04. 30. 2004. 11:18

A Book of Memories (Excerpt)

Péter Nádas

"There was no doubt of it, the dark coat on the rack could mean only one thing: a guest had arrived, an unusual guest at that, because the coat was stern-looking, grim, quite unlike the coat that usually hung on that rack, so shabby, and threadbare I didn't even feel like doing what I usually did when left alone with strange coats in the hallway and go through the pockets and, if I found some loose change, cling to the wall, listen for noises, wait for the right moment, and then steal a few fillers or forints."

There was no doubt of it, the dark coat on the rack could mean only one thing: a guest had arrived, an unusual guest at that, because the coat was stern-looking, grim, quite unlike the coat that usually hung on that rack, so shabby, and threadbare I didn't even feel like doing what I usually did when left alone with strange coats in the hallway and go through the pockets and, if I found some loose change, cling to the wall, listen for noises, wait for the right moment, and then steal a few fillers or forints.

This time I did not hear any strange noises or anyone talking, everything seemed normal, so I simply opened the door and, without fully comprehending my own surprise, took a few steps toward the bed.

A stranger was kneeling in front of the bed. He was holding Mother's hand as it lay on the coverlet, bending over it; he was crying, his back and shoulders shaking; while he kept kissing the hand, with her free hand Mother was holding the man's head; her fingers sank into the stranger's short-cropped, almost completely white hair, as if wanting to pull him closer by his hair, but gently, consolingly.

That's what I saw when I walked into the room, and as I took a few more steps toward the bed, the man lifted his head from Mother's hand, not too quickly, while Mother abruptly let go of his hair and, leaning slightly forward on her pillows, threw me a glance.

"Leave the room!"
"Come here."

They spoke simultaneously, Mother in a choked, faltering voice while her hand quickly rushed to her neck to pull together her soft white bed-jacket; the stranger spoke kindly, however, as if he were really glad to see me come in so unexpectedly; in the end, embarrassed and confused by the conflicting signals, I stayed where I was.

Late-afternoon sunlight pierced through the window, outlining with wintry severity the intricate patterns of the drawn lace curtain on the lifeless shine of the floor; outside, the drainpipes were dripping, melted snow from the roof sloshed and gurgled along the eaves; the shaft of light left Mother and the stranger in shadow, reaching only as far as the foot of the bed, where a small, poorly tied package lay; the unfamiliar little bundle, wrapped in brown paper and clumsily secured with string, must have belonged to the stranger, who wiped off his tears, straightened, then smiled and stood up, showing as much impudence as strength in this quick transition; his suit also seemed strange, like his coat on the rack outside, a lightweight, faded summer suit; he was very tall, his face pale and handsome, and both his suit and white shirt were wrinkled.

"Don't you recognize me?"
There was a red spot on his forehead, and one eye still had tears in it.
"No."
"You don't recognize him? Forgot him so quickly? But you must remember him, you couldn't possibly have forgotten him so fast."

A hitherto unfamiliar excitement made Mother's voice dry and choked, though I could sense she was trying to control herself; still, her voice sounded unnatural, as if she felt she had to play the role of mother, addressing herself to me, her son, as if controlling not so much her emotions, the joy at seeing the unexpected guest, but rather some powerful inner trembling, and the cause if this inner fear and trembling was unfamiliar to me; her eyes remained dry, tearless, and her face changed, which surprised me much more than their intimacy had, or the fact that I didn't recognize the man; a strikingly beautiful, red-haired woman was sitting in that bed, her cheeks flushed, her slightly trembling, nervous fingers playing with the strings of the bedjacket - she seemed to be choking herself with them - a woman who had been intent on keeping a secret from me but whose lovely green eyes, narrowing and fluttering, had just betrayed that she was completely defenceless in this painful and embarrassing situation; I had caught her in the act, found her out.

"It's been five years, after all," the stranger said with a gentle laugh; his voice was pleasant, as was his way of laughing, as if he had a penchant for laughing at himself, for playing freely with his own feelings; he began walking toward me, and indeed became familiar; I recognized his easy, confident stride, his laugh, the candor of his blue eyes, and, most of all perhaps, the reassuring feeling of trust I could not help having in him.

"Five years, that's a long time," he said, and hugged me; he was still laughing, but the laugh was not meant for me.
"Maybe you remember that we told you he was abroad? Well, do you?"

My face touched his chest; his body was hard, bony thin, and because I automatically closed my eyes I could feel a great deal of his body still, I did not yield completely to his embrace, partly because some of Mother's nervousness rubbed off me and partly because the trust evoked by his walk, his ease, and his body seemed to be too familiar and too powerful; the potential exposure of feelings made me more reserved.

"Why go on lying? I've been in jail."
"I told you that story only because we couldn't really explain."
"That's right, in jail."
"Don't worry, he didn't steal or rob or anything like that."
"I'll explain it all to you. Why can't I tell him about it?"
 "If you feel you must."

He let this last remark pass unanswered and, as if slowly breaking away from Mother, pushed me away a little, took a good look at me, fairly devouring me with his eyes; what he saw, that sight I must have presented to him, not only made his eyes brighter but turned his smile into a laugh, and this laugh was meant entirely for me, meant that he was pleased with me; he even shook me a little, slapped me on the back, planted loud, smacking kisses on both my cheeks, almost biting me; and then, as if he couldn't get enough of my sight and my touch, he kissed me once again, and this time I succumbed to this emotional outburst - I knew by now who he was, I knew it well, because his aggressive closeness pried open heavy locks within me, and suddenly, unexpectedly, I remembered everything, and of course he himself was right there, kissing me, holding me in a tight embrace; I'd never known that the locks were within me; after all, he had disappeared and we had stopped talking about him, he had ceased to exist, and I even forgot about that dark little corner of my memory that had been keeping alive the feeling of his closeness, his looks, his gait, the rhythms of his voice and touch; and now he was here, at once memory and reality itself; so after that third kiss, with a clumsiness induced by my emotions, I also touched his face with my mouth, but he again pulled me over, almost roughly, once again pressed me against his body and held me there.

"Please turn around, I'm getting up."

 Translated by Ivan Sanders and Imre Goldstein

Tags: Péter Nádas