05. 03. 2008. 11:46
Béla Zsolt (1895–1949)
"The draftsman had been out of work for six months, and had become extremely unkempt and bedraggled in appearance. It was now three months since he’d moved out of the neighborhood where he’d spent years leading a respectable bachelor’s life in one of the new apartment blocks."
The draftsman had been out of work for six months, and had become extremely unkempt and bedraggled in appearance. It was now three months since he’d moved out of the neighborhood where he’d spent years leading a respectable bachelor’s life in one of the new apartment blocks. His feeling of shame was keener than any anger about his predicament. Poverty did not incite him to violent rages, but rather nourished feelings of bitterness. When he chanced to meet acquaintances and friends from the days when he had still been employed, he flushed and took pains to avoid them. He made no new friendships in the poor neighborhood where he now lived, doing so would have been to admit that his change of lifestyle was permanent. Even after six months without a shave, and with the seat of his trousers nearly worn out, he still clung to the hope that soon he would once more find himself hunched over the drawing board, sketching out floor plans for the fashionable family homes now springing up on the outskirts of Pest. The more threadbare the seat of his trousers became, however, and the longer his bristles went unshaven, the more haughtily he was turned away by the architectural contractors, who were already in a bad temper over the poor quality of labor. It’s as if people are reverting back to their nomadic ways, they grumbled. These days no one seems capable of building a decent house.
The draftsman, having exiled himself to a distant part of town, grew increasingly bitter. His resentment was heightened by the fact that he had been forced to part not only with his cozy bachelor’s studio and his livelihood, but also with Berta, the German governess who lived on the second floor of the building and cared for the children of an economic journal editor in the spirit and dialect of her Styrian birthplace. Berta was not beautiful, being slightly taller than average and more Slovenian than German in her features. But she loved men with the seriousness and industriousness of all large, motherly women. The draftsman knew she had male intimates not only before him, but during their relationship as well. It was entirely probable that the editor himself had sought her out in matters beyond the duties contained in her official job description. But to the draftsman, the advantages of her affections, which were delivered to his doorstep without any need for exertion on his part, far outweighed this. Since becoming unemployed, he had been without female companionship in large part because he had grown accustomed to women initiating relations, as Berta had done.
The lack of a woman was a constant torture to him. His distress was not chiefly physical; his now thin and wasted frame could not sustain strong passions. No, it was rather the memory of Berta’s motherly ways, her smooth and substantial arms. It was only this recollection that was able to counteract somewhat the fear that continued to rise within him, a fear that caused him to avoid the streets and coffee houses he had frequented in better days. From time to time he was seized by such a powerful desire to at least lay eyes on Berta that, like a murderer drawn by some unconscious force to the scene of the crime, he found himself standing across the street from her apartment. Only after staring at the yellow-lit windows for some time did he realize the risk he was taking, and quickly ducking into the nearest side street, he fled from the scene as if the police were hot on his trail.
One evening, however, around ten o’clock, the draftsman saw Berta in an unaccustomed part of town. She had just emerged from a movie theater on the ring road in the city center. In the neon light he could even make out the brown wart on the right side of her face, from which a number of hairs sprouted. He remembered that in the beginning he had found it difficult indeed to grow accustomed to this feature. Berta was not alone; she was now bidding farewell to her companion, an older gentleman whose stiff posture and gestures suggested a major in civilian dress.
Berta started towards home, looking back several times with a smile. The draftsman followed her from a distance. The sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians, making it easy for him to melt into the throng when she stopped to look at the illuminated window displays. When, near Margaret Bridge, she turned onto the side street where he had also lived until only half a year ago, the draftsman slowed his steps. For a moment he debated whether to approach her. Somehow he still held onto the hope that Berta would not reject him, that she might in fact pity him and even offer consolation in her own particular way. She was a soft-hearted woman who cried easily and continually suffered from homesickness. She had never acquired fine manners, and although she took meals with the editor’s family and often shared the company of fashionable gentleman, she retained something of the servant girl in her ways. She had started out thus, only being taken up as a governess and caretaker upon moving to Pest, city of both poverty and possibility. Berta dressed in a suit and hat, to be sure, but her bearing was not graceful and her clothes were always a bit grubby. It was perhaps for this reason that in the past the draftsman had found himself suppressing a certain feeling of repulsion. Thus, it wasn’t his current state of appearance that caused him to fear her rejection. She had known unemployment herself, and told him of her adventures in the boarding houses for lonely single women, complete with their matchmaking proprietresses, and the employment agencies where she sought domestic work. Even so, the draftsman could not overcome his shame, and contented himself to follow her from afar.
In the light of the gas lamp, the draftsman saw that when Berta reached into her pocket for a handkerchief – she always had a slight cold – a flat object fell out of her reticule. He wanted to call out to her, but she was standing too far away to hear him over the noise and din from the street. From where he stood he could clearly see the object lying in the middle of the sidewalk. Berta continued down the road, while the draftsman watched as pedestrians streamed past, hurrying by the lamppost. He waited anxiously for someone to notice the object in their path – perhaps it was a powder case or a comb, or maybe a coin purse? He decided that if someone were to pick it up, he would approach them and offer Berta’s address so they might return it. But no one seemed to notice it, with the exception of one young man who took pains to step around it. By the time the draftsman finally went over and picked the object up, Berta had already gone through the gate. It was indeed a small purse; he felt the shape of a five pengo coin through the thin leather. He made up his mind to return the purse to Berta, though naturally not in person. He would hand it over to the doorman. He reached the gate, however, just as a family he was he acquainted with arrived home. They owned a clothing store on Lipót Boulevard; at one time he had visited them frequently, taken tea with them and listened to their daughter, a fat, black-haired girl, play the piano. Upon seeing them, the draftsman became so alarmed that he quickly ducked into a street still under construction. Only the sidewalks had been laid as yet, and signs advertising house plots for sale lined both sides of the street. The draftsman thought that if only these houses were to be built, he wouldn‘t need to sneak about like a thief, whereas the truth of the matter was exactly the opposite: he was trying to return a piece of property to its rightful owner. Again he started in the direction of Berta’s building. The closer he came, however, the less advisable it seemed to entrust the purse to the doorman. After all, he might just keep it for himself. Berta would never learn it had been the draftsman who had returned her lost item. Not to mention that seeing the doorman again would be unpleasant, for during his residency in the building he had always been known as a clean-cut gentleman with immaculate collars.
And so, at the nearest side street he turned out onto the ring road once more. He had made up his mind to send the purse by post the next day – anonymously, of course. Let the girl wonder at it, let her believe that miracles do happen even in this day and age. He walked slowly homewards, towards the Józsefváros district. The farther he went, the more acutely his mind was seized by the memory of Berta’s swaying gait and the firm, ample figure he had just now trailed like a coward. I should have said something after all, he said to himself, and the thought further fanned the flames of his frustration. It was exactly eleven o’clock when he reached the national theater. A small throng was gathered at the tram stop; the performance had just let out. The crowd soon dispersed, and the streetwalkers took their places at the corner. The draftsman stopped and regarded them. It was only now that he realized how ragged his appearance must be, for they did not even call out to him. Their disdain only inflamed his unfulfilled desires. I have to have a woman tonight, he said to himself, his mouth dry. He hardly had any money, only enough change for the next day’s breakfast. But in his pocket lay Berta’s purse with the five pengos. He waited for a tall, fat woman who had already passed him, once throwing scornful glances. Now she strutted by again, and turned the corner. The draftsman fell in behind her...
And thus the good Berta, though unable to comfort the draftsman directly, was able to direct some love his way nonetheless. For true love knows the bounds of neither space nor time...
Translated by Julianna Chen
Previously on HLO
An eroticist of politics: Béla Zsolt – a portrait
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