Jul/Aug 2005   Travel

Coffee and Eyelashes, a Story of Budapest

by Kevin O'Cuinn

The sullen smile with my name pencilled on a piece of paper said, "Horshue Sempeela."

"Nice to meet you, too," I answered.

"No, not nice to meet you, hor-shue sempeeela—you have very long eyelashes."

Any doubts I'd had about grad school in Budapest evaporated on the spot. It was a below freezing January evening, but somewhere inside a fire started. She said her name was Marta and added, "Give me your questions, when you have them." Cool, I thought, my own personal Oracle.

Legends recall that in the fifth century AD, Attila the Hun--the then scourge of everything and body (God supposedly included), arrived in what was to become known as Budapest. He cast an eye over the city and decided to name it in honour of his baby brother, whose name just happened to be "Buda." I jest not, and no relation to The Enlightened One.

The Romans vacated the settlement shortly before Attila's arrival, his reputation preceding him. He left fine architecture and lots of baths. Attila's pace slowed after Budapest. He took to the place, as I did, too.

15 centuries later...

There was something in the air. Airborne, a softness that nobody escaped. People had stopped complaining about the small planes humming over the city, once it had been established they were spraying a dopamine-based compound that kept the blues at bay. That was the answer I preferred to the oft-asked, "What's with all those planes?" Others insisted it was a new tourist scam, others still that it was a new breed of property surveyor. After a while nobody cared or noticed, hence my logic for siding with the dopamine fraction. The mix had a side-effect of making you want to stay. Like I said to Diana Ross on the flight back to Germany the following July, "I don't want to leave," but more about that later.

Once upon a lifetime ago. Six short months. Different scene, different being, different seeing.

Andrea, on one of her barnstorming visits, said that it was how she imagined France after the war, THE war, minus the camembert. Despite her having the status of "love of my life," we'd become undisputed world champions in domestic squabbling. But now with her in Germany, me in Hungary, and good old Austria as a buffer between us, things could only get better, no? Either way, I was resolute that in Hungary there would be no exchanging of bodily fluids with others. I was here to learn, and Affairs of the Heart was not on the syllabus.

Hungarians not only lead the world in hammer throwing and child-birthing techniques, they are also second to none when it comes to pedagogy. Thus the reason for my journey East, to master the intricacies of English Language Teaching. My days were full of Krashen and Chomsky—the other Chomsky, Chomsky the rebel linguist. Truth be told, I wasn't confident of making the grade when it came to sitting the exam. On good days I thought of myself as an okay teacher, but one lousy student. How I'd got this far, I do not know. I was forever waiting for the eternal tap on the shoulder, and then for a voice to say. "Oi! You! Call yourself a teacher? Don't make me laugh! You're an impostor, you're not a teacher! Go on, out!" I didn't think I'd make the grade. Not the best attitude to embark with, I admit. In the weeks that followed I did my best to avoid questions and the glare of my peers. I even faked a coughing fit to get out of an "assisted' (observed) teaching assignment.

The school rented me a one-room flat, my home for the next 24 weeks, on the Buda side of the Danube. From the window I had an eyeful of the Hungarian Parliament buildings on the Pest side of the river. An exact replica of the House of Parliament in Westminster England--Marta assured me it was too complicated to explain why. Main thing was, the place was cheap, central and half-way clean. Oh, and it was warm, very warm. Blistering hot in fact. Or if you liked, you could turn the heating off. One or the other. I opted for the former, and got used to it. It felt like Christmas should, toasty, until April, whereupon the radiators turned to ice.

I recommenced rope-skipping to regain a semblance of my not very hot (but somewhat slimmer) former self. The old lady downstairs paid me a visit four minutes later and complained in very colourful language, not a word of which of I understood. Her message however, was crystal clear, so I reverted to the age-old strategy of leaving a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream outside her door. Works every time, though I doubt she enjoyed me practicing my saxaphone either.

Within a week I'd made myself known to a few of the locals in the vicinity. In the following six months we went a long way to creating a new Pidgin, incorporating English, school French, bar-German, and ample servings of an as yet undocumented sign language. Linguistically, I hold anyone in awe (Hungarian included) who learns to speak Hungarian. I had my trials and tribulations, my half successes and disappointments, and after learning the absolute essentials (see below), gave up after two days.

After "Horsue sempeela," the top of my list was how to order a cup of coffee. "Easy," Marta said, "Just say, edge KAR-vet, car-wreck say pan. But say it really quick, like you're in a hurry." With practice, it actually worked, like a caffeine dream. Thereafter I relied on pointing, smiling and pot luck. One evening my neighbour's tantric imploring of mage, mage mage! led me to chance ordering MAGE edge kar-vet? in the hope of receiving a second coffee. Voila!


I once dreamt I could learn languages via osmosis, that just by listening I became hip and articulate in tongues going back to Babel. So I tuned into a local FM station each morning before going off to class, in the hope of picking up a phrase or two. From the signature music at 7.30, I figured someone at Danube FM had decided to serialize Star Trek. I may be wrong. However, after a couple of weeks, I could differentiate between the main protagonists. Speaking Hungarian with a Scottish accent cannot be easy. Kirk seemed his smug self, McCoy sounded stressed, Spock was Spock. My linguistic output however, stayed firmly in the "eyelashes & coffee" department.

Like other East-European metropoles, Budapest has a long history of revolution, culture, and lousy rock bands. The crumbling decay of old-world architecture is, however, more dangerous than charming. I'd come from Frankfurt, in parts of which people walk in the street to avoid the junkies shooting up on the sidewalks. In Budapest I walked in the street to avoid falling balconies. A city coming down around you is disorienting for a newcomer. Just when you think you know your way around, somebody pulls down your landmark. It's annoying. Mayor restorations were underway. People stood misty-eyed in front of construction sites. The city was reinventing itself to much talk of "former glory." After more than 40 years behind the Iron Curtain, Rumpelstiltskin was having a make-over. "The Pearl of the Danube" was very much reopened for business. Forty years of irritation had only enhanced its shine.

Like the other countries of the former Soviet block, the Hungarians had, since the fall of the "Evil Empire" pulled down all the old statues celebrating the icons of communism, cheerio Joe, arrividerci Vlad. But unlike their neighbours they didn't smash them to dust to the delight of CNN camera teams, oh no, they did something far more suave. The Hungarians carefully hauled their statues of the icons of Communism to the outskirts of Budapest AND OPENED A THEME PARK! You really have to admire them for that. There's always a line, but it's worth a visit. $8 entry.


The Turks, marauding, conquering people that once they were, visited Budapest on more than one occasion, the last time if I remember correctly, for 120 years. They did the usual raping, pillaging and plundering, nothing new in this part of the world, renovated the baths, but all importantly, brought coffee.

My guidebook was so overwhelming in historical points of interest that I became nauseated and discarded it. All I kept was its list of recommended coffee houses. In those early days I obediently did the rounds and paid extravagant prices--by local standards. The list promised "old ladies in fur hats... writers... intelligentsia..." oh dear. They were all there, plus busloads of tourists, pot-bellied greasy-haired men in dark suits, and my personal favourite, high-class hookers. A real Muppet Show. And everyone high on copious quantities of kavet.

I tried not to take it personally when waiters sighed at me returning to their establishment. They were used to once-off tourist custom and weren't interested in familiarity. I took it as a compliment; I'd shaken off my tourist mantle.

I found a place outside the guide in Buda. It was on my way to school, and I loved to stand at the bar and watch the trams come and go. Soon, like the locals, I looked up when the tram drivers rang their bells to signal end of shift. Shortly after, in they'd come, cursing the cold (I think) and stomping snow from their boots. They served coffee in shot glasses because they had to. Porcelain was expensive and in short supply. And the sawdust on the floor was not just decorative. People drank till they were sick and, I learned, vomit on sawdust is conducive to brushing.

There was a small transistor radio behind the bar which could occasionally be heard above the rush of the numbers 4 & 6 trams on the avenue. More often than not the radio sounded like a leg of lamb crackling in an oven between Hungarian folk songs. And though I'm sure nobody understood a word, there was much tapping of feet when Sherryll Crowe stormed the airwaves, even of the Hungarian folk station, with "all I wanna do is have some fun, I get the feeling..." During the six months in Budapest I added a new word to my vocabulary--my English vocabulary--and used it often, "Incongruous." Before then, I'd only read about it.


They called it "The worst Winter in a generation." No holds barred, textbook, or rather picture-book stuff. A meter and half of snow fell in a day. The omnipotent snowploughs worked with messianic endeavour. Having diverted the snow east and west, crews of men and women, yes, men and women, shoveled the snow into trucks with a gusto reminiscent of me with a spoon, left alone with a Baked Alaska dessert. I liked to think they ferried the snow off to children in more temperate climates where it was scarce. Or maybe they were building a monster snowman out at the statue park. "On your left Vladimir Iliych, known as Lenin, on your right, for a short time only, Frosty the Snowman."

The snow carried gentleness. For the first time it made sense that the first flower of Spring should be the snowdrop. The lingering memory of the real McCoy. Marta, my personal oracle, informed me that every snowflake is unique. Apparently if melted and then re-frozen, it will revert exactly to its original crystal form.

Quayside cafes, galleries and antique shops were just the ticket for my hunger and curiosity. I had after all, spent the previous twelve months (according to "The Rough Guide") "in the dullest, greyest, most boring city in the western hemisphere," Frankfurt. It's changed, Frankfurt, in the intervening years, a little.

One snowy afternoon I wandered around the Alliance Francaise, the bastion of Frenchness abroad. A photo exhibition lauded the musicality of the nomadic Romany people of Central and Eastern Europe. Their proud faces couldn't hide the confusion that someone with a camera and hence so much to record, should be interested in their antique violins and beat-up saxophones. Their soundtrack was the history of their travels, yet all I could hear was snow, snow, snow.

In the toasty heat of the cafeteria I indulged my lust for poppy-seed pastry and looked out over the city. By and by a guy asked if he could join me. He introduced himself as the Ukrainian attache to Hungary. He even offered his card. He seemed like a nice young man. Out of politeness I wouldn't have refused, but anyway scanned the tables around me for open space. I hadn't noticed the place filling up, and nodded my ascent. Andre didn't seem familiar with small talk. "Are you lonely? I like your accent," and yes, "Do you come here often?" I wondered how well his approach reflected the state of flirtation in the former Soviet Union. He baited me with a ticket to the recital that was about to begin in the auditorium. He wasn't really my type (being male), and despite not normally being such an easy touch, I acquiesced. So what? Okay, I was lonely, and flattered.

I wasn't questioning my sexuality, at least not at that point. No, I didn't get worried until forty minutes into the recital when a balding, middle-aged cello player, from 200 yards away, gave me an erection. Yes, I know, I gave myself the erection, but the cello played its part. I became aware of the people around me. I think I sighed. The lady on my right fidgeted. Andre came closer. My vision narrowed. I felt his arm against mine. Turning my head 90 degrees I looked at him, I saw three blackheads on his cheek bone. He patted my hand, which was clenching my knee. Hurriedly, and not eloquently, I clambered across the row of people into the aisle and out through the exit. I heard the audience break into applause and told myself repeatedly they did so because the concert was ending. I didn't look back till I was home. Dvorak would never be the same.

Of course my actions reflected an innate lack of maturity in dealing with anything outside my regular scope of reference, and as ever when an incident came along I felt uneasy with, I did the Quinn Thing... tucked it neatly away in the recesses of my cerebrum, and went back to the mediocrity of daily routine.

This wasn't difficult as I was at school most of the day. I enjoyed Language Acquisition class and how babies mistake birds for dogs and clouds for grandmas, but otherwise I wasn't learning a whole lot. Plus all my peers and tutors insisted on using textbook grammar. So I wasn't having a particularly good time. And most of the food in the vicinity was deep-fat fried. At high school I played my role of empty vessel stoically, just fill me up with all the garbage necessary to pass the test--leave me alone, and I'll go learn it. Here, however, tutors feigning interest in my opinions took a certain amount of readjustment.

Looking back it would have been a richer learning environment if they'd just cut the adult democracy bullshit and said "This is the way it is, accept it, learn it, and you might pass the exam." People generally come to the opinion that I'm flaky when they realize my opinions change with each passing cloud. My Budapest tutors saw this as craziness, provocation, learning difficulties, or as an amalgamation of all three. I was there to play their game, but they weren't very forthcoming with the rules of engagement.

We were twelve in the class, all of us drop-outs or fall-outs from other disciplines. Tinker, tailor, journalist, sex slave, fisherman, lawyer, architect, thief. Normally this might be considered a good recipe for cocktail conversation, but we were all too self-important and constipated to exchange anything more than pleasantries and feedback on course related material. Yawn.

A wolf escaped from the zoo around this time, and everyone had a theory as to where the fugitive might be hiding out. As the bars of his cage were bent inwards, it was thought he may have had an accomplice. I remember the incident so well because it was one of the few times we discussed anything as a group. The wolf turned up in the statue park, scared out of his wits.

Of the group of twelve, I got on best with Sebastian. We were the only partnerless two, so we made an effort to take in some sights together. We walked, talked football, and swallowed lots of kavet. Then, quite suddenly one day, we were comfortable sitting in silence with one another. He had one of those English public school accents that could only have been acquired at the best grammar school. He was, in his own way, borderless. Daddy had represented the British Council abroad at least all of Sebastian's life. Ex-empire-trotting for Queen and wanderlust. We covered a lot of ground. Budapest is a shoe-friendly kind of place. We even found a bar called "Champions," which of course, as the name suggests, was full of losers.

The snow moved on, the rains came. Seb and I watched. There were days the world was but a rainy windshield. Colours ran into each other until everything around was one great grey mass, and the Danube licking its sides our liturgy. Recipes brewed inside me of the most nutritiously delicious ingredients: two cups of lust, a smattering of love, a waitress' furtive glance, a pinch of tease. Simmer till you're in a frenzy, then let it set. Rain does that to me. There were hours in those rains I longed to hold Andrea and, together under an umbrella, hurry across a busy Avenue in Spring's growing light. And laugh until forever came.

Seb and I finally found "Sixtus Kapolna," the Sistine Chapel, the place that was to become my emotional El Dorado for the duration of my stay. It wasn't easy to find, and they didn't advertise. And anyone we met who'd heard about the place had never actually been there. It was beginning to acquire mythical proportions. At one point we'd decided it was in fact a rumour. Who would have the tenacity to find the place? Certainly not drunks. Eventually Marta The Oracle drew me a map, and told me to trust it when I met "nameless streets." And as ever, she knew best.


Sixtus had a short but colorful history. It was smack in the middle of the Jewish quarter. In the name of decorum, the proprietors, Oran and Hans, had been asked by the local rabbi to remove the name sign hanging out front. And so it would remain, nameless and inconspicuous. Oran and Hans were a testimony to Irish-Dutch friendship, if ever there were such a thing. They both spoke flawless English, but nevertheless chose to speak Hungarian to each other. It was but a mild peculiarity about the place. It was like they didn't understand what a weird and difficult language Hungarian was. They opened their mouths, and out it poured:

"Yo nappot kivanok, hogy vagy?" Which means, "Hey, what's up?" See?

Sixtus Kapolna is where I met Judit. She didn't so much as catch my eye as disembowel me with a glance from across the bar. I was distracted, in trouble right from the start. She had those eyes, dark like night, and a warm embrace. Though I didn't know that then. But still I was determined: there'd be no involvement, no distraction. Affairs of the Heart was not on the syllabus.

Next time I saw Marta, she confided, for no apparent reason, that Hungarian women are perhaps even more beautiful than Slovenian women, but automatically gain 300lbs on their 30th birthday, and I had better be warned.

"What, what?" I asked her.

"I see it in your eyes, my friend."


A month or more after the embarrassing cello incident with the Ukranian attache, I sat in Boris's kitchen, waiting as he printed me a counterfeit train ticket to Bratislava. I'd wanted to go there from the moment I'd heard the name. A regular ticket was within my budget, but cloak and dagger normally wasn't.

Boris spoke all the time and smelt like the underneath of a bridge. The question "sweat or pee?" was continually on my mind. I still wonder what language it was he spoke. He offered me a slug of a yellow liquor, but I refrained. He seemed to be just about finishing, the ticket and the bottle, when the cello-thing started over. How embarrassing. I hadn't given it any thought since the evening with Andre. It's a Quinn thing.

Boris smiled coyly, seeming to sense what was going through my mind, or rather groin. He revelled in my shortness of breath, which I hoped was my asthma. He winked at me, then nodded at a photograph on the wall, of a woman I supposed to be Mrs Boris. He swayed and hummed, and only then did I realize that the music was not coming from some threatened area of my skull. It was a couple of floors up in the courtyard. Relief! I smiled and heaved a joyous sigh. Boris laughed. I wasn't the pervert I'd feared myself to be. Cello music turned me on, that was all, perfectly normal, nothing to worry about. Perfectly normal.

I moved closer to the kitchen window overlooking the courtyard. I opened it and caught a breeze full of Debussey's "The Girl With The Flaxen Hair."

God, I laughed. I pointed a couple of floors up and did a Marcel Marceau with cello. None too impressed, Boris tutted, wagged a hairy finger across my face and proceeded to do a much more credible impression. He turned his head high and left, clenched his eyes shut, squatted low, and with pearls of sweat across his face, he pulled an imaginary bow left, right, and left again. Then, regaining his usual slovenly posture, he took a step back, bowed until his forehead touched the ground, and fell over.

I applauded enthusiastically, but he actually got quite a bad carpet burn down one side of his face. He seemed a little offended when I interrupted the build-up to his next impression, which may have been a plumber. I'd loved to have stayed and play charades but, well, I don't play charades with guys named Boris in the early afternoon, at least not when sober. He was good though.

As I left, Boris looked wistfully into the courtyard and sighed a long lustful "Juuudiiiit." I understood two words from his next half dozen sentences. "Sixtus Kapolna." One and the same. Stunned, happily stunned, but stunned nonetheless, I gesticulated skyward, repeated "Judit" and "Sixtus Kapolna" in as good a questioning tone as I could muster in Hungarian. Boris nodded affirmation, slapped me on the back a couple of times and pointed an ink-stained finger into my face. Suddenly I felt much better about my cello fixation. I didn't exactly leave Boris with a spring in my step as freak snowstorms had again hit the city the day before. Treacherous ground. Yesterday's snow, tomorrow's black ice. When I did invariably lose my footing, I fell head over heels. But that was much later.

I never made it to Bratislava, by the way. The counterfeit ticket expired six months later, in so far as counterfeit tickets ever expire, but I couldn't bring myself to throw it away. Memorabilia, of time well spent.

No question of involvement, no distraction. I was in Budapest to learn, or at least to pass an examination. No affairs, no Affairs of the Heart. An innocent inquiry later and I knew that Judit was very much recently single, but not on the lookout for the type of male companionship that might lead to the exchange of bodily fluids. This I could deal with. I was okay with it, really. I would not become involved. Nor would she. But God.

So I sat at the bar for months and tried not to watch her. I looked at her, that was all. As discretely as my eyes would let me. She became an aftersight, background to my musings. The bar was made of black marble and generally I could restrict my gaze to her reflection there. Each day we had the same exchange: "Hi" "Kavet?" "Thanks." "There you go." "Thanks." "No problem." And later, "Mage edge?" "Thanks." "Here you go. "Thanks." "Welcome."

The break from Andrea was doing us both good. We wrote and called regularly, had stopped reprimanding each other, and actually discussed things as we once used to: art, history, literature, biology, technology, archaeology, politics, combustion, astro-travel, psychiatry, economics, dentistry, and American foreign policy in the former Yugoslavia. We often disagreed, but were remembering to respect each others' opinions. Once, taking shelter under a shop's canape, I mistook tears in my ears for raindrops. There in the shop-front display, was a bottle of the perfume that she used. It brought her flooding into me. I missed her then; I miss her still.

Seb became fed up of over-frequenting Sixtus and absconded to the arms of Fran. Women loved to ponder what might be the cause of the faraway look in his eyes. I knew it was his long suffering soccer team, Queen's Park Rangers, though of course I told no one. Fran had a wonderful laugh, wore Doc Marten's, and had a shadow-friendly face. She was quite a catch, though probably he was, too. I was happy for them to have found each other in the midst of the multi-million conurbation.

So I was left alone to make the trip from hilly Buda where I spent my days, to my evenings in the flatlands of Pest.


While keeping Oran company in Sixtus one afternoon, Judit arrived through the door. "Kevin," she said, "please help me." She held out an earring and pointed an ear at me. I took the earring and brushed her hair over her ear with the outsides of my fingers, running it along the rim of her ear till I finally held her earlobe between my index finger and thumb. I inserted it and returned the hair to where it had previously fallen. The shadow of the earring swung to and fro on her neck. She tilted her head slightly towards me and looked far inside me. A moment before, Oran and I had been discussing the importance of mythology to everyday life, I think. Now his silence was an intolerable din. I remember I squinted and bit my lower lip. She said "Thank you" as if I'd just saved her from a burning carwreck, turned, and left.

Oran never said a word. He pulled up a stool, rolled a cigarette and handed me his tobacco. We sat and smoked. Words were futile. Now we were three. Three minutes earlier I'd been alone.

When I was 16, I fell in love with Natassia Kinski. I'd just seen her in Polanski's "Vampire" thing and developed an ever-so-acute dose of infatuation. She would have been 22 at the time. Now she's 40 and has three kids. Of course I'm happy for her, I just wonder what might have been if ever we'd had a chance. Having a crush back then was difficult. Today it's eeeeasy. Thank the Internet. Everyone's got half a million websites. Back then we didn't even have foreign newspapers. And there was no "Breaking News" on CNN. In fact there was no CNN. Yes, I know it's a difficult thing to imagine. It all took place in your head. And dreams.

All I'm saying is, I recognized the symptoms.

In the weeks that followed Oran shared our secret with respectful silence. If more than four people gathered into the bar including myself and Judit, he would distract himself, so long as there was quiet. Polish a glass, write a letter, and occasionally to the consternation of thirsty guests, go for a walk.

The silence grew and only three of us knew what it was. It became contagious and, far from complaining, people seemed to enjoy it. People spoke about it elsewhere, the silence that had fallen on Sixtus Kapolna. Orders were whispered, sometimes pointed, conversations became muted. Nobody asked why. And it was good for business. A quiet bar.

It didn't take long before two other bars had opened in the vicinity with this "theme" in mind. The first was called "sssshhh," the second I don't recall. They had strippers and tequila nights, neither of which was particularly conducive to... well, you get the picture.

By the time my exams came around, I was actually beginning to believe that I might pass. I didn't of course, but I thought I had a chance at the time. Could be my diet played a part. Apart from coffee, the only solids I remember ingesting in my last two months in Budapest were chocolate-coated cottage cheese bars (toros), which I highly recommend, and kavet cookies.

I also made friends with a spider, a small one who I shared my bath with.


It was my final evening in Budapest. My Austrian friend Phillip called from Vienna to say that he was coming down for a cup of coffee. People don't normally cross international frontiers to have a coffee, but that's Phil. We hadn't seen each other since I'd kicked his ass at table-tennis two years previously.

I went to Kiraly station to meet all two meters of him from the train. As Hungary had once been part of the Austrian empire, he said he was having a "moment" after he got off the train. He lowered his head and muttered something only audible to himself. Then we hugged, and he said, "So Kevy, how have you been?" like he always does. As it was his first time in Budapest, we thought a little sightseeing might be in order. It was late though, so we didn't. His disappointment lifted when I suggested that we take in a couple of Irish pubs and a pizzeria on the way to Sixtus.

It was busy when we arrived, shortly before closing. Oran had my coffee on before the door closed behind me. I introduced Phil around, and we found a seat out back away from the bustle of the bar. It was probably the Guinness in his veins that made Phil feel edgy about the attention people showed him. For a big guy, he enjoys a low profile.

I'd hardly mentioned to people that I was leaving on the next morning's seven AM flight to Frankfurt, and when I did, they reacted strangely, starting sentences that didn't end. I hadn't talked about leaving, I'd been too concerned with being there. I realized that people would miss me, and I them, and I felt selfish at not having given them more forewarning. I had told Oran, and I could feel his recognition, in his playing of all my favorite tunes by Sly And The Family Stone.

Shortly before two AM, to a chorus of disgruntled groans, he stopped serving, squeezed in beside where I was sitting, and offered me his tobacco. We sat and smoked a while as people started to drift away. Phil was engrossed in conversation with two very beautiful Hungarian-speaking Romanian girls. They were captivated. One interrupted every couple of minutes to translate for her friend, who shook her head and opened her mouth as to accept a ladle of soup, or threw back same head and laughed silently while holding one hand to her stomach. Phil was on a role.

Judit didn't stop washing glasses when I approached where she stood behind the counter.

"I heard you were leaving."

"Yes. I just wanted to say goodbye."

"Goodbye Kevin."

"Goodbye Judit."

I turned to the door, wanting to leave, with haste. I was happy. There had been no famous final scene, no tears, no broken hearts. I wanted to board the plane right then. I caught Phil's eye, and he came straight over. Oran was behind him. It wasn't the first time I'd been last in the house.

Time to go, I'll call from Frankfurt, thank you, thank you... Phil pushed me out the door, calling behind to Oran that we'd see him in half an hour in "Piaf's," sounding like he'd been there a thousand times before.

Piaf, the little sparrow. The illustrious French chanteuse whose name hangs over a small club half a mile south. The club where Hungary's film and rock stars drank until prohibited by law. Yes, Hungary has stars.

Phil had decided that he liked Budapest. In fact he thought he might stick around a few days and check out the coffee culture. Vienna, after all, a 90 minute train ride away, would wait. Vienna will wait. He repeated "Vienna will wait" twenty or thirty times, each time it sounding different; each time there was something else to hear. I left that morning, but Phil is still in Budapest, six years later.

Piaf's was full of faces from Sixtus, one or two waved to us and we made our way over to a table. Phil's fan club made space for us and introductions were made. I bought a round. The music was far away now. People wished me well. They told me to come back soon. They told me I was a fool to go.

I noticed Oran bouncing around the dance floor but not Judit arriving, until she sat down beside me and everyone else left en masse. It was then I had the first inkling of a sentiment that all and asunder had been privy to the liaison that henceforth I had believed to be taking place, to a large extent, in the privacy of my head. Their mass departure coincided with the drum-thumping that signalled Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life."

"Hey," I said.

"What time is your flight?"


"Who's taking you to the airport?"

"Huh? Nobody."

"But that's sad, to leave alone. You seemed so happy here."

"I have been."

"Want me to go to the airport with you?"

Inside I almost nodded my head off in affirmation. Go Iggy, go.

"No Judit. But thanks for offering."

"Come on, it's already four, you don't want to miss your flight'.

With that she stood and walked to the exit. I was embraced in a monster group hug, lifted, and deposited outside. Nobody said goodbye. They waved for a moment and then were gone back inside to the life I did not want to leave.

Judit took my hand, and we began to walk. We crossed the Danube just as the enormous neon signs on its banks extinguished, as if in the reflection in the water below us. On Margit Island a couple were arguing in German. Not a good omen, I thought. For the first time in ages, I really wanted a beer. A fresh cold beer, or six, enough to take away my fear.

I opened the door to my flat, and in we went. I turned on the lights and started to busy myself. It was too late for foolishness. My heart was still intact, four chambers and all aorta. I was almost smug, not quite, but not far off.

Judit sat on the one chair in the place and pointed at my saxaphone-case.

"What's in the box?"

"Oh, it's my saxaphone."

"I didn't know you play sax."

"A little, and not very well," I told her, overplaying the modesty.

"Well, better a little than none at all. I play cello."

"Oh really? Wow, that's great! I had no idea."

The mention of the word "cello" made me want to chew my knuckles. I excused myself and retreated to the bathroom, where a quick change of shirt and a spray of deodorant awaited me. Composure regathered, I went back to where Judit was looking out across the city from the window.

"It's really beautiful at this time. We better hurry. I'll take your saxaphone."

I closed the door behind us and put the keys through the letter box, and then noticed she'd been crying. I wasn't sure what to say, so I said nothing. I handed her a tissue, she blew her nose and put it back into the pocket of my jacket. I didn't mention it.

We took the metro from Bethyany to Elisabeth Square. I had loved to stand on the platform and feel the gale-force gusts being pushed ahead of the trains long before I could even hear the trains. I remember them arriving at acute almost-right angles to the rails, in a hurry. The next one was two and a half minutes behind, like anytime else, day or night. We didn't speak, we wouldn't have been able to hear each other anyway, but we didn't try.

At Elisabeth Square we had enough time for a final kavet before the airport bus left. A digital clock, moonlighting as a thermometer, told me it was 26 degrees warm and 5.30 AM dark. I was not so familiar with this time of day. My hearing was off, and words felt slower. It was going to be another beautiful day in Budapest.

The driver started the engine, and we boarded. Judit sat beside the window, and despite the narrow seat I didn't so much as brush against her when I sat beside her. Nobody's heart had been so much as bruised, though that was how the sky now seemed, bruised dark blue and purple. A rampant celestial bruise, a sky that spoke of hurt.

Outside the city, as if on cue , the sun began its ascent. Judit was relaying to me Oscar Wilde's "The Student and The Rose," I think. I wasn't really paying attention. Wilde boredom, and that from a countryman. No, I was enthralled by the choreography of sun and shadow taking place in the speeding bus across her neck, face and chest. Light and dark dashed and bounced around her. The sun had finally found a worthy stage. I smiled occasionally or raised an eyebrow when she nodded to me. Once she touched my arm, I know because I saw her do it, but I couldn't feel a thing. It was then I noticed the long black hair lying across her chest. Taking its chances to go it alone. I'll take it, I thought. And let my greedy fingers find their hungry way inside that shirt, to a throbbing breast and embrace it for all I'm worth, consume... but I didn't, it was too late for foolishness.

As the bus slowed and pulled into Ferihegy International, the great shadow ballet slowed before my eyes and collapsed into darkness and then light.

Departures, second floor.

There were a lot of private security personnel eyeballing those arriving and talking into blazer lapels. Funny how those not wanting to be noticed do so in such a conspicuous manner.

Judit went off in search of a restroom, and I checked in. Boarding pass in hand, I wandered around the check-in area without any goal, before seeing her, Judit, watching me from far across the terminal.

"Szia," she said after approaching. It always sounded to me like "see ya," but is Hungarian for "hello' and "goodbye." How screwed is that? Hello doesn't generally hurt so much.

"You checked in okay?"

"No problem."

"So, I better give this back. Don't forget to practice."

"Yeah, you too. Thanks for carrying it. I'm glad you came along."

"It's not good to leave alone."

The planes above came lower, closer, closer. The air filled with mist. Then somehow my world stopped. It stopped, just stopped. The newspapers would report that the crop dusters released instant-freeze on an unsuspecting airport. Pigeons, trapped in the terminal, stopped in mid-flight. Announcements went unfinished. Drawn breaths were not exhaled. I turned all around. A passer-by smiled at Judit and I, perpetually. Judit blinked, and realization struck me with all the force of life's cruel games.


"Judit... no." I put my face in my hands and shook my head in wonder.

"What is it?"

"Judit, I'm really going to miss you."

For a moment her hair turned white and her dark eyes combusted into deep green flames. She smiled fire and nodded softly, and as the colour came back to her face she looked at me and said, "Same here Kevin, same here."

I heard my name on the public address system. The world had returned.

"Szia, Kevin."

"Szia, Judit."

We embraced. She turned. She was lost in the crowd.

I boarded flight LH3453 in disarray. My heart was full of confusion and my face full of tears. It quickly became apparent why there had been such a heavy security presence outside. In the first seat of the first row sat Diane Ross. I'd seen posters advertising a concert, but I wasn't a fan. At least, that is, not since the Supremes. But she caught my eye, took my hand and in a heartbeat closed my fingers around a tissue. "What's wrong, dear?" What's wrong? What—is—wrong... in a teary, snot-filled sentence I blurted, "It's okay, it's just an eyelash, I just have a lash in my eye, really." But again, "What's wrong, dear. You gonna be okay?" And this time, "I don't want to leave!" She said something else, something I don't recall.

"The Scourge of God," aka Attila the Hun, died in 453 AD of a nasal haemorrhage following nocturnal passions with his new bride. I wonder would he have preferred the battlefield. Legends recall that he was laid to rest in a triple-layered coffin of gold-silver-lead, which was left to fall to the depths of the river Tisza. Though no doubt his remains will one day be found, the Huns, having killed the pallbearers, never returned there.


Previous Piece Next Piece