War and War: A special literary project
LIKE A BURNING HOUSE
I no longer care if I die, said Korin, then, after a long silence, pointed to the nearby flooded quarry: Are those swans?
Seven children squatted in a semi-circle surrounding him in the middle of the railway footbridge, almost pressing him against the barrier, just as they had done some half an hour earlier when they first attacked him in order to rob him, exactly so in fact, except that by now none of them thought it worthwhile either to attack or to rob him, since it was obvious that, on account of certain unpredictable factors, robbing or attacking him was possible but pointless because he really didn't seem to have anything worth taking, the only thing he did have appearing to be some mysterious burden, the existence of which, gradually, at a certain point in Korin's madly rambling monologue - which "to tell you the truth," as they said, "was boring as shit"- became apparent, most acutely apparent in fact, when he started talking about the loss of his head, at which point they did not stand up and leave him babbling like some halfwit, but remained where they were, in the positions they had originally intended to adopt, squatting immobile in a semi-circle, because the evening had darkened around them, because the gloom descending silently on them in the industrial twilight numbed them, and because this frozen dumb condition had drawn their most intense attention, not to the figure of Korin which had swum beyond them, but to the one object remaining: the rails below.
Nobody asked him to speak, only that he should hand over his money, but he didn't, saying he had none, and carried on speaking, hesitantly at first, then more fluently, and finally continuously and unstoppably, because the eyes of the seven children had plainly scared him, or, as he himself put it, his stomach had turned in fear, and, as he said, once his stomach was gripped by fear he absolutely had to speak, and furthermore, since the fear had not passed - after all, how could he know whether they were carrying weapons or not - he grew ever more absorbed in his speech, or rather he became ever more absorbed by the idea of telling them everything from beginning to end, of telling someone in any case, because, from the time that he had set out in secret, at the last possible moment, to embark on his "great journey" as he called it, he had not exchanged a word, not a single word, with anyone, considering it too dangerous, though there were few enough people he could engage in conversation in any case, since he hadn't so far met anybody sufficiently harmless, nobody, at least, of whom he was not wary, because in fact there really was nobody harmless enough, which meant he had to be wary of everyone, because, as he had said at the beginning, whoever it was he set eyes on it was the same thing he saw, a figure, that is, who, directly or indirectly, was in contact with those who pursued him, someone related intimately or distantly, but most certainly related, to those who, according to him, kept tabs on his every move, and it was only the speed of his movements, as he later explained, that kept him "at least half a day" ahead of them, though these gains were specific to places and occasions: so he had not said a word to anyone, and only did so now because fear drove him, because it was only under the natural pressure of fear that he ventured into these most important areas of his life, venturing deeper and deeper still, offering them ever more profound glimpses of it in order to defeat them, to make them face him so that he might purge his assailants of the tendency to assail, so he should convince all seven of them that someone had not only given himself up to them, but, with his giving, had somehow outflanked them.
The air was full of the sharp, nauseous smell of tar that cut through everything, nor did the strong wind help because the wind, that had chilled them through to the bone, merely intensified and whipped the smell up without being able to substitute anything else for it in return, the whole neighborhood for several kilometers being thick with it, but here more than anywhere else, for it emanated directly from the Rákos railway yard, from that still visible point where the rails concentrated and began to fan out, ensuring that air and tar would be indistinguishable, making it very hard to tell what else, apart from soot and smoke, that smell - composed of the hundreds and thousands of trains that rumbled through, the filthy sleepers, the rubble and the metallic stench of the rails - comprised, and it wouldn't be just these but other, more obscure, almost indiscernible ingredients, ingredients without name, that would certainly have included the weight of human futility ferried here by hundreds and thousands of carriages, the scary and sickening view from the bridge of the power of a million wills bent to a single purpose and, just as certainly, the dreary spirit of desolation and industrial stagnation that had hovered about the place and settled on it decades ago, in all of which Korin was now endeavoring to locate himself, having originally determined simply to cross over to the far side as quickly, silently and inconspicuously as possible in order to escape into what he supposed to be the city center, instead of which he was having, under present circumstances, to pull himself together at a cold and draughty point of the world, and to hang on to whatever incidental detail he could make out, from his eye-level at any rate, whether this was barrier, curb, asphalt or metal, or appeared the most significant, if only so that this footbridge, some hundred meters from the railway yard, might become a passage between the non-existing to the existing section of the world, forming therefore an important early adjunct, as his later put it, to his mad life as a fugitive, an bridge that, had he not been detained, he would have rushed obliviously across.
It had begun suddenly, without preamble, without presentiment, preparation or rehearsal, at one specific moment on his forty-fourth birthday, that he was struck, agonizingly and immediately, by the consciousness of it, as suddenly and unexpectedly, he told them, as he was by the appearance of the seven of them here, in the middle of the footbridge, on that day when he was sitting by a river at a spot where he would occasionally sit in any case, this time because he didn't feel like going home to an empty apartment on his birthday, and it really was extremely sudden, the way it struck him that, good heavens, he understood nothing, nothing at all about anything, for Christ's sake, nothing at all about the world, which was a most terrifying realization, he said, especially in the way it came to him in all its banality, vulgarity, at a sickeningly ridiculous level, but this was the point, he said, the way that he, at the age of forty-four, had become aware of how utterly stupid he seemed to himself, how empty, how utterly block-headed he had been in his understanding of the world these last forty-four years, for, as he realized by the river, he had not only misunderstood it, but had not understood anything about anything, the worst part being that for forty-four years he thought he had understood it, while in reality he had failed to do so; and this in fact was the worst thing of all that night of his birthday when he sat alone by the river, the worst because the fact that he now realized that he had not understood it did not mean that he understand it now, because being aware of his lack of knowledge was not in itself some new form of knowledge for which an older one could be traded in, but one that presented itself as a terrifying puzzle the moment he thought about the world, as he most furiously did that evening, all but torturing himself in the effort to understand it and failing, because the puzzle seemed ever more complex and he had begun to feel that this world-puzzle that he was so desperate to understand, that he was torturing himself trying to understand was really the puzzle of himself and the world at once, that they were in effect one and the same thing, which was the conclusion he had so far reached, and he had not yet given up on it, when, after a couple of days, he noticed that there was something the matter with his head.
By this time he had lived alone for years, he explained to the seven children, he too squatting and leaning against the barrier in the sharp November wind on the footbridge, alone because his marriage had been wrecked by the Hermes business (he gestured with his hand as if to say he would explain about it later), after which he had "badly burned his fingers with a deeply passionate love affair" and decided: never, never again, would he even so much as get close to a woman, which did not mean, of course, that he led an entirely solitary life, because, as Korin elaborated, gazing at the children, there was the occasional woman on the occasional difficult night, but essentially he was alone, though there remained the various people he came into contact with in the course of his work at the records office, as well as the neighbors with whom he had to maintain neighborly relations, the commuters he bumped into while commuting, the shoppers he met while shopping, the barflies he'd see in the bar and so forth, so that, after all, now he looked back at it, he was in regular contact with quite a lot of people, even if only on the most tenuous of terms, occupying the furthermost corner of the community, at least until they too started to melt away which probably dated from the time that he was feeling increasingly compelled to regale those he met at the records office, on the staircase at home, in the street, at the store and in the bar, with the regrettable news that he believed he was about to lose his head, because, once they understood that the loss was neither figurative nor symbolic but a genuine deprivation in the full physical sense of the word, that, to put it plainly, his head, alas, would actually be severed from his neck, they eventually fled from him as they might flee from a burning house, fleeing in their droves, and very soon every one of them had gone and he stood alone, very much like a burning house in fact: at first it being just the matter of a few people behaving in a more distant fashion, then his colleagues at the records offices ignoring him, not even returning his greeting, refusing to sit at the same table and finally crossing the street when they saw him, then people actually avoiding him in the street, and can you imagine, Korin asked the seven children, how painful this was? how it hurt me most, more than anything, he added, especially with what was happening to the vertebrae in his neck, and this was just when he most needed their support, he said, and while it was plain to see that he would have been pleased to explore this matter in the most intricate detail, it was equally obvious that it would have been wasted on the seven children because they would not have been able to respond in any way, being bored of the subject, particularly at the point when "the geezer started going on about losing his head" which meant "sod all" to them, as later they would tell their friends, and looked at one another while the oldest nodded in agreement with his younger companions as if to say, "forget it, it's not worth it", after which they simply continued squatting, watching the confluence of rails as the occasional goods wagon rattled by below them, though one did ask how much longer they were going to stay there as it was all the same to him, and the blond kid next to the senior one consulted his watch and replied merely that he'd tell them when it was time, and until then he should shut the fuck up.
Had Korin known that they had already arrived at a decision, and specifically at this particular decision; had he in fact noted the meaningful gesture, nothing would have turned out as it did, but, since he hadn't noted it, he wasn't to know and, as a result, his perception of reality was incorrect; for to him it seemed that his current predicament - squatting on the ground with these children in the cold wind - was increasingly fraught with anxiety precisely because nothing was happening, and because it wasn't made clear to him what they wanted, if indeed they wanted anything at all, and since there was no explanation forthcoming as to why they were refusing to let him go or just leave him there, having succeeded in convincing them that the whole thing was pointless because he really had no money, he still felt that there should have been an explanation, and indeed had found one, albeit the wrong one as far as the seven children were concerned, he being aware of exactly how much money was sewn into the lining on the right side of his coat, so their immobility, their numbness, their failure to do anything, in fact the utter lack of any animation whatsoever on their part, took on an ever greater, ever more terrifying significance, though if he had looked at it another way he might have found it progressively more reassuring and less significant; which meant that he spent the first half of each moment preparing to spring to his feet and make a dash for it and the second half remaining precisely where he was, apparently content to stay there and to keep talking, as if he had only just begun his story; in other words, he was equally disposed to escape or remain, though every time he had to make a decision he chose, in fact, to remain, chiefly because he was scared of course, having constantly to assure them how happy he was to have found such sympathetic listeners and how good it all felt, because he had so much, it was extraordinary quite how much, to tell them, really and truly, because when you took time to think about it, 'extraordinary' was absolutely the right word to describe the complex details of his story which, he said, he should tell so it would be clear to them, so they should know how it was that Wednesday, at what precise time he could not remember but it was probably some thirty or forty hours ago, when the fateful day arrived and he realized that he really did have to embark on his "great journey", at which point he understood that everything, from Hermes down to his solitary condition, was driving him in one direction, that he must already have started on the journey because it was all prepared and everything else had collapsed, which is to say that everything ahead of him had been prepared and everything behind him had collapsed, as tended to be the way with all such "great journeys", said Korin.
The only lamps burning were those at the top of the stairs and the light they gave out fell in dingy cones that shuddered in the intermittent gusts of wind that assailed them because the other neon lights positioned in the thirty or so meters between them had all been broken, leaving them squatting in darkness, yet as aware of each other, of their precise positions, as of the enormous mass of dark sky above the smashed neon, the sky which might have glimpsed the reflection of its own enormous dark mass as it trembled with stars in the vista of railway yards spreading below it, had there been some relationship between the trembling stars and the twinkling dull red semaphore of lights sprinkled among the rails, but there wasn't, there was no common denominator, no interdependence between them, the only order and relationship existing within the discrete worlds of above and below, and indeed of anywhere, for the field of stars and the forest of signals stared as blankly at each other as does each and every form of being, blind in darkness and blind in radiance, as blind on earth as it is in heaven, if only so that a long moribund symmetry among this vastness might appear in the lost glance of some higher being, at the center of which, naturally, there would be a miniscule blind-spot: as with Korin. the footbridge. the seven kids.
A total dickhead, they told a local acquaintance the next day, a total dickhead in a league of his own, a twat they really should have got rid of because you never knew when he'd grass on you, cause he'd had a good look at everybody's face, they added to each other, and could have made a mental note of their clothes, their shoes and everything else they were wearing that late afternoon, so, yeh, that's right, they admitted the next day, they should have got rid of him, only it didn't occur to any of them at the time to do so, everyone being so relaxed and all, so laid back, like a bunch of dopes on the footbridge while ordinary people carried on leading ordinary lives beneath them as they gazed at the darkening neighborhood above the converging rails and waited for the signals for the six-forty-eight in the distance so that they might rush down to the cuttings, taking up their positions behind the bushes in preparation for the usual ritual, but, as they remarked, none of them had imagined that the ritual might have ended in some other fashion, with a different outcome, that it might be completed entirely successfully, triumphantly, smack on target, in other words with a death, in which case of course even a pathetic git like him would be an obvious danger because he might grass, they said, might get into a funk and, quite unexpectedly, grass on them to the cops, and the reason it worked out differently, as it did in fact, leaving them to think the thoughts they had just thought, was that they hadn't been concentrating, and can't have been, otherwise they'd have realized that this was precisely the kind of man who presented no danger because, later, he couldn't even remember what, if anything, had happened at about six forty-eight, as he had fallen ever deeper under the spell of his own fear, the fear that drove his narrative onwards, a narrative that, there was no denying, apart from a certain rhythm, lacked all sense of shape or indeed anything that might have drawn attention to his own person, except perhaps its copiousness, which was the result of him trying to tell them everything at once, in the way he himself experienced what had happened to him in a kind of simultaneity that he first noticed added up to a coherent whole that certain Wednesday morning some thirty or forty hours before, two-hundred-and-twenty kilometers from here in a travel agent's, at the point when he arrived at the front of the queue and was about to ask the time of the next train for Budapest and the cost of the ticket, when, standing at the counter, he suddenly felt that he should not ask that question here, at the same moment recognizing in the reflection in the glass over one of the posters over the counter, two employees of the District Psychiatric Unit, disguised as a pair of ordinary numbskulls, really, two of them, and behind him, at the entrance, a so-called nurse whose aggressive presence made his skin prickle and break into a sweat.
The men from the District Psychiatric Unit, said Korin, never explained to him what he had wanted to know, which was the reason he had attended the unit to start with, and that was the matter of how the whole system that held the skull in place, from the first cervical vertebra through to the ligaments (the rectus capitis), actually functioned, but they never explained it, because they couldn't, chiefly because they themselves had not an inkling, their minds being shrouded in a wholly impenetrable darkness that resulted in them first staring at him in astonishment, as if to indicate that the question itself, the mere asking of it, was so ludicrous that it provided direct and incontrovertible proof of his, Korin's, madness, then giving each other significant glances and little nods whose portent was (was it not?) perfectly clear, that they had dismissed the subject, as a consequence of which he made no further enquiries regarding the matter but, even while steadfastly bearing the enormous weight of the problem, literally, on his shoulders, tried to solve the problem himself by asking what that certain first cervical vertebra and the rectus capitis actually were, how (sighed Korin) they performed their crucial functions and how it was that his skull was simply propped on the topmost vertebra of his spinal column, though when he thought about it at the time, or so he told them now, the idea of his skull being fixed to his spine by cerebro-spinal ligaments, which were the only things holding the lot together, was enough to send shivers down him when he thought of it, and still did send shivers down him, since even a brief examination of his own skull demonstrated the patent truth that this arrangement was so sensitive, so brittle, so vulnerable, in fact one of the most frail and delicate physical structures imaginable, that he concluded it must have been here, at this particular juncture, that his problems had begun and would end, for if the doctors were incapable of coming to any worthwhile conclusion after looking at his x-rays, and things had turned out as they had done so far, then, having steeped himself to some degree at least in the study of medicine, and having conducted an endless self-examination based on this study, he had no hesitation in declaring that the pain he was in had its root cause here, in that arrangement of tissue and bone, where vertebra met ligament, and that all attention should be focused on this point, on the ligaments, on which precise point he was not yet certain though he was certain enough about the sensation that spread through his neck and back, week by week, month by month, constantly increasing in intensity, knowing that the process had started and was proceeding irresistibly, and that this whole affair, if one considered it objectively, he said, was bound to lead to the terminal decay of the union of skull and spine, culminating in a condition, not to beat about the bush, for why should one, said Korin pointing to his neck, whereby this frail piece of skin finally gave out when he would inevitably lose his head.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine sets of rails could be distinguished from the vantage point of the footbridge, and the seven of them could do little but count them over and over again, concentrating their attention on the confluence of rails in the perceptibly deepening darkness that was accentuated by the red lights of the signals while waiting for the six forty-eight to appear at last in the distance, for the tension that had suddenly appeared on everyone's hitherto relaxed countenance was occasioned by nothing more at this stage than the impending arrival of the six forty-eight, the mark they had set out to mug having failed, after their first couple of attempts, to provide sufficient entertainment in the short period of their waiting, so that within fifteen minutes of having cornered him, even if they had wanted to, they would have remained incapable of listening to a single word more of the seamless and endless monologue that, even now, cornered as he was, flowed unstoppably from him, because he kept on and on regardless, as they explained the next day, and it would have been unbearable had they not ignored him, because, they added, if they had continued to pay attention to him they would have had to do him in if only to preserve their own sanity, and they had, unfortunately, ignored him for the sake of their sanity, even though this resulted in them missing the chance of eliminating him, for they really should have eliminated him good and proper, or so they kept repeating to themselves, particularly since the seven of them would normally have been perfectly aware what failing to do eliminate a witness might cost them, a witness like him, who would never completely vanish in the crowd, not to mention the fact that they had begun to get a reputation in certain important places as 'cut-throats', a reputation they had to protect, and killing him would not have been difficult, nor indeed a new proposition to them, and this way they would have been taking no chances.
What had happened to him - Korin shook his head as if he still could not believe it - was, at the beginning, almost inconceivable, nigh unbearable, because even at first glance, following an initial survey of the complex nature of what was involved, one straight look told him that from now on he'd have to abandon his "sick hierarchical view of the world", explode "the illusion of an orderly pyramid of facts" and liberate himself from the extraordinarily powerful and secure belief in what was now revealed as merely a kind of childish mirage, which is to say the indivisible unity and contiguity of phenomena, and beyond that, the unity's secure permanence and stability; and, within this permanence and stability, the overall coherence of its mechanism, that strictly-governed interdependence of functioning parts which gave the whole system its sense of direction, development, pace and progress, in other words whatever suggested that the thing it embodied was attractive and self-sufficient, or, to put it another way, he now had to say No, an immediate and once-and-for-all No, to that entire mode of life; but some hundred yards on he was forced to reconsider certain aspects of what he had originally termed his rejection of the hierarchical mode of thinking because it seemed to him that he had lost nothing by rejecting a particular order of things that he had elevated into a pyramid structure, a structure that self-evidently needed correcting or rejecting in perpetuity as misleading or inappropriate, no, strange to say, he had lost nothing by the rejection, for what had actually happened that certain night of his birthday, could not be accounted loss as such but rather gain, or at least as a first point gained, an advance in the direction of some all-but-inconceivable, all-but-unbearable end -and in the gradual process of walking the hundred paces from the river to the point where the struggle had begun, and having been granted a glimpse of the terrible complexity ahead, he saw that while the world appeared not to exist, the totality of that-which-had-been-thought-about-it did in fact exist, and, furthermore, that it was only this, in its countless thousands of varieties, that did exist as such, that what existed was his identity as the sum of the countless thousand imaginings of the human spirit that was engaged in writing the world, in writing his identity, he said, in terms of pure word, the doing word, the Verb that brooded over the waters, or, to put it another way, he added, what became clear was that most opinions were a waste of time, that it was a waste thinking that life was a matter of appropriate conditions and appropriate answers, because the task was not to choose but to accept, there being no obligation to choose between what was appropriate and what was inappropriate, only to accept that we are not obliged to do anything except to comprehend that the appropriateness of the one great universal process of thinking is not predicated on it being correct, for there was nothing to compare it with, nothing but its own beauty, and it was its beauty that gave us confidence in its truth - and this, said Korin, was what struck him as he walked those hundred furiously-thinking paces on the evening of his birthday: that is to say he understood the infinite significance of faith and was given a new insight into what the ancients had long known, that it was faith in its existence that had both created and maintained the world; the corollary of which was that it was the loss of his own faith that was now erasing it, the result of which realization being, he said, that he experienced a sudden, utterly numbing, quite awful feeling of abundance, because from that time on he knew that whatever had once existed, existed still and that, quite unexpectedly, he had stumbled on an ontological place of such gravity that he could see - oh but how, he sighed, how to begin - that Zeus, for instance, to take an arbitrary example, was still 'there', now, in the present, just as all the other old gods of Olympus were 'there', as was Yahweh and The Lord God of Hosts, and there alongside them, the ghosts of every nook and cranny, and that this meant they had nothing and yet everything to fear, for nothing ever disappeared without trace, for the absent had a structure as real as the structure of whatever existed, and so, in other words, you could bump into Allah, into the Prince of the Rebel Angels, and into all the dead stars of the universe, which would of course include the barren unpopulated earth with its godless laws of being as well as the terrifying reality of hell and pandemonium which was the domain of the demons, and that was reality, said Korin: thousands upon thousands of worlds, each one different, majestic or fearsome; thousands upon thousands in their ranks, he continued, his voice rising, in a single absent relationship, that was how it all appeared to him then, he explained, and it was then, when he had got so far, continually reliving the infinite capacity of the process of becoming, that the trouble with his head first started, the predictable course of which process he had already outlined, and possibly it was the sheer abundance, the peculiar inexhaustibility of history and the gods that he found hard to bear, for ultimately he didn't know, nor to this very day was it clear to him, precisely how the pain that started suddenly and simultaneously in his neck and his back, began: the forgetting, subject by subject, random, ungovernable and extraordinarily rapid, first of facts such as where he had put the key that he had only just now been holding in his hand, or what page he had got to in the book he had been reading the previous night, and, later, what had happened on Wednesday, three days ago, in the time between morning and evening, and after that, whatever was important, urgent, dull or insignificant, and finally, even his mother's name, he said, the scent of apricots, whatever made familiar faces familiar, whether he had in fact completed tasks he had set himself to complete - in a word, he said, there was literally nothing that stayed in his head, the whole world had vanished, step by step, the disappearance itself having neither rhyme nor reason in its progress, as if what there was left was somehow sufficient, or as if there were always something of greater importance that a higher, incomprehensible force had decided he should forget.
I must somehow have drunk of the waters of Lethe, Korin explained, and while disconsolately wagging his head as if to convey to them that the understanding of the manner and consequence of events would probably always lie beyond him, he brought out a box of Marlboros: Anyone got a light?
They were roughly the same age, the youngest being eleven, the oldest perhaps thirteen or fourteen, but every one of them had at least one slip-cased razor-blade nestling by his side, nor was it just a matter of nestling there, for each of them, from the youngest to the oldest, was capable of handling it expertly, whether it was of the simple 'singleton' kind or the triple sort they referred to as 'the set', and not one of them lacked the ability to yank the thing forth in the blinking of an eyelid and slip it between two fingers into the tense palm without the merest flickering of outward emotion while gazing steadily at the victim so that whichever of them happened to be in the right position could, quick as a flash, find the artery on the neck, this being the skill they had most perfectly mastered, a skill which rendered them, when all seven of them were together, so exceptionally dangerous that they had begun to earn a genuinely well-deserved reputation, only through constant practice, of course, the practice that enabled them to achieve their current level of performance and involved a carefully planned course of training that they carried through at constantly changing venues, repeating the same moves a hundred times, over and over again, until they could execute the moves with inimitable, blinding speed and such perfect co-ordination that in the course of an attack, they knew instinctively, without saying a word to each other, not only who would advance and who would stand, but how those standing would form up, nor was there any room for boasting, you couldn't even think of it, so faultless was their teamwork, and in any case, the sight of gushing blood was enough to stop their mouths and render them dumb, disciplined and solemn, perhaps even too solemn, for the solemnity was something of a burden to them, leaving them with a desire for some course of action that would lead rather more playfully, more fortuitously, that is to say entailing a greater risk of failure, to the fact of death, since this was what they all sought, this was the way things had developed, this was what interested them, in fact it was the reason they had gathered here in the first place, the reason they had already spent a good many afternoons, so many weeks of afternoons and early evenings, passing the time right here.
There was absolutely nothing ambiguous about the way he moved, said Korin next day in the MALEV tourist office, the whole thing being so completely normal, so ordinary, the reaching for his cigarettes so perfectly innocent and harmless that it was merely a kind of instinct, the result of an on-the-spur-of-the-moment notion that he might lessen the tension and thereby ease his own situation by a friendly gesture such as the offering of cigarettes, for really, no exaggeration, it was just that and nothing more, and while he expected almost anything to happen as a result, what he did not expect was to find another hand holding his wrist by the time his had reached the Marlboros in his pocket, a hand that did not grip the way a pair of handcuffs would, but one that rendered him immobile and sent a flood of warmth lapping across his wrist, or so he explained the next day, still in a state of shock, while at the same time, he continued, he felt his muscles weaken, only those muscles that were grasping the pack of Marlboros, and all this happened without a word being exchanged and, what was more - apart from the child nearest to him, who had responded so nimbly and with such breath-taking skill to the gesture he had misinterpreted - the group did not move an inch, but merely glanced at the falling Marlboro packet, until one of them eventually lifted it up, opened it and drew out a cigarette, passed it on to the next, and so forth to the end while he, Korin, in his terror, behaved as though nothing had happened, nothing significant at least, or, if anything had happened it was only by accident so minor and so unworthy of mention as to be laughable, an accident that left him gripping his wounded wrist with his blameless hand, not quite understanding what had happened, and even when he did eventually realize, he merely pressed his thumb against the tiny nick, for that was all it was, he told them, a miniscule cut, and when the expected rush of panic, with its attendant throbbing, trembling, and loud noises in the head began to die away, an icy calm had lapped about him in much the same way as the blood had lapped about his wrist, in other words, as he declared the next day, he was utterly convinced that they were going to kill him.
The work in the records office, he continued in a quavering voice, having waited for the last of the children to light his cigarette, did not involve, as did that of so many others, at least as far as he personally was concerned, a process of humiliation, blackmail, of wearing people down; no, not in his case, he stressed: on the contrary, he was bound to say, that after 'the sad turn of events in his social life', it was precisely his work that remained most important to him, that was his sole consolation both in the obligatory and voluntary after-hours areas of his specialization; it was the one thing, in the fundamental and, as far as he was concerned, fateful, process of the last few months of coming to terms with a reality which involved acknowledging the not-so-much bitter as amusing evidence that showed history and truth had nothing to do with each other, that demonstrated to him that everything he, in his capacity as a local historian, had done to explore, establish, maintain and nurture as history, had in fact given him an extraordinary freedom and raised him to a state of grace; because once he was capable of considering how any particular history served as a peculiar - if one regarded its origins, accidental, and if one considered its outcomes, cynically concocted and artificially articulated - blend of some remaining elements of the truth, of human understanding and the imaginative re-creation of the past, of what could and could not be known, of confusion, of lies, of exaggerations, of both fidelity to- and misuse of- given data, of both proper and improper interpretations of evidence, of inklings, suggestions and of the marshalling of a sufficiently imposing body of opinion, then the work in the records office, the labor of, what was referred to as, the classifying and ordering of archive material and indeed all such enterprises, represented nothing less than freedom itself, for it did not matter in the least what task he was currently engaged on, whether the classification was within general, median or specific categories, whether it was filed under this or that heading; whatever he did, whichever section of that almost two-thousand-meters' length of archival corridor he dealt with, he was simply keeping history going, if he might put it that way, while knowing, at the same time, that he was entirely missing the truth, though the fact that he knew, even while he was working, that he was missing it, rendered him calm and equable gave him a certain sense of invulnerability, the kind that comes to a man who recognizes that what he is doing is as pointless as it is meaningless, and furthermore that, precisely because it lacks point and meaning, it is accompanied by an entirely mysterious yet quite inimitable sweetness - yes, that was the way it was, he said, he really did find freedom through work, and there was just one problem, which was that this freedom wasn't quite enough, for, having tasted it these last few months and having realized how rare and precious it was, it suddenly seemed insufficient, and he had started to sigh and pine for a greater, an absolute freedom, and thought only of how and where he might find it, until the whole issue became a burning obsession that disturbed him in his work in the records office, because he had to know where to seek it, where absolute freedom might reside.
All this, of course, indeed his whole history, originated in the distant past, said Korin, as far back as the time he first announced the fact that though an utterly mad world had made a madman of him, pure and simple, it didn't mean that that is entirely what he was, for while it would have been stupid to deny that sooner or later, naturally enough, that was how he'd "finish up", or rather, sooner or later, reach a state resembling madness, it was obvious that whatever might in fact happen, madness was not a particularly unfortunate condition that one should fear as being oppressive or threatening, a condition one should be frightened of, no, not in the least, or at least he personally was not scared of it, not for a moment, for it was simply a matter of fact, as he later explained to the seven children, that one day the straw actually did "break the camel's back", for now that he recalled it, the story did not begin beside that certain river but much earlier, well before the riverside events, when he was suddenly seized by a hitherto unknown and unfathomably deep bitterness that resonated through his entire being, a bitterness so sudden that one particular day it simply struck him how bitter, how deathly bitter he was about that which he used to refer to as "the state of things", and that this was not the result of some mood that quickly appeared then disappeared but of an insight that illuminated him like a bolt of lightning, something, he said, that branded him for ever and would remain burning, a lightning-insight that said there was nothing, but nothing worthwhile left in the world, not that he wanted to exaggerate, but that was how it was, there really was nothing worthwhile in his circumstances, nor would there be anything lovely or good ever again, and though this sounded childish, and indeed he recognized that the essential element of that which he had distilled from his entire history, was, as he was content to acknowledge, childish, he began to peddle this insight regularly in bars, hoping to find someone that, in his "general state of despair", he might regard as one of those "angels of mercy", seeking such a one constantly, determined to tell him everything or to put a pistol to his own head, as he did, he said, without success, thank heaven; so, in other words, though the whole thing was perfectly idiotic, no doubt, that was how it started, with this sense of bitterness that created a whole "new Korin", from which point on he began to ponder over matters such as how things fitted together, and if their condition were such and such what the implications might be for him personally, and once having understood that there were absolutely no personal implications, and furthermore, having grasped that he had reached his absolute limit, he then decided that he would resign himself to it, to say OK, fine, that's how things are, but then, if that was the case, what should he do, give up? disappear? or what? and it was precisely this question, or rather the fact that he approached this question in such a 'so-what's-the-point-of-it-all' manner, that led directly to the fateful day, meaning that certain Wednesday morning when he concluded that there was nothing for it but to take immediate action, this being the direct conclusion he had reached, albeit by a dauntingly difficult route, and the seven of them here were witnesses, he said, still squatting in the middle of the footbridge, to the daunting difficulty of it, right from the time by the river when he first understood the complexity of the world, then by developing an ever deepening comprehension which in someone like him, a local historian of some god-forsaken place, involved getting to grips with the inordinate wealth and complexity of possible thought about a world that didn't exist, as well as with the strength to be derived from the creative power of blind faith, and all this while forgetfulness and the constant terror of losing his head crept up on him, so that the taste of freedom he had enjoyed in the records office might carry him through to the end of his quest, after which there would be nowhere left to go and he would have to decide, and indeed declare, that he himself would no longer allow matters to proceed as they might have wanted to proceed, but mount the stage 'as an actor', not as others around him tended to do, did but quite differently, by, for instance, after one enormous effort of thinking, simply leaving, yes, leaving, abandoning the place allotted to him in life, leaving it for ever, not simply in order to be in an indeterminate elsewhere, but, or so the idea came to him, to locate the very center of the world, the place where matters were actually decided, where things happened, a place such as Rome had been, ancient Rome where decisions had been made and events set in motion, to find that place and then quit everything; in other words he decided to pack up his things and seek such a 'Rome'; for why, he asked himself, why spend his time in an archive some two-hundred kilometers south-west of Budapest when he could be sitting at the center of the world, since one way or the other, it would be his last stop on earth? and the idea having come to him it began to crystallize in his constantly aching head and he had even begun to study foreign languages, when, one late afternoon, having stayed behind in the records office, vaguely checking the shelves, as he put it, utterly by chance, he arrived at a shelf he had never before explored, took down from it a box that had never been taken down, not at least since the Second World War, that was for sure, and from this box labeled 'Family Papers of no Particular Significance' took out a fascicule headed IV.3 / 1941-42, opened it and, in doing so, changed his life for ever, for there he discovered something that decided for once and for all what he should do if he still wanted to 'carry his plan through' and to make 'his last goodbyes'; something that finally determined him to put all those years of thinking, proposing and doubting behind him, to let those years go, to let them rot in the past, and not to let them determine his future but to act right now, for the fascicule headed IV.3 / 1941-2 had left him in no doubt what should be done, what to do in order to recover the dignity and meaning whose loss he had been mourning,, what important thing there remained for him to do, and above all, where he should seek that which he so much lacked: that peculiar, furiously desired, greatest, very last freedom that earthly life was capable of offering.
The only things that interested them, they said the next day while hanging about in front of the Bingo Bar, were the feeding-catapults, the kind used by anglers for bait, not the mind-numbingly idiotic claptrap the geezer spewed continuously, without any prospect of an end, for he was incapable of stopping, so that eventually, after an hour or so of it, it became clear that it was his own repulsive gabble that had turned him into a head-case, though as far as they were concerned, they said, it didn't add up to anything, so it was completely pointless for him to talk himself into a frazzle, since the geezer meant as much to them as the wind on the footbridge, wind, that, like him, just kept blowing because it was impossible to shut either of them up, not that they gave it a thought, why would they? since he was not worth it, let him talk wind, the only things that mattered being the three feeding-catapults, how they worked and how they would employ them when the six-forty-eight arrived, and that was what they'd all been thinking about just before this creep arrived, of the three professional model ground-baiting catapults they had got as a bargain, for nine-thousand Forints, at the Attila József flea market, the three professional German ground-baiting catapults they had tucked under their bomber jackets, and they wondered how these would perform, for people said their projectile power was vastly greater than that of the Hungarian sort, and, of course, far superior to that of hand-held missiles, some people even claiming that this German gear was not only more powerful but almost ensured that your aim was one hundred-percent effective, and that it was, according to its reputation, no argument about it, the best on the market, chiefly because of the track-device, attached to the handle below the fork, that steadied your hand in case it accidentally trembled, thereby reducing the uncertainty factor to a minimum by holding the arm firm all the way to the elbow, or so it was said, they declared, or so they say, but not in their wildest dreams would they have imagined what really happened after that, since this piece of goods was brilliant, its capacity absolutely phenomenal, they said, or so said the four of them who were not among the first to use it, absolutely phenomenal, they said.
Another long goods train rumbled by below them and the footbridge shook gently along its whole length until the train was gone - leaving two blinking red lights in its wake - when the noise of the very last wagon began to fade along with the rattling of wheels, and, in the newly settled silence, after the two red lights disappearing in the distance, just above the rails, no more than a meter high, a flock of bats appeared and followed the train towards the Rákosrendezö, utterly silent, without the least sound, like some medieval battery of ghosts, in close order, at even pace, indeed at a mysteriously even pace, swooping strictly between the parallel lines of the rails, suggesting somehow that they were being drawn towards Budapest or riding in the slipstream of the train as it went, the train that was showing them the way, carrying them, drawing them, sucking them on so that they could travel perfectly effortlessly, with steady, spread wings, reaching Budapest, at a precise height of one meter above the sleepers.
Funnily enough he didn't smoke, said Korin, and he only happened to possess this pack of Marlboros because somewhere on his journey he had to get some change for the coffee machine and the man in the tobacconists he wandered into, would only oblige if he bought a pack of cigarettes, so, what could he do but buy one, but he didn't throw if away because he thought it might come in useful some time, and would you believe it, he added, he was so pleased that it had actually come in useful, even if he himself had no use for it, or rather, only on one occasion, said Korin raising his index finger, for he had to be honest about it, there was one single moment, and only one, when he would happily have lit a cigarette, which was the time when he returned from the IBUSZ bus company's ticket office without having accomplished his mission, all because of the two male nurses from the Psychiatric Unit; for he was aware of their eyes following him as he walked away, then as they looked at each other, not in any significant way, or at least not yet, not yet in a way that might show they were resolved to act, though soon enough they did start off after him, a fact of which he was absolutely certain without having to look back over his shoulder, for every cell in his body knew they were close behind him, after which, said Korin, he went home, straight home without a thought, and started packing, and though the apartment was already sold, and many of his possessions already cheaply disposed of, a disposal that involved the wholesale liquidation of a terrifying pile of accumulated notes, scraps, diaries, exercise books, photocopies and letters, not to mention photographs, and, apart from his passport, all his official documents including his birth-certificate, his TB card, his personal ID etc, the lot tossed on the fire, and yet, having survived the entire process and come through feeling that no earthly possession remained to burden him, the moment he stepped into his room he experienced a sense of utter despair, because now that he was ready to leave immediately, the very copiousness of his preparations for leaving appeared to be an obstacle: he was incapable of resolving himself to simply go, even though the feeling of long preparation, he said, was misleading because there had not really been 'copious preparations' as such, since one generous hour was all that had been needed for him to free himself of his material possessions and make ready to go, and please imagine, he continued, raising his voice, imagine that one bare hour was enough after all those months of forethought to set out, there and then, on his long journey, to open the door and leave the apartment to which he would never return, a single hour for his plans to be carried out and become reality, to leave everything for ever, but then, just when he was as ready for departure as he could ever be, there he was, stuck, standing plumb in the middle of the cleared apartment, looking around, and without any sense of regret or emotion casting his eyes over the vacancy when he suddenly understood that one hour was enough for any of us to dispose of everything, to stand plumb in the middle of our forsaken apartment and step out into the melancholy womb of the world, said Korin, and well, at that point, he would happily have flicked a lighter and smoked a decent cigarette, which was strange, but all of a sudden he desired the taste of cigarettes and wanted to draw heavily on one, to take a good deep breath, blow out the smoke, nice and slowly, and though this was the only occasion on which he felt like this, and had never desired a cigarette before nor since, not once, never in his life would he understand what it was all about.
For an archivist, said Korin, and especially for a head archivist-in-waiting such as him, there were a great many fields to master, but he can tell them one thing, that no archivist, not even a head-archivist-in-waiting, such as, in fact, he was in all but name, was in possession of essential information regarding the practicalities of travel on the buffers- or guards'-vans of freight trains, and that was why, when in deciding that the nature of his permanently fugitive status was such that he couldn't trust to buses, passenger trains, or even to the exigencies of hitch-hiking, for a person committed to "any route that was fixed and might be inspected at any point" was vulnerable to discovery, identification, and easy arrest, he had set out on this veritably terrifying Calvary, and just imagine what it was like, said Korin, for someone who, as they already knew, had been used to restricting his movements to the four fixed points of his personal compass, to wit his flat, the pub, the archive and, let us say, the nearest shop, and had never - he wasn't exaggerating - really never, not even for an hour, ventured beyond them and now suddenly found himself off limits, in the deserted, wholly unfamiliar back end of some railway yard, stumbling over tracks, balancing on sleepers, keeping an eye on signals and points, ready to dive into a ditch or behind a bush at the first sight of a train or a rail yard employee, for that's how it was, rails, sleepers, signals, points, being constantly prepared to throw himself on the ground, and, right from the start, to leap on or off a moving wagon, while being in a permanent state of anxiety that extended over the whole hundred and twenty kilometers of the journey, anxiety in case he was spotted by a night-watchman, a stationmaster or someone checking the brakes or axles, a terrible experience on the whole, he said, even having got so far, knowing how much was behind him; bad even to think of having undertaken such a journey, for he couldn't say what was the most exhausting, most embittering part of it, the cold that ate into your bones in the brake-van or the fact that he had no idea where he could or dared to sleep, for the space was so narrow that he had no room to stretch his legs and consequently had constantly to be standing up and lying down then standing up again, a process which naturally drained him, not to mention the other privations, for example having nothing but biscuits, chocolates or coffee at railway cafes for sustenance after two days of which he was permanently nauseous, and so you see, he told the seven children, the whole thing, believe me, was shit-awful, not only the cold and lack of sleep, not just the stiff leg or the nausea, no, for even when they had eased off somewhat and everything was generally fine there remained the perpetual anxiety every time the train departed for whatever perfectly appropriate destination was announced on the boards of the engine, that by the time they passed through it, leaving the town or village behind, be that place Békéscsaba. Mezoberény, Gyoma or Szajol, he immediately lost confidence and that uncertainty grew in him mile by mile so that pretty soon he was on the point of leaping off and boarding a train in the opposite direction, though he hadn't ever actually done that, for, he said, for he would invariably decide that there was more choice at a major stop, and then would immediately regret his decision not to leap when there was still time but to stay on, at which point he would feel utterly lost and have to remain on full alert in case the journey took him into still more dangerous territory where anyone might come along - railway workers, night-watchmen, engine-drivers, or whoever - for that would really be the end of everything, and then he would have to leap from the van into any cover that might be on offer, whether that was a ditch, a building or some shrubbery and that was precisely how he come to be here, said Korin, how he arrived, frozen through, desperate for food, for something salty preferably, or actually not too salty, but in any case, if they didn't mind, he would happily move on now and get into the city center for he urgently needed to find some shelter for the night until the MALEV airline ticket-office opened the next morning.
It was remarkable that the chosen pebble, which was about the size of a child's fist, had succeeded at the first attempt in shattering one of the windows, so that they could not only hear it over the clattering of the train but see it too, as one of the many speeding panes of glass broke in a fraction of a second into a thousand tiny splinters and shards, for the train had arrived, as they explained the next day, a few minutes late, they said, but they attacked it as soon as it appeared, rushing down the embankment to the prearranged cover, and as soon as the train hove into sight they leapt into action, firing, three of them with feeding-catapults, three with regular catapults, one with only his bare hands, but all co-ordinated in attack formation, firing, peppering the six-forty eight, so that a window in the first carriage was immediately blown to pieces, not that they were satisfied with that alone but launched a second wave of attacks and had only to watch out for the possible shriek of the emergency brakes, though that was something they had to devote intense attention to in order to make an on-the-spot assessment as to whether the brakes had been applied or not, and no, they hadn't, because there was not a squeal that might signal its possible application, for there was probably overwhelming panic up there by the window where people had been sitting and the whole thing, difficult as it was to figure, they said as they gave a detailed account of the affair in front of the Bingo Bar, was the work of less than a minute, no more perhaps than twenty seconds, or maybe even less, they added, since it's really tough to be precise about it, though one thing was certain, which was that they were, all of them, on full alert, as they had to be, listening out for the possible application of the emergency brake, but since there was no evidence of that in that certain twenty-seconds or so, they tried a second volley, and they could hear its effect, that it struck the carriages on the side with terrific force, with a loud ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, to show that one of the last volleys had once more reached its target, that another window had been smashed, for they could hear it as the train roared by at terrific speed, making a terrific racket as the glass shattered, though later, when they sized it all up, that is to say once they had withdrawn to a safe distance and, in their own fashion, with ever greater elation, considered the matter in detail, the general feeling was that the second direct hit must have been on the mail-van, whereas the first, and their voices broke with excitement at this, was a perfect bull's-eye, a word they kept repeating, going round and round in circles like a finger tickling a sensitive spot, repeating the words, passing them on, one to the other, so that by the end they were all choking, gagging, gurgling, helplessly rolling on the ground with lunatic laughter, a laughter that, once it had possessed them, would not let go now, and had gripped them in the past, so they kept exclaiming, bull's-eye! all the while clapping each other on the shoulder and hitting each other, repeating: bull's-eye! fuck it all! what about that then! what do you say to that, you prick! you prick! you prick! bundling and pounding each other, crying, bull's-eye! until they were exhausted, at a safe distance from the scene of the crime, from the surmise that they had actually killed someone, without Korin suspecting any of this of course, for he wasn't even sure what happened to the seven children once they had suddenly leapt up and disappeared from the bridge, disappeared like camphor, as if they had never been there at all, all seven of them, all seven storming off into eternity, at which point he too took off, not glancing back, simply running in the opposite direction, anywhere to be away from the place, with but one thought pounding through his head, to be away, away, as far as possible from here, his chest shaking with the single urge, his one imperative in his great haste not to miss the route into town, for that was the point after all, to reach central Budapest and find some place where he could shelter for the night, warm himself and perhaps get a bite to eat, but, failing that, to find some accommodation, some free accommodation, for he couldn't spare the money not knowing how much the ticket next day would cost him, as he explained at the MALEV office, for all he wanted was some place where he would be left in peace, that was all he desired when, quite unexpectedly, he found his way free again, the children suddenly having disappeared, without explanation, without a word, while he, with his stiff leg, no longer clutching the wound that had stopped bleeding, seized the unhoped for chance of escape, running and running until he could run no more, getting ever closer to the denser lights up ahead, slowing to a walk in his exhaustion, utterly drained by the terror he had just endured, so that he no longer cared what people said to him, and frankly he no longer gave a damn whether he ran into his pursuers or not, but stared directly in the eyes of those going the opposite way, confronting them in mid-gaze, seeking the one man that he, in his hungry, spent condition, might find it worth his while to address.
That's the kind of person I am, said Korin, and spread his arms wide, having arrived at a crowded place and spotted a young couple, yet immediately conscious of the impossibility of telling them who he was, and of the general lack of interest likely to be evinced by anyone else in the matter, simply adding: You wouldn't happen to know a place where.. where I might spend the night?
The music, the venue, the crowds, or rather, that mass of young faces; the dim light, the volume of noise, the wreaths of rolling smoke; the young couple he had addressed and the way they helped him when he, like them, was being frisked at the cash-desk, the way they led him in and explained where things were while constantly reassuring him that, of course, they could solve his problem, the best solution being to enter and remain in the Almássy, where there was likely to be a real hard-core gig, with Balaton as the main band featuring Mihály Víg, and he needn't worry because it would be the kind of gig that would go on till dawn; and then it struck him, the extraordinarily dense crowd of people, the stench and, by the end, all those dazed, empty, sad eyes everywhere, in other words what with everything happening so suddenly and all at once, said Korin the next day at the MALÉV office, after those long days of solitude followed by the hour of terror when he was attacked on the railway bridge, he suddenly felt utterly exhausted and had barely spent a minute in there before his head ached and he felt dizzy, unable to adjust to anything, his eyes being accustomed to neither the dim light nor the smoke, his ears, after all the mad panic he had been through, unable to cope with the peculiar, quite unbearable racket, and, heaven knows, at first he was incapable even of movement - as he recounted next day - among this "crush of desperate pleasure seekers", being hemmed-in, rooted to the spot, then gradually swept one way then the other by close groups of perspiring dancers, eventually fighting his way through to the wall where he managed to insert himself between two silent huddles who happened to be hanging about there; and there, and only there at last could he try to come to terms with the noise-level by adopting some kind of defensive posture against it and against all the misfortunes that had so unexpectedly befallen him, to begin to collect himself and assemble his thoughts, for, having reached this point of security, however infernally crowded and chaotic it was, his capacity for thinking had simply been shot to pieces, shot utterly to pieces, and the more he tried to concentrate the more his thoughts fell apart, so he would have far preferred to abandon the idea of thinking altogether and lie down in a corner, but that was out of the question, though that, on the whole, was his last coherent thought in a long time, the last decision he was capable of making while he continued standing there, gazing first at the band while one thought after another disintegrated before rising to the surface, then at the mass of people, then at the band again, attempting, without success, to catch something of the words of the rapid succession of songs, hearing only the odd phrase, such as "it's all over" and "everything's finished", responding chiefly to the ice-cold melancholy of the music that immediately communicated itself to him despite the sheer volume of noise, and he gazed at the three performers, at the green-haired drummer who stood at the back thrashing his drums while solemnly staring straight ahead, at the blond bass-guitarist beside him lazily rocking his body to the rhythm of the music and the singer, a man of roughly the same age as Korin himself, with his microphone at the front whose severe expression suggested terminal exhaustion and the desire to talk of nothing but terminal exhaustion, who occasionally directed his severe expression at the seething mass below him, as if he would happily have climbed off the stage and disappeared for ever but remained there and continued singing, and, to tell the truth, Korin explained, there was something in this ruthless melancholy that incapacitated him, drugged him, defeated him, that tightened his throat, so that frankly, those first two or three hours of the hard-core gig at the Central club in Almássy tér simply offered him no refuge at all.
Teflon heart, they hummed along in chorus with the singer, but pretty soon the THC appeared and there was no problem, only a few jolly little tours of the place as usual, so that, as they said to a close friend on the telephone the next day, having come in with them and disappeared in the heaving throng, they lost sight of him, though he was a truly weird guy the way he came up to them in the square and told them he was such and such a kind of guy, asked them if they knew anywhere to stay; just imagine, they told the friend, that, literally, that was all he said, that he was such and such a kind of guy, without going into any detail as to just what kind of a guy he was, that was the line he took, no shit, eh? and the clothes he wore! that enormous, long dark-gray overcoat smelling of mothballs, his great lanky body and his comparatively tiny, round, bald head with these two big ears sticking out, so he looked fucking brilliant, they repeated time and again, like some old bat on its hind legs, meaning Korin of course, for who would have failed to recognize himself from such a description, and even though he did not forget them, the young boy and the girl who had brought him in, he did not think there was even the glimmer of a chance of seeing them ever again, not, at least, in this crowd, for after two or three hours, having finally warmed himself through and begun to get used to the atmosphere of the place, he ventured away from the wall to seek some sort of bar, to find a drink, above all, not of course, he added to himself, anything alcoholic, for he had utterly forsworn alcohol a few months ago, and so he launched out into the seething mass to buy himself a Coke, a small one at first, then a larger one, then another large one, not the bottled kind but tins from the machine, which were just as satisfying and, after the third, his stomach being full, his hunger had quite vanished, and the evening having worn on into the small hours, he made it his top priority to explore the possibilities of the environment of the Central in Almássy tér, and soon located some of the possible nooks and crannies where he might see out the rest of the night, somewhere security wouldn't find him even should the hard-core gig finish before dawn; and so he traipsed up and down, climbed stairs, tried a few door handles without anyone paying him the slightest attention for, by this time everyone, every boy and every girl, without exception, was wholly, but truly wholly, lost to the world, and he was confronted by an ever growing sea of glassy eyes, stumbling into ever more bodies on his way, some of them choosing to flop against him like sacks, impossible to stand them upright again, so that by the end there was an extraordinary scene wherein, eventually, the whole of Almássy tér was laid out on the floor or stretched over the stairs or collapsed on the stone paving of the toilets, like the remnants of some peculiar battlefield where defeat is an idea that slowly creeps over the combatants, as if radiating from within them, the singer continuing to sing until, finally, he stopped, not, as it struck Korin, at the end of a song, but somewhere in the middle, abrupt as death, removing his guitar and silently, with, if possible, a look more solemn and severe than before, leaving the stage somewhere at the back in the wings; and since Korin knew by now precisely where he would go to "spend the night" should it ever begin to wind down, as it did now, the singer having ended the evening in his own strange manner, Korin quickly left the hall, took a door to the left, climbed a few stairs to a room behind the stage where they stored scenery, full of junk, folding screens, miscellaneous items of furniture and sheets of plywood that afforded a good hiding place, and he was in the corridor on his way to precisely that point of refuge when suddenly the singer appeared opposite him, his face ravaged, and cast one sharp glance at him, at Korin that is, said Korin, and the thought occurred to him, he added next day, that this figure storming past him with long strides, his long hair flowing, was probably Mihály Víg, and was briefly flustered but quickly realized that the singer was not in the least interested in what a stranger was doing there, so Korin too walked on and slipped into the scenery store-room, behind a wardrobe and a screen, found a warm piece of curtain material, lay down on it and wrapped the remainder around himself, made himself at home in other words, and the moment he put his head down he not so much fell asleep as fainted from exhaustion.
It was an inexpressibly beautiful, unbelievably tranquil scene he found himself in as he sensed in every cell of his body, sensed it, he explained the next day, rather then saw it, because his eyes were closed, his two arms spread and relaxed, his legs slightly open, comfortable, the lush lawn beneath him softer than any down, light breezes playing about him like delicate hands, and the gentle waves of sunlight as intimate and close as breathing. together with the luxuriant vegetation that enfolded him, the animals drowsing in the distant shade, the azure canvas of sky above him, the earth an aromatic mass below, and this and that other thing, he said, infinite, endlessly flowing in an as-yet-incomplete harmony yet permanent, immobile, echoing his own permanence and immobility, lying there, stretching, fixed as if by nails in his horizontal, immersed, practically submerged position, as if peace were this dish of dizzying sweetness and he the table, as if such peace and such sweetness really existed, as if there were such a place and such tranquility, as if such a thing existed, said Korin, as if it were possible.
He couldn't really claim, he told the stewardess at the MALÉV office the next day, to be one of those to whom courage comes readily and without an effort of the will, someone capable of addressing strangers or using the fact that they were both waiting for something as an excuse, but having her, the stewardess, beside him like this, a stewardess who was so lovely with her smile and those two little dimples, he had found himself, having sat down a few minutes ago, tempted to dart brief glances in her direction, but recognizing that this was a shifty way of behaving, he had abstained and would prefer to come clean now and admit that he did in fact want to look at her, hoping that this disclosure might not prove too offensive or sly and that the young lady would not be angry, regarding it neither as a pass nor as a clumsy attempt to draw her into conversation, for nothing was further from his mind, but the stewardess being not only lovely but beautiful in a way that he couldn't forbear to remark on, he hoped she might not regard it as a proposition, oh no, apologies in advance, certainly not a proposition because he was beyond propositioning anyone, he said, it was merely the beauty, the sheer extraordinary beauty he discerned in the young stewardess lady that so overwhelmed him, as she would understand, wouldn't she? said Korin, for it wasn't a case of him, Korin, wishing to be intrusive, but rather of her beauty inadvertently intruding on him, and while he was at it, he added, elaborating on his theme, let him at least in all humility properly introduce himself, György Korin, though he wouldn't really want to delve into his occupation for anything he might say on that subject would pertain only to his past, though he would have plenty to say, particularly today and particularly to her, about himself some other time in future and only then, though the prospect of doing so was pretty dim, and the most he could do for now was to let her know her why he had eventually plucked up courage to speak to her, which was to tell her what a strange, in fact utterly extraordinary dream he had had last night, though he rarely dreamt, or rather hardly ever remembered his dreams, last night being a unique exception, for he not only dreamt but remembered precisely every last detail of the dream, and she should imagine a place of inexpressible beauty, of unbelievable tranquility that he could sense in every cell of his body for though his eyes were closed he could feel his two arms spread out, relaxed, his legs slightly open, comfortable, and she should imagine, he said, a lush lawn, softer than any down, the light breezes playing about him like delicate hands, and, lastly, imagine the gentle waves of sunlight intimate and close as breathing, the density of the luxuriant vegetation that enfolded him and the animals drowsing in the distant shade, with the azure canvas of the sky above and the aromatic mass of soil below, and so on, this thing and that thing, infinite, endlessly flowing in an as-yet-incomplete harmony yet permanent, immobile, echoing his own permanence and immobility, lying there, stretching, fixed as if by nails in his horizontal, immersed, practically submerged position, as if peace were a dish of dizzying sweetness and he the table, as if such peace and such sweetness really existed, as if there were such a place and such tranquility, as if such a thing existed, if you know what I mean, said Korin, as if it were possible, do you see, young lady? the whole experience being so, you know, convincing, though if there was anyone who might be skeptical of such a dream, it would be the dreamer himself, Korin, though there was nothing in his life that had not been unlikely, right from the start, just think of him, György Korin, living in a small provincial town some two-hundred and twenty kilometers south-east of here, though how to begin, it is so damned difficult, really practically impossible to describe how it all began, but, if he didn't bore her, for he had to wait here in any case, he would try to describe one or two minor incidents in his life if only that she might have some idea who he was, who it was talking to her and addressing her, in fact who was it she was having to put up with for having suddenly been addressed like this, without formalities or introductions.
She had, she felt obliged to respond, been runner-up in a beauty contest, and though nothing could have been further from her mind than involving herself in a conversation with the man who had settled himself beside her, this being of all possible options open to her the last she would choose, as she had more than once tried to convey to him, she nevertheless drifted into communication somehow and found herself answering when she should have kept quiet and even responding, if only with a word or two, when she should have turned her head away, so that she was genuinely unaware that she had become involved with a complete stranger in exactly the conversation she had wished to avoid, explaining to him how dog-tired she was, because to take this moment as an example, she had no idea how long she would have to wait, how utterly unaccustomed she was to waiting like this so that she might meet and have the responsibility of escorting a passenger in a wheelchair, an old Swiss lady, and to do something she had never done before, that is to transport her to the airport and assist her onto the night-flight to Rome; and so, in telling him this, she had entered into an informal conversation with this man despite her best intentions, and whether it happened this way or the other, who cares, she didn't particularly mind in the end, she told the others once they were on board, it was only the beginning that was so weird, for she thought she was dealing with a lunatic or something, the kind who talks to himself, but he wasn't that, he was different, perfectly harmless, with rather nice big ears, and she had always had a weakness for big ears because they made the face look sweet, and in any case she could have stood up and left him any time she wanted, but was happy enough for him to tell her practically his entire life story, because it was simply irresistible, she just had to listen, and cross her heart, she did listen, though, to tell the truth, it was hard to know whether he was telling the truth, for could it really be that someone of such advanced age as forty-something, who knows how old exactly, could sell up and go to New York, not because he wanted to make a new life for himself but because he wanted to end his life there, for nowhere else would do, as the man kept saying, but "the very center of the world", which New York might be for all she knew, anyway he was pretty convincing, she continued in the cabin, it was impossible to think otherwise, though it is natural to be a little skeptical in view of everything one hears nowadays, none of it true, and though this man, of course, did not seem to be the sort of person whose word you'd doubt, far from it, in fact after a while she herself had seriously told him such things as she hadn't told anyone else, for they did have to wait an awfully long time, and she had, in this way, so to speak, opened up to him for he himself was so earnest that she grew quite upset, and somehow she kept feeling that she might be the very last person ever to listen to him, it was really that sad, and he was so fulsome in praise of her beauty that he had asked why she did not enter a beauty-contest since she would be sure, absolutely certain, to win it, in response to which she did at last confess that once, in a moment of weakness, she did in fact enter one but had come away so terribly disillusioned with what she saw that she felt quite embittered by the experience of entering in the first place, and it was so nice when his answer to this was that she should not have been named runner-up, because that was clearly ridiculous and wholly unfair, but should have been awarded first prize.
I need a ticket for the next flight, said Korin at the desk, and when he leaned across it to explain the matter to the clerk who was staring into her computer, making it clear to her that this was no ordinary journey, nor he an ordinary traveler, meaning he was not a tourist, not on a family visit, nor was he a businessman, all she said, after a lot of humming, hawing and shaking of heads, was that she would be grateful if he would stop leaning across her desk, and that his one very faint hope of success lay in a so-called "lahsminih" flight, though he would have to wait for that too in order to discover whether it was in fact worth waiting, and so, if in the meantime, he would be so good as to return to his seat. but Korin begged her pardon, asking what that meant, and she had to enunciate it clearly, syllable by syllable, "lahs-min-ih" while he kept turning it over and over in his mind, aloud, until his English lessons of the last few months kicked in and he realized that what she meant to say was probably "last minute", yes, that was it, now he understood, he said, though he was far from understanding anything until, on his puzzled return to the bench, the stewardess explained it to him, though it transpired that he would also need a "so-called visa", and naturally he didn't have one, at which point the stewardess's beautiful face darkened for a minute, and everyone looked at him repeating, Visa? does he, Korin, mean to say he has no visa? but does he know what this means? does he understand that it can take up to a week to obtain a visa? and how can he present himself at the desk with an on-the-spot request for a ticket? indeed, too bad, the stewardess nodded in melancholy fashion, then, seeing how Korin had sunk back beside her in desperation, advised him that he shouldn't despair and that she would have a go, and, so saying, she stepped across to the nearest telephone and began phoning, ringing first one place then another, though because of all the noise Korin couldn't understand a word she was saying, and after half an hour or so someone appeared announcing that it would be all right, sir, regard the problem as solved, and Korin solemnly declared that the stewardess was not only enchantingly lovely, but that she could work magic in other ways too, until the man returned to inform Korin that the visa would cost him fifteen-thousand, fifteen-thousand! Korin repeated aloud, the color draining from his face as he stood up, but the man merely repeated fifteen-thousand, saying Korin could, if he wished, try going to the consulate himself, and stand in the long queue on his own, perhaps returning after three or four days, he might have the time to spare, but if he didn't this was the price, there was not much chance of anything else turning up, in consequence of which Korin excused himself and popped into the toilet, took three five-thousand notes from the lining of his coat, came out and handed the money over to the man who told him that everything would be all right, he could relax, for he would fill the necessary parts of the form out for Korin then take it in and go through all the proper procedures which meant he could stop fretting, it was all in the safest possible hands, he would have his darn visa by that afternoon and could therefore, he winked before disappearing with the appropriate information, take it easy for the next ten years, sleep soundly for ten years; and so Korin told the desk clerk that he would after all have need of a ticket for the next flight, then sat down again beside the stewardess and confessed that he had no idea what would happen to him if the old lady in the pushchair happened to arrive, for, to tell the truth, he had never flown before, had no idea what to do, was in constant need of advice and his prospects, which had brightened so dramatically, would immediately cloud over again if she was required to attend on the old lady with the wheelchair and so leave him.
All eyes in the office were directed at them, from the woman sitting behind the reception counter, through the agents at their desks in the background to the scattered individual browsers of brochures desirous of travel; not a pair of eyes but was fixed on them, on the whole incident, or rather what it signified, for there was no ready explanation for it: for the extraordinary beauty of the stewardess, since how could someone so beautiful be a stewardess or, indeed, a stewardess so beautiful; for the unwashed, smelly figure of Korin in his rumpled greatcoat, for how could someone traveling to America present such an appearance, or conversely, how could someone presenting such an appearance aspire to visit America; and above all for the fact that two such people could be in easy commerce with each other, on the best of terms, lost in a conversation so deep that its ultimate subject was beyond conjecture for it was being conducted in such passionate terms that it conveyed nothing beyond the passion itself, not even hinting at whether they were meeting for the first time or renewing an old acquaintance, both possibilities, as far as the office was concerned, remaining open: in other words the sight of such beauty worn with such regal modesty in combination with a figure of such beggarly degeneracy represented a serious disturbance in the even tenor of official life, indeed, as far as this sphere of existence was concerned, it signified a slowly developing scandal, since the stewardess was certainly no kind of queen, nor Korin a beggar, and therefore all anyone could do was to watch and wait, wait for this curious still-life to disintegrate, to be snuffed out, liquidated, since there could be no doubt that scene on the bench was in fact a kind of still-life, Korin with his degenerate beggarly appearance, his defenseless other-worldliness, and the stewardess with her enchanting body, that body's simmering sensuality; a still-life therefore with peculiar rules of its own meriting the peculiarly intense interest of its environment, as the stewardess herself explained later on the plane, an interest that she herself finally noticed, and when she saw how everyone was looking at them, it confused her, she said, and there was even something frightening about it, about everyone's eyes, the way they were looking at them, how should she put it? as if it were one single face staring and in a truly frightening fashion, frightening and comical, as she told them all about it on the way to Rome.
My predecessors were, on the whole, relaxed, said Korin after a period of silence, then, pulling a sour face, he scratched the top of his head and carefully accenting every word, added - but I was always fraught.
The nipples delicately pressed through the warm texture of the snow-white starched blouse while the deep décolletage boldly accentuated the graceful curvature and fragility of the neck, the gentle valleys of the shoulders and the light swaying to and fro of the sweetly compact masses of her breasts, though it was hard to tell whether it was these that drew all eyes inexorably to her, that refused to let the eyes escape, or if it was the short dark-blue skirt that clung to her hips and bound her long thighs tightly together while indicating the lines of her belly, or indeed if it was the lush and sparkling black hair that tumbled over her shoulders and the clear high brow, the beautifully sculpted jaw, the thick soft lips, the pretty slope of the nose, or those shining eyes in the depths of which two unquenchable spots of light glowed and would glow there for ever, that arrested them; in other words men and women caught in that moment in the office were quite unable to decide what it was that had such a spellbinding effect, so spellbinding that they could do nothing but stare at the several parts constituting this fever-inducing beauty, and what was more - bearing in mind the contrast between such a bountiful display of loveliness on the one hand and their own commonplace existence - they stared at her quite openly, the men with crude, long-suppressed hunger and naked desire, the women with a fine attention to the accumulation of detail, from top to bottom and back again, dizzy with the sensation but, driven by a malignant jealousy at the heart of their fierce inspection, surveying her with ever less sympathy, ever greater contempt, remarking, once the thing was over, or rather once this scandalous pair had disappeared separately through the exit of the MALÉV office, the women first, that it wasn't a matter of prejudice, for they too were women, and one woman always regards another in that light, so there could be no question of prejudice, but it was a little much the way this little strumpet of a stewardess, as one or two of them quickly interjected, pretended she was an innocent little angel, a meek, ready-to-please little princess, while, so the women in the office snorted once it was possible to get together behind the desk and address the subject properly, that tight blouse, the ultra-short skirt clinging to her ass giving an occasional glimpse of the long thighs and the white panties between the thighs, and the very fact that every part of this body, literally everything, was clearly on display, and was practically screaming for attention. well, they had seen quite enough of such apparent artlessness before and knew all too well how to work the little dodges that brought out the best but hid that which should be invisible, nor would they say anything but, really! the shameless deception of it, a blatant whore parading herself like some refined, regal presence, that! they all agreed, no-one would be taken in by nowadays, and later on, before they went home, stopping for a brief chat in the park or a bar, the male employees who had witnessed the scene, a customer or two, or managers further up the chain, contributed to the ongoing discussion by adding that such women were on to a winner every time, that she had a fantastic body, and these huge tits that really thrust themselves at you, and what's more, they added, she had a sweetly swaying round ass, and tits like that, and an ass like that, not forgetting, they added, a snow-white set of teeth and a charming smile, and given those shapely hips and a bit of graceful movement, and, to top it all, a glance, a perfectly timed glance that told you, you whose throat was quite parched by the sight of her, that you would be wrong, seriously wrong, if you thought that you would be at the receiving end of all this, because the glance also told you that the woman confronting you was a virgin, and what is more precisely the kind of virgin of all virgins who has no idea what she has been created for, in other words, taking it all into account, the men declared as they sat in the park or in the bar, if you took her on, they jabbed their fingers at their listeners, that would be the end of you, and they set out once more to describe the woman they had seen at the MALÉV office from her nipples down to her slender ankles, set out but could never finish what they started, since this woman, they kept repeating, was quite beyond words, because what did they achieve by telling you about the skirt glued to the hips and those long thighs, no more than the hair tumbling over her shoulders, those soft lips, the brow, the chin, the nose, really now, what did it add up to? they asked, for it was impossible, simply impossible to capture her in words, because what one ought to capture in beauty is that which is treacherous and irresistible, or, let's be perfectly honest: she was the vision of a truly magnificent, majestic female animal in a dismally synthetic world of sickness.
If anyone really and truly wished him success in his venture, it was she, declared the stewardess to the other crew members on board, though she was sure, she added, that once she had left him he would quickly have come unstuck and got pretty well nowhere, and most likely his name would have been dropped from the stand-by list by the time the Swiss lady in the wheelchair had turned up - almost three and a half hours late - which was when she had taken her leave of him, pushing the woman through the door of the office, yes, they'd have dropped his name off the list, the stewardess repeated with growing certainty, no doubt about it, absolutely none, not that she knew precisely who it was that would do the dropping, the people who are normally responsible for such decisions, she expected, policemen, psychiatric workers, security personnel, the usual suspects, because the way he looked it was a miracle that he had got within hailing distance of the MALEV office, and no-one who had had the briefest contact with him could believe he would get any further, so why should she believe it, however she might wish it were otherwise, for to get across town, out to the airport at Ferihegy and past the ticket inspectors, the customs people, the security guys, then to go on to America, no, no, no, the stewardess shook her head, it was unimaginable that he could manage all that, and even now, some two hours later, when she thought back over it, it all seemed like a dream to her, not that she had had a dream as strange as that in a long time, she confessed, nor had she any idea what it all added up to, this memory she now had stored away, for she was still too close to it, she couldn't really see anything, had no idea who he actually was, or anything about him except that she had immediately started making excuses for him and defending him without being able to make any categorical statements about him, in other words to defend him from some as-yet-unknown accusation, for example that of lunacy, for though he did at first sight appear to be a lunatic, he was, as she had already said, no fool, but, how should she express it, there was something about him, about this man, that was so solemn, so unusual, so - she felt justified in using the word - so startling in its absolute solemnity, that she couldn't but be struck by his sheer desperation, him being absolutely set on something, even though he couldn't articulate what it was, and no, she wasn't joking, she's not having them on, not just saying all this, and after a good sleep she would get over the experience, and once she was through it all, she said, pointing at herself, through all this 'may I talk to you' business, all this 'intensity', really, it would be she herself who would be thought crazy for getting involved in the first place, right? ah no, not at all, she would quite understand it if her colleagues thought she was crazy, so she would shut up now, leave off the story of this great soul-shaking encounter, and she was sorry to have bored them, and had a good giggle herself among the general merriment, adding only that it was sad the way we meet people by chance, spend time talking to them, acknowledge the fact that they have had some effect on us, then we lose them and never ever see them again, something genuinely sad, whatever anyone says, she repeated, laughing, really very sad.
It was Hermes, said Korin, Hermes lay at the heart of everything, that was his starting point, that was the foundation of his deepest intellectual experiences, and though he had never spoken of this to anyone before he simply had to tell the young lady stewardess that it was to Hermes he had been ultimately led, having time after time attempted to discover that hermetically-sealed beginning, had time after time attempted to understand it, to solve it, to get to the bottom of it, and not least of all, to recount it to those people that fate had so far brought him into contact with, to tell them how it was that he realized that he was not intended to be an ordinary archivist, not that he didn't want to be an archivist, for indeed he was most sincerely an archivist, but not an ordinary one, and what he sought to discover, what he constantly sought the answer to, was the reason why he wasn't ordinary; and so he kept going over and over things that had happened, extending his explorations ever further back in time, and there was always something there, something new about his past that made him think, this is it, I've got it, or rather he searched and searched for the source, the origo of this revolution in his life which eventually, some thirty and forty hours ago, had led him here, and to ever newer potential sources and origos, ever newer starting points and beginnings, until he reached the conclusion, he was pleased to say, the actual conclusion he had been seeking and the name of that conclusion was Hermes; for truly, he said, Hermes, for him, was that absolute origo, it was that encounter with the hermetic, the day, the hour he first encountered Hermes, when - if he might so put it - he became acquainted with the world of the hermetic and was afforded a glimpse into it, into that which Hermes presented as a world, the world of which Hermes was the ruler, Hermes, this Greek god, the twelfth of twelve, with his mystery, his lack of fixity, his copiously multi-faceted existence, his secret forms, the dark side of his being shrouded in a deeply suggestive silence who had had such a mesmerizing effect on his imagination, or, more precisely, had completely captured his imaginative faculties and made him restless, had drawn him into a sphere from which there was no escape, for it was like being under the spell or a curse or an incantation, since this is what Hermes was to him, not a god who led but one who misled, swept him off course, destabilized him, called him, drew him aside, seduced him from below, whispered to him from the wings; but why him, him in particular, why this archivist working some two-hundred and twenty kilometers from Budapest, he could not tell, nor should he seek after reasons, he felt, but simply accept that that was the way it was, it was the way he had learned of Hermes, possibly through the Homeric Hymns, or maybe from the psychoanalyst Kerényi, possibly from the marvelous Graves, who the hell knew or cared how, said Korin, this being, if he might so put it that way, the induction phase which was quickly followed by the next phase, the phase of deeper exploration in which the towering, unrivalled work of Walter F. Otto, that is to say his Die Götter Griechenlands, was the sole guide, and in that book exclusively one specific chapter in the Hungarian edition, which he read and re-read until it came to pieces in his hands , which was the point at which restlessness and anxiety entered his life, when things were no longer as they were, the day after which everything looked different, had changed, when the world showed him its most terrifying face, bringing on a sense of dissociation, offering the most terrifying aspect of absolute freedom, since knowledge of Hermes, said Korin, entails the loss of one's sense of being at home in this world, of the sense of belonging, of dependence, of certainty, and this means that suddenly there is an uncertainty factor in the totality of things, because, just as suddenly, it becomes clear that this uncertainty is the only, the sole factor, for Hermes signifies the provisional and relative nature of the laws of being, and Hermes brings and Hermes takes such laws away, or rather allows them liberty, for that is the whole point of Hermes, said Korin to the stewardess, for whoever is granted a glimpse of him can never again yield himself to any ambition or form of knowledge, because ambition and knowledge are merely ragged cloaks, if he might use such a poetic turn of phrase, that one may adapt or cast off at a whim according to the teachings of Hermes, the god of the roads of night, of night itself, a night whose domain the presence of Hermes extends into day, since as soon as he appears anywhere he immediately changes human life, appearing to let days be, appearing to acknowledge the powers of his Olympian companions, and allowing everything to appear as though life continued to proceed according to the plans and schemes of his own, while whispering to his devotees that life was not quite like this, leading them into the night, showing them the inconceivably complex and chaotic nature of all paths, making them confront the unexpected, the accidental, the out--of-the-blue, the dangerous, the deeply confused and primitive states of possession, death and sexuality, expelling them, in other words, from Zeus's world of light and thrusting them into hermetic darkness, as he had thrust Korin ever since Korin had understood that a glimpse of him had induced a restlessness in his heart, a restlessness that could never cease once Hermes had revealed himself to him, a revelation that quite ruined him, for if there was one thing he did not wish to suggest it was that this discovery, this glimpse of Hermes indicated that he felt any love for Hermes, said Korin, no, he had no love for Hermes whatsoever but was simply frightened of him; and this is how things were, this is what happened and no more than this, that he had been scared by Hermes as would any man have been, any man who had realized at the moment of his ruin that he had been ruined, that is to say had come into the possession of such knowledge as he did not at all wish to possess, as was precisely the case with him, with Korin, for what did he desire that others did not? he had no desire to be different, to stand out from the crowd, he had no such ambitions, preferring relationships and security, homeliness and a clear and simple life, in other words absolutely ordinary things, though he lost these in the blinking of an eye the moment Hermes entered his life, and made of him, as he is happy to admit, a servant, an underling, since from that moment the underling began rapidly to distance himself from his wife, his neighbors and his colleagues, because it seemed hopeless even to try to explain, elaborate, or confess to the fact that it was a Greek god that lay at the root of the unmistakable changes in his behavior, not that he had any chance of getting others to sympathize with him, Korin told the stewardess, for just imagine him turning one day to his wife, or to his colleagues at the archive and saying to them, I am aware that you will have noticed a peculiar change in my behavior, well, it's all on account of a Greek god; just imagine the effect, said Korin, the way his wife would react to such a confession, or his colleagues to this explanation, in other words things could not have turned out otherwise than they did, a quick divorce, the rapid progress from peculiar looks at the office to being ignored, in fact some went so far as to avoid him altogether and refused to acknowledge him in the street, which was, said Korin, deeply hurtful, coming as it did from his own colleagues, people he met every day of his life, being utterly ignored in the street by them, thanks to Hermes, and everything that flowed from that right down to the present moment, not that he was complaining, merely establishing the facts, for what cause had he for complaint, though there was a time when he was no more than a simple, perfectly orthodox archivist who had every hope of progressing to the post of chief archivist, but now instead of that, would you believe it, said Korin, here he as in Budapest, in Budapest, if he might be allowed to jump forward in time, at the Budapest offices of MALÉV where he trusted and genuinely believed that he would receive a visa and a ticket enabling him, Korin, not only to get to the world-famous city of New York, but in doing so to achieve, and here he dropped his voice, the chief aim of his hermetic state of uncertainty, not to mention the fact, he added, that should he desire compensation, which he did not; or did he wish to exchange his state for some other, which he did not; an exchange of states might serve as a form of compensation, and though this kind of exchange was against the rules it was not in fact impossible, for it was not impossible that he might, any day now, get to see the deity, Hermes, personally, at some moment, for such moments did exist, moments when things were really calm, moments when he glanced towards a shady corner, afternoons when he had fallen asleep and woke to a flash of light in the room, or perhaps when it was getting dark and he was rushing somewhere the god might be there beside him, keeping pace with him, visible as the moon, waving his caduceus at something that was not him, in the distance before disappearing.
The visa arrived but they were still sitting in the same way in the same place on the bench set out to accommodate those who were waiting, since the old woman had not yet turned up, and on being shown the visa the people at the desk had nothing to add concerning his chances of getting a ticket, telling him off instead, asking him what his problem was, what was he getting so uppity and impatient about constantly jumping up and down like that instead of sitting down calmly and waiting to be called in his turn at the right time, because there were people out there who had been waiting for weeks, to which Korin naturally replied with an acquiescent nod, assuring the staff that he would stop being a nuisance to them, that from now on, having got the point, he would, he promised, no longer impose on them, and so saying, sat back down on the bench beside the stewardess and said nothing for the next few minutes, simply waited, clearly anxious in case his behavior had set the staff against him, which, he explained to the stewardess, would harm no one but him, then, suddenly, as if he had forgotten everything he had said earlier, turned to her again and continued from where he had just now left off, informing her that nothing would please him more than spending the entire week here, in continual conversation with her, though he himself did not quite understand what the hell it was that inspired him to launch out on his monologue, a monologue, furthermore, that was exclusively about himself, for he had never done anything like this in his life, not once, Korin told the stewardess, gazing into her eyes, for it would have been inconceivable before, in fact if anything characterized him as he had been it was a reluctance to talk about himself, he'd not say a word to anyone on the subject, and if now he felt impelled, it was possibly because he was frightened that he might be attacked, fearing that they were on his trail, which was by no means a certainty, more a simple likelihood, in other words it must be this or some other related cause that made him launch out on this torrent of words, feeling that he had to tell all, the bit about the riverbank, about the psychotherapy, the hierarchy, the amnesia, about freedom and about the center of the world so that he, who had never previously been aware of the least talent for it, might at last initiate someone else into the secret story of the last years, the last months, the last day, telling them what happened at the archive, in the brake car, on the railway bridge and on Almássy Square; telling, in other words, everything, or, to be more accurate, the essential parts, though telling only the truly essential parts was becoming steadily harder, and not only because the whole consisted of individual details, details of which there was a maddening surfeit, but also because - a most humdrum problem - it made his head ache, or to be more precise made the headache he already had exceed its usual intensity so that it was becoming quite unbearable, or rather, he corrected himself, not even so much his head as his neck, his shoulders and the base of his skull, just there, he pointed out to the stewardess, and when you took all these pains into consideration, the whole effect, when it put its mind to it, could become unbearable, and there was nothing he could do about these attacks for nothing would help, not massage, not turning his head this way and that, not moving his shoulders about, nothing, the only cure was sleep, sleep alone could shift it, the complete and utter mental relaxation, the loss of all self-consciousness, though that was precisely the problem, that he never could relax his self-consciousness, never free himself of the tension in his head, he had to hold it just as he was now doing, though, naturally, it led to the cramping of the muscles and strained the ligaments, so that eventually the constitution of his whole upper body was in open revolt, at which he point he had no option, if the young lady would be so kind as to forgive him, but to lie down here in the bench, only for a minute of course, but lie down he must if only to relieve the strain on his muscles and ligaments, from the trapezium and the splenius, from the sub-occipital and the sternocleidomastodeum, for somehow the pressure had to be lifted or else the thing he had long feared would come to pass, that is to say his head would drop off, because that would surely happen, the whole caboodle would just collapse, and then there would be no New York, no nothing, said Korin, it would all be over before you could say Jack Robinson.
The stewardess stood up to make room for Korin, who gradually, carefully, arranged himself full-length along the bench but no sooner had he closed his eyes than he had to snap them open again because the door to the street was suddenly thrown open and a whole crowd of people thrust themselves through it, or to put it more precisely, erupted into the office with such brutal force it seemed they wanted to smash everything in their way, impatient of the slightest objection, shouting harsh instructions left and right, fore and aft, to the effect that the person they were delivering, who was now shoved forward in a brilliantly glistening ebony-black wheelchair, and who was now advancing through the ranks of would-be ticket purchasers and employees, had a quite particular reason for bursting in like this and had an absolute right to run people down while no one had any cause or justification to question this privilege, in other words, albeit half a day late, and to Korin's deepest disappointment but to the stewardess's great relief, the old woman from Switzerland had finally arrived in her very own skin-and-bone, dried-out body, her face fallen-in and scored over with a thousand wrinkles, her gray eyes tiny and lightless, her lips cracked, her ears decked out in an outsize set of gold earrings that dangled right down to her shoulders, her whole presence immediately, silently, declaring that it was with precisely this body, this face, these eyes, these lips and just these enormous earrings that she intended to determine what was going or not going to happen in the next few minutes; nor did she in fact say anything at all, and as to her entourage, it was clear that there was no communication of orders to them either, it being more a case of now a little this way, now a little faster, now a touch slower, while keeping their eyes firmly glued to her, hanging on to her the way the golden earrings did to her ears, until, with one gesture as minimal as the act of breathing she made it clear what she wanted, which way she wanted to go, which route they should take to which desk, a decision that neither the employees nor those waiting for tickets had any power to resist, for those behind the desks stopped working and the queues broke up, simultaneously bringing to an end the situation in which Korin, still cursed with his headache, and the stewardess found themselves, since Korin had, at the very least, after the first moment of terror, to sit up in order to convince himself that the deputation had not come for him, and the stewardess had to snap into action and announce that it was she whom MALÉV had, after the necessary formalities, together with the Helping Hands service, chosen to conduct the elderly lady to her chosen, specially selected flight, where she would be her supporter and aide, to be in the strict sense of the word, her guide on the road to the airport at Ferihegy.
The meat-filled pancake a la Hortobágy was fine, the old lady's translator conveyed to the nervous official, but the air - and here every member of the entourage allowed himself a smile - did not meet with Frau Hanzl's approval, no, eure Luft, as the old lady repeated in her loud, cracked rather masculine voice, shaking her head in a disillusioned manner, ist einfach unqualifizierbar, versteht ihr?, unqualifizierbar! after which, having indicated that she wished the computer monitor to be turned in her direction, she jabbed her finger at one of the lines, from which point everything happened improbably fast: no more than a minute or two had elapsed before her entourage was in full possession of a ticket and the stewardess had been informed what her duties were to be regarding "the acutely sensitive Mrs Hanzl who was in the habit of making all her own arrangements for travel", and the shiny ebony-black wheelchair containing the acutely sensitive Mrs Hanzl, was already turning and thundering across the hall towards the exit so that Korin, who was looking this way and that in panic had barely time enough to dash over to the stewardess and condense into a single sentence everything she absolutely had to know, since, he stared at her in desperation, there was so much he had not had time to say, the most important things in fact, having neglected to inform her of the very reason he had to get to New York and what he had to do there, indicating his coat sleeve and the manuscript of which he had not said a word so far though it was by far the most important aspect of the whole thing and the stewardess would understand nothing if she did not know that, for that manuscript - he grabbed her hand and tried to delay the gathering momentum of the procession - was the most extraordinary piece of writing that anyone had ever produced, but he could talk to the stewardess all he liked for she was no longer listening, having only time enough to smile and beg his forgiveness for having to get on now, in response to which Korin himself could do no more than run ahead, to prop the door open before the onrushing pushchair, and raise his voice above the din of the agitated procession of escorts to remark what a wonderful, unforgettable day it had been, and that the young stewardess lady should allow him to file away the two tiny dimples of her smile in his memory for ever, to which she replied smiling, with precisely those two tiny dimples, that he was most welcome to file them away, whereupon she waved and disappeared behind the closing door, leaving Korin alone in the suddenly ear-splitting silence with only the eternal memory of those two little dimples to console him.
For 119,00 forints he could have a week in Iceland, one bored official told him, rattling the figures off; for 99,900 a week on the Nile, for 98,000 a week in Tenerife, for 75,900 five days in London, 69,000 for a week in Cyprus or Mallorca, 49,900 for a week on the Turkish Riviera, 39,900 for a week in Rhodes, 34,900 for the same in Corfu, 24,900 for Dubrovnik or Athens-Thessaloniki, 24,000 for a week at the Cloisters in Meteora, Jesolo was 22,900, Salou in Spain 19,900, or he could have eight days in Kraljevica for 18,200 forints, and if none of those appealed to him, he told the customer standing at the desk, for he appeared to be dithering, then, the agent turned his head away and made a moue with his mouth, he was perfectly free to go elsewhere, and so saying he pressed a button on his computer, tipped his chair back and stared at the ceiling with an expression that clearly declared that he, for his part, had given out as much information as he felt bound to and was not going to give out one jot more.
What ticket for what flight? Korin enquired at the desk later when they called him up to tell him the news, and started massaging his forehead the way people do when they want to summon up their lost concentration, cutting the operative short by asking: Tomorrow? What do you mean tomorrow?
There were four of them altogether, three female adults aged between fifty and sixty, and a girl who looked about eighteen but was certainly no more than twelve years old, each of them arriving with a steel bucket full of cleaning apparatus and carrying a half-sized industrial broom in her left hand: four buckets, four brooms and four sets of gray cleaners' lab-coats, ensuring their clear identification and function and explaining why they were now ready and waiting for something, squinting upward at everyone else, fixed in this inferior position keeping their eyes peeled for a sign from their supervisor who stood in the doorway of a glass cubicle, and when the sign eventually came they were set to go about their business, carefully at first, with a number of uncertain preparatory gestures, then, as the last of the officials and employees disappeared through the door, and the shutters at the front clattered down, switching to full speed with the brooms and buckets, the four of them in their uniforms, two in front, two remaining on the street side, wringing out the cloths wound round the brooms then dipping them into water again, the brooms dripping, two on one side, two on the other, the cleaners taking long extended strides, solemnly, without a word, so that the only sound audible was of the four improvised mops sliding quickly across the fake-marble slabs of the floor, and then, as they reached the center and passed each other, one or two slight smacking sounds, then that sliding noise across the paving again, to the end of the room, then a dipping and wringing and back again, as wordless as before, until the girl reached into the pocket of her coat to turn on a small transistor, turning up the volume, so from that moment they moved in a dense, echoing, monotonous aspic of sound, like machines, with brooms in their hands, their empty whey-coloured eyes fixed on their damp mops.
Translated by George Szirtes