by Péter Moesko
translated from Hungarian by Walter Burgess and Marietta Morry
The woman on the phone starts off by asking: is it really you? I have been trying to reach you for weeks and was about to give up hope. I am somewhat curious about how they reached my number but I do not feel like asking, and the woman does not volunteer the information. Instead she proceeds with what she wants to tell me. My father died in the hospital twenty-five days ago. His companion was found unconscious and died a few hours after arriving at the hospital. My father lasted quite long, almost a week and a half, but his condition did not improve and he eventually just gave up. That is the expression the woman used which made me feel as if she blamed my father for it. Are you still there? I cleared my throat. Yes, I understand. And I suppose that the funeral has already taken place. The woman only says: it has. But then she goes on: unfortunately we could not reach you in time even though we really tried. That’s all right. Thanks for the information. God bless. I hang up and close the kitchen window. I pour myself a glass of wine and a shot of bitter schnapps. I did not know that my father had someone. God bless? That is the last thing I need.
I feel somewhat bad about using the death of my father as an excuse to prolong my trip. Yet that is what I refer to when I call my wife, Vibeke. We are having a temporary separation. That was my initial reason for going home to Hungary. Men hva er det som skjedde1But what has happened?, she asks worriedly. So I tell her briefly. She does not know what to answer. She keeps breathing into the phone without saying anything. Stakkars du2Poor you., she says but empathy was never her strong suit and so she does not even try. We agree that I will phone again. Then I pour myself another glass of wine.
The next day when I am waiting for the light to turn green I start wondering whether my two brothers know about this. My older brother must, since he still lives in the same village or very close to it. I do not know anything about my younger brother. I remember how I only found out that he had finished night school after trade school, when my mother phoned to say that he would be going to university. You could give him a call sometime, she kept saying but without much conviction, then continued filling me in on what had been going on. That conversation nine years ago turned out to be the last time that anyone spoke to her before her accident. People are honking their horns insistently but instead of moving off I get out of the car and glare at the person in the car behind me. Are you crazy? His response is more honking. I certainly was never nostalgic about my home country.
In three quarters of an hour I arrive at the village. Some say that those who return to their home town after a time find that everything looks smaller. I do not have that feeling, the streets, the houses have not changed a bit. The former party headquarters is as empty as it was before. The trees must have been trimmed at the initiative of the town administration because they did not use to have such regular shapes. Thuja hedges had been planted along the main street. Some people have put a fresh coat of paint on their houses or fences. There is no sign of any new buildings, not even one. It takes me only a few minutes to drive all around the village. The first person I see is Aunty3“Aunty” and later “Uncle” are forms of address used for old people, not implying family relationships. Katika, my old kindergarten teacher. She is riding a bike; her face is blank and she stares at me equally blankly. It is silly of me to think that she might recognize me, yet I look her in the eye just in case. I can hear the squeaking of her bicycle even with the windows closed.
I stop for a minute at the curb before turning into my street. An unopened package of cigarettes has been in the glove compartment for eight months but now I want a smoke more than anything else. I smoke a second one right after the first. What if I run into my brother? Why would he be here at two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon? But then again, I am here. I really do not feel like meeting him. I glance in the rear view mirror to see how I look. I think fine, except for being rather pale. My thoughts move forward and I can hear my brother criticizing the Norwegian weather: you don’t get exposed to any real sunshine. It’s been years since I talked to him but could hear his pontificating voice. He is the eldest, the loyal one, the one who has not strayed far from the family home. A veritable saint. I am on my fifth cigarette.
An old man on a bike stops beside me and raises his cap. God’s greeting to you. Are you looking for someone? Good day, I say and lower the window. Good day Uncle Rezső, it’s me Robi, Robi Mécses. The old man, who I only assume is Uncle Rezső, a colleague of my father’s in the co-op, comes closer to the car and furrows his brows as he sizes me up. Mécses? Which son are you? I’m the middle one, I answer. Oh, so you are the middle one. The one from abroad, he adds, well informed. I nod, he, for his part, mutters something under his yellowed moustache and then blurts out. Mécses passed away. Not long ago. I get out of the car and offer him a cigarette. I know he passed away, Uncle Rezső, that’s why I came. Then I suggest that he have a drink with me at the Erika Café. As we trudge along the main street to the café two hundred meters away, the old man enlightens me that it is not called Erika Café anymore but it’s now Six Tits because Erika’s two daughters joined the business.
It was the neighbors who called the ambulance. They hadn’t seen your father on the street or in the garden for four days. Although there was a toilet in the house the old guys had been using the outhouse for years. By the third day the neighbors were aware of the smells, even from the fence. But they couldn’t hear anything even though they kept calling out to them. Eventually someone ventured in. The door was left unlocked, no one locks them in this neighborhood. That’s when they saw that Tibike was unconscious. To this day I don’t know what happened but he was all withered as if he had somehow dried out. Your father had a broken leg; he was in bad shape but still conscious.
Tibike? Which Tibike, Uncle Rezső? Well, Tibike. Tibi, the mailman. His wife kicked him out of the house, or was it his idea to leave? I don’t know. He didn’t feel like staying. He and your father used to drink together here at Six Tits, and at other places, too. After, since he had no place to go, he always ended up at your father’s house and then he just stayed there for good. The old man pauses and asks for another round of Unicum4A bitter digestif.. What are you trying to tell me Uncle Rezső? I must sound more irritated than necessary because the old man looks at me not understanding. Then he waves it off. Oh, I understand, sonny. I am not trying to tell you anything, there’s nothing to tell. Your father was a widower and Tibike was a nut case. At least they were company for each other. It’s not that easy to live on your own, believe me. What do you mean, a nut case? Well, gaga. Mentally handicapped. Didn’t you know? His condition starts with an “a.” It was he who burned the house down three years ago. Of course, not intentionally. After the fire he was even more idiotic. They barely escaped being burned to death.
I don’t finish the third Unicum, instead I thank the old man for the conversation and traipse back to the car. I smoke another cigarette to clear my mind somewhat. I can’t put it off any longer and drive into our street. What was once our house is now in ruins. Half of the roof was still there and two of the four walls. The other two had collapsed and only reached up waist high. The door had stayed in place but there were no windows anywhere. Only carpets and pieces of clothing covered the openings. What was the strangest, though, was the tree that grew right in the middle of the house and the upper branches were already poking through the cracks in the roof.
I enter the yard and walk around the building, or rather its remains. The tree has indeed grown in the middle of the house. I have no idea what kind it is. I take a deep breath and enter. It is practically empty. There is only rubble and garbage in a heap as high as a person where the kitchen used to be. In the bathroom there is still a toilet bowl but no sign of the water tank, just as there is no faucet. The walls of the two bedrooms overlooking the yard had collapsed; what had been the living room is the only space somewhat furnished but its cement floor is shattered and only intact at the corners. The tree is more or less in the middle of the space; there are two plank beds on either side. A rope is strung between branches of the tree; I assume it served as a clothesline or simply a place to hang things. In a corner there is a relatively intact kitchen cabinet. It is only missing the handles and its veneer but is otherwise in surprisingly good shape. I open it. All there is inside are shriveled up potatoes, but judging by the smell the ones in the lower layer must have rotted. Beyond that, there is nothing in the house but a makeshift table made out of wooden pallets and two cheap plastic chairs. The plank beds are, of course, unmade but cleaner than expected. There is a big pile of puzzle magazines. I guess my father kept doing them to the very end.
I cannot spend more than a few minutes inside and must go out to have some fresh air. While outside I look at the kitchen garden that is not only not neglected, but really well tended. Of course, there are weeds here and there but now, at the beginning of spring, it is clear that it had recently been hoed. The peas are already sprouting. A bit farther, near the outhouse, there are two bicycles leaning against the shed with a wheelbarrow beside them. A rake and a spade stand beside the door. A scythe is lying on the work bench that my father had built when I was a child. At the far end of the yard there is a black gaping hole where they likely burned yard litter.
Even after nine years my gut reaction is to call my mother about family matters. She used to scold me when I did not enquire directly from the person involved but then she started talking quite happily and told me what I wanted to know. According to Vibeke, I am being sentimental because my mother’s number is still in my phone. As if we had been that close to each other! In any case I am about to reach for the phone to call my mother. I shuffle around in front of the house quite helplessly and stare at that damned tree. What should I do? Go to see Uncle Rezső again? As far as I know he and my father were not such good buddies, especially after I got into a fight with his son.
I drive back to my apartment and go to bed fully clothed. I dream about the tree, my father is sitting on top of it, I hear my mother’s voice but cannot see her, she must be hidden by the foliage. In my dream the tree is improbably tall. No matter how far I climb up, the upper branches seem just as distant as before. Then I realize that I am not climbing upward but horizontally because the tree has fallen down and the foliage is so thick that it is impossible to break free, but struggle forward in the hope that it will thin out. In the meantime I see my father in the distance and that he is working on a puzzle, having settled comfortably among the branches, from time to time taking a swig of his spritzer. It calms me down that he is so much at ease. So I keep working my way along the branches, but progress is difficult. I break off the smaller branches but cannot push the larger ones out of my way because there is no room to do so. Suddenly, after having broken off a small branch I notice my mother, who is drying a pot staring ahead with a blank expression, then she looks at me. She stares at me uncomprehendingly; it seems as if she wants to ask something, she even stops drying the dishes. Then she raises her eyebrows and says something. I try to lean closer because I do not understand, so she repeats. This time I hear clearly what she says but don’t understand. She is speaking in a language unknown to me, perhaps it is Slavic, to which I reply in Norwegian, Men hva er det som skjedde? Forstår du ikke?5But what happened? Do you not understand? But evidently she does not understand what I am saying either. At which point my father interrupts with unexpected joviality, negation, four letters, ikke, of course! I look at my father again and it is only now that I see how much he has shrunk. He is hardly taller than a child in kindergarten. My mother keeps on sighing. My father gesticulates and says something but I don’t understand what. In the meantime a new branch starts growing in the place of the one I had broken off and within a couple of seconds even a few leaves appear. But if the tree had fallen how does it keep living? My father starts whistling the Szekely6The Hungarian speaking people of Transylvania. anthem. And we are not even Szekely.
I wake up the next morning to the vibration of my phone. My head is buzzing as if I had a hangover even though I did not have anything to drink after the stop in Erika Café. It is Vibeke calling but I do not answer. The last thing I want is to deal with her bewilderment. The separation was her idea, I opposed it. But now it seems more and more to have been the right thing to do. I will call her back tonight, or tomorrow. I dash out to the store, then cook myself some gnocchi. I sit down on the balcony to eat. It is quite cool outside but it feels good. I got to like the cold in Norway. I forgot to buy cigarettes, so for want of anything better, have some chocolate and prepare a big cup of coffee to go with it. I am glad I bought an apartment in the green belt of Budapest. It is as quiet here as in the country.
I decide to hire someone to clean up the family lot, or, rather, to clean it up myself. At last, a task I can hang onto. The concept of a house built around the tree came about spontaneously and, for a while, I consider keeping it, but am not yet sure. The first thing that needs to be done is to have the rubble removed. Three or four dumpsters will be needed. I call the first number listed in the internet. Three dumpsters will be delivered the next day. I get in the car to go to the village but finally drive around aimlessly, then I stop by a bookstore to buy my yearly allotment. To my surprise I pick up a book by one of my Norwegian university classmates translated into Hungarian. Who would have thought that he was a writer. My mother also tried her hand at writing earlier in her life. Two of her poems were even published in the local newspaper. Then she said that that was enough for her. None of us encouraged her, even though the poems were not that bad. My brother read one of them at her funeral and followed it by a speech all in the first person singular. At the reception I questioned him about why he only talked on his own behalf. This made him smile and said: you are a big boy, if you had anything to say you could have said it yourself.
The next day the three dumpsters are in place. One of them had landed on the kitchen garden. I call the guy right away and he apologizes that he didn’t see that it was a garden. I try to stay calm and we manage to agree that he would send one of his people back to move it. The guy’s voice sounds familiar and I check his name again, it’s Dezső Balogh. Jesus, we shared a bench in grade school. It seems that my name didn’t ring a bell with him. Or he had forgotten it completely. I start carrying the rubble to the dumpsters which are now in their proper place. I brought along a mask, protective goggles, gloves and a few worn out sweaters. I oil the wheel of the wheelbarrow. I even bought a new hose to be able to water down the rubble and reduce the dust. When the first dumpster is half full a car stops by the house. I first think that it is the owner of the dumpsters but the person gets back into the car and drives off. By the time I walk over to the fence I can only see the signal lights of the Skoda as it turns the corner. It must belong to one of my brothers. I seem to recall that one of them had a Skoda. In that instant the phone rings. For a second I think it is a brother but it is only Vibeke. We only talk for a few seconds and I tell her that she called me at a bad time and I am busy.
Why don’t you like it at home? First it used to be my father’s favorite reproach, then it was Vibeke’s. I even got into a fight with my father when he started calling me a prodigal son, completely forgetting that it was I who sent them money. When my mother was alive they rarely accepted it, perhaps only twice a year. Then when my father was left on his own it became more regular to the point where in the past few years the bank would transfer a hundred thousand forints7Rough conversion: for US dollars divide by 300. automatically at the end of each month. I never asked him what he spent it on. Suddenly I drop the wheelbarrow, the bricks clatter. It cannot be! Father had a hiding place that I discovered accidentally when looking for a fishing reel. I was about fourteen and searched all over the place, at the end I climbed up to the attic and kept looking there. That is when I happened on a wooden chest, most likely his own handiwork. I opened it up and since it was a rather large chest, the little bit of money at the bottom seemed that much more pitiful. I hadn’t suspected that we stored anything in the attic. I never mentioned this to anyone.
I bring the wheelbarrow over and clamber up to the attic, or at least what is left of it. We never had a ladder and hadn’t used the attic for anything. With the exception of the cat, I never saw anyone go in there. The smell of pigeon shit fills the air but, other than that, it is exactly as it was on that afternoon when I happened upon the chest. The chest, as if no one had touched it all this time, stands in the same place in the dust by the chimney. My stomach is queasy as I approach it. Giant cobwebs hang from the roof. Two meters from there the floor is missing and it is possible to peer into the former kitchen. I open the chest and sit down to count the money. All in twenty thousand notes held together by elastics. I stop at three million and feel that tears are about to roll down my cheeks, but they don’t.
Why don’t you like it at home? You think you would be better off somewhere else? Then he took offence when I was indeed better off. So did both my brothers, but mostly my younger one with whom I had had a good relationship up to then. After I went abroad he wouldn’t talk to me and never came to the phone; when I came for visits he would leave the house. He was fifteen when I talked to him the last time, he would not say a word to me at mother’s funeral. Every year on my birthday, Vibeke asked me if my brothers had sent their greetings. In recent years I stopped answering her. That put a contented smile on her face but she pretended to feel bad about it. I never figured out why this gave her so much joy; after all she and her sister were not that close to each other.
I don’t know what to do about the chest. Most likely he started putting money aside after the house burned down. Was he planning on fixing it? I sit back and continue counting the money. It is more than six million forints. That means he must have started saving earlier. Or was this the amount accumulated before the fire? But why? After I had been living abroad for a while and had enough savings, I called mother to tell my brother that I would be glad to buy him a family car. Because what if Anna’s water broke and the Trabant8A very simple car made in the former East Germany. wouldn’t start. Or whatever. Reluctantly mother passed on the message. The next day my brother called to say that he was not interested in how much money I had and if I were there he would slap me. What an asshole you are, I said, and hung up. However, Anna called me back next day to ask me to leave it up to her, she was going to butter up my brother because the Trabant had given up the ghost and had been sold for parts, and they could really use a decent car. I probably should not have agreed, instead should have kept on convincing Vili. But, he would not have accepted the help, after all he was the eldest.
I fill up two thirds of a dumpster and go home. I think about taking the chest with me but I don’t want to risk it. If Vili and Balázs happen to know about it, it would look bad if I took it without saying a word, even though it was me who sent all that money. On the way home I stop by Erika Café, or Six Tits. Uncle Rezső is about to leave but tells me that he doesn’t have to. I offer him a beer and he introduces me to the others. Most of them used to be my father’s colleagues but I hardly know them and, luckily, they are not interested in me. Uncle Rezső says it’s a good thing that someone will clean up that pigsty. Why, does it bother you? I ask. Bother me? It doesn’t bother me, I’m just saying. Were you on good terms with my father at all? You and my father? We were on good terms he says and looks down, of course, we were on good terms. Why shouldn’t we have been? Because I remember when I got into a fight with your son you weren’t such good buddies. Oh that. Maybe, he says and guffaws heartily. But that was ages ago. And your brothers, are they also coming to help with the demolition? Because I saw the older one around here the other day. It’s possible, I don’t know what is going to happen, Uncle Rezső. If you need any tools, just let me know. Tools? For the demolition? What sort of tools? Pickaxe, shovel, that sort of thing, although my pickaxe may be still over at your father’s. After the second beer, the old guy says that that is about enough for him and it is time to go home. But then he doesn’t leave and just stares silently into space. Shall I give you a ride? No need, I’ll wheel my bike home along the creek. We stay quiet and just as I am about to ask him something, Uncle Rezső starts talking. I don’t know why your father let himself go as much as he did. I am not talking about his clothes, those were always clean, but you should have seen … It is best that you hadn’t, little Robi. Balázs used to visit him sometimes. Every month or two. But he left as soon as he arrived. After leaving, he always stopped by here at the Six Tits. He asked us to keep an eye out for his father since he couldn’t come from Budapest more often. Tell me where you live. Abroad, isn’t that right? That’s even worse!
In the evening I sit out on the balcony with a glass of wine and with great reluctance I call Vibeke. I tell her that now that we started it, I also feel how much we need a break from each other. That is why I won’t be going home next week. I will stay here for a few months, maybe half a year. I briefly describe what shape the house is in and that I would like to fix it up. She says that she doesn’t understand why that is necessary. To which I answer, that is exactly what I feel like doing and am quite happy to work with my hands. She asks if this is about a woman. I am just taking a sip of wine when she asks that. It surprises me so much that I forget to swallow. After all that I have told you, all you can think of is that it is about a woman? Det er et enkelt spørsmål, Robert. Hvorfor kan du ikke svare på det?9It’s a simple question, Robert. Why can’t you answer? Good night, Vibeke.
The next day I find a few cans of beer in the house, lined up nicely in the kitchen cupboard that they had used for storage. The potatoes were thrown out and the shelves cleaned. The beds are not in their place either and now that I have a closer look, all the concrete rubble has been removed from the living room. I hadn’t noticed earlier but the tree already has quite a few leaves. I go out to the yard. The first dumpster is completely filled with bricks and two rows of the kitchen garden have been thoroughly weeded. I go closer and dig into the soil a bit. It must have been watered this morning. I don’t know which of them came by but according to this, they want to participate in the cleanup. I am not very pleased about this. It would have been more satisfying to do all the work myself. In any case, the demolition continues. In the meantime I found Uncle Rezső’s pickaxe. I carry the chest down from the attic and take it to the shed along with the beer. Then simply shove the two plastic chairs and the toilet bowl into the dumpster. Before leaving for home I drop by the store and buy a few things, soft drinks, snacks and chocolates for the house.
The next day I seem to spot the Skoda driving toward me on the main street as I am heading to the house. I notice it too late to see who is driving. At the house, however, I realize that two new rows had been weeded. A second dumpster has been filled with rubble from the kitchen. In the shed there is a note beside the chest: “What is this?” I suppose I could find Vili’s phone number but this would get his dander up, he is the eldest and he sets the rules, and I am not in the mood to oppose him. I turn the paper over and write on it: “I will come again tomorrow afternoon. Wait for me.” And then I continue with the demolition. In the meantime I call the dumpster guy and say that two dumpsters are ready to be hauled away and he can bring another one. OK, but we should also settle the bill. He arrives within two hours and to my great surprise he doesn’t recognize me in person either. I don’t mind. Before leaving I glance at the kitchen garden; the peas look better and better.
At home, lying in bed, I study the pictures I took of the tree growing in the house. I stare at one of them for about ten minutes and forward it to a few good friends of mine. One of them replies right away. He asks if it is a new project. It is high time. It’s a killer first image. I answer, thank you, there might be more coming. Then he messages: by the way, what kind of tree is it? I write back: I haven’t a clue. I see that Vibeke sent an e-mail but I decide that for a few days it is best not to think of her. Instead, I start searching Facebook looking for my younger brother. At the end I find him, he is there under a pseudonym, among the friends of Anna, Vili’s wife. He wears glasses, that is new. He is sporting a suit and I have to admit he looks pretty good. He has a discrete well-groomed beard and a self-assured smile. With the exception of his profile picture there is nothing public on his homepage. What have I got to lose? I mark him as friend. I sit in front of the screen for a few minutes and stare his profile picture in the eye. He has become a good-looking dude. His looks would adorn a magazine. From the beginning he was the most popular of the three of us. Vilmos, the decent and wise, Robi, the wandering artsy type, Balázs, the heart breaker and everyone’s buddy. I don’t recall that he broke many hearts when I was still at home. After my shower I notice that he accepted me as a friend and sent me a message: “What’s the matter? Is there nothing interesting on TV? ☺︎” My reply is that, since I am home, I want to put things in order at father’s place. Let’s meet if it’s convenient. I see that he saw my message but he doesn’t reply. In the meantime I look at his profile. He lives in Budapest and works for a multinational corporation. He is engaged. At this point I see the name of a man as an entry, and then see their picture. What the hell, I say, and start laughing. Waves of laughter overcome me, coming from such depth that I can’t do anything against them, my tears start rolling and my belly aches. Then the laughter stops but my tears keep running down. I return to the computer and start browsing my younger brother’s site.
The next day is Monday. When I arrive in the village I see that there is a bicycle leaning against the fence on the inside, with a knapsack beside it. I can hear the sound of shoveling in the back and the voice of a child. It is hard to tell if he is singing or just talking, or something between the two. I slowly head to the back of the house. Hi, I say to the child who is startled, but only because someone heard him sing and saw him dance a little. He is a boy of ten or eleven, he looks a lot like my brother. Hello, sir, he answers uncertainly and glances in the direction of the beer can by the dumpster. Now I understand why you are in such a good mood, I say with a wink. He can’t decide whether he should smile and manages a somewhat ambivalent expression. What’s your name? Andris Mécses. And I am Robert Mécses, your father’s younger brother. Hearing this, his eyes grow wide and asks with unfeigned shock, really? Yah, really. I didn’t know father had another brother. For a second I don’t know what to answer, then I blurt out, well, he’s got one. It’s the two of us Balázs and me. And you? What are you up to? Have you come here to help me? To this he tells me that he is the only one who could come today because his older brother plays soccer on Mondays and Wednesdays, and his mom is at work. He doesn’t mention why his father didn’t come and I’d rather not ask. For a while we just stand there sizing each other up, and then finally he addresses me, are you really father’s younger brother? Well, of course. Why, don’t we look alike? I try not to have a smug smile when he shakes his head. It doesn’t matter, we are really brothers, it’s just that I don’t live around here.
We continue the demolition together and there is no denying that Andris is really strong, even though he is only a skinny kid. He doesn’t rest for a second. I do the tearing down and the shovelling, he brings the wheelbarrow and fills it with bricks. He can’t reach the top of the dumpster but he pulls over some pallets and he steps on them. We only say a few words to each other. He is tight-lipped, but if I ask a question he gives a proper answer. He asks me not to tell that he had opened a can of beer. There is no way I would tell. However, why don’t you go and open one for me, too. At the end of the day we each munch on a chocolate bar, then he tells me he has to leave because he doesn’t have a light on his bike and wants to get home before dark. Are you coming tomorrow, too? He shouts back while biking off, I will. Then, bye. I am also about to leave but have one last look at the lot. There is not much left of the house. Now that we have started to clean up around it the tree looks even larger and tiny flowers are starting to appear at the crown. The moon is a beautiful crescent this evening as it rises above the tree in the purplish blue sky. I take a picture of it with the rubble in the background and then leave.
In the evening I see that my younger brother has answered me on Facebook. He writes that he would come to help as well but he does not want to meet Vili. In the meantime we could meet in Budapest if I still have an apartment there. We arrange to meet on Friday afternoon in Moszkva Square. Then, as a farewell, I send him the picture I took this evening. All he answers: ☹︎ shit. The next day the Skoda is parked in front of the house. So it really belongs to them. This time Andris has arrived with Anna, his mother. What pops into mind when I see Anna is my impression when I first met her. She has a Celtic look. It seems as if she wasn’t of this world, as if she didn’t even belong to this era. At the same time I know that she is an extremely practical woman. She waves at me then gives me a peck on the cheek. Andris puts his forefinger on his lips, referring to yesterday’s beer drinking. Where is Vili, I ask them. Anna brushes off the question with a smile. He would only be in the way with his wheels. What wheels? The smile freezes on Anna’s face and for a few seconds she only looks at me. Well … he’s been in a wheelchair, for quite a while now. Multiple sclerosis. His legs are completely useless. I can’t utter a word. I sit down on the pallets, stunned. The boy looks at me confused and finds the situation uncomfortable. Then he blurts out without meaning to: at least he won’t be in our way, he’s so clumsy anyway. Something bursts out of Anna, Andris is all she says, not shouting but with a raised voice, and it is hard to figure out if her body is shaken by crying or laughing. Andris looks at her with some fear then, timidly, he starts laughing as well. By this time Anna is laughing with all her might, her face covered with tears while she manages to come out with: Yah, he is damn clumsy, Robi, he is damn clumsy. And she continues with her loud laughter while Andris and I get on with our work. We figure we will be finished by tomorrow.
Before we leave for home, at Anna’s suggestion we stop by Six Tits for a drink. Anna calls Botond, her elder son, to ask him to join us together with his father because Robi is here in the village. For a while she listens to her son and then says: what do I care, then come by yourself. Then turns off the phone, takes a big gulp of beer and looks at me. Botond will come over in a minute. Vili says that he would rather skip this one. We keep on drinking for a while in silence, then Andris goes to play pinball. Anna is staring blankly at her beer. Won’t you get into trouble, Anna? She manages to smile. What trouble? Tell me, what kind of trouble? Well, cheers! Not long after, Botond arrives, a hulking teenager. He moves awkwardly but his eyes look clear and his handshake is simple and direct. He asks: you didn’t chop down the cherry tree, did you? So that’s what it is, a cherry tree! I wouldn’t have guessed! Uncle Robi, the botanist, they laugh together. Watch who you call uncle. We ask for another round, a kiddy beer for Andris and a regular one for Botond. They question me about Norway and think it hilarious when I say a few Norwegian sentences. Botond is attending trade school, he is going to be a house painter. Andris is into athletics. Anna is the manager of a supermarket. Vili, and I can’t believe my ears, is a composer. He does music for documentary movies.
When it gets near closing time, Anna insists that I sleep at their place. You can’t drive 45 km in your condition, understood? The boys will share a room. Andris and Botond fret about this but they are too tired to oppose in earnest, and so am I. So, within half an hour I am lying in Andris’s room on a mattress on the floor, wearing an old T-shirt of Vili’s. The wall is covered with posters of superhero movies unfamiliar to me. They have a clean tidy house. I hear as the two boys whisper to each other for a while in the next room. Then they grow quiet, but I can’t fall asleep. I think of the photos and that perhaps something might be made from them. Then I think of Anna and the way she asked: What trouble?
I can’t stay put. I must go out to the porch. The air is pleasantly cool, it has an agreeably sobering effect. The scent of the village is still the same. Crickets are chirping but even over them I can hear Vili’s wheelchair slowly approaching the door.
1 But what has happened?
2 Poor you.
3 “Aunty” and later “Uncle” are forms of address used for old people, not implying family relationships.
4 A bitter digestif.
5 But what happened? Do you not understand?
6 The Hungarian speaking people of Transylvania.
7 Rough conversion: for US dollars divide by 300.
8 A simple car made in the former East Germany.
9 It’s a simple question, Robert. Why can’t you answer?