The Complaint      Sci-fi story

This story is taken from ‘6000 miliard. Sci-fi povídky’ by Jan Váchal, published by Nakladatelství Penrous in 2009. The translation is by Andrew Oakland.

The Complaint

I have to admit that I’d expected my work at the Office for the Environment to be somewhat greener. In effect I was a bureaucrat of the Austro-Hungarian type who seldom got up from his desk and used so much paper that he harmed rather than conserved the environment. But everyone gets used to his job in the end; I learned to take joy in small things, such as the battle surrounding the last remaining tree in the immediate vicinity of a shopping centre.

One day a complaint arrived on my desk from a Mrs Vìra Nováková, who lived in one of those grey prefabricated tower blocks that in the Eighties came to adorn the northern suburbs. The complaint concerned a Mr Tomášek who lived in Mrs Nováková’s building and who according to the complainant stored great quantities of scrap paper in his apartment. She wished to draw the Office’s attention to the hygiene and fire risks this entailed; she had enclosed newspaper cuttings that told of similar cases elsewhere in the republic and had counted up the number of senior citizens and small children in the building whose lives and property were put at risk by Mr Tomášek’s activities. She ended her letter with a demand that the situation be rectified on behalf of all disgruntled citizens of the city.

Old Mrs Nováková’s well known to us. A chronic complainer,” moaned my much older superior. “A menace to every office in the district.”

        “So I should throw her complaint in the wastepaper basket?”

        “Metaphorically speaking, yes. But she expects an answer and won’t give up until she gets one. So write something pretty general.”

        “But what if she’s right?”

        “So perform a local investigation. It can’t do any harm and you’ll show that you’re no dupe.”

        “What’s that supposed to mean?”

        “Sometimes it’s the complainant who’s got most to keep quiet about. It’s not unusual for an investigation to endorse the old chestnut that he who cries ‘thief’ is a thief himself.”

        “So I’ll get on my bike and take a little ride.”

        “Why not? You’re young and the exercise will do you good. And it’ll raise our local investigations ratio, and that always comes in handy.”

I arrived at the tower block in question in the early evening. I didn’t want to risk finding no one at home. There was no problem with Mrs Nováková in this regard. She was indeed at home, and sitting at the window of her ground-floor apartment.

        “A bit on the young side, aren’t you?” Obviously I was a disappointment to her.

        “A young’un but a good’un,” I replied, so as to stay on top of things.

        “Tomášek lives on the second floor. Every day he lugs in more scrap paper, but as God is my witness I’ve never seen him carry any away.”

        “How long has he been doing this?”

        “Ever since his wife died. Let me see, that must be at least five years. As I’m sure you’ll agree, young man, that there can’t be enough room to swing a cat in there by now.”

        “And you’re bothered by some kind of smell?”

       This question caught her out. “Not exactly. But paper burns very well and Tomášek smokes like a chimney. He’s an odd one altogether. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard him talking to his late wife, on the bench out there, or in the supermarket, asking what she thinks about this or that.”

        “There’s no law against it,” I objected.

        “He’s crazy. He’s got this telescope and he gazes at the stars. Mrs Tvarùžková on the fifth reckons he’s waiting for aliens. He even told Mr Charvát across the hallway he was once kidnapped by green monsters.”

       “There’s nothing illegal in that, either, as long as he doesn’t bother or threaten others, in which case you should turn to the police. That wouldn’t be a matter for us.”

        She fixed me with a stern gaze and I imagined her giving an inner shake of the head at what a dunce they’d sent from city hall.

        “Is he turning his home into a waste-paper tip? He is. So do something! That’s what you’re there for. The taxes my children pay keep you in a job.”

I padlocked my bicycle to the railings and headed up to the second floor. I found the door with the nameplate Tomášek and rang the bell – three times. There was no reply. I was on the point of leaving when an elderly man stepped out of the lift. He looked like a bank manager. He was a wearing a good-quality grey three-piece suit, a white shirt with cuff links and a dot-patterned bow tie. His patent-leather shoes gleamed. He was a picture of elegance. But the impression was spoiled somewhat by the stack of scrap paper he was carrying under his left arm.

        “Mr Tomášek,” I asked, trying in vain to conceal my astonishment. From what Mrs Nováková had said I’d imagined him to look like a vagabond.

        “Yes. Are you the messenger?”

        “Messenger, Mr Tomášek? Well that depends on how you look at it.” I went into my explanation. “My name’s Pavel Øíha and I’m from the Office for the Environment. Here’s my ID. I’ve come about a complaint.”

        “You’d better come in, then. We can hardly deal with the matter in the hallway.” He opened the door to his apartment and bade me enter.

        To my relief things were going well so far. And now I would get the chance to inspect the scrapheap.

        He changed into a pair of old-fashioned slippers, lent me a pair of house-shoes, and led the way into the living room. I looked around and imagined myself in a dreamworld. I’d never seen such a tidy place.

        “So what’s it about, then, young man?”

        I didn’t know how to begin. “We’ve received a complaint which states that for a considerable time you’ve been hoarding great quantities of rubbish – scrap paper, to be precise.”

        I looked about the room. Mr Tomášek said nothing.

        “I know, I know. But you brought some in this evening as well.”

        “Perhaps you would like to inspect the whole apartment.”

        “If you have no objection.”

        “Be my guest.”

        I went through every space – bedroom, kitchen, pantry, bathroom; I even used the toilet. Not only was there no scrap paper anywhere but everything was remarkably spick and span. Even the tops of the doors had been dusted.

        “My wife and I always liked to keep things tidy. What’s more, my wife was a perfectionist. I don’t mind if things aren’t in their usual places, as long as they are clean.”

        “I’m truly impressed. If only my place was as tidy as yours!”

        He pointed at a photograph on the wall. “That’s my Marie.”

        “They say you sometimes talk to your wife.”

        “If you live with someone for almost sixty years, my friend ... Did Mrs Nováková tell you that?”

        I was embarrassed. “I have to check out every complaint, Mr Tomášek. It seems that Mrs Nováková watches a lot of television, which may have led her to believe that your apartment – in the case that it was full of scrap paper – represented a fire hazard.”

        He waved his arm at this.

        “But I would very much like to know ...”

        He interrupted me. “Do you know what great love is?”

        “Well, I’ve been in love once or twice.”

        “Being in love is not the same as love, my dear friend. Of course, you’re still very young to have known such a thing. Marie and me, our love really was of the great variety. We disagreed about all sorts of things, we had our little tiffs, but we each of us lived for the other.”

        “I’m sure you did.”

        “Do you know how to recognize true love?”

        I shrugged.

        “I love astronomy. My world is up there among the stars.”

        “I noticed that.” The way in which the living room was decorated – not least the large bookcase filled with books on astronomy – had given this away. “For Marie, stars were nothing more than buttons in the sky, but she never said a word against them. Once we took a winter holiday in the Bohemian Forest. I took along my astronomical telescope and a camera. It had been in the newspapers that a new star was about to appear, and I wanted to photograph it. But I slipped on the ice and instead of stargazing ended up in hospital. And just imagine – my Marie, by her own initiative, spent five cold nights observing the cosmos, and she took a photo of that star for me. There it is.” He pointed to a photograph showing a slightly blurred point of light on a black background. “Five nights wrapped in a blanket. That’s what true love is, young man.”

        “You must miss her terribly,” I said.

       “Well, as you know, I often speak to her. I told you that story to give you to understand that a relationship doesn’t end in death. I know you won’t believe this, but my Marie thinks of me even now. Love means that each of the partners thinks first and foremost of the other.”

        “Of course. That’s how it should be.”

        “She even arranged – now that she could – for me to go on a sightseeing tour of black holes. What a hugely interesting cosmic phenomenon the black hole is! We went close to the event horizon of several large black holes, and we observed the unobservable. It really is a great, fascinating nothingness. No, that’s imprecise. It looks like nothingness from the outside, but on the inside it is very material. Anything can go in, but not even light can get out. That’s why it’s black. Amazing, isn’t it?”

        “You travelled into space? On a sightseeing tour of black holes? Like the rest of us hire a travel agency to take us to the sea?”

        “I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. It was fascinating. Marie knew how much I would enjoy it.”

        I didn’t know how to react.

        “And just imagine – I even had the opportunity to observe a sleeping black hole. What an amazing spectacle that was! It’s actually surprisingly small, but it’s fantastically dense and incredibly material, which gives it a very powerful gravitational field. In referring to it as dark matter, the cosmologists are not as precise as they should be. You can get quite close to a sleeping black hole, as its event horizon is as yet unformed so it won’t suck you in. But when a sleeping black hole wakes up, things get pretty lively. All of a sudden it sucks in huge amounts of matter from its vicinity. It’s rather like our volcanoes, but the other way round. You might say it vacuum-cleans its vicinity. How much it swallows depends only on the power of its eruption.”

        I stood there open-mouthed.

       “In the cosmos there are lots of sleeping black holes. Thousands, perhaps millions. You can’t see them, but their gravity holds the cosmos together. It’s a kind of cement. Most of them never start to suck in matter; some of them are probably altogether extinct. Eventually – in the distant future – one of them will become strong enough to swallow up the entire universe so that a big bang can give rise to a new one.”

        “How fascinating!” I said, no doubt not very convincingly.

        “You don’t believe me, do you? I can hardly blame you. Yet truly I trust that one day my Marie and I will be reunited. I have to thank her for the trip.”

        “I hope so much that you’re right.”

        “All I have to wait for now is the messenger. Once he arrives, I’ll be able to go.”

        “I see. Now I understand what you asked me in the hallway.”

        “I imagine it like the story of the ferryman. A messenger comes and I pass on to him my faith in the power of the cosmos. He takes the oar and rows on in my place. Along the course of time, until his own messenger comes.”

        “I’m very much afraid that there will be no messenger, Mr Tomášek.”

        “Because you don’t believe in what I’m telling you. People didn’t use to believe that the Earth rotates, you know.”

        “I believe only what I see.”

        He smiled. “So in your opinion the Earth is as flat as a pancake.”

        “I didn’t say that. The Earth is more or less a sphere, and it rotates around its axis and around the Sun, too, of course.”

        “But you haven’t seen this happening, have you?”

        “You’ve got me there.”

        He scratched the back of his neck and appeared to be deep in thought.

        “I believe you came here to ask me why I bring home so many newspapers.”

        “But now I’d be more interested to know where you put them all.”

       He pulled a small knife from his pocket and cut the cord on the stack of papers he’d just brought in. Then he tore off a thin strip.

        “Come with me and look at this.”

       We went over to a small table in the corner of the room. On the table there was a large spherical aquarium, the kind people keep goldfish in. But this one was empty.

        “I brought this back from my trip to the cosmos.”

        I showed him the respect of staring obediently at the empty aquarium.

        His voice was perfectly calm. “Somewhere in the middle of that glass sphere is a small black hole.”


        “Of course. A little souvenir from my travels. I keep it as a kind of pet. And do you know what it likes best?”

        “Newspaper?” I guessed.

       “Right!” he said appreciatively before tearing off another small strip and dropping it in the aquarium. “Watch this.”

        At first the strip fell as you would expect; but soon it began to slow and then – from the end closer to the centre – to stretch. Also it got redder and redder. The paper’s flight continued to slow. Then it simply disappeared.

        “Yum!” he exclaimed with amusement. “I know ‘yum’ is not exactly scientific, but it’s rather apt in human terms. What in fact happened was that the paper crossed the event horizon. Light – as reflected from the bulb in the room, for instance – simply doesn’t get out.”

        “Isn’t it dangerous?”

        “Not at all. This black hole is young and small. To be dangerous it would have to eat up a million Earths. Put your finger in there if you like. As you see, you’re strong enough to pull it back out again.”

        “That’s amazing! So you’re telling me the hole polished off all that paper?”

        “Yes, that’s right.”

        “Just think of the uses it could be put to! It could replace dumping sites and incineration plants. It would be by far the most ecological means of waste disposal.”

        “And the disposal would be total. Everything would disappear for good. It would become infinitely small and infinitely massive. And those who come after us might miss what it had taken.”

        “I’m not sure our descendants will be too delighted by our waste-disposal sites.”

        “But maybe they will. Maybe one day our descendants will mine those sites as we mine coal today and prize them as extraordinary and valuable deposits of raw materials.”

        “That’s pretty hard to imagine.”

       He tore off another strip of paper and dropped it in the aquarium. “It’s my personal view that we shouldn’t make use of things we don’t understand and can’t control. Just imagine that in place of the waste-disposal sites here on Earth we would have an invisible point that was infinitely small yet enormously heavy. We could do nothing with it, as it could not be grasped or moved. We would have to keep a respectful distance from it. Bearing in mind that the moon influences the ocean tides of Earth, just imagine what this might do to our planet!”

        “I suppose you’re right. Perhaps you shouldn’t have shown it to me.”

        “I think you can handle the idea. You appear to be quite intelligent.”

        “Thank you.”

        “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

        “No, thanks. I ought to be going. It’s getting late. It’s dark already and I’ve a fair way to go.”

        He saw me to the door.

        “Goodbye, Mr Tomášek.”

        “Goodbye, young man.”

        As I headed off down the stairs, I found I wasn’t quite steady on my feet and needed the security of the handrail. There was a slight humming in my ears. A most extraordinary spectacle! Had I not seen it with my own eyes ...

        It wasn’t until I reached my bike that I realized I’d left my backpack upstairs.

        I went back up and rang Mr Tomášek’s doorbell. But there was no response. I rang again.

        “Mr Tomášek! Can you hear me?”

        I rang for a third time, but still nothing.

        “Mr Tomášek!” I supplemented my call by rapping on the door with my fist. The door opened.

        “Mr Tomášek!” This time my call was quieter; still I was answered by silence. Cautiously I stepped into the apartment. All the lights were on but Mr Tomášek was not there. I walked twice around the apartment to make sure.

        I was back in the living room and about to pick my backpack up from the floor when I saw them. By the little table on which the aquarium stood. Old-fashioned slippers with their clasps unfastened. I hesitated before going over to the aquarium and inspecting it. Then I tore off a strip of paper and dropped it in. It fell to the bottom. As did the second, third and fourth strips.

        I backed away slowly, picked up my backpack and fled the apartment. I didn’t stop running until I reached my bike. The light on the front of the building was broken, so when I looked up at the sky I could make out a few stars. I stood there looking at or rather between them, as it was between them that the black holes might be. And probably Mr Tomášek, too, for today his expectations had been met; the longed-for messenger had arrived and he was on the way to his Marie.

        The thought flashed through my mind that I should buy myself a telescope, and I had to laugh.

        “Are you looking for someone?” said a voice behind me. A corpulent lady was returning to the building with her dog.

        “No. But thanks for asking,” I answered obligingly. “I was just on my way out. I’ve been to see Mr Tomášek.”


        “Mr Tomášek. Second floor.”

        “There’s no Tomášek lives here,” she said, obviously surprised. “I’ve lived here since they built the place and there’s never been any Mr Tomášek. Not on the second or any other floor. There must be some mistake.”

© Jan Váchal