No, the Italian said. I have to go home. My flight departs at crack of dawn. The girl knew that she was going to see him no more as neither her route nor the boy’s was governed by emotions but scholarship funding, and flight from the place which they had hitherto called home. Escape from, for example, a mother who had dreamed of a career in acting but in the end became housewife to a small-town bank branch manager, or a father who had opened the bathroom door on her even when she was eighteen and stood there in his underpants watching his daughter taking a shower (the girl had seen the bump of the tautly fitting underpants grow). She turned the tap off and the father had stepped closer to the girl; her skin was wet and he pressed a towel into her hands; the soft textile touched her breasts, and she could feel her father’s hand on the textile. The boy’s father was no longer alive; barely a month had gone by since the accident when his mother had shacked up with his uncle. A man almost ten years younger than his mother. The boy did not understand why it was so fast, but his mother explained that the relationship had a back history, and a not insignificant one at that. The boy had been disgusted and had applied for a scholarship to Wittenberg in order to erase the native home—if not from his memory, then at least for all practical purposes. From there he had then soon landed up in Heidelberg without even having to return home as he managed to arrange it from there with help from a lecturer who was attracted to the boy, but the latter now had no option but make the trip home because his money had given out. Another scholarship will come through, he had said to the girl, but the girl knew full well that there was no chance that the scholarship would guide the boy to Budapest or, if it came to that, wherever the girl would end up next.
No? she asked the boy again in a firm voice, not wishing to show how much she was pained. No, the Italian said. They spoke in English, though the girl also spoke a bit of Italian, she had not found it difficult to learn it after French. On a school trip to Rome she had bought a self-instruction book for Italian. Look here! it’s no big deal, the others had said, that’s the way it always is. The girl had carried on drinking and she looked at the Italian, not knowing whether she was wearing her heart on her sleeve. Don’t take it too seriously, they said in English, and also that it was a gas, wasn’t it a gas to be there, and in a country where the scholarship money is sufficient to pay one’s way, for if it were in the Netherlands then one would have to work as well as studying for the university, whereas here it was only necessary to go in for a couple of hours a day and then one could drink. The German girls had cackled. And we can screw around as much as we like.
Sure, OK, of course it’s nothing, I know that, but I’d rather go, the French girl had said. Don’t do it, Ophélie, the others said, and the Italian boy had remained quiet. It will be crap if you are not here. The girl said nothing, stubbed out the cigarette, downed the remainder of her beer and set off for the exit. As she reached the door it was not the bar which peeled off her but the voices, the monotonous sound of the music, the sound of chortling and shouting, after which came the door and, at last, the street. A sudden still reigned; after the bar the sound of the street was silence. What came to mind was hazelnut chocolate; that having freed herself from the glueyness of the voices like a hazelnut from around which one licks the chocolate, it is no longer hazelnut choc but just a hazelnut which the teeth then proceed to crunch.
She was walking along Zrínyi Street in the inner-city 5th District of Budapest, heading towards the Pest end of the Chain Bridge. She could hear the shoes tapping in her ear, then another tapping sound; she looked back but could not imagine what the man wanted of her, or even whether he was following her or just walking. With French men she knew where she was but that was not so with the Hungarians and she did not know what sort of clothes they went around in or what kind of face they adopted when out hunting for game on the streets of Budapest. She had no idea what the man wanted. He went by her, hurrying, she flinched. No, he was not the one she had to worry about. He reached the Gresham building on the big square near the riverbank; she was staying in Buda and only had to stroll over the bridge and was then practically home. What a good job it was that there was a bridge; a car braked. How people had got across in the days when there was no bridge, she thought about that and about why the Italian boy had told her that without her he was unable to go on living; the whole business had been simply in order to get her into bed, and how rotten it was that the only way to be rationally together with someone was if they were screwing because unless and until that happened everyone played the bed angle, but she was fed up of that by now and would always state right at the start of a date let’s get it over as soon as we can because I’ve no inclination to go through the claptrap of putting a smiley face on, then doing lunch today, cinema tomorrow, supper the day after tomorrow before getting to the date when it is permissible to screw. I hate the rigmarole, it’s so transparent and dead boring. Fair enough, the Italian had said, and after the screw he had related how it was likely that his mother and uncle had murdered his father in order to be free to live together. And of course all his uncle was interested in was the inheritance, the Italian furniture business that his father had founded and which was now selling furniture all round the world, and his mother was of no interest; no man alive needed a woman ten years older than himself and who anyway could no longer bear him a child. The girl had kept quiet; her stomach was aching a little as she was in mid-cycle and the womb had dropped a bit lower so that when the boy had been inside he had been hitting the womb.
How did you get the name, the boy had asked. I have no idea, the girl had said. And what about yours? She had retorted. That was my father’s name. Like so, the girl had said. I understand.
She was by now walking in front of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences building, just before the bridge, when she heard the squeal of a tram passing under the bridge and also the river. It was surging and swirling in the same way thoughts were tossing and turning in her head. Not so much thoughts, she thought, as emotions. Emotions were in upheaval everywhere in her head and body, even in the layer of subcutaneous fat that is laid down by regular consumption of alcohol. Why the hell did I get into this whole thing? Why in God’s name? It’ll never come to anything. She did not understand herself. How could it happen with someone who had sucked up Descartes and the French Enlightenment with her mother’s milk—How? Bugger that, she thought as she went by the lions without tongues. She had never heard the story about the sculptor who threw himself into the Danube when at the unveiling ceremony a tailor’s apprentice called out that the lions had no tongues, though of course she had no need to know as no one nowadays believes that sort of tittle-tattle. Or that the bridge in point of fact had been badly sited at precisely the point where the Earth’s crust under the Danube is at its thinnest, and in truth the sculptor did not tumble into the Danube due to the lions but a negative radiation bursting from the depths of the Earth was plucking its victims from the bridge, and when the count who was the bridge’s founder learned this he put a bullet in his own head at the sanatorium in Döbling to which he was confined as he was unable to come to terms with the faulty decision—or maybe precisely because had just done so.
The CCTV now picked up the girl. She was pretty, and it was of importance to the camera that a pretty girl be in view. It wanted to view her head-on but could not do so as the girl’s head was bowed, so it did not see the gaze in which alcohol had made her spew colours away, and instead of blue it was grey full of red cracks. I’m sending you something, it alerted counterpart, who was watching the Buda end of the bridge from Adam Clark Square. Not desperate at all, huh? the Buda camera signalled back. Not at all! this one is a real beaut. Not like the other day when you said the same about a toothless tub of lard. Sure, but I was only joking. It wasn’t funny in the least. It really did make me open my eyes, and what should wander into my pupils but a ginormous body! But this one is a real treat, the Pest counterpart said. The one in Buda hung fire. The girl was now on the bridge; the wind was snatching at her hair and now that was also tousled, not just her heart, in the same way as the river was churning and swirling as it broke against the pillars of the bridge. The two swirlings now clutched one another via the gaze leaning over the railings at precisely the moment when she strolled out of the Pest camera’s field of view.
She’s not coming, the Buda camera said. She ought to be there, said the Pest end. Another tomfoolery of yours, said Buda. It’s not, honest! Like hell it isn’t, the Buda end fumed. Days and weeks went by but the girl never entered the eyes of the Buda camera.
Ophélie Bretnacher, a French Erasmus student in Hungary, disappeared in Budapest on December 4, 2008. Her body was found in the Danube in February, 2009. The circumstances of her death have not been cleared up ever since.
Translated by: Tim Wilkinson