To ail is bad enough in any political regime; still, it makes a big difference if our physician considers us his underlings or if he helps us in our distress. Well, a lot of us in Kiskunhalas were having some of the latter sort for the first time. Can't say it was on account of democracy having supposedly arrive, but cuz of Alajos Kaiser being assigned to our district.
We just didn't know of any patient that didn't like him. They held him in the highest regard, particularly the old auntie regulars, for his decent conversation and how, you know, even edgewise, he would get right candid, he would. Then, for days, the latest word would be who got the lowdown from Doctor Lojzi this time. And he'd gladly talk to any of us on the street corner – or even like as not in the pub if we called him in; he was up for a glass or two – talk about anything openly. Why, he'd plain run down the provisions, the lack of medical supplies, "these unheard-of conditions", and we'd exchange looks, cuz he'd never button it. Yet, we hardly knew a thing about him, cuz he'd never say a thing about himself. By the sound of his name, though, and on account of his being on his own at forty-something, just turned up after the war and no one knows about his past – we figured out his kind.
But we could have never imagined – his neither being a miller nor one his kind's supposed boot-legging price-mongering variety – how all of a sudden they'd send for him one day with a black automobile and carry him off, so he couldn't shout goodbye or even an "I'm out. Visiting hours are over." Some got right down to it, spreading the dirt, that he must a been swiggin the morphine – cuz you hear about doctors that do that – but the wives said, "tut-tut" and "Who? Dr. Lojzi? Please, enough of that now."
No one said a thing about standards or procedure. How could we have known that we should – as the serge put it – use kid gloves when nobody told us, and then why all the fuss over it afterward? And what were we to tell this hair-splitting doctor, anyway? Where we were taking him and why, when we didn't rightly know ourselves? So shut up. That's what we told him, in addition to the silence. Instructions come from the operative, specifying only name and address, found the street, a Zugló villa, doorbell, and out comes this character in his slippers, drooping suspenders. We're looking for Comrade So-and-so, that's him, O.K., passenger consigned, "Strength, good health," they said – well, if only.
Because the comrade pushed past us grinning wide, and the doctor, scrambling out, was swearing up a blue streak – we didn't half stare – nofuckingway, goddamn Slovak sumbitch.
"My little Lojzi!" the one in suspenders hung on his neck.
"Jankó, you ass!" the doctor shook his head, and the two of them in tears.
"You brought me here, you bastard?"
"Well, what do you think? You can't hide. I searched you out!"
Fuckinghell! So they're bosom buds. How come no one told us? So we saluted them gravely and cleared out, cuz they wouldn't give a fuck about us, only we'd be fucked later.
The day took an unexpected up turn for Kaiser from here on in. János Dusza led him into a posh flat, boasting how, on the occasion of his wedding, they had moved in a couple of weeks ago; and before the doctor could ask who he had married, from one of the nooks a cleaning woman arose from beside her water tub. She was dressed in a peasant bodice and wielding a bristling mop. Her skirt was hitched over her shapely thigh, and she unknotted it blushingly at the sight of the visitor. That this was his Zsofka was how he introduced her, and, well, he’d only gone home for her to ask if she'd like to be a city lady, and she did, name of so-and-so, and perhaps Lojzi recalled her family living in the third street from the tracks, but he didn't recall; instead, he congratulated the two of them.
Then, when Zsofka had had her say – and she had an opinion of those she-knew-not-how-highborn folks who had lived in the flat and couldn't clean a floor properly, she had nearly finished by now, but the doctor wouldn't believe what filth she had had to scrape up with those ten nails of hers – she hurried off to the kitchen and resumed cooking dinner.
The men toasted cognac to their happy meeting, each thirsty for news, dismayed by thoughts of the dead, then merry again, not the least for the home-cooked flavours of roast duck and jam rolls and the excellent wine – all the while cutting each other off to ask and answer questions, so far discussing mostly acquaintances' affairs rather than their own. As Zsofka – who hadn't had much to contribute to the subject – stood to clear the table, Dusza hinted that not only was overjoyed to see Kaiser after so many years, but the matter was somewhat urgent, so he should please excuse the hurried arrangements for the meeting, but then again, perhaps Lojzi wouldn’t mind; in the end, however, he changed the subject to politics and held forth on lengthy case accounts while Kaiser waited in vain for him to come to the point.
The young woman washed the dishes, made the doctor’s bed and even said goodnight, as was always her way, to settle with the hens. "But do let Jankó snuggle up," Kaiser joked, making Zsofka turn into the bedroom red as a poker. Even then it took Dusza all but a half an hour to finally rise, "Well, come on, then, Lojzi," showing him into his workroom.
Kaiser assumed that it was the rather splendid writing desk that he was to admire over by the window – anyway, he had noticed that the Duszas had acquired their apartment together with its fairly run-down, incomplete, yet still impressive furniture – but addled and tottering, Jankó had stationed himself beside the wardrobe.
"Well, you know," he grimaced, "This might come as a surprise," with that he opened the wardrobe, examined himself in the left-side mirror, then spun on his heel, and staring at the bedecked door opposite, he said, "My little Lojzi, teach me how to tie a knot."
"What the fuck, then that’s why…?!"
"Why? Well…who could I ask? So far I did alright in my shirt collar, even for the wedding, but now, well, it so happens that they’re appointing me envoy to Prague next week…"
"…and that damn protocol’s regulations! Am I supposed to ask my cultural attaché how to tie a knot? So he could have a good laugh? So I’ve been racking my brains. Who do I know from the old days who used to wear a tie? You’re the only one I could remember. 'Right,' I said, 'It’s been ages since I’ve seen old Lojzi,' couple of phone calls – well, the next day I had your address, workplace, everything! True, you’re now and forever a bow tie man, but I’m sure you could handle the likes of these any day!" With that he reached into a thick bundle of cravats.
"Appointed ambassador…?! And do you have the actual… Czech?"
"Czech? You of all people should velme dobre know that even po slovenski I speak only brokenly, but they told me that’s nyi chiba, like no problem."
"And does protocol call for an ambassador’s dinner guests to be delivered by secret police? Right, let’s see your neck, then!" Kaiser yanked a necktie from the string, then placing himself behind Jankó Dusza, with his arms around him, he began to tie the knot – but he stopped halfway through. He would only continue on condition that Dusza tell him to whom or what he owed his finely advancing career.
And then Jankó admitted sheepishly that well… he was taken to by the… – then he kept pointing his finger upwards.
"Well, the…" and now the mirror showed his eyes turning to the ceiling.
"Not Old Baldie himself?" asked Kaiser in astonishment, but now Dusza replied sharply, saying, "Now, now, but really…!" still embraced as there were, though, in front of the wardrobe mirror.
Translated by Dániel Dányi
*tót – word used by Hungarians for the Slovakian minority in Hungary
Background information about this novel and its author
Tags: Pál Závada