03. 12. 2012. 08:04

Black Snowman: Gridlines (short story)

If one looked around, there were ten-storey apartment blocks stood everywhere, as far as the eye could see... For me, the whole of this scenery was at once familiar and reassuring. I had seen it continually since my childhood, an endless cross-hatching grid extending outwards in every direction...

The square-ruled notebook: in actual fact not square-ruled, but gridded—because a square, as everyone already knew in class 2A, is a spatial concept, is it not? Miss Livia for some reason always referred to gridded notebooks as cubed notebooks, although she herself unfailingly corrected the children if they used the wrong word. She corrected the parents too, who didn’t much understand, but still took notice. The kids needed a notebook with grid paper, and that was the end of the story. One notebook with grid paper, two notebooks with lines. And somewhere in the confused paternal brain, this was turned into a gridlined copybook, a phrase to which the shopkeeper would reply that no such thing existed.

"You don’t mean gridded, do you?" he would ask. "That’s it, gridded, with a large grid", the father would nod apathetically; it was all one and the same to him. The State Paper Goods Cooperative shop was in a wooden structure in the middle of the housing estate; two concrete strips led across the grass to the entrance, though the grass in any event was quickly trampled down, if it even started to grow at all.

If one looked around, there were ten-storey apartment blocks stood everywhere, as far as the eye could see. To the right, with its brightly coloured side panels, shone the red-painted kindergarten building. I could find my way there, but certainly not my way back home. From afar, the buildings looked exactly alike. All the details necessary for orientation (a small shop, a privately owned greengrocer's, wastebins piled next to an electricity post, a scribbled message on a wall) only emerged upon approach, as we passed along our accustomed trajectories.

For me, the whole of this scenery was at once familiar and reassuring. I had seen it continually since my childhood, an endless cross-hatching grid extending outwards in every direction, the points of the lighted windows promising security and order. Whoever moved into the estate was greeted in each apartment by the same scene: in the bedrooms, three-ply grey carpet on the floor, spinach-green curtains of imitation silk atop the windows; patterned linoleum in the kitchen and the bathroom. Besides this, there was a laminated cupboard in the children’s room: every family was asked before moving in where the little ones would be sleeping, and the red, green, yellow building-block-like children’s furniture would be placed there. My parents took the room with the balcony for themselves, but on the third floor, the Finta children—who were always squabbling—ended up in the smaller room on the other side, just like the Ledneczkis on the first floor. Only later, after Öcsi was born, did they move the daughter to the other side. On the eleventh floor, in the Jakabeks’ flat, the back room became the children’s room as well, and one time around the holidays, they even started a fire on our balcony: they were secretly lighting fireworks above us, and a spark landing on the seventh floor set the plastic jerrycan of petrol on our balcony alight. I was suddenly awoken to a blazing light, people crowded into the room, the neighbours yelled, the whole thing was so exciting, just like in a film. Then a few days later, between the fire-blackened walls of the balcony, I discovered a lard-tray containing a pig’s snout turned upwards. Shrieking, I ran to my mother, and this animal part congealed in aspic was for me forever connected to the thrilling memory of the flames.

Once there was a fire downstairs in the Ledneczkis. Öcsi—as everyone called him—was always ill; this time he had an inflammation of the inner ear. He was warming himself by the radiator, when the teddy bear propped against it suddenly burst into flames. From our flat, the little room off the balcony was suddenly lit up; the flames were put out quickly, but the story circulated like the scent of smoke for weeks among the apartment blocks. “The teddy bear burnt to a crisp”; “the curtains went up in a flash”: these were the comments to be heard. The two flame-charred rooms of the seventh stairwell thus became part of the mythology of the housing estate, like the story of the headless little boy, which we had heard in a hundred different variations upon moving in. Dashing into the lift, he was said to have been looking out of the window in the lift-door by the seventh floor (according to tradition, the location of the event usually shifted, but in this case it was always on the seventh floor; seven is a magic number) and—snap—the lift chopped off his head. Then there was also the little girl who had fallen from the seventh floor, but no one knew who she was.

Did you hear? the mothers would ask each other, shaking their heads as they stood in front of the Public Laundry or the ABC grocery store—both located in a building erected out of prefabricated aluminium containers on the square between the tower blocks. Haven’t you heard yet? And the lady behind the counter at the laundry nodded yes, she too had heard, and handed us the towels, which of course weren’t ours again. Sighs, rummaging, slogging through the mud as I trudged home behind the sports bag lugged back by my mother; and at the very first opportunity I tried to stick my head out of the lift window, all the better to imagine how that little boy’s head had been chopped off. But the window wouldn’t open, and my head wouldn’t have fit in there anyway—he must have had an extremely tiny head. As far as I can recall, this window had no particular function anyway. No one bothered looking on or out of the large, scratch-scarred iron door; people merely tapped impatiently on the wire mesh windows in the morning, what’s going on here, if the lift stood for too long at any particular floor.

There were continual tapping noises along the pipes as well, and the building was filled with mysterious sounds: the empty jars and potato peels fell into the depths of the rubbish chute with an echoing clang, water bubbled, radios droned, the Szabó girls ran around in a clump on the second floor, while the Gere family—Gere was the caretaker—beat on the ceiling with the end of a broom handle.

Superintendent was the word written on their front door: it was strongly forbidden to address him with the old form of concierge. Auntie Gere planted marigolds in the boxes under the windows; Uncle Gere’s mother sat on a kitchen stool the whole day through beside the back entrance, a rosary in her hands. They never made use of the services of the Public Laundry across the way; Auntie Gere spoke with deep contempt of modern women and how they didn’t want to do the washing anymore. She herself was forever starching clothes or hanging them out to dry; on Saturdays, her husband washed the Lada, stopping for a drink at the espresso bar once he was finished. What’s up, mama, he would call out to his mother sitting beside the wall, what’s new?

The espresso bar was across from the entrance to the ABC, in the same aluminium building where the laundry was, a little further up. Here, you could buy whipped ice-cream: one scoop cost fifty fillers. If we wanted an ice-cream, we “shouted up”, then buzzed the intercom, after which our mothers would lean out the window and throw down the money, wrapped in paper. The mothers tended to lean out of the rear façade of the building, which faced the playground; from there, they could look out from time to time at their children jumping around next to the ping-pong table or bicycling or roller-skating around the tower blocks.

The Dékány children had to go up if the pillows were put out on the window-sill. They had a pillow with an orange-yellow sheepskin covering, and if it appeared on the third-floor window, it meant that dinner was ready. You could pretty much tell from the electric lights in the stairwell what time it was. If my father had come home, the light would be on in the living room; until then, only the kitchen on the other side of the building would be lit up. I could stay outside until the street lamps switched on; the Ledneczkis, however, simply called to their children from their ground-floor window (their calls were routinely ignored), so that within a few minutes, their mother shuffled out in her carpet slippers: “the movie’s about to start.” They could hardly watch the movies on TV in peace and quiet anyway, as the postboxes were exactly on the other side of their living-room wall, and people coming home late at night clattered the metal postboxes open and shut one after the other. Their lives were similarly embittered by the massive, weighty glass-fronted door to the bicycle-storage room that closed with a mighty thump, so that they were constantly wishing to move away, at least during the fifteen years that I saw of their lives.

What caused the most suffering for the Jakabs on the eleventh floor was the lift: as if they were living next to a huge, irregularly pounding heart, night and day forced to listen to the droning, wheezing soul of the enormous concrete beast. In the lift-shaft, as in some perpendicular underpass of hell, the arteries of rubber cables hung suspended, as well as thick arms’-width cords connected by elastic bands—running from who knows where to where. Uncle Gere assaulted the wastebins in the bowels of the rubbish-chute in vain: every summer, fleshy maggots took up residence there; Kovács and his younger brother used to pick them out with their fingers, put them in a glass jar, and use them for fishing.

If the lift was out of order, we waited by the stairwell on the other side of the long building. One of the tenants in that section would let us in; then, having gone up to the eleventh floor, we would cross over to our own stairwell through the fire corridor on the uppermost level. Tar-scented heat permeated the entire storey, thick pipes covered in asbestos ran along the walls, and next to the door leading onto the roof hung a metal plate with a crimson death’s head.

Once, somehow, we did get out onto the roof anyway, but even the toughest among us didn’t dare to go all the way to the roof’s edge. All along the length of the roof stood rows of tiny metal-covered house-like structures, like so many housing estates of their own—who knew what they were used for. Pools of water lay on the tarmac surface, and the entire area was covered with small-grained pebbles, except along the wall where strips of rubber sealant dangled down like loosened locks of hair.

The idiot child was with us. Everyone was afraid of him; we didn’t even know his name, only that he lived in the middle of the fifth floor somewhere, and that his mother was already quite old. The idiot could have been around the same age as us, but he was much taller: he wore shorts and always blew out gobs of snot and drool in the lift. Now, however, he was turning around in circles on his bony birds’-legs and whining in an excruciating, ecstatic voice. We stood with pounding hearts among the television antennas, the wind blew, to the right you could see fields of wheat—still not yet built up—with the green blotch of the Little Forest; to the left was the endless expanse of apartment blocks, the tram stop, the red-and-blue kindergarten, the State Paper Goods Cooperative, the cross-hatching of the housing estate’s coloured balconies and windows: our homes.

Everyone had heard about the suicide in the forest. Once there was a person who picked himself up and stepped right off the cross-hatching; what’s more, even walked off the paper itself, beyond the margin, all the way to the Little Wood. By the time they found him, his foot was already touching the ground…. the lady behind the counter at the Public Laundry lowered her voice to a whisper.  I of course could not understand—as in the case of the boy with the cut-off head: it was not clear to me how someone who had already died could nonetheless grow bigger, and why the body hadn’t been found earlier, since so many people passed through the Little Wood.

We sometimes ventured over there on our bicycles, at times daring even to go as far as the sandpits—but that was already foreign territory, with unknown and alarming laws, and branching, potholed dirt tracks. Our universe was truly comprised of the oblong open space between and behind the apartment houses: here everything occurred that was of importance in our lives.

This is where Laci put the first tooth of his to fall out in his pocket; here is where we sat on the grass during the hot summers and spread out blankets and discussed who was in love with whom (and what stairwell did they live next to?); here is where we left messages to each other in chalk on the concrete, drawn as large as possible so that they could be read leaning out from the windows as well.

I was incredibly proud of myself when the boys in the housing estate began to give their girls my oak-gall necklaces as gifts. I pounded the galls I collected in the Little Wood into the shape of a cube, then decorated them. Soon, you could see all the children from every stairwell wearing them, threaded onto leather strings and hanging down from their necks beside the house keys.

At that time, giant cranes could be seen across the entire district: the housing estate was being enlarged. Gigantic ditches were dug up, lit at night by blue floodlights; then lorries came in convoys and the ditches were filled up. Slopes and valleys grew from the earth, Creation proceeded apace, privet hedgerows and slender saplings held up by trellises appeared next to the sidewalks. The “big ABC” grocery store opened, reports appeared on the TV news about the new era of conveyor belts and no more exhausting queues, after which we went as usual to stand in the queue. A huge concrete flower container was placed in front of the big ABC: at that time, people didn’t put flowerboxes on their balconies that often, using them instead for cupboards and storing tools that didn’t fit into the rooms inside, or mattress covers for the winter: in the expanse of stone, the tiny island of flowers was a refreshing splotch of colour.

When, in the fifth class, we had to study petunias, everyone was told to bring one petunia stalk to biology class. My mother was informed by the Végvári family that petunias could be found right in front of the big ABC, and that they had, in fact, already gathered some from there. My mother didn’t like to go outside after dark, so the next morning before school, we meandered over in that direction with the Polski Fiat. In the spirit of a unified primary curriculum, one aspect had been overlooked: that on a housing estate with a population of over a hundred thousand, every fifth class in every school had the petunia on their study agenda for that week. That morning, all we found was an empty row of ransacked stone flower-rings, their ornament thoroughly despoiled. I leaned over the petunia shared with Végvári and peered into the microscope. - Children, look at the sweet liquid in the stem—and it really was there. Since then, I have always enjoyed the taste of petunias.

Between the playground and the blocks of only three stories, a “sledding hill” later arose. It was from here that the Jakabs brought those light spongy rocks, flashing strangely with oil-slick rainbows of light. There was, apparently, a huge pile of them, from which, after the cube-shaped oak-galls, I conceived my first great artistic success: the carved black snowman. We brought the larger pieces over with a small wheelbarrow. I gave the snowman to Szilvia; in the meantime, however, I perfected my technique little by little and, with the aid of my mother’s nail file, created even more complicated objects from the relatively soft, crumbling material. I prepared a ring for Tibi Laczkó’s pregnant sister, who was always sunbathing, and who gazed with a smile at the amusing band on her finger. Then dollhouse furniture, bracelets (which promptly broke) and finally an endless succession of black pearls. After a while, all the girls in the district were wearing my necklaces; they came with bags and small boxes, bringing in exchange Barbie shoes, vinyl decals, anything and everything that could be traded. Creation proceeded at a feverish pace, the earth was replenished with a thousand serpentine pipes, cables, strata of waste material; the pearls increased and multiplied; the treasures stored away in my toy box multiplied as well.

Those mysterious porous stones, resplendent in oleaginous colours and which I have never seen since that time, that magically glittering mineral which formed the sledding hill and of which a piece could be found in every apartment, was—as I now know—an extremely dangerous form of waste: metallic slag, filled with heavy metals, tar and slowly decaying poisons, all of which slowly filled up the earth, the young saplings and the trees breaking into leaf; by the lift-shafts, it was absorbed into the innermost depths, all the way to the cable-lined hells; its glittering dust took root in our lungs, in the air, and was delicately swept along all the way to the roofs of the ten-storey apartment blocks, beyond the highest rows scribbled over with rounded clouds, and even higher yet—up to where, according to Mama Gere, lay the Kingdom of Heaven.

Translated by: Ottilie Mulzet

Tags: Krisztina Tóth