A RADIATOR GRILLE LIKE A ROW OF WHALE’S TEETH
The Chaika limousine was coal-black, indeed black as a raven, with glistening bluish-iridescent flashes on its body, a huge, chrome-plated radiator grille like a row of whale’s teeth. And wherever one looked, front and back, strips, scrolls and spirals proliferated upon it as if it had been parked in Brezhnev’s mythical vine bower, where diamond wine was grown and shoots of silver grape, silver gherkin and silver pumpkins, small and large, had been trained to grow over it. A Chaika was never seen in the street; it was reserved for the Moscow high-ups, notabilities and celebrities.
Brezhnev is said to have been so fearful of attempts being made on his life that he kept five versions of himself on hand at all times. Each so closely resembled him that he himself would have been unable to tell himself apart from himself, so it’s a good job they told him who he was. That was why he also had five Chaikas, so if a Chaika pulled out of a Kremlin gate, in reality five Chaikas would pull out of five Kremlin gates, each identical to a hair, with an identical him seated behind the tinted windows in each, so that any would-be assassin would have been more than a bit confused, if he saw all five at once, which one he should aim at. And if he did not see them all at one and the same time, the assassin would simply open fire, giving Brezhnev a one in five chance of dying (or four to one of living).
Of course, the fact is that if the story had reached us in Hungary, in the dusty further reaches of the great splendid Empire, then one must suppose any would-be gunman would also have got wind of it and he would have dashed his weapon to the ground, saying it was utterly hopeless, or he would canoodle with one of the serving girls from the palace of the Little Father and one fine day she gets noticed by Brezhnev and groped by him behind the red velvet curtains. Gotcha! Brezhnev’s beetle-browed Russian Bear face would emerge from cover, trying to smile, but not in that this medicine must be swallowed way he did at parades, when he just waved the tiniest little bit, as if he were trying to shade his eyes with a trembling hand, or as if strings were being yanked on his hand just an itsy-bitsy bit every now and then, like one does on a spinning top. No, Brezhnev would force a conqueror’s smile to his lips, the stiffened tendons of the face muscles creaking like my younger sister’s thin bones, because she went to gymnastics classes where they were forced to straddle wider than the splits. And after a tender rendezvous that would not be shown on Hungarian TV even in adult-rated films—not that I watched any of them, because films like that were forbidden—anyway after that, the slip of a maid, while fiddling with the Paramount Chief’s grizzled chest-rug, would have wheedled like Samson had the secret of his hair out of him which Chaika he would be sitting in the next day, and, having gone outside onto the balcony to Brezhnev’s bedroom to take the air, would have whistled this information down to her friend, the assassin, who at the foot of a splendid fir-tree would note the tune down as the boots of the revolutionary bodyguard crunched around him on the gravel paths.
Then it would have been no use that all of the Chaika’s parts were of high-grade steel, which was why it guzzled forty to fifty litres of petrol per hundred kilometres—and no mixture but petrol, indeed super—not that it mattered, we had more oil than we knew what to do with, and indeed more and more from one year to the next, as the table in our geography textbook showed. And it would have been no use that the windows and all the darkened glass were bullet-proof. No use that the guard at the gates would have been doubled. Because, where he was least expected, the Assassin would have stepped out and laughed satanically, while we would all laugh with him, because naturally we too would get to see this. And he would lift up the armour-piercing shoulder-whatnot, much better than the ones they had in the ten-year-old films from the West that were shown even here, because during those ten years the heroes of those films, particularly the Americans, and that’s what the assassin would have been, they would obviously have progressed heaps, obviously their guns too.
But that’s not how Brezhnev died. The way he died, I was sick and sitting at home in my bathrobe. I loved being sick because that meant we would go to Doctor Lázár, who had huge white dishpan hands, but he could manipulate them as delicately as an orchestral conductor directing himself, that huge internal symphony orchestra, and a whisper of a moustache under his nose—only just as much as a normal moustache divided in half. I liked walking along the squeaky-clean hospital corridor, the sound deadened by the linoleum, whizzing up in the flashy steel lifts with all those mirrors, and us having to be polite and let everyone else on first, and everyone else being polite and letting us on first, and everyone wearing a tie, and even the food in the buffet being edible, and the service being nice, because here, son, they’re all gents of the old school and new Party cadres, so be careful, there’s no knowing who you might bump into, because they’re thick as thieves, they’re the ruling crowd, and even if they’re officially supposed to hate each other, the fact is they understand one another only too well, because those on top like to stay on top, whatever the system, and these pigs are flattered to mix in aristocrats’ company, on top of which both bunches are big on pulling strings, that’s one thing, you see, where they can outshine each other, and this is their hospital, we are really intruders here, neither cadres nor nobs, we don’t pull any strings, it’s just—well, an old family acquaintance.
I always had to tell Doctor Lázár I had a temperature, even when I didn’t, indeed especially then, otherwise he would make light of it and not prescribe any antibiotics, and one had to listen to Doctor Lázár’s little lectures, highly entertaining they were too, coughing, you see, brings the mucus up to the gullet by a vacuum effect, and the chunky old-gold signet ring on his finger signals the level of the gullet with a pantomime gesture, and it spits it out like a pump, if you please, the signet ring springs forward, that’s a biological process, may I say, the two hands fold gently, very gently, and the brow knits to close the case. Doctor Lázár always explained things that we knew about, or at least thought we knew about, and maybe had even been taught at school. But the way he explained them, one could picture it so well, and the imagination was only stimulated by the sound-proofed surgery, the artificial leather of the seat, the white-smocked nurse with the beehive hair-do, the all-glass cabinet that held the medicines and gleaming instruments. Here one could let the imagination loose, not like at school, where smudged paintings fluttered on the wall, pictures of nobody and everybody, they could have been me or Uncle László from next door, poet and military leader, born 1651, died 1709. All those busy hands, feet and necks, yes, one also had to pay attention to the hands as they drummed, poked, passed on notes, and where the feet were twisting, then on the wall: WORK UNERRINGLY AND AIM HIGH, THE WAY A STAR MOVES IN THE SKY and WITH THE PEOPLE THROUGH FIRE AND WATER, which we knew were rubbish, because stars don’t move anywhere, they’ve got no legs, and there may be fire in a furnace and water in a boiler but the plain fact is there was no people, the Bolshies dreamed that up, which was why it was impossible to pay much attention in school.
There was practically nothing to be had there, yet everything was still sort of interesting, I have no idea how they managed that. One just sat and gawked. Sitting next to me in the waiting-room was a Communist or a gentleman who had tufts of hair sticking out of his nose as if he had been planted with grass or something. A fine crop of thick, grey grass; one could almost hear the rustling. The same kind of grass was poking out of his ears, and there was even a blade or two sprouting from his warts. It seemed only logical that the man’s head must really have been nothing but bristles and hair inside. He obviously kept it watered through his mouth, or else he took off the balded top of his skull and poured it on that way. Maybe pesticides and other crop-protection chemicals as well.
Then there’s that other fellow opposite, reading a newspaper. He was already sitting there and reading when I arrived with Gran. People’s Sport—that must have been what it was, given how absorbed he was. Though it could be that if he folded the paper, the chap would almost disappear, because the part of him that was covered up by the newspaper did not in fact exist at all, so when he closes the paper his wrists and hands plop onto the ground. What exists of his body, from the chest down, flops forward in the seat, with the whole man having been held together only by the newspaper up to now.
Around the hospital were trees, and the sky was always there, mostly the sun too, because it’s only worth being sick on sunny days; the clouds played ball in the sky, and the tree-branches were interlaced in such a way that one could never tell if it was a sparrow hopping around, or perhaps several of them, or it was only the wind playing footy.
The pleasant dog-shit artificial leather of the chair seat warmed up under my behind as Doctor Lázár went on. All of a sudden, my body also became an all-glass cabinet and the doctor not only fluttered over the thin membrane of my skin like on a tom-tom, tapping the back of his own hand, but as I put my clothes back on he also pointed out the organs, one by one, the lungs, the way they pump away, the evil little bacteria which we caught. He explained that coughing, I’d have you know, it comes about because the mucus membrane, if you please, is a tissue like that, and on top of that the little lobules in the lungs, I make so free as to inform you, my greetings, dear Clarrie. I always thought of Doctor Lázár being some very gentlemanly gent, but it turned out he was a simple peasant boy, a self-made man, who had pulled himself up to where he was now, this hospital for the élite, an internal medicine specialist for the elite, on his own merits, and I knew what would come next, what would become of me with my marks at school, and it was a hundred times better to be an honest worker, even a street sweeper, than nothing, nothing at all, so I should make a choice, and be quick about it, what I wanted to be. But the truth is, well, I’m not a self-made man, the way they say it in English: I was ready-made by others.
It was fun having breakfast in bed and drinking tea. Drinking lots, hearing it burble down into my chest, as though Doctor Lazarus were explaining it, as though my throat were made of glass and the drink would pass along it, somersaulting, sizzling, scrawling strange ribs like a spring shower on the tarmac of the road. The whole flat would fall silent, and I could rummage among Dad’s things and in Mum’s chest-of-drawers, or I could go outside in the spring and reach into the rusty water at the top of the barrel, crumble clods of earth, knead them into clay, then hurl them at something, anything: the bush, where the lump would break apart with a spatter; or the neighbour’s dog, which would just get angrier and angrier; or the fence, which would slice up the earth-balls into however many pieces as the wires they hit.
If I fell ill when I was a small boy, Gran would sometimes look after me. I was well tucked into the eiderdown and big pillows, she made me put on my bathrobe on top of my pyjamas. She would not take kindly to any protests, because her own father had been a doctor, so of course she knew about any illness and medicine you cared to mention. Referring to them by their Latin names, too, as if they were old acquaintances, and she could call everything by its name anyway, whether it was infection, influenza, croup, thymol, ipecacuanha, or pulmonary lobe. She propped up my legs, the noxious fluids would trickle down and I could spit them out. I spat neatly into the glass of water that was standing by the bed for that express purpose, the gobs of purulent mucus swimming like strange fish in an aquarium, the light of the bedside lamp shining through them, so when Mum and Dad came home in the evening she would show him how much sputum can come out of the boy and they would smile, thank you very much, Granny, but, would you pour it away now, if you don’t mind, please.
I would then sooner spit into a handkerchief or the toilet, or after a run-up, out of the penthouse window, curious as to how far out it would go, mini-pools of phlegm on the roof-tiles, though some would soar over the gutter and splatter down below on the terrace or land on the lawn, I can almost see before me the thin strand of spittle, like a suspension bridge, between two blades of grass.
It’s impossible that a short, bald, tubby man like him can play the piano that much; for a start, it’s just impossible, and for another, even if it is possible, it’s not fair, today of all days, when I’m ill, and it’s not even Monday, when there is no TV being broadcast, I fumed to myself after I had switched the telly on for the fifth time and it wasn’t showing what was printed in the programme. Out of sheer misery, I opened a sachet of powdered milk, sugared it and mixed it with water into a thick, wet mush. It became just like the wallpaper paste when we did up the attic, with tiny islands in the whitish mush, little adhesive lumps that had to be punctured because they had air inside, and the half-clotted flakes stuck to my tongue, the granulated sugar crunched between my teeth, and at that point the doorbell rang.
Anxiously, I peeked out of the window to check it was not the man in the black hat with the big briefcase, no knowing what was in it, perhaps he’d got wind that I was snooping after him. There was no-one standing outside by the gate, so it could have been the postman and he’d already moved on, so I took a dekko to see whether he had left anything, and I also took a dekko at the entrance door to the block, and blow me if it wasn’t Uncle Szepi. He’d already got in past the gate, he didn’t give a shit about the dog. Open up, kid, he immediately thrust his tool box in my hand and waded on in. What’s up, then, you shammer, school stink, or what? Where are the old folk, anyway, died out like the dinosaurs, or have they been shot out into space? Hands in pockets, he sniffed around the place. He had sausage fingers with hairs on the knuckles, his trousers were strained over his belly so he only ever got half a hand in his pocket, the thumb was left outside with the hairy back of the hand poking out. Grizzled, glass-wool hair and thick eyebrows that while he was talking, or rather yelling, because soft tones were completely lacking from Uncle Szepi’s repertoire, wriggled up and down and his brow furrowed every which way as the wrinkles did gym exercises on it.
Moaning and sighing, Uncle Szepi inspects the water-main inspection chamber at length, as though he were waiting for something to happen, a flood, say, that would spare him the bother of having to climb down. Better safe than sorry, so he asks if it really is leaking, how do we know, had we seen it? He pulls open the cast-iron cover, a hissing of water can be heard down below. Fetch me a torch, stinker, and with the pale beam of light he sweeps the semidarkness of the hole, his face increasingly troubled. God blast this for a crummy job, why couldn’t they build this bloody hole the size of a normal person, he clambers down the folding-ladder that I had brought him just beforehand, holding his arms up high then turning diagonally in order to disappear in the concrete square of the manhole. Fetch me a monkey-wrench, you know what one of those is, I hear a croaking, cavernous voice from down below like the one you get when you speak into an empty plastic tumbler. In thrillers that’s how hostage-takers make telephone calls to announce their demands to the cops: we want a two-seater sports aircraft and ten million francs, but the notes must be in multiple denominations and they’d better not have consecutive serial numbers, and no marks on them. The money’s to be in a suitcase and the suitcase on the plane, the aircraft to be at such-and-such a place, but if you try anything funny, the girl gets it, we can get very angry indeed. I’m a wee bit narked at Uncle Szepi, of course I know what a monkey-wrench is, that was what the burglar dressed as a plumber used to crack the security guard on the head in the TV series. Fortunately, no packing, grease, spanners of various sizes, or soldering iron was needed, I hate having to solder down there, Szepi wriggles out like Winnie the Pooh who grew too fat for the exit.
You hear, your granny does for me, and that in a jiffy. She’s standing there, looks at my hands, then she just drones on and on, not drawing any breath! Mr Plumber, the screw track comes in on the other side, she says, you’re putting that gland nut in the wrong way round, and anyway there’s not enough vaseline for the valve, you’re stinting with it. At which point I say, look here, lady, this is not the first gland nut I’ve had to handle, it’ll be fine laid on like that, just dandy. At which she goes, it’s the wrong way round, take it from me, I wasn’t born yesterday either, I lived through two world wars and I’ve seen a hundred plumbers, and I’ve seen them come and go, some in pools of blood too. Your granny, eh? She’d talk the hind legs off a donkey with all her gabbing. That really sets me off. Do it yourself, lady, if you’re so smart, and I toss the monkey-wrench over to her. I’ll do it, too, you bet, says the old dame and picks up the wrench and gets cracking. If I had the materials, I wouldn’t pay you a penny for what you do here. My chin dropped, I took the job out of her hands. Lady, this just won’t do. Tell you what, I’ll do it for you on the house, as a freebie, but I’ll not set foot here ever again, you won’t see me for dust. Hand us that packing, shammer!
How old are you kiddo, twelve? You don’t look it. They won’t serve you a spritzer at the bar yet, huh. What d’you mean they already did, get away. A year or two and you’ll outgrow the girlies in your class, you’ll be as hairy as me, look there, there’s hair in my ears and on the middle of my back as well. Women go for that, no, that doesn’t do it justice, they adore them, only hairy chaps get them going. The other day, let me tell you, the old folk are not at home, are they? Her voice over the phone was so, well, you know, and then the way she opened the door and the gear she had on her. Phew, I knew there was some fitting to be done there, itty-bitty wisps of nothing and it wasn’t exactly sweat-running-down-the-crack-in-your-bum weather either. So she says to me, have a peek under the sink, it’s always leaking, a screw needs some packing, and how, no use my hubby, wimp that he is, fiddling around down there, he just cussed and wiped his filthy hands on his trousers, after which the trickle was even worse than before, and on top of everything I now had his clothes to wash as well. Just leave it to me, lady, sez I, it’ll be good as new, no loose joints, you’ll see. So I bend down to take a peek at the rotten sink. Lady, I says to her, how the hell can I be expected to find room here, it’s a tight fit for a rat, never mind a normal bloke. Come on now, Mister Plumber, she coos in my ear, you can’t be giving up already, and she tousles the hair on the back of my neck. I’m praying to myself, God Almighty, with my gut I’m going to get stuck in there, they’ll have to operate to get me out, but my old lady shouldn’t know about it. Well, anyway, I says to her, I’ll squeeze it in only you’re going to have to help. Hold on to the tool for the time being, you get it, keep holding it, that’s good, isn’t it? There was some proper filling there, I can tell you, and ever since then I pop round every once in a while to keep the shebang well oiled.
Now then, do you hear what I’m saying? That old pig Brezhnev too. One hell of a hairy freak he was, too, his eyebrows alone would have made two middling-sized paintbrushes, that’s why he made it to the top. One morning I go to work and the boss comes in, a decent chap by the way. Now lads, let’s stand up for a minute’s silence for the late General Secretary of the Soviet CP. Show our respects, lads, chop-chop. We happened to be eating our bacon butties at the time, so I says quietly to myself, that beats ‘em all, Louie baby, you’re a Swabian lad yourself. Who the fuck was Brezhnev for any Swabian lad to stand up for him. But the branch Party secretary had ears like radar or wotthehell, because he goes: you’re not worthy to be a member of the working class, but there’s freedom of opinion in this country, so step out into the corridor if you prefer, only don’t disturb the self-respecting workers here. OK then, whatever, if he’s that fussed about it. So I gets to my feet and shuffle out, but in my own sweet time, mark my words, no need to break a sweat. And that asshole is going purple. You don’t have to if you don’t want to, he shouts after me, and as the door swung shut behind me I could hear the hoots of laughter, they sniggered right through that minute of standing to attention, and the bod rushed off in a rage. You’re all idiots, lads, says Louie, why the flipping heck can’t you can it for just a minute, that asshole is going to blow his lid, and it’s me who’ll cop for it.
Right, that’s done. Fetch us a pickled cucumber, sonny, I bet there’s a jar in the fridge. Mmm, nice and crunchy this one, you know, they’re best at night too. There are things the wife can’t do, but cook, you bet, she dishes out the goulash with the dumplings, a bite of gherkin on the side, a glass of beer to go with it, and I say to myself, Szepi, you can’t get much better than this, all this crap during the day is strictly for the birds. By Flórián Square off the end of Árpád Bridge. You know, in the high-rise flats, that’s where I live. Like in a fairy-tale, the whole thing, just sit out on the balcony and watch the headlights of those flashy cars, streaming along in the dark, and the lights all on all over the building, like a jewel it is, liquid gold, the way it flows. And just to think of it, in every little car is a bloke who’s the dead spit of yours truly, going about his business like an ant, or going back home to the wife and to have a gander at what’s on the box. As for me, I watch them from up there, and behind all those windows a hundred thousand other little guys, regular blokes, working men. A beer in the hand, they’re either watching all this or else following the match or giving the old lady how’s your father. That’s when I think to myself you can stuff your High Tatras and Low Shmatras and Lomnicky´ Peaks that you have to climb up only to come down again, because this is my Niagara Falls and my Eiffel Tower, right before my house, at my feet, and I don’t need anything else.
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
English version © by Tim Wilkinson