Updated: Oct 18, 2019
I spent the first half of the morning at a physiotherapist’s surgery. At least, I think I did. Even now, just a few hours later, it seems like a dream.
The outside of the physio’s pad was decorated like a child’s cobbled-together version of a wild west ranch, with cow and deer skulls nailed under the eaves, and a broken ‘bucking bronco’ machine parked outside the fairy-light festooned concrete mega-chalet of the surgery building. There was a faded cardboard-on-hardboard Elvis leaning on the wall, next to a badly torn John Wayne that was only half the size of the Elvis. Wigs and hats rustled over the gravel, like nightmare tumbleweed.
The door opened, and two Doberman dogs rushed out and ran towards us. A cigarette-kippered man with a scraggy grey pony tail called them back, but they ignored him. We sat motionless, the dogs’ snarling jaws within inches of our knees. The man laughed and called again. The dogs turned and barked at him, their owner explaining how friendly they were really. They were just nervous with strangers, he said. This seemed a bit of a handicap, given that the physiotherapist surgery must receive a constant flow of strangers. Furthermore, this naked aggression wasn’t what I would call nervous. What we were doing, sitting ashen-faced as we stared into the jaws of death – or a severe maiming, at the very least – that was nervous.
The dogs were eventually hauled away and banished to a gated area of the courtyard, and we were led inside the building. With no prior experience of Czech surgeries of any kind, I was pleased, if a little confused, to see a well-stocked bar in the main room, with what appeared to be a children’s playroom to one side, two impish faces peering out at us, giggling. The pony-tailed man, explaining that his wife – the physio – would be with us shortly, slooshed beer into a small glass and drank it down. Old barrel, he explained. Needed checking for fizz. Visitors these days went for spirits. A great shame, he said. Beer was the drink for Czech men, not Russian vodkas.
The walls of the bar were decorated with CDs, shiny-side out. Hundreds of them, floor to ceiling. The bar, tables and benches were covered with a mixture of chrome, red plastic leather and red paint. A fag-scorched billiard table in very faded blue was the only other colour in the sea of red. I’d never seen this kind of décor before, I told our host. He shrugged. It was the house style, he said cryptically. Would I like a beer?
I declined, using my imminent back-massage as an excuse. I was then called into the playroom. The physio was standing by a massage bench. I clambered over strewn toys, watched gleefully by the two children who had peered at us in the bar. Instructed to strip down to the bare essentials, I was aware of the children’s unwavering attention. A tall, skinny, painfully white Englishman with a bad back was something worth relaying to friends at school, and they stayed for the full ordeal.
I was pummelled. The physio climbed onto me at one point. She used hot cups of the kind I had read about in books about mediaeval medical treatments. She also passed a smouldering stick up and down my spine, telling me to call out when (not ‘if’) it burned. The sound of her bony thumbs in the knotted meat of my shoulders was deeply unpleasant, like feet in thick snow.
Half an hour later and a few hundred crowns lighter, we stumbled back outside, much to the indignation of the out-of-reach Dobermans. A little later we were once again nosing through the semi-ruin we had visited previously, trying to reimagine it as a born-again palace. Jan counted nine abandoned wasps’ nests in the attic, the smallest one the size of a fat orange, the largest looking like a fossilised disco ball.
On this second visit the shape of the place began to cohere, and we reviewed the options. Would we abandon the huge attic space for the time being and reinvent the downstairs area, which was at least habitable (with a little patience and imagination), or would we renovate the attic first, given that it was where most of the space was? Downstairs currently consisted of a single, vast room with a kitchen area (or, to be more accurate, an old tiled stove, a rancid sink (the only source of water inside the house) and a chopping board; a dining table; a couple of damp sofas; and a bed in each of the opposite corners. The rest of the lower floor was taken up by a dark corridor leading to the cellar. It looked very familiar from countless horror films. There was also a large windowless storeroom (a former garage area), attached to the main building but with no internal doorway to link the two. Beyond that was a stable block, with evidence of recent porcine occupants. It was a shippon of sorts – the kind of thing that was looking a bit mediaeval (that word again) in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, but was part of everyday life in 1970s Czechoslovakia, and not uncommon still in 2016.
With more money thrown at it, there was scope for lots of space here. And that was without the barn in the garden, which matched the house in scale, but looked as if it had taken a bomb blast at some point, its rafters skeletal and open to the elements. We could demolish and rebuild, demolish and clear to free up more garden space, or be bloody-minded and attempt to renovate the eye-sore to its original state as a great big 1920s red brick eye-sore.
It was all very daunting. My back had started hurting again. A visit to the outside earth-toilet didn’t raise my spirits. Magda and I looked at each other. Somewhere close by, a bubble burst. We told the estate agent, still dour and moody on this, his second visit, that we were not going to make an offer. He gave the customary Czech shrug.
“That’s okay”, he said. “I’m not sure the owners will sell anyway.”
On which cryptic note we left.