It was 1983 Bucharest. A time when our thoughts and actions were not our own. Though Spring was as beautiful as ever. The buds had begun their journey of transforming into petals. Some had already turned to brightly coloured flowers, attracting darting bees, and it was impossible to not be filled with joy.
We, some twenty rebel university students and members of a local choir called SONG, were standing there, in Herastrau Park, Bucharest’s most beautiful in those days, on one of its famous paths, waiting for instructions. A couple of directors from the State-sponsored television had asked John, our conductor, to set up a shoot in the park, for a Sunday afternoon show. The programme was supposed to portray the same picture as always: teenagers running freely in a green grassy meadow, under a clear sky, while dressed in optimistic colours.
Hundreds of pictures had been taken there, over the years, in that same spot, as if the park did not have any other corners. We were supposed to take part in a group shot, for a melody that we had previously recorded in a studio. It was a song about joy and hope, totally fitting to our surroundings.
Normally a shoot lasted around ten minutes, maybe fifteen, but sometimes they went on for several hours; we were hoping that this one wouldn’t become tediously long. We had asked permission to miss various courses and seminars, and although we were hard-working students, we were ready to take advantage of any free time we could get to enjoy ourselves. So we were standing there in our lightweight, vaguely pink costumes, shivering in the chilly morning. The earth-coloured panels sewn into our thin tunics were supposed to contrast markedly with the spring surroundings, especially in the triumphant finale scenes when we had to wave red, yellow and blue scarves in order to resemble our national flag.
A young couple ambled by, smiling at us, as we were having fun by rubbing each other’s back, in an attempt to warm ourselves up. The lady was pushing a baby stroller, her husband embracing her lovingly, his arm around her shoulders.
I smiled back.
After a few minutes, we were ready to begin, our short sleeves waving feverishly, the crinoline skirts swelling and the cold wind stroking our bare knees. Despite that, we were squinting angelically at the sun, which was desperately trying to warm us up, apologising that it could not do more.
John, our 32-year-old conductor, was encouraging us, as usual, to smile. He told us a joke and we burst into laughter. He never cared about the TV directors’ guidelines, “the goodwill experts”, even though he knew they had to approve the shoot, otherwise the programme wouldn’t be broadcast. They were wary of our gestures, words, glances and undisciplined curly hair.
Communism was tougher than ever.
An earring that dared to swing from an earlobe was immediately put away – such capitalist baubles would not be permitted in front of the TV camera, lest they corrupt the minds and souls. Unruly hair had to be adjusted to the working-class discipline, flat and tidy, not to disturb eyes, minds, thoughts and feelings. Any resemblance to famous celebrities from the other world had to be eliminated. No long hair, beards, or moustaches.
So we put away our rings, bracelets, personalities.
Finally, we had gathered enough students to represent the happy crowds enjoying spring, when John saw something moving in the grass near his feet.
“Look, down there” he exclaimed.
I followed his gaze.
A little swallow, almost frozen, had recently come back from its journey overseas and was lying exhausted and trembling on the cold earth. It could hardly move its open wings, trying in vain to warm up a little bit. I was looking at the bird and feeling sorry for it but I did not know what to do.
John and I watched its powerless struggle until a TV cameraman came by and nearly stepped on it by accident. I held my breath and John cried out, rushed to protect it and pushed the guy away. He raised the swallow, cupping his hands and leaned his face close to it. Then he turned and called to some of us who were standing nearby to show us his treasure.
“Look at this little bird,” he said. “It had to fly a long way to get here and it's too cold to survive; I need to do something to help it.”
I could see how tenderly he looked at the swallow, as if it was the most precious thing in the world. I wished I was it. Nothing else mattered to him anymore. I was so close I could feel John’s breath. That thought gave me goose bumps.
The fragile living thing trying to defend itself in his palms was scared to death. We were watching his hands, not knowing what to do or say. Somebody suggested we take it home and feed it but there wasn’t time for that. Scrambling for a solution to show John how much I cared, I only stood and stared. Touched by the bird's desperate struggle and the proximity of John.
The girls all admired him greatly. We worked to be noticed. A story went around that he wanted to marry the lead soprano a few years ago but she turned him down. Some of the girls said he was gay. So we teased him when we had a chance. He teased us back by calling us names and picking on our weaknesses. Suddenly a glitter caught my eye and I turned my head to the left. I thought I saw something moving in the bush nearby but I couldn’t tell what it was.
“Did you see that, John?” I asked.
“I am not sure, but I think it came from that bush,” I said, pointing it out to him.
“Don’t worry about it. The shoot is about to begin,” he said, watching the swallow carefully. He whispered sadly, “It is so frozen, the poor thing.” He leaned forward and started to blow gently, into his cupped hands, the heat of his soul, while climbing slowly down the hill.
Something in the bush nearby, on the little crest, moved again and my heart almost stopped when I realised that someone was watching us, hiding behind it. Then I saw a flash, and another one. I had no idea what was going on but it didn’t look good. So I decided to call again for John.
He was busy with the others, some one hundred meters away and didn’t hear me. Then he gestured that we should start rehearsing.
The music was loud. The audio director had turned on the two big speakers in the main walkway. We began spinning slowly on the grass, round and round, forming two concentric circles, while gathering hands together and then stretching our arms in a traditional Romanian folklore dance called the Hora.
When I got a chance, during the first break I sneaked up to the bush and managed to catch a glimpse of the person behind it: a middle-aged male, sporting dark sunglasses and wearing a black shirt, a black tie, and a black leather coat. He held a camera in his left hand, pointed in John’s direction, and seemed to be taking photo after photo. Worried, I tried, in vain, to catch John’s attention. Although he would watch us and give us directions from time to time, he would continuously lower his head to breathe into his hands and missed my signs.
Someone from the production team called him away again, further down from us, to give him some more instructions, so he asked us to continue the rehearsal without him. I was getting increasingly anxious to talk to him. Normally he would have been the first to start the whole “dancing, romancing” programme with us, as he loved to be on screen, but on this occasion he didn’t.
I looked around and saw the couple standing, not far from us, beside the main thoroughfare. They had stopped walking and the young mother was leaning over her baby stroller.
So we began rehearsing without John. From time to time, he would position himself near the cameraman, still watching and directing us from behind. Then he would turn his head down and continue to breathe into his hands. He wouldn't let the little swallow go. He kept guiding us, and casually, followed only his own rules for directing, despite the disapprovals and threats to stop the shoot coming from the TV directors responsible for the show. He knew that nature and beauty were rising up, to be seen, in their own right, and that we were well trained and followed only his advice and not the propaganda guys, so he wasn’t worried. Whatever others tried so hard to achieve using old patterns, he could succeed with only one gesture. That’s why we loved him so much. The girls admired his charisma and looks, the boys his guts and wit and we all loved his ability to achieve success in a time when success was a synonym to danger. Even though the propaganda directors grumbled and disparaged him or became angry with him, unwilling to accept his working style and methods, they all had to admit that, at the end of the day, he was good and the ratings always went up when SONG’s TV shows were broadcast.
The man in black was still taking pictures, from behind the bush, when I decided to take my chances and sprint up the little hill, improvising a surprise stumble.
The camera he was holding in his left hand slipped from his grasp, but he snatched it back before it hit the ground.
I pulled myself up and rushed back towards John, to warn him.
I heard the clicks behind me and I thought, Oh, God, now I’m being photographed too. Who is that person? Why is he hiding? What is he after? I had to let John know about this. He’d know what to do.John always encouraged my friends and me to get involved and share our ideas with him, which was unheard of during those times. He made us feel important as human beings, as individuals. We felt creative and alive.
I finally managed to murmur in his ear about the man in black. Without a word, John turned around and headed straight up to the man’s hiding place. The TV directors tried to stop him as he was crossing our path, but he ignored them. When John climbed close enough to the bush, he told the intruder to show himself. Everybody stopped and kept silent. The music stopped too. The man in black didn’t move. “If you don’t come out at once, I’ll pull you out myself,” John threatened. Still nothing.
When it became clear that he would get forced out, the man in black stepped out, pretending he hadn’t heard John’s warning. Then, in a low tone, John confronted him, pointing to his camera. The conversation was tense but quiet. As we were standing down the meadow, a bit far from the action, we could see they were arguing but we couldn’t hear what they were saying.
Everybody on the set was wondering what was going to happen. Was John going to be arrested? We all knew what a man in black, with dark glasses and a camera, following somebody around, meant. But nobody dared to ask anything or interfere. Secret Police were everywhere and they could have put you in jail for anything they wanted. Or even make you disappear, as if you had never existed. We had heard some scary stuff, so nobody did anything but stare.
After about five minutes their argument ended. The man in black turned around, his expression grim, and pointed a finger at John, and then he left the scene. All this time John remained calm. He returned to us with a smile on his face, still holding the swallow. We surrounded him and asked him about what had happened, but he shook his head and gently pushed us back to our places. “Nothing happened,” he said. “Are you going to finish the shoot today, or what?” he added and asked the TV directors for a final run.
We were intrigued but followed his instructions. I was feeling quite worried after this incident, but I had to wait until the show was over.
So much fuss, so many rehearsals, so many replays... Finally, when the shoot in the park came to an end, John opened up to me. John was considered suspicious. They had brought some serious charges on him along the years, which included undisclosed sexual connotations. “John, I am really concerned about you” I said, covering my mouth with my right palm.
He turned to me and shrugged.
“Don’t be” his dark eyes sparkled; ‘they have a file on all of us.” He bent and breathed another blast of warm air onto the small swallow, then straightened, and winked at me.
“Fuck ’em!” he said, a twinkle in his eye. My heart fluttered involuntarily. My eyes spoke volumes.
We were about to leave when the swallow started to flap its wings, clearly perking up a little. John looked around for a sheltered place, where the mid-day sun was shining, touched the ground with his hands, opened his palms gracefully, and waited… The swallow raised itself slowly to its recovering feet, waited a second and prudently stepped outside the makeshift cage. It walked a few steps as if it couldn't believe that it had recovered, shook its head, spread its wings, tensed its body and rushed out towards a blossoming branch nearby.
I held my breath as the swallow made this first attempt to start its new life. It nestled a little in the sun then took to the air again. It circled the tree twice, looped close to John, who was watching it happily and then it flew away.
I noticed the man in black slipping his camera into the couple’s pram and finally strolling away.
Cornelia is a Romanian who immigrated to Australia with her Australian husband and daughter in 2008. She began writing short stories about people overcoming obstacles in their lives. www.lifepathselfdevelopment.com