We set out early, walking through snow and ice from Eugene’s weekend house. The night before we’d gathered around the map as he’d shown us the circular route. Evka had been at his elbow and any doubts about who she’d spend the night with had evaporated. Maria had watched me watching them and smiled. She knew I’d spent the week before in Evka’s flat in Prague.
We hiked through forests, along silent roads and paths that wound through the mountains and then across a frozen lake that was beginning to thaw at the edges. Eugene assured me it would be safe, relishing my fear, but by the time we got to the far side the ice was beginning to crack. We had to leap a gap where frigid water sloshed. As we lay panting on the lakeside the girls were almost in tears. Eugene found it hilarious.
The light was ebbing as we reached the top of the hill where a large building looked down the valley we’d climbed. Eugene told us we had a couple of miles to go before we got back home. He suggested we stop for a hot whisky to warm ourselves and dry out. Maria and Evka agreed. He didn’t need to ask me. The whole day they were making digs about my drinking. At lunch I ordered beer while they drank herbal tea; Eugene insinuated my choice was governed by alcoholism. I tried to judo-flip him by agreeing. It hadn’t really worked and while I tried to enjoy my drink it tasted more bitter than it should. Snide comments masquerading as humour continued as we walked through the frozen landscape. Nothing he said warranted offense without it making me look petty, yet each barb struck home, tugging as Evka and Maria laughed, watching and wondering how I’d respond, knowing I’d look a fool if I bit. Increasingly they spoke in Czech. As we trudged the icy hill I found myself walking further alone, ahead and on the other side of the road, excluded by their laughter.
Inside the building at the top of the hill was a huge room with long benches. On one wall was a socialist mural of happy comrades marching to a better tomorrow. A shining light beckoned beyond the horizon and I found myself feeling depressed. Earlier I’d described a village we’d passed through as ‘picturesque’ and they’d mocked me. I made a note never to say it again. They were so cool, so knowing. Being around them was like walking on ice, never knowing when it would give way.
We found a table and ordered. The room was full of people who knew each other. They were mostly middle-aged but a few had older children with them.
“They’re staying here,” Eugene told me. “I think they’re school teachers,” he added with a sneer.
It was clear they’d only just arrived. They were red-faced and happy.
“Look,” said Evka, pointing to a huge man with a white beard. “Ernest Hemingway.”
“No,” said Eugene. “He’s too happy to be Hemingway.”
“Maybe he just killed something,” said Maria.
The teachers were drinking but didn’t seem able to settle, constantly moving from table to table. I could only understand around a quarter of what they said. Something seemed to delight a group of the women and they disappeared from the room.
They reappeared five minutes later wearing pyjama trousers.
“They think they’re crazy,” said Evka.
“They are crazy,” said Maria with a stony face. “Fat asses need trousers more baggy.”
The other teachers seemed to find the idea of wearing pyjamas in the bar an absolute scream, though Hemingway stood to one side smoking and drinking a beer. Several more teachers disappeared, men this time.
“I wonder where they’ve gone,” said Eugene. “Crazy teachers.”
They appeared minutes later in pyjama trousers.
“Holy shit, I can’t take more of this madness,” said Evka, rolling her eyes.
I smiled but my eyes weren’t in it. Their puerile cynicism was boring me. The teachers seemed like they were having a good time. Apart, perhaps, from Hemingway.
“Look,” said Maria. “Hemingway is not taking any of this shit.”
Indeed, Hemingway seemed to have found the joke at an end. He wasn’t scowling but he wasn’t smiling either.
“I don’t even own a pair of pyjamas,” laughed Eugene, shaking his head.
More teachers disappeared, some of their kids too.
“I had thought better of the young ones,” said Eugene. “They should know better.”
The teachers were laughing at each other’s trousers. They were as far from cool as I could imagine and I was starting to like them. A couple went up to Hemingway.
“No,” whispered Maria. “No, Hemingway, don’t do it.”
We watched intently. There was hardly anyone left in normal trousers. Just the staff, Hemingway and us.
“It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” murmured Maria.
“Invasion of the Trousers Snatchers,” said Eugene. Evka and Maria laughed. I didn’t even bother to smile.
“Shit,” said Maria. “He’s going.”
“No!” wailed Evka. “Don’t do it Hemingway!”
Hemingway turned and stared at us, frowning. We put our heads down, stifling giggles. Was he giving in, going along with the others? Was I? The teachers were just having fun. It might have been stupid but they weren’t hurting anyone. They weren’t sneering. I had the urge to get up, leave the table and join the teachers, to borrow some pyjamas if that’s what it took.
“Perhaps he’s going for a shit,” said Eugene.
“Let us pray he is shitting,” whispered Evka.
The room had grown quiet, filling with anticipation.
There was a cheer. Hemingway stood filling the doorway, arms extended to accept the applause.
Eugene leaned across the table.
“We need to get out now,” he hissed, “while there’s still time.”
I stood and started clapping. Eugene stared up at me. They all did. I felt like Spartacus.
“First thing I’m going to do when I get back to Prague,” I yelled over the applause, “is buy some goddamn pyjamas!”
Matthew Roy Davey lives in Bristol, England. He has won the Dark Tales and The Observer short story competitions and been long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction award and the Reflex Flash Fiction competition. He has recently been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry and fiction have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. His short story “Waving at Trains” has been translated into Mandarin and Slovenian. Matthew is also an occasional lyricist for prog-rock weirdos Schnauser. He has no hobbies.