05. 14. 2018. 13:38

Ferenc Barnás: Merci

translated by Owen Good

On Saturday the following week I went out to the Ecseri road market. With a Trabant. I’d purchased the car from a film director of Turkish origin for two Commodore 64’s. – Ferenc Barnás's Merci, translated by Owen Good.



Yesterday a French family came into my work. A mother, a father, their daughter and another older woman roughly the same age as the parents who was clearly part of the family; a friend, relative or something else, you never can tell with the French. The adults were over sixty; they carried themselves well. The father was the only one to greet me, and in English. It surprised me a little but didn’t stop me me from returning it – in English. He asked what they could see, as I work in a gallery; we’re in one of Budapest’s most famous streets. I told him. “We have photos on display, but you should know there’re no figurative pieces. Abstract matters only.” He turned to his family. They discussed what to do; the conversation took place in their own language, and at a point I could follow it. They were from Paris. “We’ll take a look, we’re intrigued,” said the wife. There was a strange deportment in the woman’s behaviour, but in the whole family’s too, I wasn’t sure anymore if they really were parisians. It’s not a habit of mine to ask my guests where they’re from because normally I can work it out. Like that time when that big family dropped in one early afternoon. These people must be from provincial France, I thought; they were so natural, so kind, so talkative and friendly they couldn’t have been from anywhere else. And they were, they were from Bretagne. And this family really were from Paris, I later discovered.

The girl was in her early twenties. She was tall and her features notably stood out from her parents’. She had a phone in her hand, she was tapping a text into it.

If I’ve nothing else to do I like to watch my oblivious guests; I try to be inconspicuous. This kind of thing is practically in my contract. Every time I have to size up our visitors, especially now, since I’ve been given more responsibilities. That’s to say, we’re working under a new institutional framework. The very latest one. There was already a new one, a different new one, a remodelled new one, an old new one, a reformed new one, an almost completely new one, the transitions of these and so on and so forth. I could even say that at work after a certain time, not only did we come to expect new superiors, but new types of intstitution-forms as well. We’re an experimental people, the British are comparably similar. For example in the past fourteen years I’ve had at least ninety colleagues. In a standard country supposedly I’d have always worked with the same ten-twelve people, with necessary reshuffles at the most, one or two pregnancies or something like that would have altered things.

I’m the only one who’s left in the gallery from the old days. It’s a result of my position. I’m one of the attendants. When there’s a big spring-clean there’s no need to send people like that home, of course, you can go of your own accord, if you like. I didn’t want to. Somebody has to keep up continuity. Or no? Anything or anyone could have been our director in the past fourteen years and they would’ve always been able to count on my loyalty. I don’t know whether they did or not, such matters are impossible to clarify, especially when new powers come into position for estimated time X because of reasons Y.

The family did exactly what they’d come to do: they looked at the photos on the wall. In our country we tell our children: “Read books; educate yourself!” The French tell them: “Look at pictures; understand the world!”

A short while later the girl started writing another text. I grew unsettled. I mean to say I felt the undulations of internal movements which then gave over to a new feeling. But the new feeling, growing ever stronger inside me, transformed within seconds into something like suspicion. I don't always welcome these kinds of experiences of mine, especially when within forty seconds the suspicion turns to concrete assumption. Isn’t this girl that girl?

I hadn’t thought about her in a long time, a very long time, the last time was perhaps a good five years ago, now here she was a few metres away from me. It was her features led me to think it might be her, and she’d just appeared. Perhaps she’d come to say hello or to tell me something. Anything. An arranged coincidence. I’d met so many people at work by pure chance that not only did I know to use caution, I was prepared. She looked too markedly different from her parents.


You’re imagining things.

No, I’m not.

You make everything about yourself.

That’s not true.

You’re talking to yourself.


That’s the thing!

Is it?


Well what?

Well, what if?

No way.

Why couldn’t it be her?

It can’t be.

Why not?

She’s older.

How much?

Eight or nine years.


I have to count. I have to arrange certain things in my head.

It started when I didn’t listen to the solicitor. Even though Dr Bársony told me several times that I’d regret it, because I’d always be able to pass on a property in clean and lawful Újpest, as opposed to some undivided, common-owned house which was actually a hunting lodge. And if only that were all. But there were the twenty-five percent proprietors from America, or rather the United Kingdom, and there were the fifty percent proprietors from Hungary, and they were in the house, sitting there. “Sir, don’t let’s think that your future flat will be a private one thousand square feet! Every square inch is divided among three proprietors. The only persons receiving a good deal here are the solicitors.”

I smiled. Correction: I was much too anxious to be able to smile. I was waiting for the solicitor to finally write up the main proprietor’s contract, so I could rush over to the middle-aged married couple with whom we’d agreed to meet later that afternoon. Since I’d seen the flat, there hadn’t been a single hour I hadn’t thought, if somebody else takes it it’ll be the end of me. I was there a few days beforehand. I saw it and I wanted it. Straight away. That’s how it is with me usually. “Sir, you do know that according to current Hungarian law you’re unable to enter into a valid contract?! At the most they can agree to… But let's not forget the foreigners could return at any time, these are the times we're living in!” Then she added: “Anything can happen in this country, believe you me, anything.”

I knew that perfectly well. That’s why I rushed from the József Nádor square solicitor’s office to the middle-aged married couple’s place – perhaps they lived in Práter street –, and from there to the green belt of Pest – southward, a right after the twelth milestone –, because the fifty percenters living in the hunting lodge had to sign the contract too. You still need papers, even when the law is getting more lawless by the minute, that much even I knew. The fifty percenter signed, of course only after I signed that I would pay so many and so many thousands of forint to them monthly, straight into their pocket. In the flat on the middle floor of the hunting lodge we confused matters even further. I gave the two hundred thousand to the married couple on the top floor, namely the ones in the one-thousand-square-feet flat with the balcony, in which now I was the main tenant. It was empty.

On Saturday the following week I went out to the Ecseri road market. With a Trabant. I’d purchased the car from a film director of Turkish origin for two Commodore 64’s. I’d brought the computers from Munich where not long ago I’d studied for ten months. That’s where I raked together the two hundred thousand, which of course I never mentioned to the Majakovszkij street taxmen. I must have been at the market for an hour and a half. During which time I bought my furniture for seven or eight thousand: a table, a wardrobe, a chair, a bed and other things. Then I stood on Nagykőrösi road where within a quarter of an hour I flagged down a lorry. It was an IFA. I soon made a deal with the driver, he gave me a lift all the way to the house, whistling as he did so, that’s how I remember it all. In Hungary in those days that’s how things were done. A few years before that, I’d stand with my six-month-old girl on the M1 flagging down a lift, that’s right, we couldn’t get up to Budapest any other way.

We unloaded quickly. While we carried the stuff up with my man, Mrs. Lakatos was standing the whole time at the lodge’s front door, with Mercédesz on her arm. I hadn’t met her the week before, the married couple hadn’t even mentioned her, and they certainly didn’t mention that they had a five-year-old granddaughter with whom she lived in the outlying room of the ground floor, which at first I’d taken to be some sort of workshop or larder-type thing; there weren’t even any windows. Mercédesz was holding a blanket in her hand.

At the time I was teaching at the conservatoire, and had become among other things a Sunday dad. We know what that means. My girl knew, as did Mercedész, as long as nothing came up, we spent every weekend together. She came up to ours from her ground-floor room in which was a bed, a chair, a washbasin, a gas stove and nothing else. Often she’d wait at the front door. Her eyes would glow but she wouldn’t speak, she wouldn’t even say hello, she was just happy. If by chance we arrived home late, I’d knock on their door. “Mrs. Lakatos, would you let the girl up for dinner?” “Take her, surely,” was the response. She’d often say to Mercédesz: “You behave now, you. You gypo runt, ‘else you’ll get a hiding! You eyeballing me?” Mercédesz never said a thing, though once she almost seemed to say, “Yes, I am.”

Mercédesz didn’t say a word upstairs either, she just sat at the table and stared. I don’t remember a single occasion she didn’t have the blanket in her hand. Her stare exuded defiance, anger and rage. Yet there was nothing in her you could call sadness. There was no pain in her at all. She sat in the Ecseri chair on the cushion and waited to be served.

My daughter who was a few years older than her asked me: “Dad, why does Mercedész not talk?” “She doesn’t talk,” I said, “not everyone has to talk, especially people who don’t want to.” “Why’s she scowling?” she asked another time. “She’s angry. Is she not allowed to be angry? She has no mum, no dad, her granny’s all she’s got, why wouldn’t she be angry?”

And Mercedész never spoke, but her will always prevailed. Certainly when she was at ours. She always got what she wanted. Most of all, she wanted to be the centre of attention, and if she wasn’t successful she’d defend her position. Angrily, if necessary. That meant, fuming with rage, she’d be slamming and crashing and throwing the cutlery to the floor. Not like she used it. It took at least a year and a half before I could get her to use a spoon.

“Left her to me they have, he says. My son I understand, but not that hussy from the edge of town, never, nor would I want to, I hope the leccy cuts out while they're operating on her,” said Mrs. Lakatos the day we moved in. “She’d some heart to leave this little tot behind,” she said another day. By then we’d been getting to know each other for some months, mostly in the evenings when we’d chat a while when I came home from work. She never complained. She was always in good form, a cheerfulness poured out of her and filled the space around her, the kind of which I’d never seen before and perhaps never will again. Borrow, though, she did. Once a week to be precise. It’s not for me, you know, it’s for that little angel, just look at her. At times though she wanted to enquire about certain things, for example, whether or not a sufficient amount of wine and beer bottles had gathered in my kitchen.

At others she’d give advice: “Still paying, are you? Forking out all those hundreds of forints? Are you not right in the head? You march yourself into the council, and tell them who this house belongs to! You’re some tube!” And she laughed.

Mercedész learnt from her grandmother to be happy about everything. I noticed it in her, plenty of times. Even when she was in a huff, when she was crying, and when she was demanding things or hiding in the cupboard. My poor daughter, once again, she’d be the one to have to understand the complexity of being, the peculiarity of the situation, how we are with little ones, with the defenceless, the vulnerable, the abandoned, the disadvantaged, the different, and, of course, with Mercedész.

I met Mercedész’s father once, he’d just come from N., from where he’d got two days leave as a bonus. “I’ll be grateful, so I will, the way you’re looking after my little girl.” And he shook my hand. I was rather scared.

Mrs. Lakatos didn’t drink, that is, she hadn’t drunk for a good while. But there was something up with her internal organs, I learnt that the day she grabbed my hand and ran my fingers along the lump protruding at her waist. It wasn’t a lump, it was a tumour. It was as big as a loaf of bread.

Then one day I moved to Budapest. Into a rented flat. I won’t go into details as to why, even if there were the time, I still wouldn’t. I found a flat by the conservatoire in the recently renamed Király street area – what had happened to Majakovszkij?! I entrusted an acquaintance with the sale of the lease rights to my main lease, my Trabant was the commission, or maybe I’m mistaken and they got a cut. For at least a decade and a half, I didn't go back to the hunting lodge. But then a few years ago I was in the area for an errand of some sort. Why not? – I thought, and I rang the bell of the house, which had been renovated: the sheet metal on the two towers and the roof had been replaced completely, the stone balcony painted white, the walls re-plastered, the antique window frames painted white. I stood at the front gate, waiting for someone to appear only for a man to lean out one of the windows. A few seconds later I realised he was the fifty percenter. I said hello, and asked: “Is Mrs. Lakatos home?” “Mrs. Lakatos?” he replied. “Yes,” I said. “Do you know the roundabout near the doctor’s surgery?” “Yes,” I said. “Right then, head there, take your first left, then straight on up 'til the main entrance, on in, keep going, after a few metres you’ll find a path to the right, go along that until you reach the old concrete wall, stop there and start counting: in the fourth on the sixth row you’ll find Mrs. Lakatos.” There were several metres separating us, my old neighbour couldn’t have seen my face. I paused a second, then asked: “And Mercedész?” “Mercedész ended up in France, some posh family adopted her, go to France, she’s there with them!” said the man, and disappeared from the window.

The family spent two hours in the gallery. They’d looked at absolutely everything, I could see it on them as they passed on their way out. Au revoir, all four of them said, and I answered: Au revoir. Merci.



Translated by Owen Good