Queen of the Castle
the oil lamp flickers
soon the shutters will come down
see the shadows fall
SHE SITS by the window and gazes at the street below. Nothing has really changed in this area, in all the years she has lived here. Certainly, there are more tourists. The world has opened up, the walls are down. And the old cobbles have been replaced with concrete. But otherwise, all is much as it was. After sunset, once the visitors have traipsed away, and the castle district returns to the people who live there – that is the time she loves best. Then, the very air she breathes seems precious and still and old. The privileged few, like her, who have inherited one of these narrow stone and timber houses, can perch, high above the city, like regal birds of prey – far away from the brutal politics of the modern city beneath. Serene and entitled.
The actress’s flat is a jumble of furniture and clothes. Old mahogany pieces, that belonged to her mother. A certain fin-de-siecle feel to the whole place. Always in shadow, even on the brightest summer day. A smell of dust and velvet in the air. Costumes – racks of them – hanging disconsolately in corners. Waiting for the character who once inhabited them to return and bring them back to life. On the wall – photographs of curtain calls and publicity shots – and on the sideboard – awards and prizes, gathered through her long and illustrious career. Csilla Nagy is at the top of her profession. Everyone in Hungary knows who she is, and admires her, even if they have never set foot in a theatre. For she is hardly off their television screens, starring in some film or other – or popping up on childrens’ television and in adult soap operas. She is used to being stopped in the street for autographs, stared at in restaurants, fawned over by waiters and bartenders. She knows she is revered, just for being who she is. The queen of her profession.
But Csilla also knows that this is worth very little, when it comes to the night. After the oil lamp that she keeps lit, for sentimental reasons, on her window ledge, is snuffed out, and Magda comes bustling in with her huge bunch of keys, and closes the shutters, locking her mistress in until the morning, safe against strangers and the dark, Csilla feels the weight of loneliness press in on her. And each time she climbs the stairs, to the bed – which is elegantly covered in lace, and scented with lavender – that she has slept in, alone, for the past forty odd years, she feels her legs growing a little heavier, the pain in her heart a little more piercing. Csilla knows she is loved by many. But what is the use of that, when you really only need to be held by one?
Today, in particular, she is troubled. She has received an email that has stirred old memories, and she isn’t quite sure what to do about it. The message is from an English woman she knew, thirty years ago, when she worked out in the countryside in one of Hungary’s renowned state theatres. Oh, what a time it had been. She was in her prime then, still young and vibrant, and already rising to the top of her profession. Then there was real love, at least the promise of it. Stolen moments – of intoxicating conversation, of insinuation and pleasure. Gillian’s little note – so unexpected and sudden – brings back a flood of sensation. She feels the blood rising to her head, heat flushing through her body. Why this? Why now? When she was so sure she had put the past firmly behind her.
She has a restless night, with lurid dreams, from which she wakes several times in a sweat, heart thumping wildly. In the end, she rises early and stumbles downstairs to make herself a tisane of chamomile and lemon to settle her frayed nerves. It is only 6.30 a.m. The birds outside in the little courtyard are fussing and chirruping in the old fig tree. It is spring and the sap is rising. Csilla’s head aches. Her joints feel stiff and sore. She checks in her desk diary. When is the personal trainer coming next? Tomorrow evening. Good. She needs his warm hands to keep her in working order. Such a handsome young man too… She smiles to herself. One of the perks of her wealth and fame, and why not? Sitting down with her tea, she scrolls idly through the messages on her phone, and re-reads the email sent yesterday by Gillian. What is she to make of this, and how should she respond?
Gillian sent the email in a rush of nostalgia. She hardly expects a response, is not even sure that the address she dug out from some internet profile or other, is up-to-date or accurate. But she doesn’t regret it. Too many people have disappeared now from her life. She feels the circle turning. Feels, too, a sudden yearning to find lost souls. Csilla was never really her friend, but Anna’s. But Gillian always liked her, with her soft voice, her gently regal manners, the self conscious way she held herself – ever the actress, always on show. Poor Anna. So long dead. A whole era gone with her. At least Csilla – who must be in her sixties now – is thriving. And by all accounts, is still in Budapest. How convenient, then, that this is where Gillian is travelling to, next. Who knows? Maybe they might meet again.
Before she has time to change her mind, Csilla presses “send”, and the deed is done. She has arranged for Gillian to come for afternoon coffee the following Saturday. Csilla has an evening presentation to attend at the Opera House, but that still leaves them plenty of time. Besides, it might be a convenient excuse to get rid of her visitor, if the meeting proves awkward or too intense. Csilla sits for a long time at her messy kitchen table, after sending the message. The remains of coffee – Csilla likes it strong and sweet – sit in her small china cup, and there is a half-eaten kifli on the patterned plate beside it. Csilla doesn’t concern herself too much with food – she is tall and thin, her long pepper-and-salt hair coiled high on her head, face long and bony, with its own kind of austere beauty – but Magda, her housekeeper, insists. Food is presented to her at regular intervals, and Csilla does her best to comply. Frankly, deep down, she doesn’t much care if she lives or dies. But other people do. So she keeps going, for her public, for the ever-devoted Magda, for the theatre, by which she lives and breathes. Ah yes, there is always her art to fall back on. Otherwise: the abyss.
Gillian cannot believe she is back in Budapest. It was all so long ago. And the longer she left it, the harder it got to return. But she has seen her friends at home becoming older, settled, scared. Gillian cannot let that happen to her. She is always booking last minute weekend flights to cities she has never seen. The countryside doesn’t really attract her. It is people, theatre – busy streets and late nights – that pull her in. Since she lives on her own, she can do what she likes – and she likes to travel. So now, why not go back to somewhere she knows for a change? Risky, but thrilling. She still has shrapnel in her heart from thirty years ago. But no matter. She has come back. And as she wanders through the Castle District, dodging the tourists and gazing at the old buildings, the shutters and the heavy wooden doors, she marvels at the familiarity of it all. Nothing is quite as it was – yet everything feels just the same.
She arrives, a little early, at Csilla’s front door, hesitates, heart beating, and rings the buzzer. A disembodied voice speaks through the intercom. Gillian announces herself, and with a heavy click the door opens, into a dark and shadowy corridor. Someone switches on the hall light – is standing at the top of the stairs. Gillian looks up. Csilla looks down. And then, with small cries of recognition, they advance towards each other. The years fall away, and they take each other’s arm, and retreat into the actress’s chaotic kitchen. The scent of perfume and coffee grounds hits Gillian’s nostrils like a tidal wave, and she suddenly feels that she might cry. But she laughs instead, sits down on the nearest empty chair and takes a breath.
Before she knows it, they are deep in conversation. Gillian’s Hungarian was always rudimentary, and has rusted over still further, by years of disuse. Yet when Csilla speaks, in her rapid, mellifluous tones, it is as if Gillian understands every word. And she can respond too. The spirit of St Jerome is in the room, translating everything for the two women, wiping away the years, re-setting the dials, making them young again.
“You haven’t changed a bit”, says Csilla, and she means it. Gillian was always elfin in her appearance, small and slight, running through the corridors of her life, whilst Csilla moved slowly, as if there were a full entourage behind her, holding her train.
“Nor you,” replies Gillian, but that is hardly the case. She sees someone careworn, though elegant, sitting in front of her now. A woman with the weight of age – and experience – deep in her bones. She had never understood what made Csilla tick, and she is a mystery to her still, surrounded by glamour, her whole life a performance, well rehearsed and beautifully executed. But with an emptiness at its heart, somehow. Sorrow.
Theirs is a labyrinth of shared memories. And the names of the people they both knew – all members of a mighty theatre company, now dispersed, or retired, or dead – come tripping from Csilla’s tongue in a torrent of affection and regret.
“What a time it was,” says Gillian, with pictures of the subterannean theatre bar now vivid in her mind’s eye: full of smoke, and noise, and animated drinkers, arguing deep into the night.
“Indeed,” replies Csilla. “The red star was over us then. Walls all around us, to keep us locked in. Now our prime minister builds another wall – this time to keep everyone else out. We Hungarians never learn,” she sighs. It is her only mention of politics. It is enough.
On they go, through the gentle spring afternoon, chatting, remembering, laughing and questioning. And then Csilla suddenly says, “You never married, Gillian? No children?” “No”, says Gillian. “You neither?” Csilla just shakes her head, presses her lips together. And Gillian continues. “I did love someone once –someone here in Hungary – and I would have stayed. If he had asked me, I would have done it. Defected. Come over the wall to join him. But he never asked. And then he met someone else. You’ll remember him, I’m sure.” The name is spoken. And the room grows cold.
Csilla feels her heart lurch, and she feels faint – might even fall – but recovers her equilibrium just in time. Of course she knows the name. It’s carved, like a curse, on her heart. And she remembers Gillian sitting with him, not long after she had arrived – and he had just come off stage: was glowing with sweat and careless charisma. Remembers the stab of jealousy she felt. How happy he was, to be seen with this English girl, share her whiskey, covet her Levis! Csilla, meanwhile, was already too familiar to him. Already too old.
Slipping from her reach, before she had so much as touched his long fingers, kissed his lips. But there would be no one else. Not in her lifetime. Even then, she knew that. And now this stupid woman is saying the exact same thing. Stirring it all up. A knife in both their wounds. She sits bolt upright now, and draws her shoulders up by her ears, looking theatrically at the big clock on the wall, as if she has just noticed how late it has become.
“Oh!” she says, with fake surprise. “I had no idea it was that time already. I’m sorry, Gillian, I have an engagement this evening, and I simply must get ready for it now.”
She stands abruptly, and offers Gillian her hand. Gillian is flabbergasted. She has no idea what she has done, why the atmosphere in the room has suddenly changed, from summer sun to the deep frosts of winter – and she doesn’t get a chance to find out. Before she knows it, she feels the heavy wooden door in the downstairs corridor clang behind her – and she is back outside, on the street, on her own. The sun is already beginning to set, and it’s getting darker. There is no one around now. The tourists have all disappeared. Gillian crosses to the steep stone steps which will lead her back down to the river. She pauses at the top, and turns to look up at Csilla’s window. For a moment, she sees the actress standing motionless, looking back down at her: with a gaze that is unflinching and unforgiving. Then Csilla bends slightly, and strikes a match, to light the oil lamp on the window sill, before retreating, slowly, into the deepening shadows of her room.
– ENDS –
This is the fifth short story in a series loosely entitled Hungarian Love Letters. This is fiction based on my experiences, memories of – and long standing love affair with – Hungary, since first visiting and working there in 1988. You can read the other four stories here on the website, by scrolling through the blogs. There are also some non-fiction blogs about this fascinating country, on this website too.