their fingers clattering away aggressively at the keys of dozens of typewriters convinced me it wasn’t the place for me.
Anička was disappointed and told me brusquely, ‘Working in a bar isn’t a profession and you can’t spend forever waiting for your singing career to take off.’ However, the music scene in Prague was becoming freer, pop bands and rock concerts starting to become more common, and I had to believe I could claw my way into success with the best of them, whatever my sister said.
The streets twist and turn on my way to work. They say the streets in Prague curve firstly because straight lines are boring, you can always see what is at the end of your journey, and secondly to keep out invaders, the theory being they cannot take our city if they cannot find anything. Turns out this theory does not stand up to reality, as the Russians proved the night before last with their onslaught of tanks and soldiers.
The tanks rolled in two nights ago and we awoke to a change of government. Today our already-warm city is heated to sweltering levels by the people whose blood boils against the invaders.
They caught us unawares. Dubĉek had been liberalising our previously conservative nation, although we remained fundamentally loyal to the Soviet Union. But apparently Moscow was unconvinced, and with devastating swiftness they took Prague overnight. They must have taken other cities, and have control of the whole country by now, although little news is getting in or out; they control all transport and communications.
The next day, when people became aware of what had happened, they flooded to the streets to protest in a relentless torrent. I stayed in our apartment and watched the pumping fists and marching feet with resignation. Their impassioned protests aren’t going to change the outcome any more than a sparrow can change the course of a hurricane by beating its wings. The best thing to do is to apply a coat of bold lipstick and hold your head high. Anička has the revolutionary gene though and spent the day yelling at Russian soldiers and waving flags. She came home in the evening with skin angry from sunburn and frustration, her eyes narrowed into determined squints that blocked out harsh realities.
My shoulders relaxed when she walked through the door, releasing the tension that had been building as the clock ticked and Anička still hadn’t come home.
She collapsed on the yellow couch and drank three glasses of water.
‘We’ll send them back,’ she said. ‘We’ll get rid of them.’
I didn’t answer, knowing if I did it would just lead to a fight. I felt sick watching our country being taken over but I don’t believe in yelling when no one is listening.
Anička watched me for a moment, then shrugged and went to get another glass of water. ‘We will,’ I heard her mutter and wondered whether it was for my benefit or her own.
Today soldiers prowl the streets with long guns slung over their shoulders. Burnt out cars sit in the middle of roads like ugly black beetle shells. Some roads are blocked by tanks full of soldiers; angry civilians cluster around them like moths drawn to a lamp to beat their wings against its blaze. I keep my head down as I walk quickly along the footpath. There are some glimpses of normality, people dressed for work in button-up shirts with pressed collars striding along with a purpose, a young woman in a leather jacket leaning against a lamp post rolling a cigarette with steady fingers, a cafe with people sitting inside drinking their coffee.
I glance down a small side street and in the warm morning light am confronted with the clear image of a man lying on his back, blood from the gunshot wound on his forehead filling the grooves between the surrounding cobble stones. I gag and nearly throw up my breakfast, then fix my eyes straight ahead and force myself to keep walking.
We do not know how many people were killed in the invasion, although Dubĉek called upon the people not to resist. He has been arrested now and we do not know where he is or even if he is alive.
I turn one more corner and arrive at the pub. I walk inside, breathing deeply as I head behind the bar and nod at my boss. He’s a middle-aged man with short grey hair and soft sagging skin that looks like it’s slowly slipping off his face and collecting beneath his neck where it jiggles when he operates the till.
‘Morning,’ I greet him.
We leave it at that.
Two Russian soldiers walk in and take a seat. Their chairs scrape noisily over the stone floor and I wince. ‘Bread, salami, and coffee please,’ one soldier calls out. They both have hair shorn short, highlighting the shape of their skulls in a way that makes the bulkier soldier look primal and fierce but reduces the skinnier younger one to something more vulnerable and fragile.
My boss ignores them. He shakes his head at me. ‘We do not serve them.’
After a minute the men leave, their shoulders low in a resigned and hungry slump.
I put the same red lipstick on the next morning.
‘You look like a hooker,’ Anička accuses me over the breakfast table as she drinks a cup of black tea. ‘That’s not daytime lipstick, it’s evening lipstick that says hey look at me.’
‘It says I’m not afraid,’ I reply, dropping some toast in the toaster.
‘There are other ways to say that. Ways that actually have some effect.’
‘You know I don’t believe in protesting.’
‘You can’t not believe in protesting.’
I ignore her and will my toast to cook faster.
‘Come to Wenceslas Square in your lunch break. Everyone is going.’
‘Because it matters.’
‘My being there won’t change the course of history.’
‘But all of us being there will go down in history.’
I agree to go so she lets me eat my toast in peace.
At midday I faithfully leave the pub and walk to Wenceslas Square. I find Anička standing outside a cafe with two other girls from the typist firm. The square is thronging with people, all jostling to see the speakers at the front on a raised podium. Although the crowd is made up of hundreds of people it takes on a life of its own, becoming an individual entity, a heaving beast with passions and tempers.
‘You came.’ Anička looks pleased, a little surprised. The corners of her mouth tweak up in a smile.
The statue of St Wenceslas on his horse rises above the body of the crowd. The sun glints off the green metal as St Wenceslas raises his lance and urges his horse forward, frozen in an eternal charge. It is said that when Prague is in dire need St Wenceslas will rise again to assist the city. How much worse do things have to get before he arrives?
Always determined to be in the thick of things, Anička drags us further into the crowd. I stand in the hot, stifling mass, being pushed left and right by elbows.
Anička leans over to shout in my ear, ‘I heard they called a meeting at the United Nations Security Council.’ I don’t ask how she heard such a thing.
‘I hope talking about our situation makes them feel better,’ I reply, ‘because it’s certainly not going to do us any good.’
‘The world has noticed us,’ Anička insists, raising her voice above the clamour of the crowd.
‘So, the world has eyes to watch us suffer,’ I reply, ‘but it doesn’t have the balls to intervene.’
We leave before the protest is fully over; I insist I need to get back to the pub. Anička waves goodbye to her friends and says she’ll walk with me. We pass Russian soldiers standing on street corners, their faces flat and expressionless like cardboard cut-outs. Large numbers of them cluster near the protest, probably waiting for someone to say something too inflammatory or do something violent that will justify them intervening.
Prague is the carcass of a dying animal; it may be writhing and lashing out in pain right now, but it will soon be still and cold for the vultures to swoop in and have their fill of the bloody pickings. I understood little of the effects of the Nazi occupation but I have grown up with our parents’ stories of hunger, fear, submission. The inevitability of suffering.
When we are on a stretch of street devoid of soldiers, I wave my hand at the crowd behind us. ‘Why do you bother?’ I ask Anička.
‘Bother to what? Care?’
‘It just seems pointless. You must know what you’re doing won’t make a difference.’
‘It might,’ she insists. ‘The whole country is rising up; people everywhere are coming together in resistance. Together we have power.’
I try to see things her way, believe what she believes, and for a moment I feel a stirring of hope, the assurance that we are better than this, we are strong, we can have our freedom back. It feels like a mouthful of slivovice racing hot down my throat to sit and burn in my belly.
Weeks later I walk past Wenceslas Square. Its empty gaping belly holds only a cluster of pigeons pecking the pavement and a soldier stationed at each corner.
The air seems pregnant with expectation, as if waiting for the hundreds of protesters to return and take up their cries, but as I stand and watch, nothing moves in the square but the birds. The silence is intense, like the aftermath of a shout.
Dubĉek has been reinstated as a figurehead and our puppet government is starting to take baby steps under the fierce and watchful gaze of Moscow.
I close my eyes and open my ears, my body straining to hear a faint murmur of resistance drifting on the wind. It had been so powerful in the moment but now scattered by the realities of oppression and fear and the grind of daily life.
For the first time since the invasion I cry. I stand and watch pigeons eat crumbs from between the cobble stones, and as bitter tears drip down my cheeks I raise my hands to wipe my face, smudging red lipstick into a bloody gash across my mouth.
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