The Classroom in Czechoslovakia

It’s a classroom, almost.

Three wooden school benches stand one behind the other, empty but holding the weight of their own history. The desks, old and tired, and yet free of adolescent engravings, hold open textbooks with lessons I don’t understand. The pages are yellowing, the print on the cover is relatively fresh, a blue base with yellow writing.

I am fascinated. These are the pages from cold war thrillers from my teens. These spaces have existed in my mind as narratives and fast paced prose – spies, jumping from pages in novels to blockbuster film scripts, Bourne style. And now, here they stands in front of me, real, raw.

I follow the invisible chalk trail from the blackboard to the ground, but the dust has been swept out. Charts are tacked on to the wall with bits of tape. But what catches my attention is a little above eye level, next to a propaganda poster: A grime coloured gas mask; hollow eyes and an alien snout. It looks down with a sinister expression, flushing the room with something cold and terrifying, these Dementors of the Iron Curtain.

“I remember the gas drills,” she says. Her curls are as steady as her voice, both anomalies. “We had to wear the masks and run out to the open ground. The mask was so heavy. It was really hard to run.”

Something shifts. It becomes real. Not a novel anymore, but harsh and difficult. We keep standing there, behind the exhibit ropes, lost in versions of that time.

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