The incident happened long, long ago, back in the Fifties of the last century, or could it have been before that? There is no longer any way of telling as the fifties of every century were a doleful decade, replete with reprisals, when the death rattle of the moribund rises from prison yards, the judges at bloody assizes spend their whole day putting their stamp on verdicts, and newly widowed women are propped up by the counter in corner grog shops while their tiny mites fret on the door sill.
The streets are dark, sand grates in the bread, wine is adulated by the state.
It happened in one such wretched decade that two jokers were sauntering on the quayside. They had just been released, but, being impudent young men, they shed the weight of their long years in prison so quickly from their shoulders that one could barely hear the splash as it dropped into the Danube. They had barely squeaked out of the execution that more unfortunate contemporaries had been unable to avoid, but somehow, and for some reason, fate had smiled on these two young men—maybe they had been at the end of a list of names, or maybe at the beginning; maybe someone on high had been forgetful, or it was the tsar’s birthday, or the Party’s first secretary had been moved deeply enough for a moment to sign the form granting pardon; or maybe it was something else—there is no way of knowing that either.
In any event, they had dodged it, and now they had been released, and they were impudently happy, being on the point of shouting ‘Long live the Tsar!’ or ‘Long live the First Secretary!’ (or the Regent, or the chief shaman of the Hungarians), but fortunately for them they did not shout any of these things—they instinctively had more taste. Not to mention the four harsh years of their jail sentences, though admittedly those had ended. Anyway, they were in high spirits but not so high as to shout out.
There was just one snag: they had not had sight of a woman for four years.
They kept on sauntering on the quayside, and there’s no denying it, they longed to have a woman, and pretty pronto at that.
That is why they had taken this particular route, because they knew that under the old, grimy bridge there was a bawdyhouse on the river which had been frequented by their grandfathers, and even their grandfathers’ grandfathers before that, in order to gain a scrap of pleasure, or sometimes even just to meditate and feast their eyes while the girls, dozy and dishevelled, smoked a cigarette or two of a morning.
This is where they had lost their chastity as callow youths, little more than boys, on the eve of the revolution—Oh those heady days! Oh youth! Oh rebellion!
No sooner had they lost their innocence and roamed the ravaged streets with the sweet taste of sin in their mouths than they found themselves betwixt burning barricades and dead bodies littering the pavements in the middle of enemy assaults, and by the time they came to their senses they were lolling on a stinking prison mattress black and blue after being beaten up within an inch of their lives. And so it went for all the four hard years of their sentences: recollections clung on in the minds of the two lads of the girls who had been so nice towards them on the eve of the revolution, and memories of their diligent, lively young bodies helped them survive the murderous monotony of those dark days and weeks and months, the brutality of the prison guards, and the evil, humiliating hell of the abominable lusts of fellow prisoners.
That was now as nothing: they tramped merrily along the quayside towards the brothel-ship. At this early matutinal hour in the Fifties the city was deserted; to all intents and purposes only the two of them were up and about as everyone else quaked in the depths of their rooms and breathed prayers for a better fate.
The grimy old structure of the bridge and beneath it the uncertain outlines of the knocking-shop ship gradually emerged from the morning mist—outlines that were, perhaps, more uncertain than was necessary or usual. As if they were not outlines but rather… but then again they were nonetheless the outlines—blurred auroral contours.
The two lads halted, grown unsure for a moment. Suddenly even their starvation of women evaporated from their limbs. For a very brief spell, in both their memories loomed the image of the prison cell that they had left behind shortly beforehand, so shortly before that the bedrolls from which the jailer’s barked command had prompted them to leap out, still preserved the warmth of their bodies, and the recollections of that had in turn overcome them with a sudden sense of nostalgia. Both of them were deeply ashamed of the emotion and for all the world’s riches they would not have admitted it to each other. Both of them, each separately, and carefully keeping it secret from one another, thought fleetingly of escape, and a wish welled up to rush back helter-skelter to the prison gate to plead for forgiveness and be readmitted.
That only lasted a moment, however. Glancing at each other, they broke into broad grins and merrily (perhaps just a trifle too merrily) set off back on their way.
They wanted to be happy at all costs.
The ship was still; the gangway leading to its stern was muddy and slippery. The windows were all shut with the glass steamed up on the inside with beads of moisture having run down the glass in places like the wax on a candle.
They rapped on the door, Then a second time. Then a third.
After a long delay a shuffling could be heard from inside before the door was opened.
They were confronted by a women of indeterminate face and indeterminate age. She looked wearily and inanely at the lads as if she did not grasp what their business was.
The young men entered, went along a corridor until they reached a salon in one corner of which stood an upright piano with its lid firmly closed. The floor was freshly scrubbed. There were chairs along one wall; the lads took a seat and waited. The woman who had let them in vanished. Maybe she had stayed and gone out onto the gangway. Or maybe she had thrown herself into the Danube.
They sat and waited.
After a long while a girl turned up as if she had only found her way there by chance. She was followed later on by two more.
They snuggled up to the lads listlessly, aloofly.
In the end everything took place that the two young men had desired for such a long time, and by the time the first pale rays of sunshine popped out over the Danube from behind the thickly swirling clouds the two of them were proceeding along the far bank of the river, down a broad street on which a military corps was marching northward.
The drinking places were opening up; beer taps slurping.
The lads felt thirsty, so they turned into one for a drink. By noon they were drunk and were boasting loudly about their heroic deeds of the morning to the other customers .
The customers listened sullenly and hostilely.
They supposed the two loud-mouthed jailbirds were merely kidding. They knew very well that after the revolution had been crushed the first measure taken by the emperor or tsar or, if it came to it, the chief shaman of the Magyars—though of course secret agents would endeavour to pin the blame on resistance fighters—had been to have the bawdyhouse ship torched while the unsuspecting girls were sleeping the deep dreams of dawn.
Translated by: Tim Wilkinson