Klara from the restaurant translated the short hand-written note which arrived in my garden post-box three weeks ago: it’s an invite for the day, that’s all, she said, astonished to see me again. She took my hand and picked something off my old summer jacket, giving it (for it is shabby and neglected) a glance of disapproval. He’s around somewhere, she added in a lower tone, not looking me in the eye, I’d better run. But she didn’t run. She seemed to want to add something, paused, shook my sleeve. But is it Transylvania? I asked. She looked over to the glass doors that lead to the office. Almost. It’s this side of the border. The glass doors opened and a barman came through, carrying glasses on a tray. Listen, the new guy’s awful, really awful. Imagine, she leant into me conspiratorially — I inhaled her sweet scent, felt her stumbling youthfulness against my neck — he picks his nose between songs! But she must then have recognised the clipped, measured step of one Lajos Hanzo, for she turned quickly, still squeezing my sleeve. I have to go. Don’t get lost, she said, touching the letter in my hand, you’ll need a good map to find it! With a momentary backward glance, she ran off.
Once outside I looked again at the note. The scrawling hand was not that of my friend though; all I could think was that she had asked her parents to invite me, to make sure I came, to keep up the drama. But why? And why now, after almost the whole summer of silence?
The roads around the hotel were clogged. The city was burning up, yet still it teemed with visitors — waiting for the ferryboat, taking pictures of the castle, the Fisherman’s Bastion, or sitting around the quay studying maps. I made my way back to Deak Ter as quickly as I could, thinking furiously, though at the back of my mind stood the image of the lovely Klara, as bright and illusive as I’d ever seen her. But my thoughts were really with another: the only-child of October, the athiest scorpion, rider and mistress of horses, stubborn enigma of Pest and the forests of Buda. I made up my mind whilst standing on the underground platform: I would let the summer go. I would go to her in the mountains.
Was the whole thing to start over again?
Before the sun had scattered its arrows across the edges of the city, before it had torched away the few brittle pins barely visible even in the darkest moments of these long tangerine nights, I set off from my flat eastwards, towards the mountains of Transylvania. With the rosaries of sleep still dry in my eyes I stole like a prayer out of the sleeping city to begin the journey across the belly of the country — that vast shimmering prairie where, when the mood takes them, greasy-brown stallions pursue rushes of freedom under the twisting ribbons of early mist, where farm workers — eyes half-shut, dumb on the backs of the thunderous carts taking them to the fields — were cracking open the rheumatic casings of another long day.
Hungary’s heart and soul: the Great Plain: an immense tapestry, gilded by wheat-fields and hidden farmsteads, woven from the body-cloth of Magyar peasants, sewn in the dust of a thousand oppressive years, unfolding endlessly before an unforgiving sun.
The morning is almost done. I feel like the blind avatar, having just begun his forty years in the wilderness. The skin around the edges of my mouth is dry and cracked. My eyes are painfully trying to water themselves. At last the mountains come into view and I am full of the sights and sounds of a journey at its close. I have raced with wild horses — they are hers, her tenacious, knowing lovers — across the puszta; sat like an outcast under trees with old Magyar peasants, short of water and in need of directions, staring impassively at the fruits of their fatigue. I have battled over stony tracks that have crackled like fire under the tyres of my wagon, and she has ridden beside me, on horseback, remote, angry, whenever I thought to recapture… whenever I called to her — Anna!
I have been unable to think of anything but flashes of us together, as I rode the bumps towards her, glimpsing the futility of my own curiosity in the dirt as it kicked up behind, and in the many moons of the sun glinting through the windscreen. Her familiar shape forming on the backs of the crazy ones that thundered beside me, urging me to press on, faster, faster. For a break — to cool the struggling engine — I stopped beside a rotten mountain post, so close and so hungry that my fatigue had become a kind of weakness in my arms, begging the question she might so easily have asked herself: is it possible I might still save my days in her city?
I slip too easily into time lost with her. I want to speak, to forbid her anger, her measured assaults — to kiss her, but more than this; to rescue her from those idlers on horseback who hustled beside her, to break their stony expressions, their adolescent secrets held deep within the forest beyond Buda. I am thinking, having scurried through the most chimerical of villages whose inhabitants live like creatures of the past; timeless, invisible, scarred by many births into the puszta’s seamless labour — a people unknown to me: what has become of her, the atheist linguist who scored the preludes of torment and trust with me? Horse-woman of Budapest, who disappeared into the forests of my bewilderment, my unfailing cynicism, only to regress into an altogether different kind of beast, allowing me into its lair only to show me the arching of its back as I reached out to find it, to touch? The ringing of unclaimed keys left me long ago but her words still coil within my ears. Words that will not be still, for they were hers, confused, spreading like Mayan tongues, rippling in pools that did not reflect, speaking obscurely of new beginnings, of yet another beginning. Turning away from me, turning to another, she left me to fend alone in the bustling emptiness she calls her city. Words uttered only once.
I am almost upon the village. Skeletal, olive-sallow figurines, turning away from me, torn like trees; a late morning sun, smeared across the windscreen in strata of fine dust, obscuring the unmarked widths of this smoking track; breath of a hostile summer bearing down with inflammatory nonchalance, offensive nonchalance… Just what I’m going to say to her I have no idea, though I am fearful that words will be spoken and bruises pressed. These skeletal figures that now surround me have gathered for a feast of remembrance. I can make out the settlement through the stumps and dry leaves, that which I have been seeking with stones in my stomach. How long has it been? But I know, to the very day. A hundred times I have run our meetings over in my mind, none of which was set outside the walls of Buda or the streets of Pest, not one, except for the stables, where I tried in vain to surprise her, to delight her.
Well. Here, she is on home territory. I must act as the guest must. I must listen, not speak my mind. Wait, and not ask. It is I who have taken the trouble this time. How easy it is to perfect the part in your mind alone.
The village is branded into a hillside greener than I had expected and lies still like some Andulasian white-town in siesta. I rest the wagon beside an uprooted tree and continue on foot. A path leads up to a cluster of stone buildings huddled together uneasily under crumbling orange roofs. Pastel greens. Dry earth. Shaded whites. As I pass, a couple of old women in black shawls have appeared, staring from the shadows of their doorways. One of them has come up to her gate and smiles at me. Isten hozott she whispers. Her skin hangs dark and leathery but in the eyes burns the distinctive sparkle of wisdom — she had always expected me. I pass her. It’s only a short walk to the centre. There’s hardly a sound. Dust tracks seem to disappear into the bushes of shadow that are doorways. I’m walking into an oven, into a baking crumbling maize of stone.
I find the house sign I am looking for and knock, conscious of sudden emptiness, pressing my chest as if I am bruised there. As I wait the shadow of a figure appears at the window and my thoughts become filled with her, infused with the illusions of memory. I tell myself that I miss her. But I do: I miss our fights in the ‘corner’ bar, the kiskutya in her tears, the bitter flowers in her kiss.
Someone is coming to the door. My heart is pounding. What will I say? Seconds pass as hours. My head is floating and the pit of my stomach is stoned with hunger. I see her. Just as she was the first time she walked with me; hesitant, beautiful; leaning against a door, laughing almost. To be meeting her again — for the first time — feeling again the brush of her arm as we walked through that alley… Seconds pass as days. I am slipping, into the desperate stores that once were ours; peeling away like untied ribbons, it’s easy to laugh at such things — shutters of spontaneity; packages of freedom, of illusion…
I catch my first glimpse of her: footsteps echoing about me, surprised glances. In the austere office on the second floor I found three women busy behind computer screens. I’m standing at the door with a letter in my hand, to a professor in the city of Pecs, a letter that I need translating. The stern one in the middle beckoned me over. Her name was Anna and it was all very easy: I pay in the next office and collect the document four working days later. I don’t know what it was, her or me, but I didn’t want to finish that brief conversation. Something in her closed manner immediately halted me, attracted me, caused me to want to open her.
That same evening, driven by an over-confidence I only seem able to muster in places where it is certain nobody knows me, I waited outside the building and asked if she’d have a drink with me. She didn’t even seem to know me. What is worse, I couldn’t tell if her reply was positive or negative. Oh it’s you! Look, this is not convenient! And I’m in a hurry. I returned apprehensively to pick up my letter the following week and she accepted me at her desk with what appeared to be a glint of humour in her eyes. I pulled a chair over next to hers and she went through the letter with me, clause by clause, seemingly cheerful about something, looking very much the unruffled cowgirl in her jeans and brown boots.
You’re a composer? she asked.
I hesitate. Well, trying. She’s waiting for me to go on. I’m getting some, you know, musicians together… to put on some concerts here. I had a sudden and urgent need for water, or, absurdly, a cigarette, and felt myself swallowing. I couldn’t think what else to say. I play in a hotel. Maybe you know…
But why here?
Well… Budapest is such a great place! I like the folk music… and then there’s lots of tourists… I was trying to explain that tourists meant people willing to hand over larger amounts of readies, or so I imagined, ensuring the musician’s commitment and time, the hiring of halls… She’s looking at the screen. I’m boring her already. She turned to face me. Then she looked down. You know, I was really surprised last week. We get some crazy people around here. Really! My friend Gosia had to run onto a trolley one time! He was following her. He was like a dog!
A clear autumnal day. Gold rims on the photo frames on her desk, catching the afternoon sun. Points of light darting about on the whitewashed ceiling. Her stern office face had vanished. In its place a mitigating, almost cheeky smile.
Yes, there’s a lot of us shifty ones about, I add.
She twiddled her eye-brows.
I’m sorry if I surprised you.
I like surprises. She laughed.
I tried to catch the colour in her eyes and momentarily seemed to lose my balance. Both her colleagues — big women with matching horn-rimmed glasses — were looking over. I felt her gaze shift from my forehead to the side of my face. Some strands of hair had fallen across her eyes and with her finger tips she now placed them back behind her ears. Still laughing, she leaned forward to set up the printer and my vision became blurred with the scent from her skin. She prodded a couple of keys and slipped out to collect the printout. I heard someone calling, someone who used to live inside me a long time ago — go on, she’s changed her mind, she likes you… go on… but something resisted, something doubted still. Even then I had the distinct feeling that keeping my composure was more important than gambling with possible rejection, as if asking someone out for a second time would ruin me!
In her absence I wondered how many times this had happened. How many opportunities had passed through my silences, my unbreakable layers of insecurity? And how many more before the voice I know is there is able to say simply, quietly: I like you, come on, let’s go for some coffee?
She returned with the letter, some copies in an envelope and to my surprise said she’d accompany me to the alleyway that lead to the street. As we walked along I felt the brush of her sleeve against my arm, my heart rattling against my bony chest. We approached the iron gate that served as door. She lifted up her hand towards the heavy handle and I felt unable to say a word, unable to break the stubborn uneasiness multiplying within me. In the chambers of my inaction I could hear my own hesitation cursing me! She held the handle firmly, then leaning against the frame looked down to the stone floor, smiling — laughing almost. With webs of hair clinging to her face she lifted her eyes up to meet mine and broke the seal with my own words:
And about that drink? she asked.
The door opens. Two old faces appear from the darkness. I am greeted with timid smiles and open arms. Strangers are overjoyed that I have come. I feel as if I know them well. Their eyes and hooked fingers beckon me into a small room.
Red peppers hang like curtains around the walls. An aroma bitten with desolation envelopes me. Something in their pleasure, in their clumsiness reminds me of another time, piano lessons, a room immaculately cleaned still pervaded by the essence of dust, doors closed, sheen on the wood. We exchange kisses, and again those words Isten hozott. Their hands are cold and strong. As my senses quickly adapt to the darkness I can feel there is much stored in this room — a table with an old embroidered cloth hanging down low — deep red. I am shown to a small seat — a trunk with a blanket thrown over it. I look around me and in every corner modest belongings are covered over with white cloths.
No. Another place. Earlier still. Teenage years running up and down that hill, over the bridge, along the waterfront and back. Teenage years that ended where they all end over there. It’s Guinness I can smell. It’s the cloths, and, now that I think of it, the curtain across the doorway. I’m sitting on that stool again, surrounded by the lads, old Soap with his smell of sick and tobacco, whose voices are clearer now than their faces. One voice more than the others. She’s there, as always, in the corner, elbow up on the window sill, scowling. I watch her, eyeing me. Those dark knowing eyes, brimming with insecurity. The teasing mouthfuls in the spoons of her cheeks, the corners of her gob. She’s nodding. I can hear her thoughts, her directives: after hours, you and me? A coastal wind pushes at my back, towards the cliff edge, tries to rip off my shirt. She leans against the wall, hair flung back, a wild one. She’s looking into the wind. Out to sea. Waiting. I kiss the stuff splashed all over her neck. Then her lips. It’s all too easy. The not-so-fair maiden against the juts in the Black Castle.
The old couple sit close together, across from me on a beaten up sofa. She mutters something quietly to him while looking me in the eye. She is softly spoken and plump in her flowery dress; I’m either the chief suspect in an unknown crime, or a face long lost. We seem to be waiting for someone else to appear from behind the curtain, but it hangs still. Photo frames are scattered everywhere; Anna with friends, Anna with parents, Anna young and smiling. They are talking, look as if they have just lost something. I patiently notate the movements of their eyes and mannerisms, the dissonance in their expressions. I am a patient, expectant guest, but the curtain remains still.
Sitting down beside her in one of Pest’s many ‘corner’ bars she looked directly at me and laughed, putting me immediately at my ease. She seemed to unlock a flippant side to my nature, a childishness which allowed me to question her brazenly. She described herself as an atheist, an October baby with a sense of humour — could swap jokes with horses, yes she had a sting in her tail. She asked about the letter I had sent, if I’d received a reply — I hadn’t. But she did know the restaurant on the river where I played piano in the evenings. Would she come to listen?
She drank kiskutya, small dog, a mix of red wine and coke. When in England the previous year no-one had believed her and she’d had to order the two drinks separately and mix them herself. She had wanted to be an engineer but had been ‘persuaded’ to take up languages instead. Now she translated trivia to and from English, Russian and Estonian. All of this made me realise I knew no-one I could really call interesting. We talked and talked. The bar was crowded and it seemed to me that everyone had the same thoughts as I, men and women alike, looking over at us as if we were having all the fun of their youth too, as if they were somewhere beyond. But now it was me: I was the recipient of her stories, her enticing radiance.
My mind began to wander. As she spoke I imagined myself riding along beside her, shouts lost to the wind, laughing, dismounting at some clearing deep within the forest — dry wood crackling underfoot — where we would build a fire, throw a heavy cloak over our feet and, as night approached, get slowly ragged together. I imagined her lying down beside me, smoking, her translator’s sixth sense trying to decipher the muddle in my eyes; waiting expectantly for the first brush of bodies, lips… fingers entangling between us. And after warming each other with the embers of late-night words, collapsing at last into each others cautious embrace — allowing our eyes and mouths to be nourished by the other’s silver-crested lips, the plentiful fruits of the moon. And then falling asleep, with our palms open, oblivious to the broken cries of forest animals; her breath heavy against my chest, strands of her hair caught on my lips, my tongue…
My gaze slipped from her eyes down to her neck. Did she know? Did my pupils dilate for her? She talked quietly, playing to me as if she were a chamber group, hushed, intricate, intimate, moving at times, then light, spiritoso. As time raced by the bar became smokier, the walls closer, and even though light-headed and grasping at my thoughts I was sure my heart was pumping hopelessly in tandem with hers. I forgot that I doubt everything, that such beautiful moments pass over me — I began to wonder what the night might have in store for us. And at the very moment, without my being prepared, something appeared at the window, fluttering in the shadows. I awoke from my dreamy kief. But too late, for she had seen it too. She became serious. She had to go.
Why? I asked.
Because I’m riding in the morning. I have to pick someone up.
She is not here. But I can see in the face of the old woman Anna’s lips and chin, and also the same smudge of rouge high on her cheek-bone, the blushes of a ripe peach. I hand them the invitation and try to enquire about her, aware that I have already been thinking she might be peering at me, right now, from behind a curtain, listening hard and, perhaps, smiling. They don’t understand me. Instead they look at the letter — their own spidery scrawl — in dismay. The old woman gets up and places it on the edge of the red cloth as if meant for someone else. As she does this I notice a slight tremor in her knuckles. She returns to the seat and looks in the direction of the window. Her lips move as if she speaks but her innocent, puzzled gaze falls upon nothing, and no sound slips through.
The photo on the dark chest is one I recognise from Anna’s desk at the agency. That’s Kristof, I think to myself. There she is, with him. It looks like Christmas but the flat is bare, nothing on the walls, just a small table with wrapping paper and a couple of bottles. This must be his place in Estonia. Four in the photo, huddled together on the settee. Kristof: the one who asked her to marry him, many times. And each time she had become angry, tearing up the letter. All this she told me over the first few months. I still don’t understand her. Didn’t she say she loved him? Didn’t she say everything would have been just great?
The old man picks up the photo and brings it over to me. He is staring at me wildly and pointing at Anna. I take it from him to have a closer look, not really sure why he’s done this. Estonia? I say. They seem to understand this word and both of them nod. Is this where she is? Is she with him? The mother of the stranger in the picture seems uncomfortable, gets up and slips behind the curtain.
After a short time the clang of pots and tins warns me that food is being prepared. The popping rattle of bubbling water. I put the photo down. This place! So dark and cramped. I notice a Viennese pattern on the ceiling, the unusual handle on the door.
I am alone with an old man.
Soap used to drive away customers with his insults, when he wasn’t bringing up into his glass. I had no idea how old he was even then. Sixties. More. I used to turn up, under-age, codging the cream, listening on as if I were the cornerstone of the tavern, always on guard for the day Uncle Mick might whisper in my ear: it’s time you weren’t here, son. I’d even sit at the bar, everyone thinking: funny, can’t see his diaper. But they all knew. Guinness and Soap’s breath. It’s all I recall of that room now. Apart, that is, from her, bogging at me as if she were forty and all alone, when in fact she was barely in her twenties and very much not alone. A mature woman to be sure. And I remember thinking then: this is a grand life, isn’t it?
Anna’s mother comes back in, her cheeks burning, wiping her forehead. I feel sorry for her without knowing why. She rests opposite me and attempts a smile. We become quiet.
The two of us, Anna and I, met often, outside her place of work or in the corner bar, though she never invited me back to her flat. I remember wondering why this might be — a brutish mechanic husband maybe, who worked late into the night? an old ma who needed looking after? kids? I didn’t mind the not-knowing though, I was obsessed only with seeing her. At the piano each evening I created scenes for us to act out together, love-arias, chases, finales with passionate behind-the-curtain embraces. When we met it was even better than I had imagined. We swapped intimacies. We talked as if this were the highest of pleasures, and seemed to be cautiously inviting each into the other’s world. She listened attentively to my musical plans and I held on firmly as she relived high speed adventures on her crazy telepathic horses, laughing, drinking through the night until she slipped into appassionato, my watery eyes notating her every jump, her every stroke.
Then one crisp afternoon as I stomped my feet on the pavement outside her offices, she walked out and kissed me on both cheeks. I stood transfixed by delight and surprise, my arms — indeed my hands — given to a sensation that something had suddenly been taken from them, not knowing whether to make some nervous quip or make a grab for her.
Shall we go? she said, seemingly amused with something in my hair. I need some kiskutya! She sought my arm.
The old man looks deeply into me as if he can see into my recollections, as if tuning in to me. I point to the red cloth, feel its rich texture and motion to him that I like it, that it pleases me. He lifts his eyes to the ceiling briefly and lets me know with this simple gesture that this is not important.
Just then we rise to eat. We are mute. It feels awkward, as if we are incomplete, as if we are all expecting another to join us. But the food is seducing and I greedily lap it up, relaxing more as my hunger leaves me. Her father has pale blue eyes. I remember Anna saying she was very close to him. He had been an engineer, and quite prosperous. But something had happened to cut short his career, and with his wife and daughter he made for the country. There are spots of black blood on the rim of his shirt collar, dust on the slim shoulders of his waist-coat. A long and complicated conversation is going on between the three of us made up entirely of gestures and uncertain thought transcriptions. And yet, for all my careful studying of their facial and bodily movements, I understand nothing.
As soon as we have finished our drinks the old man becomes more animated. He gets up from the table and beckons me outside. We step into a mid-afternoon blaze, incredible heat. We walk around the line of houses and back up behind the white walls to the rear of their house. Here there are wicker baskets as big as trunks. One is half completed. Is this his work? He waves his arms and laughs now, his eyes sparking. He’s trying to explain something, chuckling, then throwing me penetrating glances. It’s all beyond me. I hunch my shoulders and try to look interested but I’m too hot, burning in fact, and after an awkward pause he gives up the ghost, smiles ruefully, and we make our way back. As I walk beside him I feel not only that part of me loves this man — that hidden somewhere in his make-up, in the very building-blocks of his character there lies something that I could use — but also that he is profoundly disappointed in me.
The lights are out. Anna has emptied the leaking oil heater and with many matches has set it alight. Its musky aroma lends to the room something of a sleepy richness. It is my first overnight stay. The city is quiet now after the fireworks. Everyone has gone home. She has prepared the bed — a fold down bed-settee — in-front of the TV. An old American teenage sex-comedy is showing. Its rough dubbing barks across the room, its images flashing only in sea-blue against the walls and ceiling. She undresses between us with a neon aura, her hair loose, tantalisingly long. She throws her head back, I love this motion, turns aqua-marine and pours herself into bed. I move towards her. The sheet is rough, like an ocean bed crumpled in sleeplessness, clean moon, fine blue shadow. I am at the bedside, waiting for her to call me, to invite me. I undress, clumsily it seems to me, and slip in beside her. We must both be very nervous for we have forgotten how to communicate; our eyes do not meet. She has turned away from the glare of the TV, and from me.
I am kissing her. I can barely believe it. We are blue film melting, entangling deliciously in silent footage. I love her strength, her shyness, the way she hides herself from my kisses, the way she keeps her eyes tight shut and her powerful arms limp across her body. I am brushing back the hair that has fallen over her mouth and eyes, she is lifting her head away. I am holding her in my arms, arranging her, imploring her. She bows a cold fleshy arm over my head. I am whispering to her, calling her, reaching out to her, reaching into her, she twists convulsively, mouth open, pulling away, a shark caught in violent struggle. Blue flashes bathe and torture her. I lift her up like a catch in my arms; she resists. I comb my fingers into her hair and massage her head towards me, bringing her lips into contact with mine; again she resists. Finally I forget what it means to be here and clasp both my hands behind her ears, lifting her head up to look at me.
No! she gasps.
The hurt in her breath is unmistakable. I am startled.
What is it? I ask.
She twists away, using the considerable strength in her shoulders. I watch her breaking free — fear gripping me as the volume from the TV increases by itself — and try to grab her again though softly, try to kiss her, behind her arm, on the shoulder… try to touch her face with the gentlest parts of my hand, my palm. She is shrinking away from me. What have I done? I think. But truly I don’t know. Anna! I want her to talk to me. What’s the matter? She shuts her eyes, sinks her head into the pillow, slipping at last from my clumsy grasp, down, down, to some other safer ocean bed, way-away, hundreds of miles away.
For those few brief seconds I became suddenly aware of my body, as if I had just been pulled out of the water: heavy, cumbersome, and suddenly impossibly tired. A bizarre succession of thoughts sprang in and out of my mood, some violent, some tender, while all the time my eye-lids grew heavier. I really didn’t know who I was for a moment. Or whom I was willing myself to be. I lay next to her, one knee under her leg, afraid to move.
I would not have chosen this time. Maybe I was belatedly wishing they had come earlier, at a more appropriate time. Maybe I felt they would have brought her back, or at least softened the turbulence between us… because I say them. I say those three words I am told every woman wants to hear. I say them quietly, as if in a code I am not quite sure of, but it was not the voice of the man inside me, more a shudder from the ghost in the machine. Or just the words themselves perhaps, having their moment.
She turns sharply. She is wild.
How vulnerable she looks, I remember thinking, this woman with the spirit of a beast. She is staring hard at me. It couldn’t have been so dark after all, because I see them — only now — the black horses in the grey of her eyes, startled, preparing to bolt. They are beautiful. I want to have them, to calm them, to spread the reins and master them. But no, they are fire, burning me; they are gone.
I roll back, put my hands behind my head and turn towards the TV.
How to explain the lies that come at such moments? The fabrications of will on coming face to face with its own ugliness? The blatant reshaping of events by a wounded pride without so much as a glance at the figures, at a single figure? Women’s stuff, uncle TOM, a bad day… I transposed against her sleeping body everything that might have conspired to deflect me, everything but the plain evidence, my shame, my inadequacy — the simple truth that I was too rough on this, my friend.
Beneath the tough hide of the horse-woman of Budapest lay a woman, more vulnerable a creature than I had ever imagined her to be. Moreover, and I know this to be true, one that on occasion, and not without her own shame, weeps. It never occurred to me to leave, and perhaps if I had done there would have been no second chance. For one of the many discoveries I made that night was that she didn’t want me to. This was all less than one year ago, yet to me now it seems as if I have made a journey longer than I was ready for; that I have jumped — in good faith or bad, without knowing how — from one age to another.
I lay back and watched the last titles of the comic romp rising through the roof. Then having turned it off and struggled back under what remained of the icy sheet, I saw to my horror that she wasn’t sleeping at all. Beside me, deathly still, lay the shaken spirit of an uneasy lover, a mare that had pulled up lame, lying on some deserted beach, afraid to breathe — aware only of the ground beneath her stained with terror and tears; the whites of her eyes — opened and glassy — fixed upon some vengeful point in time and space, the past or future I couldn’t tell.
Ten yards from his door the old man stops to talk to a woman who seems to have halted mid-step. She leans her bony frame against a window ledge, trying to hide a hideous crooked nose under a black scarf. She nods to him and he stands beside her with hands on hips, looking up the street. They avoid each other’s eyes and speak slowly, in a language that is both hoarse and bitter, comprised entirely of stretched crackles, as if every part of the conversation, each small staccato utterance is predetermined and falls without effort into place. I wait just behind him, nodding to her when she looks towards me but she seems unimpressed, her large black beady eye keeps glancing down at my western clothing as she dryly recites her news, her caustic opinions.
Can it really have happened this way?
Such memories wound. They will not be healed by my apostatising alone, words lead to words lead to words… all of them plucked from the air like so many fruits of appeasement, offered only when imagined to be appropriate. In fact all one has to do is face them down, they are not to be trusted; discard them. Such memories wound, but this is good.
In the chilly freshness of that autumnal night I fell asleep beside her to the slow tap-tapping of the cooling heater in the far side of the room. Wrapped now in a separate sheet. Touching her slightly with the blades of my shoulder hoping she might still turn to me. Whispering her name like a mantra under my breath as if this might draw away the bitter columns she had placed between us. Cold, shamed yet resisting shame’s truth, alone, with only the tentative arms of smoking oil curling over me.
An oil lamp is burning, behind the curtain I imagine. This small room is their living place, their eating place, and, I suspect, their sleeping place. We have returned, leaving the old hag in the scarf to struggle on. Anna’s mother is pointing towards photos of her daughter. Her actions are animated not with affection but with apprehension. I catch her again muttering a name under her breath, as if someone is sleeping in the next room. On the small table beside her is a short stump with an old bees-wax candle in it, a small glass and a book. She touches the rim of the glass lightly with the tips of her fingers then picks up the book and leafs through it.
Like a child at the end of summer I smart at the passing of time. I think hard, trying to recapture, trying to repeat — in some other cycle that takes me back, further and further, so that I begin to see my own self in the faces that should belong to others — the repetitive cycles of loss giving birth to self-pity. Time! I see its many arms flailing, breaking away from me, so many days as fleeting as confetti, handfuls of them thrown into the wind, shining, disappearing — the illusory pages of my captivity forgotten as quickly as pain. My recollections burn brighter in the dark, like fire-sticks, catching only shadows moving across us as I wave them about me: brighter yet blurred, playing tricks with my past. I can no longer look back with any certainty as to what went wrong. Time passed too slowly for us, I’m sure. Too much time to think, to ponder, to make mistakes.
She always used her teeth, that Mary. Always uncomfortable with eye-contact. Most of that summer, fifteen years ago now, fifteen long summers, Friday nights and the like, we would go there. Mary, the wife of the son of the Publican, and me. Sometimes she’d be cursing, me and everything else, other times she seemed pleased to be stuck alone with me. Only seventeen, yet after each ‘meeting’ feeling how I imagined a man in his thirties would feel… We always covered ourselves, but there were those moments when I found myself short, and she would bite deeper into my lip, my neck. Maybe she was nervous. Maybe she was daring me. The Black Castle, strewn with cans and discarded rags, was my haunt, and I was the Black Knight, and she was the King’s wife. The Queen of Spades. Queen of the Night. I couldn’t say it then of course: really, it was me who was afraid.
The old man comes in from behind the curtain and sits beside her. She glances at him then struggles up and makes her way over to me. I stand up next to her and she points to the tops of the pages. Smeared with jam is yesterday’s date and the words Kedd and Dienstag, and under these the names Kristof and Jakab in faint red ink. The facing page shows today’s date and the words Szerda and Mittwoch. There are also two names on this page: Anna and Aniko. Anna? There is some scribble here. Then I remember, in Hungary people don’t celebrate the day of their birth, but another day: their name day. I’ve been invited to this house on Anna’s name day, and she’s not here.
She loved passionately her horses, more than the company of her riding friends. There were only a handful of them, shysters on horseback, a clique I could not break into. I tried to befriend them, to get into them, even the secretive Katia, but the more effort I made the more defensive, the more enclosed they became. I offered to meet Pavel in the city but it was obvious he had no intention of arranging a time. And Gosia, Anna’s friend from Poland, she too made so little effort that I felt like a parasite with nothing to do with my time. What was so special, so magical about these rides that no-one else could go along? What did they get up to that needed to be guarded like that? I thought she’d be pleased I was showing an interest. So I gave up and channelled my energy into other forms of music. Nothing had come of my classical music concerts. No word from the professor I had written to with Anna’s help in Pecs.
I started up a jazz group of three — ‘Fides’ Foes’; Fides being the Roman god of honesty. Jazz standards, a handful of new tracks. What was I hoping for? We played in a couple of venues in the city.
One Sunday I took the long journey to the stables where they met to go riding. I recall I’d even bought her a small gift, a miniature grey with a flowing orange mane, wax-like. Its eyes were at once furious, startled, determined. I attached a small card with a few words, tore it off and lost it. Across the river, through the leafy inclines of Buda. The macadam turned to dust, narrow tracks that wound their way towards the farm, taking me further than I had intended, much further away than I at first realised. I became suddenly aware of another picture altogether. At which precise point it materialised in name I cannot recall; a wandering of the mind’s eye, a slip in time and place. The green hills that unfolded before me suddenly took on a lusher hue. In the jade confusion of trees and fencing that separated my senses from the place, I felt a shudder, as if, as they say, someone had kicked dirt over my grave. I was back home, the eye-level cottages and open gates, the brooks and the bridges. The very eyes of remembrance, sinking into me from a great distance, without body or face.
I was back once again, on top of the morning, beside myself with a heavy, breathing nostalgia, cutting through the lanes towards Coynes Cross, the coastal paths and pockets of the Wicklow Hills. A flood of recollection overcame me; Saturdays afternoons, stout and crackling fire, the stench of stale beer, soaked into mats; slanderous, wise gossip, ah — egits the lot of ya, moans soap, the crack of the early evenings — the bar full of family… a’yuz all right there lads? jeez, you’d think we had nottin’ better to do… and the fire crackles on, and the young lad sups like a man with the others, tries to focus on the conversation, while through the window his reflection paints him as a boy, and beyond, behind the half-closed eyes and raised glass, that endless drizzle…
At the stables I was met by Pavel who seemed on this occasion to be post-affection. Stephen, Steve, he said. You’ve come to see Anna?
So? I muttered.
Look, it may not be such a good idea. He spread his arms out as if measuring the size of his fish. Well I think she will return only very late today. He looked at me as if urging me to pick up some hidden meaning, which I didn’t. Look, Anna is Anna. He placed his hand on my shoulder, now on my elbow. I heard them braying, saw their tails doing cartwheels, smelt the earth in the air. What I would have given for a morsel of their telepathy now. As he laid out the platitudes all the way to the forest I grew hostile, sick of the easy-come easy-go quips, tired of the unspoken though barely concealed implication that I was one of the great sock-washers of all time, but I said nothing. You are very close I know, he continued, but she is… well, how to say, like Sandor maybe, she likes the wind in her hair, to be free.
A very strange Christmas came and went, for we were plainly formal with each other. We drank in the New Year at her flat and I felt for all the world the waiter, taking the coats, bringing in the nibbles. In mid-January Katia went abroad for a couple of months, to get away from home where I gathered things were difficult. Anna didn’t go riding so often. I was pleased, not to mention relieved. One night, unable to escape from one another in any other way, we managed to drink ourselves into a state of mutual submission, agreeing to allow each other more space. And in this space, after gallons of bitter red wine, we drew closer again. I lifted the weight of my expectations and she rose up higher to meet me, lighter than before. She seemed suddenly to have more time for us, as if something standing between us had been removed. We stayed in more often and although quiet she seemed happy for us to be occupying one space. My affection grew as it had done in the beginning, once again she allowed her whispers of pleasure and humour to reach my ears.
During February our chores became purely hedonistic. An earthier, heavier passion seemed to have been released through the lifting of my possessiveness, and the more physical energies rustling within us were unleashed. We locked ourselves away, played inane games on her computer, guzzling wine through the long wet evenings. Her kisses smacked of Bull’s Blood, the scorpion within her was not hunting now but playing, playing with me.
As I glare at the photos on the walls and shelves she is smiling in all of them. This is how I remember that brief interlude, ignoring just for a fleeting season the faces on the cold side of the window, the faces of the enemy looking in with something like envy pushed firmly under their hats. I see her face now, her lips like pink duvets puffed up in pleasure, turning in victory from the colour monitor towards me, resting her head on my shoulder, smoking — Anna not stern but with an unspoken strength.
During March the weather improved and I noticed things were changing again. Katia had returned and they began riding together once more, leaving earlier, returning later. The two of them would sit in the baby Fiat for simply ages while I, patiently, willingly, hovered at the window, wondering when she would remember I was inside. It was there, at the window, that I first heard the whisper of my own reflection. I did not believe. The few yards between the window and the car became a thousand miles…
If only I had been busier. Like a perpetual mirror time expanded all around me. Time, in my head, unfilled, causing me to wonder where she was, who she was with… This was nothing new. I’d always envied the way friends kiss each other on the cheeks, the way she and Katia did on greeting and on leaving each other. She too was an only child, living with a mother she loved and a step-father she hated. Tall and quiet, her wide eyes spoke of a wish to be alone, of a need to be safe. She was something of a mystery, kept herself to herself, rarely acknowledging me. Even so, something prompted me to run out to her car one night as they talked and shout a lot of nonsense at the startled faces inside. What’s going on? What have I done to you? Who do you think you are?
The old man is shaking his head. I am uncomfortable here in this dark place, and in my thoughts which form like concentrates of pain before me. The mood here now seems tight and morbid, as if we sit in a dead man’s house. There is something else: I feel the corners of my eyes catching the air itself moving about us, old air trapped here for many lives, air that struggles to breathe itself. There’s a photo of a young Anna with her parents, she’s sitting on a pony, they are all laughing. How light, how together they seem.
The last time I saw them was outside Anna’s flat on April 4th — Liberation Day. I had phoned all week to try to make my peace, with both of them. She opened the door and stared in disbelief.
Anna! Thank God… Hi!… I didn’t mean…
She looked startled, but composed herself quickly.
Actually you did. And we are still very upset, and angry. Really! I was shocked! She shook her head. You know, I can’t believe you would be so hen-brained. To come back here!
Can I come in? I ventured.
She paused. Spite contorted her features, her eyes became narrow, she fixed them on me like a bayonet — her scorpion’s tail primed. You think you’re so wise. Sandor is more intelligent than you and he eats hay for breakfast. She put her hand on her hip. She changed her tone. You are really crazy!
Anna! I didn’t know how to counter, nor even how to start.
You use my flat like it is your… your…
But she looked different. She had cut her hair.
You follow me around like a dog, you talk to me like an old woman! I just wanted you to be my friend! But you ruined everything.
I stood there and said nothing. How could she be so angry? Is one stupid outburst too much? Am I not human?
She shook her head. You think you’re so clever…
As she spoke I heard nothing but the words I myself had practised many times before, lying beside her, sitting together at the foot of the sofa, words that she had never received because they were never spoken. Anna, I like you, I like us; Anna, take me to the forest, this very night; and after the sorry incident: I’m sorry, I was green, afraid… forgive me, you should know me by now, I am not good at filling spaces, spaces where I want … All of this I could not tell her. Even as I felt the curtain being drawn between us, the door closing on me, finishing us, I could not break my silences, the multiple folds of my heart’s protection… I couldn’t tell her how close she had become to me.
She seemed to have stopped and was eyeing me coldly.
You know, Kasia is my friend… she paused again. But it doesn’t matter anyway. You’re not welcome in my flat. Take your dreary music and your depressing books and leave me alone.
She stared hard. I could think of nothing to say, nowhere to begin.
And now you should leave, she added finally, and closed the door.
I hung around outside and felt the eyes of the street glaring at me. It was evening and the sun was reflected in all the windows. Everywhere I looked seemed a confusion of light and shadows, leaves and faces. Later on Katia drew up in her little green Fiat and bibbed. A different woman, prettier, livelier somehow, dashed out with her things and jumped in beside her. She didn’t greet Katia with a kiss, she just looked directly at her, motioning to her to drive off. The sun was by now clipping the trees, it flashed across the back window of the car as they turned the corner and disappeared. In her haste she’d left the gate open.
I made my way to the bus-stop, not knowing if a bus would come. As I waited, this time on the other side of those pale green shutters, points of nails dug in my palms. As I looked through the trees across to where light veils of smog hung over Pest, I felt a drugged butterfly fluttering in my stomach, nausea, emptiness — the emptiness of a city swelling in my heart.
A week or so later it was the shaky hands of her insensible landlord locking the gates to her garden-flat, the stable staff hadn’t seen her and no-one at her office could tell me where she had gone. But there was no doubt, she had gone. I felt poisoned, but the pain was not that of a sharp instrument, not that of a sickness of the flesh, it was a constant lashing of sounds, her words… You think you’re so wise… take your dreary music… your depressing books… leave me alone…
I played on at the restaurant but with only the clumsiness of self-pity in my hands, the dis-chords of a man curling over his failings like a child, trying to play on as the poison stiffened his fingers, turned his mind.
Sometime later that month I arrived late at the restaurant and Klara came over to me with a worried look. They’ve been trying to contact you for days, she said. But before she could go on the manager himself appeared, Lajos Hanzo, in his beige trousers and blue jacket, cool, steely-eyed: his calm manner disguising an almost paranoid efficiency. As unaccustomed as I was to managing his intimidating presence I remained unusually calm. And then I heard it, strange that I didn’t notice, someone playing from the far side of the lounge, something by… Beethoven? Accomplished. Light. Hanzo motioned with his eyes for Klara to leave us. I must tell you you’re not needed tonight Stephen. He looked about him.
So I hear, I said.
Please, Klara. He ushered her back to her tables and stood before me, absolutely motionless, as if daring me to speak. I stepped back towards the front entrance — the soft spattering of keys dampered by doors closing behind me — down a side-road leading to the river from where tourist boats were pointing towards Buda. The greens and reds of the Casino boat-lights floated like leaves on the black dappled surface of the Danube. The air, scented with the street after recent rainfall seemed cold and unfamiliar, as did the cobbled passages, suddenly dank and unattractive without a familiar voice in my ear, a hand to hold.
I wandered through the orange drizzle of the night, through a straggling city centre where something seemed absent, along Vaci Utca, where dealers cast late-night glances up the street. On I walked, weary, determined not to stop; flashing figures winked at me — dresses of red and blue bulbs that peeled away towards the entrances to all-night clubs, convoys of seemingly tireless taxi-drivers; purple-lipped women leaning against walls below black squids; restaurant hands lifting tables, stacking chairs; couples pacing slowly, seemingly not talking to one another; mighty trees dull against a night sky always lit-up like dawn — past the locked church at Deak Ter; winos queuing up for tea from a charity truck — dawn permanently breaking over the rats of the city; carrying in my legs and in my eyes everything that meant nothing… anger at no-one, perhaps anger with myself, ridicule, weakness in my maleness, a miserable teenage-like shame I could not compute or dispel, until the harsh beams of on-coming traffic through the wet city mist stung my eyes, blinding me to the wide pathways that lead me round in circles, to the long avenues waiting patiently for their carriages of fools, to all the many possible worlds co-existing in this bustling city, this dazzling emptiness, this Paris of the East…
It is almost evening. I can leave at any time. She has not come. The old woman has lit the wax candle and has placed it in the window. It gives off a thin line of smoke which lifts up and snakes above us. The old man reaches out for his wife’s hand and she looks directly at him and then at me, says something quietly and tries to laugh. But she is upset, I can see this now.
Something is happening. Something in the air moves around me, in the dark. A sensation on the back of my neck, as if someone has entered the room. I feel myself falling, my head spinning… The candle becomes a beacon, and the smoke becomes a fog; a fog that has enveloped the world, covering all those close to us, and the reflection of the candle in the window draws me in, a slight dizziness at the bridge of my nose, the smoke, the empty street in the window, a single candle… The flame climbs up, illuminating our stillness, our stark expressions. The old woman is not looking. She is quietly weeping. I know now, without any doubt: it wasn’t my loneliness at the door. This day was not meant for me. The invitation was not meant for me at all, but for her.
I have slipped forward, my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands. I have come with nothing. I am a messenger with no message. Did they think she was with me all the time? Did they think I would bring her to them? They have no idea — about me and her, about what happened, about Katia… They have no idea where their only daughter is, even on this her name day.
I lift up my head to look at them. I have killed no ghosts, if anything I’ve only stirred up new ones, deep inside me, inside the chambers I have chosen to disregard: my very real past. Only now do I recognise the similarity: these two old souls, the pre-occupied expressions, more — the hope in the faces of this gentle couple.
They are here in the darkness, staring back at me, waiting for me. They have old faces but do not come near. They are calling me by my name and I want to run to them. These ghosts are my own parents.
I can’t stand the morbid atmosphere of this room any longer, I must leave now, must get some air… I stand, make to pick up my things and she rises, startled, I can’t be going? But nothing could stop me now, with my head heavy and lowered I make for the door. Before I am out of the room she embraces me. In her arms I can feel a lifetime of waiting, a burden which fills me with despair, compounding my impulse to flee, to catch my breath, to break away from all of this. But I don’t. I stay in the clinch. Her fleshy arms are strong. I’m sorry, I say, I didn’t realise, but they don’t hear me. As I turn to go Anna’s mother is wiping her eyes, speaking in half-words, dry pieces of language that break off when she utters them and fall into the darkness. Anna’s father walks up slowly behind me and puts his hand on my shoulder. It is as if he is comforting me, and I know myself to be thinking in that instant How can this be?
I sit down by a tree and look out over the Great Plain. This Great nothing! Where everything lies buried. Something like a running film is going on in my head: a bar, smoke rising about the stout, Christie Moore rousing the rebels from the back, someone I recognise looking in from the window, the half-fire in the corner where old Soap sits, crackling and throwing out sparks.
And outside that vast net of endless drizzle.
It wasn’t even as if we were sure, Mary and me. She said it could have been stress, or her diet. We didn’t know, but she went and told him anyway. Family! She said she didn’t drop any names, just one of the dead. And not old Soap either. So on my eighteenth birthday I was on that boat heading for the ‘Pool and a BA in Musicology with some Philosophy thrown in. Never to return to find out… Maybe now she’s got a bonny fifteen year old baby sitting next to her on another bar-stool in another town? Maybe the Queen of Spades was given over to phantoms, being the Black Castle and all? I took a liking to the movements of the ferry just the same. I took a liking to riding the waves, the slap of an altogether more robust wind in my face, and after graduating took a bigger boat still from the other side, from the south, thinking: there’s no way I’m ever going back. No more Black Castles. No more Black Knights. No more Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’s…
I am thinking of the home that would have been, the crack in the early evening streets, the meetings in the TV lounge at the Golf Links, the sitting round the telly waiting for I Don’t Like Mondays with Joe and cousin Jimmy showing their teeth and dropping their heads like Geldof, ahhing the way he does at the end, pushing each other aside. I am thinking of the way only Wicklow girls look at you, those dark eyes with their mocking ‘nothing’s getting past these’ frontary, the Sunday lunch-time drink, everyone looking out of joint, slow and reflective; and that endless net of drizzle. The folk of Coynes Cross who came to town, they were my family. What must they be thinking now, I wonder, of that hot-headed egit who kept them guessing all these years? And Uncle Mick, Soap, the gang from the Bridge Tavern, Fish, Mary? What did she ever do, that dark-eyed Mary? What was it we did?
I push my cigarette into the root. I know what it is I’m hearing — the blast of someone shouting back at me — my own voice. Didn’t I run away just like her — just like Anna? Didn’t I disappear too? Only no-one ever chased after me. No-one ever drove half-way across the world to tell me they missed me — that they missed me. And what of going back? What of that, I ask? Wouldn’t I be cursed to the last drop? Wouldn’t they call me for everything, clip my ear, my wings? Shake their heads in my face for abandoning the lot of them?
I stand. My legs seem unsure of themselves. The sun is almost down. I must go. Part of me would have stopped a moment longer, for the blaze over the farmsteads and wheat-fields is truly beautiful. But I am dizzy with voices. I seem to be both standing and not standing. There’s a farm building down below with dark figures running about. Smoke from a chimney is drifting above the place as if it had nowhere to go and a foal is gingerly approaching its mother. It’s beautiful. My own mother must have grown up in such a place as this. Her six or seven brothers and sisters, all of them together on that small piece of land called Coynes Cross. Six miles to school, seven coming back; and later, taking that boat together across the water in search of work, in search of life. And almost simultaneously my mind flits to another scene: a philosophy lecture in Liverpool (the capital of Ireland, it is said); perhaps I am the very fly in Wittgenstein’s fly-jar — the one which kills itself looking for the way out, trying to fly through the glass it can’t see or understand: doesn’t it know that all it need do is to turn around and fly out the way it came, to retrace its path? So clucks the professor as he adjusts his spectacles. It doesn’t think. (Nor does he.) But you see, soft chuckles, it has no time to think: in a matter of hours it will be dead anyway. What though, is the glass supposed to represent? was the question we were posed. What is the glass to us? I think now I might be able to answer that fresh-faced, white-haired prof. The glass is nothing but the material reflection of man’s misery at facing himself. Glass: transparent, liquid, container of flies!
I can’t see the centre of the village, though I can sense its empty rapture at another day passed. These people have families too, scattered everywhere; why do they live so remotely? I recall the words of the woman at the gate and of Anna’s mother: Isten hozott — God has sent you. Look where God has sent me! But now, now, the devil is sending me back again, to the alleys and bars that would tie me up, to where Fides’ miseries are not hidden quite so meticulously. Back to the city.
I set off towards the wagon, scanning across this huge expanse with all its hidden activity, all its hidden lives, and I see them again — Anna’s parents — sitting quietly, sorrowfully in the light of a single candle: its wax — its very body — spilling over into the darkness, cooling, hardening. As I fumble for the keys I notice my fingers doing a little jig. I can’t pick out the key. Here’s the wagon. But my feet don’t take me to the door.
Cool metal against my face. I am weary, but my eyes are busy, searching for traces of her, my one-time friend, not across the sky but inside me. Is she there? I set her face against the sky, against the world, alas her features will not be still, resisting my mind’s possession of her. A long moment hangs between us, and it comes at last. The late evening sun, staring back towards me as it dips into the earth, causes my eyes to water.
I can’t explain. I can never explain, because in that moment’s release I feel a hand on my shoulder, no more for you son; the touch of someone’s lips on my forehead, wake up birthday boy, three-pint wonder you. I recognise the voice of my mother, soft Wicklow tones, hard humour. As I lean like some drunk against the side of this piece of scrap metal, there is fire in my eyes. The dark figures are all safely inside. White smoke rises casually over the homestead.
The sun has long since set but the fields are still burning. A man is standing, holding a wagon in his hands, a light breeze upsetting his hair; he is steeling himself for a drive he doesn’t want to make. The end of the journey takes him back to the beginning. He knows there was never anything there.
He opens his eyes (they had never closed), he awakens — the ghost in the machine is there to greet him, so too is the fly in the fly-jar, the past and the particle, fusing…
He makes to turn back.
It is entirely imaginary, his past. They are entirely hidden, his actions, his freedom. He is not searching the mountain slopes for a path that would lead him back, he is scanning the fields for a glimpse of those wild, crazy-wild black horses. He is not wiping the windscreen with the back of his hand (you have had no sleep, the glass whispers) he is reaching out across a sheet, ocean-blue it seems, and darkening like the night. They are not reflected in the mirror before him, though he feels them well enough: strands of hair on his tongue, his lips, and too short a measure of kiskutya burning his gullet.