The winter of 1985/6 was one of the coldest here – much like this one. Temperatures would fall considerably below -18°C outside and quaver around 12°C inside, thanks to the state imposed austerity programme.
Invariably, end of January the winter games between the state-owned enterprises would begin. The ski cups were initiated in 1952 and are still held today: ‘Cupa IPA’, ‘Drumarilor’ (Road Workers’ Cup), ‘Proiectantul’ (the Draftsman), ‘ALFA’. Participating as a team on behalf of their factory, IMUC, the Chemical Equipment Installation Plant of Bucharest*, dad and his colleagues would get accommodation in Predeal and where exempt from work for the duration of the cups. So they’d take their kids and spouses along and we’d pack the cars full with everything necessary, from complete ski gear and food to sleeping bags, pans and gas burners. Unlike today, back then there was absolutely no guarantee that you could find a restaurant with food in the winter sport area – nor anywhere else, actually.
There wasn’t even a guarantee that you’d get where you wanted to, as Militia de circulatie would close the main roads in districts ‘affected by snow’ more or less randomly, cutting people off in the middle of their voyage on a Sunday (the only free day, as there was a 6 days workweek) and leaving them to wait for hours, sometimes days, in some valley (the Prahova Valley, usually), with no particular regards to the state of the roads or the weather forecast.
This time we had made it to Predeal rather easily: dad said it had probably been too cold for the militieni to come out.
The first evening, after getting a sandwich and brushing our teeth, us kids huddled together in a big bed under layers of sleeping bags that smelled like home and remotely of mothballs, while the parents tried to insulate windows and doors with some holey blankets they found in the villa.
The food we had brought along was placed between the windows: some bread and ham and raw eggs. Then the grownups gathered in the hall for a chat, a drink and cigarettes. While waxing the skis!
I think I was about 5 years old and the boy was 3 or 4. My parents had already said goodnight to me and now this lady would tell her kid a bedtime story. But he wouldn’t fall asleep, he wanted to play and maybe have another sandwich. His mom finished her story and tried lulling him to sleep – it just didn’t work.
After a while she lost her patience and I heard her say in a menacing tone:
‘Daca nu esti cuminte, sa stii ca te dau la administrator.’ – ‘If you don’t behave, I’ll give you to the caretaker.’ The boy whimpered and shut his eyes tightly.
Suddenly alarmed, I had to know: ‘What caretaker is that?’
‘Shht, it’s bedtime now. The one from our block.’
‘And he takes kids away? Where does he take them to?’
The boy winced again, pressing his eyes shut even tighter.
‘Yes, he takes kids away if they don’t behave. Now shush and go to sleep.’
‘But… but my parents never told my there was such a person as the caretaker. Where does he come from?’
‘Yes, there is. He lives downstairs in our block. He’ll take my son if he won’t behave. And you as well. He’ll take any kids who misbehave. Every block has one.‘
The kid pulled the blanket over his head whimpering ‘…the caretaker’.
‘… where does he takes kids to? For how long? And why would you let him do it? Would you open the door?
You don’t have a latch, is there nothing you could do?’
‘…Nobody knows’ where he takes them to, but they never return.’
‘Does he take adults as well? Like my terrible teacher who hates kids? and the neighbour lady who swears all the time and her mean husband who drinks and yells every day?’
‘Go to sleep now!’
I just could not believe her. Agreed, I was not raised in a block of flats, maybe they have strange habits there, but still…
‘Look…I don’t think so. If there was any such man, my parents would have told me so. I mean, maybe there is, but he wouldn’t follow us to the mountains. How would he know where we are? I think nobody’s coming for us.’
There’s rustling under the blanket. Some hope: ‘No caretaker?…’
The lady gets up and walks away. Hisses from the door ‘Now, look what you’ve done, he was almost asleep! He needs his sleep; he’s smaller than you. You see how you get to sleep all by yourselves now. I won’t hear another sound of you!’ Door slams shut. Silence.
‘Hey, psst.’ – Whimpering.
‘Look, I don’t think there’s a caretaker who takes kids away. I tell you, all the afternoon naps I didn’t take and all the evenings I would not fall sleep – nobody came for me; I think we’re quite safe.’
‘Even if there was – I don’t think he’d follow us ‘til here… He’d get lost. And it’s way too cold; they must’ve shut down the traffic anyway. Come out.’
Muffled hopeful sound.
’Hey, c’mon, come out and let’s play.
She’s can’t be right, I’m telling you. My parents know better, believe me. There’s no such man as the caretaker.’’
Half a face comes out from under the blanket. ‘But she’s my mum. She knows stuff.’
‘Maybe, but she sure doesn’t know this one. ‘
In the morning a thermometer outside showed -26°C.
The eggs were cut in halves with an axe and placed face down in a pan on the burner in the hall.
We all gathered around to warm our hands and watch the orange rings in the yolk flow out of the shell, as it melted directly into the pan.
It was the funniest omelet I ever had.
The ski cups are still being held. The kid got married last year.
And I now know what a caretaker of a block of flats does. He does not take little kids away – but your precious time. Lots of it.
In return, he gives you frustration.
*IMUC/later TMUCB was established in 1960 and broken into pieces in the 90es. Some pieces survived till 2011. It mainly produced chemical and petrochemical machinery.
In his position as a design engineer there, dad drafted parts of refineries, a heavy water- and other plants, but also parts of a soap factory, and an over dimensioned rooster for a playground.