11. 22. 2017. 09:20

Krisztián Grecsó: Masquerade (An Excerpt)

translated by Peter Sherwood

We are pleased to be able to bring you an extract from Krisztián Grecsó's Masquerade, translated by Peter Sherwood.


Splitting the difference

(An excerpt from Masquerade)


It was just wonderful, the product presentation. That's how Ildikó put it to Márta, it was just wonderful, wasn't it, my dear, and they laughed. Márta's heart was filled with love that she had such an understanding friend, one like she'd never had before, and wasn't that nailfile just so pretty, too. It was a free gift, and that's how they got hooked on presentations. The invitations came in the post, on thin, brightly coloured cards, you could go all over the place, Kiskunhalas, Cserkeszőlő, comfortable coaches with TV screens, tasty lunches. Schnitzel and chips every time, with mixed pickles or fancily carved carrots. There were presentations on energy-saving pans, spine-supporting bedframes, and free gifts galore: washing powder, scrubbing brushes, all kinds of splendid stuff. Not that Ildikó and Márta ever bought very much, but time flew by at these presentations, and just the day Ildikó's husband got hot under the collar about all the travelling she was doing, the surprise free gift was a sixty-piece screwdriver set.

Ildikó had been retired from the hemp factory on health grounds, she was first given a fifty per cent impairment, but then she slipped a hundred thousand forints to the consultant who signed her off and this went up to sixty-seven and a half per cent. Márta had a generous pension from the cooperative after forty years spent in the greenhouses. The days passed uneventfully, they gave up on the vegetable patch, the supermarket was cheaper, they stopped keeping animals, only Ildikó's husband hung on to his rabbits, though the inoculations were damned expensive and after the patch was left fallow, the feed cost a packet. There was little in the way of company, everyone in the old people's home was deaf, often only vegetables for dinner.

Ildikó's husband was the first to go. His heart stopped one afternoon, when Ildikó got home she saw that all the rabbits had been strangled, the French windows smashed in, the lace curtain bleached just the week before was all covered in mud. She didn't want a post mortem, but because of the rabbits and the broken windows they insisted, in case there'd been a break-in. She'd always loathed the rabbits but now it was quite intolerable that they were the reason she had to wait weeks for the official post mortem, and in the end the funeral cost over a hundred and seventy thousand, even without a VAT receipt. But at least it was a beautiful funeral. Not many came, old age had seen many off, yet there were wreaths from people they didn't know, too many flowers even for a couple of horse-drawn carriages. Márta's husband passed on a year later, lungs or heart it was. She didn't want a post mortem and was allowed to get away with it, it cost a couple of hundred thousand, shave and all. Márta's husband, Domos, knew even fewer people, hardly anyone came to his send-off, of his two grandchildren only Máté came down from Pest, the younger one, Szabolcs, couldn't get time off from his job in Dresden. And there'd have been plenty of room for the flowers on the carriage, if only Márta's wreath hadn't been so huge.

They did everything as was right and proper. The day after the funerals they visited each other, to thank the other for her wreath. Ildikó tiptoed across the yard politely and knocked on the door very gently. They had a couple of shots of pálinka, Márta had taken a xanax, but that was half an hour earlier, and she'd eaten a pogácsa, a scone with crackling after it. They sat in the dark kitchen, the forty-watt bulb glaring from the beam, no one on the kitchen sofa, where old Domos, Márta's husband used to have his afternoon nap. A photograph was propped up against the copper pestle and mortar on the dresser. It was from '79, after the annual accounts had been settled, Márta's husband wearing a tie, Márta's hair nicely permed. The pans of the old kitchen scales were lined with greaseproof paper.

Márta pointed to the bag from the bakery,  special pogácsa, she said, do have some. They had another shot. Márta described how the unknown wreath looked, three kinds of cut flowers, the whole thing covered in moss. Artificial flowers, two kinds of silk, the ribbon was, you know, that more expensive kind you could get, the letters beautiful, wide, bluish, with curlicues.

Ildikó and Márta had both been well-prepared: there were a lot of flowers laid across Ildikó's husband's grave, after the service they needed hours to take them in properly and make sure they could remember them all. Ildikó finished her pálinka and stared at the sewing machine, on it a tape-recorder with a postcard propped against it: "Best wishes from Harkány!" They reassured each other, they'd both been newly widowed and so would always help each other out. Ildikó took a cheese scone and proceeded to list those who had died.

She reached into her handbag but then remembered she had already got it ready. From her apron pocket she took out two twenty-forint coins and put them on the table: that was half the difference between the cost of the two wreaths. Márta should please have it, that's only fair. Márta protested vigorously while putting the coffee on the stove. The electric spark took its time igniting the gas. Márta said again: come on now. The coins remained on the plastic tablecloth.

They went swimming with the diabetics, on day trips with the handicapped, and of course continued with the product presentations, especially in the autumn, that's the high season for them. At the spa at Gyopáros they jointly came to the rescue of a newly widowed woman about to order a gravestone from the monumental mason in Mindszent, who charged two thousand seven hundred more for the concrete base, and his fake marble, too, was more per square metre. Quite apart from the fact that he couldn't supply a shiny Jesus. And the husband of Ildikó's neighbour had ended up with some very odd letters on his gravestone, no curlicues, just some strangely-shaped characters, as if he was someone to be ashamed of.

When they had the graves covered with a double layer of fake marble, they did so at the same time, ordering the hooks for the wreaths, too, from the same blacksmith, a bigger hook in the centre and smaller ones to the side, one on either side, and be sure, please, to properly cement in the whole thing, to make sure they can't be stolen. They differed a little regarding the flower-holders, as Ildikó didn't think a round one was very nice, but each to their own, as Márta thought round ones were in fact especially nice, no difference in price though, they always said, laughing, when when they got this far in their discussions. That the fake marble from Mindszent gets covered in moss more quickly they heard from that little woman in Márta's street who'd moved there from Szentes with her husband, they'd barely managed to furnish the house when her husband's heart gave out. She was a strange woman, everyone said there was all that money after her husband's death and still she bought the cheapest coffin, with a single golden edge, no shroud, no cross on the coffin, not even the blanket over it.

It was old Mrs Jancsi, the Chinese shopkeeper, who went to every funeral, who said there was no blanket, you could hear the rattle of the clods of earth as they were shovelled onto the coffin. In Ildikó's view you didn't need a low fence, but that's a personal thing, because Márta thought a little fence looked rather nice and it was worth thinking about. Maybe. Perhaps next year. The important thing was that the fake marble from Szentes didn't get covered in moss, because it was horrid if the nice grave went horrid. All covered in moss.

At All Souls they did their cooking together at Márta's. Barnevál had a special offer on chicken backs, which they quickly fried in fat then salted, they were really nice with sliced bread. Ildikó bought some Ischlers at the patisserie and got the breadknife all ready. As they were having their soup Márta asked if Ildikó would have liked some pálinka. Márta looked up, chewing, and insisted she didn't. The Bird's Eye man came down the street, his cart tinkling. Ildikó smiled, Márta smiled back. The boiler purred away, the house was pleasantly warm, a cat came and settled on the windowsill.

Before All Souls Márta had been to the cemetery seven times, Ildikó only six. Three times they'd gone together, the other times each went on her own. Márta went over to everyone by the graveside that she knew by sight and would chat with them, but some were rude people who gave one word replies and just stared at the grave, though there was little to see, as it was obvious that hardly anything had been spent on it. Ildikó would get chatting only on her way or at the stone cross. She even lent her watering can to a couple of women.  They were as grateful as anything, well, of course they would be, seeing as it was such a nice can, not too big and not too small.

Márta sorted out the wreaths across her husband’s grave. She knew straight off who had brought which and arranged them in two rows, according to how closely the donors were related to her late husband. Her own was in the centre, all asparagus fern, bound to last until Easter unless the sun dried it out. She was all agog to see what kind of wreath her friend would bring. The smaller kind was thirteen hundred at the high street florist's, the slightly bigger one two thousand, it was very likely to be one or the other. There was a florist on the estate, just behind the entrance gate, no shop sign or anything, where they came a hundred cheaper apiece, or a hundred and twenty less if you bought two.

On her fourth visit to the grave there was still no sign of Ildikó's wreath. She was getting concerned but then the fifth time, thank goodness, there it was. She was all excited, her breathing became laboured, and she put a hand to her heart. First she eyed it up from the grave of old Sanyi the shoemaker from the estate, and from that angle it looked lovely. Then she went a step nearer and looked at it from the rickety wooden cross on Aunt Anci's grave and it still looked fine from there. But right up close it was not very nice. It looked as though it was a second-hand wreath. And suddenly she recognised it: it came from the grave of the mother of Ildikó's daughter-in-law, that's where this wreath was from. It wasn't new, it stank. She sat down on her late husband's grave, sobbing with anger, and flung the trashy thing away.

How could her friend do such a thing. There, just let her see what I've done with it.

That evening Ildikó rang her on her mobile to ask where her wreath was. Márta replied that she had thrown it away because it was second-hand. Ildikó said it wasn't second-hand but you could tell from her voice that she was lying.  Then Márta let her tongue run away with her: what a miserable old bag you are! Then she said that she hadn't said it before but she'd heard from Ica the postwoman that she was a nasty piece of work even if she pretended to be high and mighty, because whenever she takes someone milk from the Pusztai Well, she always spits into it. Ildikó shouted back that she shouldn't be one to talk because whenever Márta brought her milk from the Gorky store, which was anyway never full-cream and she should never have got it from there, it was almost a fifth short. Márta shouted back that perhaps she always drank some on the way, and even if she did, that was still better than spitting into it, because what was the point of that? Ildikó said it wasn't better, at least you got more than you'd paid for.

Someone trampled on the asters in Márta's front garden. Ildikó claimed some drunken lout must have done it, but Márta knew better. A week later Ildikó's cat met its maker. Márta said it had eaten rat poison, but Ildikó knew better. Márta's bicycle, which she didn't ride but used only to hang her bag on, had its tyres punctured in front of the ironmonger's. Ildikó said good job it happened there, at least she didn't have far to go for new inner tubes. But Márta knew it had been done deliberately.

In the old people's home one Saturday old Feri was making mutton stew in a cauldron. A small plate was seven hundred, and Márta started shouting from the end of the queue that someone – meaning Ildikó ­– was taking a big plateful and there wouldn't be any left for those at the end. It was a small plate for seven hundred but there was no big plate, so why were they piling it on for Ildikó. The cauldron rocked on its hook, old Feri said nothing, the carers, too, just looked on, the wheelchair-bound had been wheeled out onto the veranda. Some people had come over for their meal from the rectory, the devout got a discount. Mrs Bernát was just coming out with the dish of mixed pickles when it happened. It was noon, the weather was mild, it had rained all November, but now the sun was out, and though it was early December it was not a bit cold, it was deliciously warm, in fact, by the cauldron. Old Feri used acacia twigs, because they made it smell and taste so much better, and no need to moan, there'd be no soot in the stew.

Ildikó eyed her former friend with the plate in her hand, which was indeed rather bigger than the rest, and sized her up for the best part of a minute. Márta asked what she was staring at, to which she replied: a trollop. The ladling out on the veranda came to a halt, Gizi the milkmaid had just reached the home but waited to see what would happen before locking her bicycle. Márta was so deeply offended, she got a fit of the hiccups, while Ildikó pretended not to notice anything and proceeded to list Márta's abortions. Her husband had worked in the capital and was sometimes away for a month at a time, yet she'd managed to get pregnant regularly. Everyone knew she'd had it done four times, first when she took time off after that work trip in '77, then, in the summer of '79, when the melons were so plentiful that even the office-workers were ordered into the fields to harvest them, that's when she'd had it off behind the Mikóczki farm in the little clearing, at least four people had seen the fruit shaken off Mikóczki's plum tree. And she well recalled Advent of '81, her third abortion, when old Domos was away all autumn, and then the following year, when that Ambrus in the workshop knocked her up, that was common knowledge.

Márta's hiccups showed no signs of easing off, in between bouts she said Ildikó shouldn't be one to talk, as her husband was always fumbling around in little girls' knickers and she pretended she didn't know he wanked off all hours of the day and night, standing out in the street beating his meat through the hole in his pocket, but never mind that, because however disgusting he was he didn't deserve his fate, becoming so weak that he eventually fell over like a log, because Ildikó let him die, she didn't make him his filtered tea because they're so expensive and the washing-up liquid has to last three months and if her husband were constantly having tea, it'd get used up. She didn't put a stick of wood in the stove and when her husband was cold, she wouldn't let him have more than one blanket, as that would wear them out, and her poor husband was taking the Béres drops straight into his mouth, because she didn't want to have any dirty cups to clean, well, she knew the word for someone like that, the word was murderer.

In the nursery next door the swings creaked to a halt. The church clock began to strike twelve, the priest was turning in towards the old people's home in his white Skoda. Ildikó took a couple of steps forward. On the village museum's chimney the wind tore into the abandoned stork's nest and scattered its shit- and feather-covered twigs all over the yard. Gizi the milkmaid looked up at the roof thinking that this year there'd been two hatchlings and both had flown the nest. The corners of Ildikó's lips were trembling. Márta gripped her apron as if her hands were wet and she wanted to dry them. The spoons in the hands of the Catholics' circle came to a halt in mid-air, Mrs Bernát the director was coming from her office with the keenly anticipated spicy mixed pickles, but she paused and couldn't imagine what had happened. Gyovaikerék was on his way towards the estate on his bicycle, the transistor taped to its handlebars blaring.

Ildikó took another step. Márta raised her chin, as if to ask: what now. Ildikó gave a smile, as of old, when the two had still been good friends, both pleased with the free vacuum-flasks they'd been given, yes, it was a smile very much of that sort. Márta smiled back at her, let go of her apron, and as the last of the twelve strokes died away, Ildikó tipped the entire plate of mutton stew over her. It was an expensive, delicious, proper mutton stew, all meat, hardly any bone, a good seven-hundred-forint portion. A plate of mutton stew prepared over an open fire. She tipped the plate over like you would empty a bucket of water out in the yard. Ancsúr from the old part of the village got quite a bit, too, so did the lame Laci, as they were both standing behind Márta, but it was she who got the full force of it. Boiling hot, expensive mutton stew. It scalded her, because some went over her face. And over her new hair-do, her freshly permed hair. Its silvery sheen was spattered with brownish-red, showing how richly paprika-coloured the stew was. An expensive dish. No lack of meat in it. The sauce was so rich, it trickled its way downwards ever so slowly.

Márta just stood there, rooted to the spot, her eyes popping and, Mrs Bernát would say later, with tears in them. Ildikó waited for her to say something at last, as the sauce dribbled down her face. Ildikó slapped seven hundred and twenty forints down on the table and said it was all the same to her, they could keepthe rest. And then she left, forgetting even about her bicycle. They washed Márta down in the children's toilet and asked if she wanted a plate of stew but she said no. She too went home on foot.

Only the next day did people realise the two bicycles belonged to them, when the two friends came back for them arm in arm. Mrs Bernát told them to take a good look, because she didn't know which was whose, and she really didn't, because the previous day she had been so frightened she'd turned round with the spicy mixed pickles, though a lot of people were looking forward to them, and didn't know how things turned out afterwards.

Márta had set off home in her stained clothes smelling of the stew. She got as far as the estate entrance, where by the bridge across the Kurca stood the patron saint of bridges on a tall plinth. She hid behind the statue of St John Nepomuk, and waited for someone to come by. Soon, Young Ferkó came along in his new estate car, intending to pick up some stew from the home. He was driving quite slowly and could see from a long way off that Márta was heading for the highway. He slowed down even more, watching as she trudged towards the road. Márta stepped out in front of him and, like a tired runner, fell forward. Young Ferkó stopped, got out, and went over to Márta, who was on her knees. He said hello and nothing more, and just stared at her.

Márta did not move, and then Ildikó headed her way. Márta waited for her to get closer and then asked how Young Ferkó had managed to brake in time. When she'd thrown herself in front of him. Ildikó stopped and put a hand to her mouth, she was that frightened.

Thrown herself in front of him?

Márta burst into tears, they ran towards each other, embraced, and stood weeping for several minutes.

As they stood there Márta handed over the ten-forint coin she had ready in her apron pocket.


Translated by Peter Sherwood



Previously on HLO:

The Pulp Fiction of the Land of Storms