Over the years – both before and after the Velvet Revolution – I have often visited Czechoslovakia / the Czech Republic but only ever stopped once in Pilsen; so this is an attempt to make amends to the capital of West Bohemia; published 2005 in the British Czech and Slovak Review.
He woke up in the dark and, as always, pressed the button on the alarm clock a few seconds before it went off at 5.30. His mind was blank: suppressing a feeling of irritation at this early start of the working day had almost become a reflex action, and the memory of moving over a few inches to kiss his wife, long-divorced, had faded even more rapidly than the less agreeable aspects of their childless marriage.
But getting up and going over to the window Karel looked out at the Pilsen streets wet from the night's rain, illuminated far more by the sparse overhead lighting than the dawn light, and his heart sank. There certainly wasn't much to look forward to the coming day ahead. Already at seven o'clock the first meeting, with representatives of the office and production workers and external union officials, and the second at nine, probably with no time beforehand to have coffee and rolls in peace.
As deputy director responsible for 'cadre' issues he would be chairing the first meeting. It wouldn't be easy. Still, a personnel director 75 kilometres or further to the west might even have a tougher job: instead of being a union member himself he would have both the trade unionists and the company workers up against him. But then at least everybody would know where they were. Despite his growing feeling of depression Karel smiled wryly. In ninety minutes time he and his 'colleagues' would all pretend to be on the same side of the fence, doing their best for the company and for the economy as a whole. But what did that mean in practice? Most of them would either be keeping their heads down or backing the party line, however stupid. Well, perhaps Jana wouldn't. He felt his spirits lifting. What made Jana Svobodova different? She represented the production workers in the plant but was not in any way typical of the party faithful. Attractive, with an unobtrusive sweet charm, she was always co-operative, genuinely friendly – and spoke her mind.
Come to that, what made him so different? So many defeats and compromises in the last twenty years, including signing the declaration that the 'intervention' of the Warsaw Pact forces August 1968 had been vitally necessary. He would never forget the signature business. Most of the people he'd worked with at that time, just as 'anti' as himself, shrugged their shoulders with the comment, 'after all, it's only a piece of paper.' But his immediate boss had not. He spent the following five years shovelling coal in the factory's boiler house. A filthy, badly paid job but Karel often envied him.