Alexandra E Balm

After a PhD from Otago, Alexandra is now a Creative Writing student and researcher at AUT. She has published poems, short stories, and academic articles. She was the first to use the concept of metamodernism in Europe and New Zealand.

“For years I wrote only when unbearable not to. In the past few years, however, a day without a line appeared barren, unfulfilled. Writing became a transition between stages in the process of becoming, and a way to access joy.”

Balnescu Syndrome

“Tell me a story!” Mark entreated, plunging on his belly onto the hard mattress. He was soon balancing his legs, indicating that he was interested and waiting for the story to start. It had rained for days, and the thunderstorm left them without electricity, therefore no computer or television. The ipad and phones had run out of battery a few hours ago. Gopal was working as usual in the weekend, so Raluca and Mark were left to entertain themselves. Back in Romania or, after that, in Dunedin, they could have called a friend and arranged an ad-hoc chat-and-Lego date by candle light, but here in Auckland they hardly knew anyone. Three more hours until Gopal would be home from his work in Mitre 10, Silverdale, twenty kilometres away. The night was setting in and it was getting colder. In moments like this Raluca missed her home in Dunedin, with its fireburner that changed even the most melancholy evenings into a festive holiday. She missed snuggling with her own mother, as she used to before she was twelve. Her eyes wandered into the approaching dark.

“Get a hold of yourself, lady!” she mentally rebuked herself. “You are the mother here!” She refocused on the top of Mark’s curly head, a dark version of the Little Prince, with as much grace and close to as much wisdom.

“Mum?” Mark said tentatively. Raluca smiled and tried to catch the boy’s gaze.

“Yes, hon. Do you want a story?” she asked and stretched her right hand to caress Mark’s soft hair. Her own mother had been educated in a German boarding school in Transylvania, and displays of affection were frowned upon. But Raluca made it a point to express whatever she felt.

“You’re spoiling him!” Gopal often reprimanded.

“I’m not! How is he to know that I love him if I don’t show it?” was her invariable reply.

Stories and their mutual affection had helped Raluca and Mark find their place in this new world, which was as beautiful as a paradise on earth, but where they still missed home.

“I’ll tell you a story about one of my father’s friends,” she said and she pulled a duvet over the two of them. The cold was creeping in, despite the late summer. Once Mark was settled in the crook of her arm, she started her story. “This lady I’m going to tell you about was a bit of a heroine for me when I grew up. Her name is Liana Balnescu. Balnescu is her husband’s name. I don’t know her maiden name, but I’m sure my parents would still remember. My father attended the same university as she did, but while his degree was in theoretical physics, she did something more practical, possibly aerodynamics.

“She was seven years younger than my father, but they had a few things in common: they were both from old families that would have been well-off, had it not been for the levelling that communism brought about. But communism and terror couldn’t cause people’s egos to be levelled down completely. Just their wealth was brought to what was hoped to be a common denominator. Equal sharing of resources. So much idealism gone wrong. But that’s another story. They were both the best students in their respective years, my father and Liana, but their lives panned out very differently. While my father was offered a lecturing position in mathematics straight after graduation, and then in Artificial Intelligence, the theoretical part of Computer Science, she went on to teach Physics at high school.”

“I know that you miss Romania and your lecturing job, Mum, but that is a bit too much detail! By the way, how do you know all that?” asked Mark.

“She was my teacher from year ten to eleven, before I moved to a humanities college,” Raluca explained. She smiled, ready to tip into another reverie.

Mark hastened to bring her back. “So, do you know the life stories of all your teachers?” he asked, snuggling close to his mum under the duck down duvet that they had brought from Romania.

“I had met her previously, before she taught me,” Raluca said, fully in the present now and pleased by his interest. “I must have been five years old and my sister Teo was seven. We were travelling by the night train from Napoca to Constantsa with our parents. Liana had a sleeping berth next to ours. When she came out into the corridor in the morning, both my sister and I stared at her, taking her in, all the 1.75 metres of her. We had never seen anyone quite like her. Most women in the early nineteen-eighties had their hair cut short and carried themselves as slightly more curvy versions of their male partners. Makeup or accessories were discreetly frowned upon by society as reminiscent of a bourgeoisie era of social difference and individualism, which they tried to forget.

“Liana was the very incarnation of what the State tried to obliterate: difference, creativity, daring. Her loose hair reached to her waist, covering her whole back in highlights of deep gold, the colour of ripe wheat. She wore imported blue jeans that fit perfectly on her slim hips, and an unpretentious T-shirt that brought out the green of her eyes. Some of her makeup had survived from the day before, and delicately outlined her Greek goddess features. My sister’s eyes stuck to her purple amethyst necklace, while I plunged into her eyes, losing myself in the green. Teo has loved amethyst ever since. I took to wandering the fields as a teen, then travelling the world, looking for that perfect colour in nature, and for that royal presence in people.

“As she stepped out of her compartment, she was nonchalantly biting a tomato, which she promptly proffered in the direction of my sister and me:

“ ‘Would you like some?’ she asked.

“We nodded in refusal, blushing at the assumption that we craved her tomato. Our colour matched that of the rising sun. We’d remember the scene every day for the next fortnight, as we watched every sunrise in the sea and sunset on the flat plains of Baragan. The green of the maize reminded us of her deep green eyes, and the wheat – of her hair. She had become a fairy in our stories.”

“Is that all you remember from that journey?” Mark prompted.

“Pretty much,” Raluca replied after a moment’s silence. Birds were chirping in the trees outside, glad that the rain had stopped. “I was very young and I’m amazed that I remember that much. In fact, the memory of that journey stayed with me for ten years or so, until I went to high school, and I had all but turned it into a personal legend. As I grew up I thought that I had imagined seeing someone of such beauty and confidence. She was very pleasant company, too. She chatted with us kids and treated us like adults.

“ ‘I’ll teach you how to fly a plane,’ she said and grinned when she saw our eyes open wide. “We’d never flown, and had only seen planes on news, when Ceausescu was visiting one of his Middle Eastern petrol buddies. He’d strut among two files of perfectly dressed soldiers, accompanied by men dressed in wide cotton clothes and head dresses. The shape and size of the plane in the background astounded us kids: how could an object of that size fly?

“Liana pulled the window open and the fresh morning air hit us, cooling our cheeks, now close to their usual colour, though slightly tanned by two months in the countryside, helping our grandparents on their tiny farm.

“ ‘You hold your hand slightly slanted, and the rush of air will push it up. Like a plane.’

“A brief silence followed, in which we heard the wheels go over a few gaps in the railway.

“ ‘Take me up!’ I demanded, putting my hands up so that my father could pick me. ‘I want to try it!’ ”

“You were bossy even then!” Mark teased.

“Willing to experiment. Keen for a new sensation, I’d say,” Raluca countered.

“Did he pick you up? You must have been quite chubby.”

“Not really! I was skinny then, and for a long time after that.”

“What was it like? Did it really work?” Mark was curious to know.

“It was good, and yes, the pressure of the air did lift my hand, when I let it loose. It was one of my first lessons in aerodynamics.”

“ ‘Come in and have some breakfast!’ Mum called from inside the compartment. ‘We’ve got ham sandwiches with capsicum, hardboiled eggs, and tea.’

“Liana joined us and we spent time together for the rest of the journey. Mum was still slim then, before the two surgeries and then the divorce. Her bright green and white summer dress, smooth as silk, was shining against her olive skin. Her eyes were full of light when she smiled; they changed colour with her moods – dark blue when she was angry, green when she was happy. She thought that love was forever then, and that the sacrifices she made to help Dad build a career were a necessary part of any relationship. They would pay off when the kids are big, she thought. Well, they did, but not as she had hoped.”

“By you and Auntie Teo being the kind of people you are, you mean, rather than by your Dad being there for her when she’s old?” Mark commented, with the understanding of someone who knew the family stories.

“Yes, that’s quite perceptive! That’s exactly what I had in mind,” Raluca replied, surprised not so much at his insight, as at his phrasing it so clearly and succinctly. Mark didn’t say what he meant by the type of people she and her sister were. Did he mean hard-working, self-sacrificing, forbearing, like his nana? She didn’t ask.

“About your physics teacher, how did you know it was the same lady you had met on the train, when she started teaching you?” Mark inquired.

“I had remembered her first name; I associated it with that of Ileana Consanzeana from the Romanian folk stories I read.”

“But you forgot her surname! Now what’s the probability that somebody you met at five years old will become your teacher at fifteen?” Mark quipped, showing off his fourteen-year old’s scepticism. “You couldn’t have recognised her! You’re making this up!”

“Not really! I checked with my parents after the first class. They told me the part of the story that I hadn’t remembered. That she was on her way to meet her boyfriend in Constantsa, that she would ride then with him on his bike all the way back to Napoca. About a thousand miles. Nobody did such things those days, when conformity was the norm, and difference was suspicious. Liana and her boyfriend Calin didn’t care; they were both students, due to graduate the summer after that. They got married soon after they graduated. When she was offered a lectureship, she declined it in favour of her husband. Such things were possible those days.”

“Was he as good as she was?” Mark asked.

“He was OK, but she was brilliant! She was a nonconformist and had such creative ideas! While he was too cautious. He ended up being a full professor while she was still a secondary teacher. They lived in a large penthouse flat by the Central Park, next to the river that crossed the city of Napoca; it was her parents’ wedding gift to them. They divorced a few years after the summer of the train journey, on account of her being unable to have children.”

“How old was she when she was your teacher?”

“Must have been early to mid-thirties. When she walked into our class, one mid-September afternoon, everybody fell silent in a way we never did with other new teachers. She carried herself with the self-assuredness of a queen. She had a detached smile, somewhat contradicted by an expression of care in her eyes. She read the roster out and paused at my name. She had recognised my father’s name, perhaps, or it just rang a bell she couldn’t quite place. She looked up for a second in my direction, then carried on with the other names. We had two classes with her that day, one after another. While most of my mates went out to kick a ball in the fifteen minute break. I stayed in, and read a book that I had brought from home. Might have been Elective Affinities, for I was into Goethe those days. I believed in reading not books but authors. I tried to read everything by the writers that I liked.

“She didn’t go to teachers’ room either, although it was just a brief walk down the corridor. I thought that was unusual. She probably doesn’t quite like the company of adults, I told myself. Too damn self-righteous and judgmental, some adults were, I thought. If that was the case, I agreed with her. I looked up at her, as she was sitting at her desk, the start of a smile and a flicker of curiosity in my eyes. The air was getting stuffy from the thirty plus young bodies that breathed the dusty air for fifty minutes.

“ ‘What’s your name again?’ she asked, and I knew that she meant me, although there were a few other students in the class. They were busy copying their mates’ homework or simply doing nothing.

“ ‘Raluca. Raluca Christina Teohar.’

“ ‘That’s a beautiful name,’ she said.

“ ‘Thank you,’ I said for lack of something better to say.

“ ‘I feel as if I should know you from somewhere. As if we have met,’ she said. I wasn’t sure it was her, the fairy on the train who had taught us aerodynamics, so I didn’t say anything.

“ ‘Will you open the window for us?’ she asked.

“She watched me walk to the window, then get back to my seat in the first row of desks, at the centre of the class. My short-sightedness and slight deafness were excuses good enough for taking a seat where I could actually focus on what was being taught, without being taunted too much for geekiness or trying to be teacher’s pet. I found her watching me slightly unsettling. I didn’t like people paying attention to me. I liked to blend in the background and listen to the stories that were told, rather than be the story.

“ ‘You remind me of someone I met long ago,’ she said. ‘What’s your mother’s name?’

“ ‘Dora.’

“ ‘That comes from dor, doesn’t it? Yearning or longing. The main sentiment in ballads, isn’t it? Those sad songs of longing and yearning. Strange thing people would name their daughters after such a word,’ she said pensively, almost ignoring me. I didn’t know what to say and I buried my face in my book. In books relationships seemed easier to manage, and characters were seldom at a loss for words.

“We had studied physics the year before, and in the second class we had that day she quizzed us on what we remembered. She paced through the three rows of desks as she asked us questions, then stopped to listen when we knew or thought we knew the answer. If the answer was wrong, her lips tightened in what looked like a sad smile, then repeated the question. Her face opened in a true smile if she got a good answer, and her eyes shone with the memory of green fields.

“She had our attention without seeming to try. We instinctively listened and tried to kick our holiday brains into thinking. There was something imposing and charismatic in her demeanour, as well as an air of distant loneliness or masked sadness that made us keen to please her. Like a queen who’s lost a naval battle, but was rounding the armed forces for subsequent land fights. Even the most callous in the class wouldn’t want to add to her melancholy, if they could help it. She was a memorable presence, though for different reasons than she used to be when she was younger.

“As she was getting ready to leave the class – most of the students had rushed out by then, before she would have time to set us homework for next time – she came to my desk, the hardbound class roster under her now rounder left arm. She watched me for a second as I stood up, partly out of respect, partly because I wanted to go out for a walk around the school before the next class would start in ten minutes. She hesitated for a second, as if wondering if it was a good idea. ‘Tell your mum Liana Balnescu says hi,’ she said.

“ ‘OK, I will.’ I didn’t say that she should be remembering my father as well, as they had studied at the same university and were a bit more than mere acquaintances.

“ ‘I recognised your mother’s way of moving about,’ she told me later, when we became more friendly than is usually expected in a teacher-student relationship. I was more guarded then than I had been two or so years before, when I had met Nora, but I still enjoyed talking with the adults I deemed worthy. She had remembered my mother, whom she’d met only briefly, for a few hours, and had chosen to forget my father, whom she should have known quite well.

“She still had that amazing long hair, reminiscent of the gold colour of wheat, though a few shades darker. We called her Ms Bee, short for Balnescu. She had kept her husband’s name after the divorce. Her son Peter was four years old.”

“So she did have a child after all.”

“Oh, yes, she did. And Liana, Ms Bee, raised him on her own. She was quite a sight carrying him under her arm on the way to the kindergarten, a backpack of students’ assignments hanging heavy from her shoulders. She didn’t care what people thought and never used a pushchair. She carried Peter like she used to carry hardcovers from the Central Library when she was a student. She stomped all the four or so kilometres to the kindergarten, then hurried the other two ks to the school where she taught. She was a strong woman, a tiger mother, more shapely now than those ten years before. Still beautiful and ready to talk to me. She was one of the few people whom I could talk to after Nora had left for Germany two years before.”

Raluca was talking as if from a dream; she was more present now in her recollection than in the chilly weatherboard house by the marshes. The words were forming nearly in spite of herself. “I visited Ms Bee once, with my year ten class mates, in her flat by the river. We had practised a few Christmas carols and decided to brave the cold and the snow on Christmas Eve that year and visit a few of our favourite teachers and sing carols to them, as a sign of our appreciation. That’s something that the Music Conservatory students did for their professors. With the unfounded confidence of youth, we thought we were up to a night of carol singing and wandering the city in the subzero temperature. It was already dark, at 6 pm, when we gathered in front of the apartment building where Ms Bee lived. With some of our confidence still intact, we climbed the stairs to her apartment. One of us was supposed to warn the teachers whom we intended to visit. Much as we loved springing surprises on them, we didn’t fancy being met by sleepy mugs dressed in transparent pyjamas. I think it was Radu, the Physics whizz, who’d later teach at the Sorbonne, who had been asked to tell her of our intention. There were about twenty or so of us, aged fifteen and sixteen, dressed for the cold, with snow boots, gloves, and mufflers. Most of the girls had no beanies, but the boys didn’t care about ruffled hair, so they had hoods and beanies deep over their ears. We were quite excited, and the intended silent ascension of the stairs, quiet so that not to disturb the neighbours, turned into a muffled stampede.

“ ‘Lauris, your elbow has just kicked me in the ribs,’ David, the hippy of the group, complained.

“ ‘Did not!’ she countered, her top-of-the-class ego mildly bruised.

“ ‘Did so!’ David insisted, making to pinch her in retaliation. Lauris blushed and hastened up the stairs. She readied to press the buzzer before most of us could reach the last floor landing.

“ ‘Lauris!’ hissed two of the girls in reproach. The understanding was that we’d wait for everyone to gather on the landing, then start singing the carols we’d prepared. Only later, a few minutes into the singing, after we had given time for our teachers to put on something decent, and for neighbours to peep through the spy-hole and wonder whose visitors the big group was, we’d ring the doorbell. We started with ‘Silent night’, relishing its soft modulations. It was the first winter when carol singing was officially condoned, after half a century of State enforced atheism. I don’t remember what Ms Bee was wearing when she answered the door, but I recall vividly how the heavy door opened and let a strong yellow light into the now dark staircase. The rooms were large and toasty and we took no time to invade them, from the living room to the study with the ebony piano and the kitchen where she had prepared at least three types of cakes and some savouries.

“We attacked the food as soon as it was polite to do so. Her son Peter was not at home; he must have been away at a play date or at his grandmother’s. After we had inspected the apartment like kittens scuttling through new territory, we settled for a chat and more cakes and drinks. We sat on the living room parquet floor, pleasantly cool against our warm bodies. We talked about nothing much: the piano, the other groups of carol singers we’d met on the way, the cold outside, Peter and some of his latest tricks – some infuriating, most merely amusing. We cracked jokes and laughed, savouring the feeling of togetherness, the release at being able to forget, if temporarily, the previous Christmas spent by some of us on bathroom floors with bullets whizzing past, hoping that our parents would make it home through the police, army, and revolutionaries’ barricades.

“Ms Bee apologised for not having any alcohol for us, nor was she supposed to give us any. Even if there were no strict alcohol laws those days, the tacit agreement between adults was that alcohol was not to be supplied to puppies, meaning anyone below the age of 18. Nonetheless, one of the boys, Marcel I think it was, rummaged through his backpack and produced a bottle. A rotten-cherry colour of mild alcohol, thick, sweet and fragrant, which was usually considered an acceptable drink even for the underage kids like us. The drink was close to cider. I had half a glass, at my mates’ insistence, and it gave me a headache for a couple of days afterwards. The atmosphere was warming up. We forgot about the other teachers we had planned to visit. From the recounting of neutral jokes, directed at groups not represented in our circle, we moved on to telling more personal stories. I suppose we were quite tipsy by then, otherwise Radu wouldn’t have mentioned his alcoholic mother, or Marian his father – a Dutch tradesman he had never met. Ms Bee shared some stories from her youth, and we all laughed with tears. At Calin’s silliness, her own mother’s strictness, and bitterness from longing for a grandson while Ms Bee was married, then resenting having one after she divorced. It was late into the night when we left her flat. Outside, in the cold cloudless sky, the stars seemed to be moving with the bright purposefulness of aeroplanes. I learned more about Ms Bee during that visit than in hours spent in class studying Brownian movement and the principles of thermodynamics.

“And you learned about the Balnescu syndrome!” Mark said stumbling on the long Romanian name ending in –escu, the sign of family appurtenance, like the Latin –iscum, the Scottish Mac or Mc, and the Nordic –son or –sen.

“Yes, that’s a syndrome that I have promised myself to stay away from, if my life depended on it,” she said with a wry smile. “Avoiding pointless sacrifices for people who don’t appreciate the effort, bracketing your own desires, aspirations and dreams, just to further somebody else’s.”

“Don’t worry, Mum. You did do it!” Mark’s smile bordered on the sardonic.

“How come?” asked Raluca.

“For about ten years. Until you got married,” Mark replied, seemingly ignoring her question.

“True. I see what you mean,” Raluca said, her smile as impenetrable as those of Greek sculptures. An image of equipoise and acceptance. “I looked Liana Balnescu up on FaceBook before the storm,” she continued. “I couldn’t find her. But I did find Peter. He’s studying for a PhD in Computer Science at Oxford, after an internship with Cora in Hollywood, Florida.”

“Cora Persephona,” Mark muttered, using the Romanian pronunciation of the name he remembered from The Legends of the Olympus, a book Raluca used to read to him before he could read by himself. “The daughter of Demeter,” he said. “Cora was the goddess whose kindness, creativity, and generosity made vegetation grow for six months. Then she spent the rest of the year with her husband Hades in hell. Literally!” He added the last word after a pause, marking it with a punch in the hard mattress.

“Yeah,” Raluca attempted a smile, pleased that he had remembered. “Perhaps a first instance of someone struck by the Balnescu syndrome. The very first case. Cora Persephona was the archetype of denying creative impulses in order to be with someone.”

“But she returned every year in spring to regenerate life and make vegetation grow,” said Mark.

“And I started writing. And then you were born,” Raluca said and ruffled Mark’s hair, the colour of ripe chestnuts, fresh from their burrs.


First published takahe 87
August 2016