NOTHING TO DECLARE
by Barney Bardsley
You tell me that my voice is rich and warm,
although we do not share a common tongue.
A longing, sweet and foreign, starts to form,
for dances we might dance – and songs unsung.
Your black eyes flash with promises not kept,
and rendezvous in restaurants never made.
Snowfall on village roads – my heart, unswept:
old, vivid scenes that slowly burn to fade.
When postcards from a far-off place arrive,
the years of absence worry at my mind.
I walk the tightrope back – what will survive?
A country boy – and country – still to find.
I try to block my senses, but in vain.
You touch my back – it all begins again.
JANUARY 1988. The cold hits Rosa between the eyes as she walks down the plane steps and onto the deserted tarmac. A bashed-up old bus takes them to the terminal. A single red star hangs above the entrance. It’s hushed inside – and gloomy. The footsteps of the soldiers – dressed in khaki, guns on open view – echo down the corridors. Suddenly hot, she sweats beneath the borrowed fake fur. Too many layers. And she’s anxious too. Contraband in her battered case. More than twice the legal amount. Don’t worry, Magda had written, they never check. Walk straight through the green channel in customs. I’ll meet you at the other end. You must bring whiskey with you. We can’t get it here and the actors love it. At passport control the officer stares at her for a long time. He takes in her razor short hair. Her foreign face. Her English passport. Westerner. He makes her wait. But he lets her pass eventually. Nothing to declare. Her battered case trundles along behind her: and then she is through.
She sits with Magda beside her, near the window, on the old green leather seat, gazing at the snow, as the train pulls out of Budapest and into the surrounding countryside. Icicles, gnarled and long, like witches’ fingers, hang from the trees. The freezing mist sinks ever lower. She blows on the window to get a better view. But there is little to see. Except a deep, deep winter white, casting its spell over the flat, peasant landscape. Tiny cottages, half-submerged, reveal a flash of Hungarian ochre here and there. Otherwise there is no one. And nothing. Already a spell is being cast and she feels drowsy, enchanted. Magda makes her pull one of the illicit whiskeys down from her case and they take it in turns to have long swigs, straight from the bottle. Their only other companion in the small carriage – a young off-duty squaddie, hunched in the corner – tries hard not to look at the prized liquor, as it passes between the two women. When he stands up to leave, at a small village somewhere in the middle of nowhere, he flashes them a glance. His eyes are hungry, full of reproach. Not a drop has been sent his way. Magda gloats. He’s never seen the like, she says. Rosa feels a vague sense of shame, but she buries it deep. By the time they arrive in Kaposvár, she is reeling with alcohol and fatigue. This is another world, she thinks. And she is lost to it now.
The actors’ club hides in the bowels of the building, below the stage door, down three flights of stone stairs. It is dark, hardly lit at all. And the room is arranged into intimate booths, each partitioned off to give an air of gossip and intrigue. A small bar is at the far end, where a weary woman, carrying the weight of the world on her capable shoulders, serves coffee, pálinka, red and white wine– and whatever snacks, hot and cold – the actors fancy, morning, noon and night. Smoke hangs heavy in the air. Young actors race in and out, excited and self important. The older ones slump over their drinks, cynical, disgusted. But this is a disguise. Everyone cleaves to their weird, dysfunctional theatre family. Hate it, love it: they belong to each other.
She saw him on the first day she came. And he saw her. Now, János sits at the table, and starts to talk. His elegant hands sweep through the air, as he makes some seditious point or other, about the dying regime. Eyes black as coals. Hair black, too, gipsy curls around a long bony face. She has no idea what he is saying – she speaks no word of Hungarian – but it doesn’t matter. The words flow like a river, rhythmical, musical, deeply strange. Sometimes Magda translates. Often she doesn’t bother. They drink and smoke deep into the night. Occasionally he darts a look in her direction. His smile is knowing. But his secrets are hidden – even from himself.
The theatre is closing for renovation. So the maverick players are temporarily homeless. In the deepest snow, they go on tour through the countryside, in a coach that belches black fumes and rattles at alarming speed down dangerous, icy, ill-lit, narrow roads. He sits next to Magda on the seat in front. Sometimes Magda turns to speak to Rosa in English and Rosa replies. He gazes at her then, with a fascinated fury. Taps Magda’s shoulder and says something in hushed Hungarian. She laughs. He says you have a voice like Laurie Anderson, she says. Rosa is amazed. How can this Hungarian boy, stuck behind the Iron Curtain, know about New York – the avant garde? Then she blushes with shame. Of course he understands. It is she who knows nothing.
They end up in Budapest for the last shows of the tour. She stays in an actress’s flat in old Buda – beautiful fin-de-siecle furniture inside a functional grey apparatchik block. Every night she is at the theatre. The company is famous, brings down the house with standing ovations. But she is impatient for the curtain to fall, for the rhythmic, ritual clapping to stop. Because that’s when the party really starts. Will he come? Will he find her, talk to her again? White rabbit, disappearing down yet another hole. She doesn’t know who she is anymore. Or where she stands. With the enigmatic boy – and this puzzle of a country. Little socialist barrack, where liberty is the language of the night – and everyone’s a poet, when the wine of the Balaton Boglár, velvet and purple, starts to flow. Lonely little English girl, held fast in a magyar embrace. Gyere vissza, he whispers in her ear on the final night. Come back soon, as he clasps her hands and draws her closer. But she knows that she won’t. He knows it too.
OCTOBER 2009. She steps off the plane and feels the sweet heat of the earth rise up to meet her. The smell of Budapest. And her stomach lurches. It was winter then, but the same aroma lingers: thick black coffee, flaky pastry, a faint memory of sweat and blood in the dusty soil. Every country has its aroma. This is Hungary’s – and it feels like hers too. Her friend József, faithful down all the years, with christmas cards and steadfast greetings, will meet her at the airport. But she worries she won’t know him after such a long time away. No need. There he stands, bang on time. A thrill of recognition: bald head and round glasses, big broad simian smile. Twenty one years have left him quite untouched. She wishes the same were true for her.
When they climb into his sleek American car, she feels a shock. Gone, the tiny Trabant he used to roar around in. For we are all westerners now. Down the soulless motorway from the airport they glide – advertising hoardings screaming from every building – into town. Traffic, people, noise. This is not the place she left, silent, in the deep winter cold. Sleeping Beauty has finally woken up. He drives on, towards the river, over Liberty Bridge, and up to the Statue of Freedom. Night has fallen, and from the dark Buda hills, they gaze down at the neon, that flashes on all the bridges of Budapest and over the mighty river. She left a place of lies and secrets. She comes back to a city of lights. It is the anniversary of the 1956 Uprising. The fascists are likely to make trouble, says József, so we’ll stay out of the city centre tonight.Our revolution has been stolen from us. Like so much else. He sighs. Back in his flat they eat duck with cherry sauce. He toasts her return with pálinka and red wine. She has brought him whiskey – for old times’ sake.
They drive to Kaposvár the next morning. On roads wide and fast – through villages small, quaint. The yellow cottages close their eyes against the passing cars: flash of modernity, danger. We are as we were, they murmur. All is just the same. But her eyes see difference, everywhere she goes. And she feels disorientated, unaccountably sad.
Kaposvár greets them, bigger and brighter than before. Though in her mind it is still an enticing misty grey. The old theatre stands tall, if a little dishevelled, in the small town park: an Edwardian wedding cake left out in the rain. They make their way to the actors’ bar. It’s lunchtime and sunny, but the striplights are already glaring in the subterannean cavern. Gone the private booths. The smoke. The layers of intrigue. We have no secrets now, the message goes. Though no one is fooled. Half remembered faces pass before her: older, wearier, lined with trouble. Some of them smile in recognition. Some have forgotten. And some, like Magda, are long since dead, spectral memories from a vanished past. The younger actors who brush past her could scarcely have been born, when last she was here – she feels their disdain, their frank disinterest. Stranger. Why have you come? She loses her nerve as she sits with József at the bar. Why has she come, indeed? She feels the panic rise, and forces herself to be still. Breathes in. Breathes out. Hand clammy against the stem of her glass.
At first, she mistakes it for another ghost – this shimmer and rustle at her back, the hint of a touch on her shoulder. Then she feels a hand, slipping into the pocket of her jacket – and something falls, cool and dark, to the bottom. A stone. Wordless totem. Objects always more potent than the language they have never shared. He blows softly in her ear, chuckles a little. And then she turns – and János looks her straight in the eyes. Close up, uncomfortable. His own eyes: black coals turned to dust; hair coarse and greying, face lined, pouchy. Middle aged. A faint memory of fire in his gaze. And it is hard to keep the shock from her face, as she stumbles over a simple Hungarian greeting – her accent making him laugh. Suddenly, two dark haired girls run into the bar, and come straight to their father, giggling and chattery. Oh, she says, you are a family man now? And he just shrugs and smiles and touches her hand, misinterpreting her regret, the way he always did. Those children could have been hers, she thinks, if the world had turned another way. But she is glad that they are not. Glad also that he is not. The stone feels too heavy in her pocket, as she takes her hand away from him and turns towards József, who has sensed her unease, and is ready to leave. The lights in the overheated bar are far too bright for comfort. How she longs for snow, and the dimly remembered distant dark. ENDS
This is the first of a proposed series of short stories and essays about Hungary, a place that long ago stole my heart, and which steadfastly refuses to give it back.