2nd Prize 2015 - Return to Budapest by J D Hellsinger

Return to Budapest 
by J D Hellsinger

It was too late to go back inside so he stayed where he was, not moving. She came tapping her way up the stairs.  Maybe she’d go on past. But when she reached the landing she stopped to catch her breath. She directed her milky gaze at him.
           ‘Why are you standing there, saying nothing?’ she demanded.
          ‘I didn’t mean to startle you.’
 ‘You must be the new tenant.’ 
She took a step towards him.  ‘They say you’re an old man but you don’t smell like one.’
He smiled: ‘Actually, I was just going to the baths on…’
‘Your Hungarian is rusty.’
‘Yes. I’ve been living away.’
The flight of concrete steps was an inch or so from her heels.  He’d witnessed someone standing in a similar position on a stairwell, being pushed and falling backwards and cracking their skull open.  He couldn’t remember the name of the town where this had happened. It had been a long time ago. In another lifetime.
‘Excuse me,’ he said.  
She moved her stick to let him pass. At the bottom of the stairs, he opened and closed the street door and remained on the inside, waiting until he heard her go on up, and the rattle of the key in her door, directly above his flat.  He let himself out into the sunlit street. She was the first one in the apartment block he’d met, but there was nothing to be concerned about.  She was old and harmless. Like him.
When he tasted sour cherry soup again for the first time in fifty years, he was careful not to show his host it was not to his liking. The truth was he’d never much cared for it and had only ordered it because his companion insisted. Sour cherry soup after all, was traditional. After the soup, they had stuffed cabbage, followed by curd dumplings for dessert. They drank wine, and a small glass of Unicum to finish; a digestif, to settle everything. 
He smiled at his companion over the bitter liqueur. 
‘Home at last,’ he said.
‘How does it feel?’
‘Well, I feel I am back where I belong.’
His companion made a barely noticeable gesture to indicate he should keep his voice down, although, apart from an elderly couple who were eating their meal in silence at a nearby table, they were the only other customers. The restaurant was one block up from the Danube and had been very popular in its day with their generation, both for the company who ate there and the quality of the food –national dishes, served in generous portions.  But it had seen better days and its run-down fa├žade stood out from the surrounding buildings. All the other buildings in the street were newly renovated but for some reason, the restaurant had not been touched.
 ‘Anyway, you mustn’t  worry,’ his companion said. ‘Nothing’s going to happen. People are happy to forget.’
‘Not everyone. Look at Ferenc, an old man paraded for the cameras like a common criminal. Anyone could see he was on his last legs.’
His companion shook his head: ‘A disgrace. But remember, there’s a process, paperwork  - it all takes a lot of time. Time is on your side.’
          He smiled: ‘If you take the optimistic view - I’ll be 92 in September.’
          ‘There you are then,’ his companion said, with a nonchalant shrug.  He was the younger man, but only by a few years. He finished his coffee and stood up. His role in this was finished.
          ‘In the meantime, if there’s anything else I can do…you know where to find me.’
          The old man nodded. ‘I’m sure that won’t be necessary.’

He’d forgotten how furnace-like the heat could be in Budapest, even this early in the summer.  He did all his shopping in the morning - kifli, fresh peppers, some cheese, tomatoes - before the sun got above the trees. The neighbourhood dogs were quiet at that time of day, dozing behind their gates. At night, he spoke softly to them, urging them to be calm, but it made no difference. They leapt at the fences, dragging their chains. The barking followed  him down the street like accusations hurled at his back.  Eventually, he stopped going out after dark. If he wanted air, he sat out on his small balcony, with his view over the rooftops and the river, to the lights of Pest. 
He’d found a small flat in a residential street, in the second district. There were stairs yes, and the nearest shop was a twenty minute walk away but it was quiet; there were few people about during the day.  He felt safe here. No one had given him a second look, apart from the old blind woman. And the men in the car.  It happened soon after he moved in. He was walking back from the shop with his morning rolls when he noticed  a car parked on the other side of the street. The same car had been there the day before. There were two men inside, both wearing sunglasses, one a baseball cap. The one on the phone, the driver, glanced at him as he passed then looked away.
He thought about calling the number his companion had given him, but decided against it. It was probably nothing, and anyway, there was nothing that could be done.  He lay on top of his bed in the shuttered room and waited until he felt calm again. Later, he listened to the radio, while eating at the kitchen table. In the evening he watched an old black and white film on television, one with Lauren Bacall in it, his favourite. Then he took a sleeping pill and went to bed.
The next morning, he was startled by a knock at his front door.  When he looked through the spy-hole, he saw it was the blind woman from upstairs. He hesitated, but she knocked again.  When he opened the door, she held out a bowl of apricots.
‘They’re ripe and should be eaten – if I eat too many, well, I’m sure you know what happens,’ she said. 
‘Thank you,’ he said.
‘They’re from my niece’s garden,’ she added,  speaking to a point in his chest.
He thanked her again and went to take the bowl, but she didn’t  relinquish her grip.
‘Am I disturbing you?’ she said.
‘Not at all,’ he said. She still had a hold of the bowl.
‘I’ve just made coffee – would you like some?’  
In the kitchen, she felt her way into the chair and then stayed perfectly still while he poured the coffee. She told him her niece lived in the country, near Balaton, where, as well as apricots, they grew grapes, sour cherry, almonds, and pears. 
‘A feast in the garden,’ he said.
The apricots had the blush of the sun on them and were small, incredibly sweet, jam-like.  Here was a taste that did take him back. Sitting on a swinging seat in their garden eating apricots from their own tree, the neighbour’s cockerel crowing through the dusty heat of the afternoon. He ate a second and a third, hungry for memory. He told her it was kind of her to bring them. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes,  grateful that she couldn’t see him.
‘They must have apricots in Canada, and peaches. Big ones too, I’m sure.’
‘Big yes, and perfect looking. But not better.’
‘Did you have a garden there?’
‘A wife?’
‘No, I had my work. I bought and sold paintings.’
‘So no children?’
‘That I know of,’ he said. She didn’t smile.
He placed her cup on the table and watched her search for the edge of the saucer with her fingertips. 
‘Why come back? Do they not look after the old ones there – better than they do here, anyway?’
He shrugged, but a shrug would not do. Eye-contact and body language was no use.
‘Will you have a have a palinka?’ 
She grimaced: ‘Thank you, no. I’m surprised you haven’t lost the taste for it yourself, after all this time.’
‘No, I still like it, it just doesn’t like me any more,’ he said. This didn’t raise a smile either. Nothing registered on her features. Only her eyes moved, and they moved constantly, but he was getting used to it. He took the palinka from the cupboard and poured himself a glass. When he turned round she was on her feet. She reached a hand to his face. 
‘Don’t be scared,’ she said, when he flinched,  ‘I just want to see.’
‘See what?’  
She didn’t answer.  She started to trace his features with her fingertips,  touching his chin, lips, nose and nostrils, cheekbones, the line of his jawbone, forehead, eyebrows,  tenderly over his closed eyelids.   It was one of the most intimate sensations he could remember experiencing. 
 ‘Haven’t you seen enough?’ he said.
‘They say you still have a full head of hair,’ she said, but he stepped away.
‘Please. Drink your coffee,’ he said. He poured himself another palinka. His hand was shaking.
‘A man stopped me in the street the other day,’ she said, ‘he wanted to know if this flat was still empty. I said no, a gentleman had moved in. A gentleman, he said?  He asked how could I be sure. He was forward – like so many of  them are…’
‘What did you tell him?’
‘I told him to mind his own business.’
‘And nothing. I told him to get out of my way.’
He smiled. ‘You don’t take prisoners, do you?’
After she’d gone he lay on top of his bed. The heat tired him out and he was drowsy after drinking palinka in the middle of the day.  When he woke up it was dark outside and for a moment, he didn’t know where he was. Then he remembered the blind woman’s visit. She’d asked him about his life in Canada, even though he was sure he hadn’t told her where he’d been living.
          She knocked on his door the next morning, but he didn’t answer. He waited until he heard her door close upstairs before he let himself out. Returning with his shopping, he paused to listen for her before starting up the stairs. She came again that afternoon and once more, in the evening. She used the handle of her stick to knock; this time she was carrying a dish of something, covered with a cloth.  He watched her through the spy-hole, holding his breath. 
When he heard her knock the next day, he didn’t bother to get up from his chair on the balcony. He poured himself a small palinka and fanned his face with the newspaper he’d bought that morning. She’d forget about him soon. 
If only the heat would relent, he could get out more.  When things cooled down, he’d go to Szechenyi baths and find his companion; he’d sit in the pool with the others.  He had not played a lot of chess but he understood the game and in a way he preferred watching others play.  Afterwards, they could have something to eat. He knew his company was not exactly welcome but he would not be shunned. It would be good to get out for a change.  He had allowed himself to become a prisoner in his own home.  When it was cooler, he could go and look at some paintings, and take a stroll around Heroes Square.  Had circumstances been different, he could have invited his neighbour. He could have described the paintings to her; he could have made them come alive for her. He had learned how to do that.  He realised he didn’t even know her name. Letting her touch him like that had been a mistake, but then he remembered her fingertips on his skin, the lightness of her touch;  how it had felt to be touched again. It had been so long -  too long for him to remember.  Perhaps they could go to the Museum of Fine Arts, after all. He would describe the paintings for her. There was nothing to fear from her; she posed him no threat – quite the opposite, in fact. He was getting things out of perspective. There was no need to keep her at arm’s length. 
In the morning he listened for the tapping of her stick but although he heard voices in the stairwell when he looked through the spy-hole, there was no one there.  He went out for his shopping as usual, and realised that he was hurrying; not wanting to miss her.  He bought a bottle of sweet wine, and vanilla ice cream, which he put in the fridge.  He made space for another chair on his small balcony and wiped everything down with a damp cloth. He poured himself a beer, and waited. When he’d finished the beer, he went upstairs and knocked on her door.
‘She’s away,’  a voice behind him said.  Surprised, he turned round.  He hadn’t heard the door on the other side of the landing being opened. 
‘You’re from downstairs, aren’t you?’ said the young woman, holding a sleepy infant in her arms.  
          ‘Away where?’ he said.
          ‘To the country, where she has family.’
          He thanked her and started down the stairs when he remembered something else.
          ‘What’s her name?’ he said.
          ‘Irena. Do you know when she’ll be back?’
          ‘Probably tomorrow - she’s never gone for long.’
He admonished himself for even thinking of writing her a note.  Later that day, he placed her bowl on the doormat, where she’d find it.  He sat on his small balcony where he could watch the street. It had been a long time since he’d waited for anyone. He smiled; no, not like Lauren Bacall, nothing like that – the thought was preposterous  -  although maybe Irena would be amused to hear it. He hadn’t managed to make her smile.
The trees in the street stirred in a gust of wind, the first wind they’d had in days. A front was on the way, the forecast said, the wind coming out of the south-east and bringing lightning and thundery showers. Good; it will be cooler for a few days, more comfortable for going out. He felt another gust of wind, still warm, but carrying with it the promise of respite.
The sound of thunder woke him up; he’d nodded off in the sun that was now hidden behind a mass of towering clouds.  The high tops of the poplars were being thrashed by the wind that was getting stronger with each gust. The noise came again, not thunder, he realised, but someone knocking at the front door. 
He was stiff from sitting in the chair so long, and shuffled slowly up the hall.  He stopped and checked himself in the mirror, smoothing his hair back; it’s true, he did have a good head of hair, his crowning glory as his mother had said. Little Lazlo with the golden curls. 
He slipped  the security chain, not stopping to check the spy-hole before he opened the door. He felt calm, a lightness of being.
‘Irena!’ he said, wanting to surprise her with her name.
Two men were standing there. One of them removed his sunglasses and addressed the old man by a name that he had not heard in a very long time. It sounded as if it belonged to someone else, someone close perhaps, but not him.  He smiled at the one who spoke, an old man’s puzzled smile. The other man in the baseball cap, was holding some documents in his hand. He flipped open a folder and read out the old man’s name again, and his old rank, the name of the town where he’d been posted; the town which had been part of Hungary in those days, the year, the name of the station. 
‘The trains,’ the man with the folder said, ‘you must remember them.’
 He shook his head. He said they must have come to the wrong door. The men smiled. No, the one with the sunglasses said, they were sure they had come to the right place.  It was as if they were here by appointment and he, being the old man he was, had simply forgotten the time and the day itself. He felt light-headed and his knees started to go from under him, but the two men stepped inside and held him up.
‘It’s okay, we’ve got you,’ one of them said.