He woke lying on his front. His eyes were full of tears with the remnants of a dream. His left arm was stiff. He could hardly move it and the light radiating from beyond the window began to disturb his eyes. He had a stomach ache and a pain in the nape of his neck. His tongue and face were burning. He would have given anything for a glass of water, but the tap was far away. He felt that some force was pulling him down, as if the damp floor wanted to devour him. He had to move. After trying a few times, he stood up, rubbed his left arm and then his eyes. A blinding light covered half the room and coloured everything with a burning white. The other half was as dark as in a hole. In the darkness some shapes started to assume a form: the outline of a shelf and the flat surface of the table. Various things were scattered on the bed and in front of him. The armchair was full of clothes. Old shoes and books lay scattered around. On the wall next to the window some of the plaster was missing. He saw the brownish red colour of the bricks and the thick layer of dust covering the entrance hall. It glittered in the filtering light. He suddenly realised that he had no idea about how long he may have been asleep on the floor, as if knocked down and left to die.
He’d last left the flat nine days ago. Even then he only went to the shop to buy the meat, which was now decomposing in the fridge, the smell pervading the whole flat. He stood up straight, then retched a couple of times. He did not bear the stench easily, but he managed to drag himself to the bathroom to drink. Keeping his head under the tap he swallowed the water, then washed his face and the nape of his neck. The sweltering pulsation in his body subsided. He had often felt it after waking up, especially since his wife died. She departed on a Saturday in November. He remembered going through the main entrance, pulling his coat together and buying the wine for dinner, bumping into a woman, a neighbour, smiling at each other, apologetically debating who should go first through the entrance, the door being left open, the couple of sentences he would never get an answer to. Éva was lying there in the middle of the room. Her hands were pressed hard on a vase – so strongly that the paramedics could free it only with difficulty.
From December he would have had only a year left with the company. They had planned their first trip for early spring to an electric blue mountain lake with a dense pine forest on its shore. But blood was trickling from Éva’s mouth that Saturday and she had only a single journey left. It was a cremation. Everything happened fast. He could recall only a few faces, and the priest’s voice reverberated in his ears like a recurring wave. The company was understanding and helped with everything. They managed all the paperwork for him. In the first couple of weeks someone rang to talk to him every day. When he told them he would not go to work any more, for a long time they tried to convince him that even the remaining one year would matter a lot. That he would receive far less if he did not work for that final year. But it did not interest him. In addition, his daughter came home at the weekends, but since they constantly talked about Éva he sent her away. Months went by. He left the flat less and less often and the telephone remained silent for longer and longer periods.
He went over to the kitchen and opened the fridge. The foul smell was positively coming towards him. The kitchen was full of unwashed dishes, a long stripe of jam smeared across the table. Used filters in a glass, empty wine bottles and mouldy bread. He tried to remember the previous day but hadn’t a clue how those twenty-four hours were spent and realised that many twenty-four hours had passed he could not recall. He was standing in the middle of the kitchen with a headache, his back was itching and something pricked his chest under his T-shirt. The inpouring light disturbed him. It illuminated a few dirty corners, in the room the sofa with something spilt on it, the shoes and pieces of mud lying on the floor. From there he could see the empty fish tank with the green moss turning sour. He knew he had to struggle with it and felt that if things went on like this something would change for good.
It crossed his mind that he was 66. The elapsed time seemed long, yet it was short for things around him to collapse so definitely. He took off his T-shirt and returned to the bathroom. He started to wash off his body the remains of the perspired dream of the night. A piece of a broken toothpick had got caught in his dense chest hair and it was pricking his chest. He washed his neck and his chest. The ice cold water trickled down his belly. He smelt something sour coming from him in addition to the stinking meat and the aquarium. He wanted to get rid of it. He opened the small cupboard next to the mirror and found a bar of soap. Holding it under the water he turned it round in his hand then ran it down his chest. It excited his skin. Suddenly the tap began shaking. A current started off from the piping and shook the basin, too. It gradually became stronger. It seemed if he did not turn off the tap the shaking would burst the whole system.
He switched on the small lamp by the tap. He had put it there because the bulb hanging from the ceiling did not work. The 25 Watt bulb indolently lit the part of the bathroom around the basin. In the mirror he saw his unshaven, worn face and the hair on his chest, which appeared even more dense and grey from the foam of the soap. A thickish strip went down his belly, something must have pressed against him while he was asleep. There was a wound on his shoulder. It still had not healed, although he had had it for weeks. He took the towel lying on the edge of the basin. He wiped his face, then his chest. He rubbed hard to make the foam disappear from everywhere.
He went over to the room, where he bumped into some objects and the corner of the table. Then he found his glasses and put them on. He moved to the window to look out to the street. A strong wind was blowing outside and was pressing a damp leaf against the glass. He followed it for several inches. It was like a snail dragging itself along in an unusual direction, contradicting the law of gravity, he thought. Gravity, law, contradiction – such words came to his mind. As if he had something to do with those expressions. As if he knew their meaning. But he did not even understand why gravity occurred to him and why the leaf was going upwards. The white window frame became narrow and the gravity of things, and also his own, became obvious. The weight that pressed on the object, which was himself, almost hurt him.
He detected a point on the chair standing under the window. The green paint had chipped off and a greyish brown layer could be seen. A few broken off slender fibres, falling into small pieces, tumbled out onto the painted part. He had to focus hard to see them all one by one. He adjusted his glasses. If he watched through the lenses he saw the parts separating from one another and the very thin stripes among them. Yet when he raised his eyes above the glasses, the fibres merged and the top part of the chair seemed a single smooth surface with only a few large stains. Perhaps the traces of a coffee cup, he thought. He opened the wardrobe. A fusty odour assailed his nostrils, still he took a T-shirt and put it on. It was cool. He thought it was also a bit damp. He took it off. He began gathering the objects. He found seventeen books on the floor. He wished they were there because he had read them. He looked through the titles. He was glad that at least some were familiar. He did not know how they had got onto the carpet or underneath the bed. Heavy dustballs fell back on the floor from the matted socks, and the shimmering jam smeared on the table was also there on the carpet. He found three shoes under the bed, which also spread the stifling musty smell.
Some noise sifted through from outside. He heard knocking. He stood upright, then went through the entrance hall. The dust was disturbed by his steps in the filtering light and thickened almost to a fog behind him. He heard the knocking again. He stepped to the door window and pulled the small curtain to the side.
One of the neighbours, a tall man with brown hair was standing in front of the door. He had a deeply cut black T-shirt and black imitation leather trousers, on which the light slipped as he made a move. He must have been around 40, but his well-cut hair and unusually tanned skin made him look younger. Earlier when he saw him he always wore brightly coloured clothes and something on him sparkled. He had talked to him once, but didn’t remember about what. He could not understand what he might want. “They’re gay”, a neighbour whispered to him some time ago. No need to bother about them, you cannot do anything else, anyway, the neighbour added. He did not understand even then what she meant by that. As if there had also been something else in that sentence, he thought. That something should still be done about it. “Queers”, he had once heard on the landing and “Fuck the lot of them”, that too.
He watched the man smooth back his hair. His movements were strange and his clothes were rather unusual, he thought. He let the curtain fall back. He rubbed his chest. The trace of the toothpick was still itching and some nerves flashed around the open wound on his shoulder. The man knocked again. He thought if they started to talk he might not be able to get rid of him. However, after more knocking he turned the key and the top small bolt, and then opened the door, although just a bit.
“What do you want?” he said through the gap. He thought he did not really want to say that.
“Hello,” said the man. He stood slightly straddled on the walkway and the cut of his V-neck T-shirt revealed his chest hair. “I’m Kristóf, perhaps you remember.”
“Yes, sure … ”
“I’ve come because we are having a small get-together upstairs and I thought … ”
“What did you think?”
“Perhaps you’d like to come up.”
“Yes, around now. There’s a small group of people upstairs. I’ve already asked a few neighbours, but actually no one has been really enthusiastic so far. Then I thought you’d probably like to have a drink.”
He scrutinised the man’s face. He realised that because of the pure look in his eyes he had not noticed his wrinkles. There was some unusual slowness in him, although he spoke dynamically.
“What makes you think that?”
“You seem a nice guy. Márk also thinks you’re kind,” he said, then leaning closer he continued somewhat more quietly. “Not everyone is like that in this block.”
A strong scent of perfume assailed his nose, it was a sweetish smell. It expelled the sour mossy and musty smell from his nose.
The man’s eyes opened wider. A smile appeared on his face. He scratched his forehead where tiny beads of sweat smeared.
“Márk’s my partner. We’ve gathered for him now … ”
“Has he died?”, he interrupted and his chest tightened because of Éva and the abrupt question. He saw her lying on the carpet and the reddish spot spreading out around her head.
“No, fortunately not”, answered the man. Then he paused . He looked over to the inside of the courtyard. “So if you feel like it, come up. I know what happened and so … ”
“Shut up,” he snapped at the man.
There was silence for a while. The wind was blowing outside and it sometimes roared among the walls of the inner courtyard.
“We’re up on the fourth floor”, the man spoke again pointing at the top floor.
“No, I don’t feel like it at all. Leave me alone,” he said and closed the door.
He felt his heart hammering. He was sweating. He leaned against the door. He caught his breath. He heard the man moving about outside then his steps retreating. He waited. Only the whistle of the wind could still be heard. He returned to the room.
The stench became even stronger. The sourness of algae and moss mixed with the rotten smell of meat. It stung his nose. He couldn’t understand how it even crossed their mind that he would go up. Incredible, he thought, what people can do. Then he hit on the idea of going up after all and telling them not to even think of pestering him any more.
The phone rang. His heart throbbed. He thought that if the man rang him he would call the cops. He could not see the phone anywhere. He walked round the room. The ringing grew louder and louder. He came to a standstill, perhaps it would stop. The sound ceased after half a minute, but by the time he had recovered his breath and bent down to pick up something from the floor, it started again. The phone turned up underneath some newspaper pages. He picked up the receiver.
When he heard his daughter’s voice he was relieved, but then he suspected what was to follow. His heart was in his throat.
“Hello. What can I do for you?”
“I’ll drop in today, as agreed. It’s time I had a look at what was happening to you.”
“When did we talk about it?”
“The day before yesterday.”
“I see. Well, the thing is, it’s not too good for me today.”
“Why, what are you doing?”
“As a matter of fact, I have a lot to do.”
“What, for example?”
He looked round the room spontaneously and felt he wasn’t even lying.
“Well, quite a lot of things.”
“I see. Listen, Dad, I want to say … ”
“I’m OK, everything’s alright. Don’t come for me.”
“Who do you think I would go for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“That you’re constantly turning me down.”
“I don’t turn you down, I’m simply busy. I’ll tell you when I need something.”
“That’s great, Dad.”
“What’s up now?”
“Don’t you ever think about just meeting up?”
“What do you mean? I don’t understand.”
“You could just put on something decent, leave the flat and we could go somewhere together.”
“God only knows. Anywhere.”
“You know I don’t like it.”
“What don’t you like?”
“When you talk gibberish.”
“I don’t talk gibberish, I actually talk sensibly. Let’s go and look at this phenomenon, or whatever it’s called. That thing in the sky now. It’s really beautiful.”
“This … I don’t know. Some star can be seen in the sky, a supernova or something. I’m no good at it.”
“Is it why it’s so light?”
“Will you get dressed?”
“I am dressed.”
“What time is it?”
“Perhaps 8. I think.”
“8 in the evening?”
“I won’t go anywhere at this time.”
“As if you ever did … ”
“Don’t be unfair!”
“Dad, I’m not unfair, just sad.”
“I’m sad too, but nothing can be done about it.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Your mother died. Nothing can be done about it. That’s what I mean.”
“For a change I didn’t mean her.”
“You, Dad. That it’s no good like this.”
“What’s not good? I’m very well.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“Sure it is. I’m absolutely fine.”
“All the more reason to meet.”
“Let’s meet tomorrow. I’m tired, and like I say, I have a lot to do.”
“Tell me a single thing that’s urgent and then I’ll let you be.”
He did not answer immediately. He heard strong puffing. He held the receiver away. He suddenly realised that it was him who was puffing so much. He thought he would go up to the fourth floor, knock on the door and tell them how impertinent he considered them to be pestering residents of the block at 8 in the evening.
“I’ll be honest, I’m a bag of nerves,” he spoke again into the receiver.
“Yes, that’s usually the case.”
“Please, don’t scoff at me.”
“Before you rang, a neighbour knocked on the door. How shall I put it? … So … There is a, or two … men. Two … gays. That’s what they are called, isn’t it?”
“Yes, there is such a word, Dad. Was it them who enraged you so much?’
“One of them.”
“What did he say?”
“I don’t actually know.”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Yes, I do.”
“He asked me if I felt like going upstairs.”
“Did they ask you to theirs?”
“One of them, the taller guy.”
“And what did you say? You don’t seem to have gone.”
He waited a while. Perhaps his thoughts would come to some sense and he could render a reason for what disturbed him so much, but by the time they began to take shape the line was buzzing. He heard his daughter’s voice, things like “Are you there?” or “I’ll be going” and he sometimes asked back “What did you say?” Then he repeated “I don’t understand” twice or even three times. The connection broke and he heard only a crackling noise. He put down the receiver.
Voices filtered in from outside. He went again along the entrance hall to look out. He pulled the curtain to the side. Some people were standing on the walkway on the fourth floor. He couldn’t hear what they were talking about, only their laughter, and he saw two men and a woman clinking their glasses, then one of them lighting a cigarette and after a while flicking the ash down into the courtyard. It shone in the white light. He let the curtain back in order not to see them. He heard the laughter filtering through again. The inner space of the block amplified it. His chest became heavier. Meanwhile, the long entrance hall pulled him inside: the space became too narrow, as if the objects and the wardrobes were closer to him and wanted to climb on him. He heard the laughter. He felt beads of sweat on his skin. He was cold. In the white light the entrance hall was blurred before him and as he raised his hand to touch his face he felt wetness. Everything became soggy and uncertain. He heard the panting once more, then laughter again, panting, both together and the word “queers” came to his mind. He saw the neighbour’s face, her hands as she was explaining, then the man standing in front of the door and pointing in the direction of the fourth floor, the aquarium, the rotting bits of algae, and finally Éva on the floor with that vase in her hands. He hit the door at first gently and then more forcefully.
He could no longer stand up. He crouched, leaning against the door. He tried to breathe evenly. He heard giggling again and felt it was infuriating him. He stood up and went into the room so as not to hear it, but the laughter was in his head during each movement whenever he put something somewhere. He thought they may have heard him knocking things about. He quickly went along the entrance hall and looked out of the window. He thought they might be laughing at him, that after he’d been downstairs, the man went up and told them how poorly he looked. He may even have noticed the smells coming from the flat, he thought. Those three were still standing on the walkway. One of the men was explaining something. He watched his movements. The man suddenly looked down and he saw he was looking directly at him. When the woman also turned her head he was sure that they were talking about him. He let the curtain fall back.
“Bloody hell, I don’t believe it,” he said half aloud. He thought of going upstairs and telling them to fuck off, not to mess him around: if the guy came down only to mock him they’d bloody well regret it. He put on some leather shoes. He was already holding the door handle when he realised he was half-naked and that was how he opened the door. That’s what old age was like: you didn’t notice the obvious, he thought.
He returned to the room and started rummaging through the clothes in the wardrobe. All the shirts were creased. He took out a white one, a black one and a blue striped one. The white light shone in the same even way and covered exactly the same part of the room as earlier. He found it peculiar that it did not move farther along the wall. He watched the dust swirling above the objects and thought about the fact that he was inhaling it. He put on the stripy shirt. It seemed the least creased. He went out to the entrance hall and grasped the handle. He was pondering what he smelt of. He started smelling his arms. They had a pungent smell of sweat. He heard voices from outside. He stepped to the small window and drew the curtain aside. The door opened upstairs, the voices became louder. He saw two men going out to the walkway. The one who came to see him and another, shorter man. He thought again that they may be talking about him. He noticed handprints on the glass. He fitted his hand on them. They were clearly his. He was looking at the wrinkles, his dirty nails and the dense hair on his hands. When he looked up again he could see no one outside. He heard only the whistling of the wind and felt that the white radiation sinking from the direction of the sky had intensified.
He pressed down on the handle. The wind pushed the door. His hand slipped down the thin aluminium and the door opened wide. He stepped out onto the walkway carefully. The colours were faded. As if someone had gone over everything with an eraser to remove what was unnecessary, he thought. The door closed behind him. As soon as it clicked he knew he had made a grave mistake. He did not have his key. He grasped the knob but in vain did he pull it. The door failed to open. Through the tiny gaps in the curtain he saw the muddy floor of the entrance hall, his coat hanging and the white light streaming down the long, built-in wardrobe on the left. He examined himself. His trousers had a long tear above his left thigh. Moreover, he found their pale green colour with the light brown shoes very disturbing. He also saw that his shirt was as creased as a dog’s well-chewed rag toy.
He heard some people talking from the direction of the stairs. One of the voices was familiar. He did not want to meet the woman from next door. He stood close to the door so as not to be noticed. After they reached the second floor the two women stopped at the landing. Meanwhile he heard the phone ringing inside. He began counting the rings but soon lost count because of the familiar voice.
“How many times do you think I’ve warned the bastards that this is not a playground or a disco? Bloody hell, must one listen to this? Moreover, we live on the third floor. Do you think I can hear the TV?”
“No, of course, not.”
“And that’s not the biggest problem.”
“Pansies! Don’t you know what that is?”
“Yes, I do. That is … No, I don’t, or … ”
“Two men, together. Or two women. Or not, that’s called something different. All the same. Disgusting, that’s the point. Can’t you see?”
“Of course, I can, Marika. Don’t be silly. Do you think I don’t understand? That is, they are like that … together?
“Yes, that’s how. How else? It turns your stomach. You know what?”
“I feel sick just looking at them.”
“Yes, me too.”
“But do you know who I’m talking about?”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t.”
“They live up there.”
“You must have seen them. They look so typical.”
“Aha, I can guess who you mean.”
“One is shorter and the other is tall with brown hair.”
“They’re disgusting. They turn my stomach.”
“I know, Marika. I do understand. And this noise?”
“So upsetting! This shit every week. And I don’t care it’s Friday, fuck the bastards. For once we could have a quiet Friday, couldn’t we? Is that too much to ask for?”
“Of course, not. We had both the door and the windows insulated.”
“Of course, last year.”
“And is it any better?”
“Are you joking? Far better. The only problem is that since then I can’t hear anything from outside. But of course, before that…”
“Terrible. I can hardly cope.”
“Have you spoken to them?”
“Oh, no! You can’t, to people like them.”
“Out of the question. I would never talk to such people.”
“So … ”
“I’m so disgusted by them, do you understand? They’re not human. I can’t even sleep. It’s not only the noise, it’s also so light. Horrible.”
“Yes. I don’t even understand what this thing is. What’s causing it, do you know?”
“Judit, haven’t you heard the news?”
“Constant bad news. It’s so exhausting. So and so has died, such and such river’s flooded. Who can stand it all?”
“You’re right. At these times I just cocoon myself.”
The two women kept on talking, but he only caught a couple of words. Luckily they set off in the other direction. He waited a bit and then looked to the left. He saw Marika going up the stairs, heard the wind whistle and the rhythmic thudding.
He felt he needed to pee. There was no way to get back into the flat unless he forced the door open or broke through the glass, but he did not want to do that. He looked up at the top floor. First yellowish then shades of purple lights were cast on the wall opposite the window and flashed in such a way that he had to squint. Sometimes the thudding was louder, then it suddenly quietened and a tune seeped through. After it stopped he couldn’t recall it.
He went round the walkway to go up the back stairs. He tucked in his shirt, but realised it was worse and so untucked it again. He proceeded upwards carefully because the shadows under each step were deep like a pit and he always tried to step on the bright parts. He reached the third floor. The wind was blowing hard. He thought of knocking on Marika’s door where the light was already on, but shuddered at the idea. He knew he would have to listen to the words he had heard a couple of minutes before together with some other stories, and he did not feel like it at all. “Pansies” – the word came into his mind again and thought he did not really know what it meant. Then that he actually knew but did not care. Yet if it was not necessary he would not go up, he was sure of that. He had the shivers.
He was pondering who else he could turn to. A neighbour downstairs, a guy even older than him came to mind, but he immediately knew he could not help. He stood by the railing of the walkway. He ran his eyes over the doors trying to associate faces with them. It suddenly struck him that he did not have a clue who lived behind those walls. The wind was blowing even stronger. His bladder was pressing more and more. His groin had sharp pains and he already had a bellyache. He felt the cold penetrating him and he was instantly going to piss himself. He leaned against the railing. It was difficult to breathe. He seemed to hear some words, but the wind carried them away. In vain did he focus, the vibration of the railing and the windows surpassed all. He heard the throbbing music beating dully in the interior of the courtyard, a few tiny female shrieks and a door slamming upstairs.
Ági. The phone. These two words were on his mind, also that he should get hold of his daughter so that he could get back into the flat. That was most important, because if he did not, it would have grave consequences. He started off for the fourth floor. Meanwhile he was looking at the cracked, faded plaster on the wall as various shapes and patterns appeared one after the other due to the play of the light. He continued to place his feet only in the bright area. He edged along sideways, bending down because he could hardly bear the cramp in his groin. He held on to the railing, that’s how he went along the walkway, passing two entrance doors and four dark windows.
He reached the door. Those were not voices but some throbbing noise, it occurred to him, also that he did not want to go in. He thought of ringing the bell and asking them to give him a phone – a mobile or something – only please let him ring his daughter. Inside, the music stopped. He suddenly had an unusual feeling of missing something. He didn’t know if he could ring the bell. He was standing with his legs pressed together for a while, then he gradually bent closer to the door. He leaned against the wall edging nearer. He heard nothing.
The door suddenly opened. He bolted upright, began scratching the back of his neck with his left hand and gave a few little coughs as if that made it less conspicuous that he was eavesdropping. Meanwhile the throbbing noise started up again.
A young woman stood in the door and looked at him questioningly. Stripes of different colours flashed in her black ruffled hair. Her eyebrows were thickly painted, her breasts almost popped out of her top, and as he looked at them he thought they were disproportionately large for her body and it must be rather difficult to hold them all day. He did not dare to speak because the girl was watching him with piercing eyes.
“What’s up, granddad?”, the girl asked. Her voice was pleasant, far thinner than he had expected. “Granddad,” he repeated the word to himself. He did not know whether it was offensive. Ági came to his mind – he could actually be a granddad if she was simply referring to his age and not to whether he had a grandchild.
“I’m Endre. I live on the second floor, down there,” he began answering haltingly. He even pointed down to prove he was not some idiot who should have the door slammed in his face.
“I see. OK. Who are you looking for?”
He tried to remember the man’s name but couldn’t. He felt the pressing in his groin again. He could not interpret the girl’s face except for her watching him piercingly. He was about to carry on explaining what it was about when the tall man appeared in the door.
“Kriszti, this gentleman is a neighbour from the second floor. Why don’t you let him in?”
“Alright, I didn’t know who he was. Otherwise, he’s quite sweet,” said the girl. Both were looking at him. “Sweet,” he repeated quietly but had no idea what it meant. He felt beads of perspiration forming on his back. He noticed he was still leaning against the wall. He pulled his hands away quickly and immediately lost his balance. He stepped forward to find some support again.
“Is everything OK?”, the man asked. He drew closer making a movement as if he wanted to hold him, but in the end he didn’t touch him. “You’ve done right to come up. Come in, please,” he added. Meanwhile, raising her eyebrows, the girl looked Endre up and down then turned round and disappeared inside.
“I only … ”
“No need to offer excuses, come in and have a drink. I think it’ll do you good,” said the man.
“It’ll do you good,” he repeated to himself and thought that he must look awful. He heard some rattling from behind. He turned his head and made a small step back. Down below a metal grill door squeaked and someone stepped outside. He saw it was Marika. She looked up, right at him. He heard her say something. “Endre, Endre, what are you doing?”, she asked and the words reverberated from the opposite wall. He was pondering what exactly the woman would think. Then it occurred to him that if he went in everyone in the block would probably know about it. He felt he was sweating more and more.
“Please, come in, Endre,” the man said again. He stood motionless for a little while. He squinted, then with a big step he crossed the threshold and the door closed behind him.
“I’ll come back in a sec. Make yourself at home,” he heard the man say. He wanted to ask where to find the bathroom but after a few blinks he cold not see him anywhere in the semi-darkness. The flashing lights disturbed him so he closed his eyes quickly. He saw different parts of the block in a white outline, brightly. He felt he was floating, holding his breath, in a pool full of water. He opened his eyes. He began getting used to the conditions inside. He suddenly realised it was not really that dark, only the outside light was unusually strong for him.
A huge space opened up in front of him. It did not resemble a flat but rather seemed like a storeroom, as if all the rooms were opened into one. He saw pieces of furniture and a billiard table in the part nearer to him and farther on a few figures, standing or sitting and drinking at a long counter. Snatches of conversation reached his ears. A young couple were kissing by the counter. They were groping so heavily that he quickly turned his head away. The music was deafening, though for him it was not even music, only some noise as he had thought earlier. The girl who opened the door danced alone in the middle of the space. She passed him slowly. He smelt some fine scent. There were many people at the back of the enormous space. Some set off towards the door. He recoiled, for he saw them coming at a great speed. His legs began to shake, the space shrank. Again he felt the pressure around his groin. He thought he would clash with them, but then the space increased again and they had already passed him. Meanwhile they were laughing. Perhaps they greeted him, but he could only focus on remaining upright. He was standing next to the girl. He watched her moving. He couldn’t understand how she could be so enchanted by dancing on her own. He felt the urge to piss and that he could no longer hold it back. His knees buckled. Looking, he tried to find the man, but could not see him anywhere. He panted. He had no idea what on earth he wanted in this strange flat. He saw the books and the muddy floor in front of him, his hairy chest, the creased shirts, the woman’s face as she was looking at him uncomprehendingly, the railing and the cracks in the wall, then Éva motionless on the floor.
The girl suddenly turned and without opening her eyes she put her arms round his neck. Her skin was soft. The fine scent filtered through his nostrils, passed through the ducts and began to excite his throat. He felt as if his head would burst in flames. He was sweating again and his heart beat rapidly. He stepped back. He thought there was some mistake, but the girl’s embrace was so strong as she was turning that he had to move in step with her to the beat of the music. He did not know how to hold her. For some time his arms dangled but like that he could hardly move. In the end he put his arms round her waist. He stepped on her feet a few times. He squinted. He was afraid of the girl pushing him away instantly, but then they just danced on. He suddenly pulled her closer. Her breasts touched his chest, soft, yet firm as a freshly washed duvet. He had some pressure in his bladder. They touched each other a few times. He had a slight erection. He sometimes pulled himself away and tried to move so that he would not touch her down below.
“What’s the problem?” the girl asked.
“Nothing, just … ”
“Isn’t it good?” she whispered in his ear.
“Yes, it is.”
“The thing is I need a pee,” he said quietly. He felt his head turned all red with shame and it occurred to him that perhaps he could have said something else.
“Go then,” said the girl laughing.
Endre stepped back. There was a kind of smile on his face. It was mostly the sign of an immediate collapse due to the stinging and pressing feeling. He turned round and made a few steps, but realised he hadn’t a clue which way to go in the enormous space. He saw a few doors to the side but didn’t know which one was for the toilet. He glanced back at the girl who was still looking at him. Suddenly she went up to him, held his hand and led him to one of the doors. He saw some people watching them. Their lips were moving. They may be talking about them, he thought, but couldn’t make out a word because of the distance and the loud music. He could barely remain standing.
“You can pee inside, Andor. Then come and have a drink at last to unwind a bit, won’t you?” the girl asked. “Endre,” his name came to him, but he reckoned it was not important just then.
“Fine,” he said quietly. He opened the door then closed it behind himself. The music beat dully inside as if he was in a cave. He felt for the light switch on the wall. He pulled down his trousers and sat down. He felt he could more easily relax like that and would have time to think over what to do. Beside the beat he heard the flow, while there was a shudder in his neck and down his back. Tiny beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. The strain ebbed in his groin. He thought he should make a phone call. Ági came to his mind. Her high forehead and light green eyes, which she got from her mother. He washed his face. He wiped his hands on his trousers, then pressed the door handle and stepped out into the semi-darkness. He saw the man who had let him in at the counter waving him over. He crossed the dark part of the room where he smelt various scents some sweetish, some bitter.
Three people were sitting at the counter. Apart from the man, a slim girl with red hair whose skin was as transparent as thin paper and a young guy whose head was covered with piercings and whose arms revealed tattoos creeping out from under his shirt sleeves. The man smiled at him. He pulled out a bar stool and gestured for him to sit down. Endre watched him filling a shot glass and putting a slice of lemon next to it. The girl and the guy were arguing. They did not seem to notice him being at the counter, too.
“Krisz, I have no fucking idea how you can say that!”
“Why? Because I can’t see any sense in what you’re on about?”
“No, I don’t fucking get why it bothers you that I believe in something else.”
“It doesn’t bother me, but I can’t see the point.”
“But that’s what it is all about. The whole point is that we aren’t looking for a reason, don’t you get it?”
“You seriously want me to believe that the shining what’s-it-called in the sky has any effect on us?”
“Why couldn’t it have?”
“Don’t start with this spiritual nonsense, please.”
“You’re such an idiot. I’m done talking to you,” said the girl. Then she got off the stool but then didn’t move. Endre watched her grab a slice of lemon and dip it in her glass.
“Guys, let me introduce Endre. He lives in this block,” said the man.
“Hi, Endre. Nice shirt. I’m Krisz, the moody one there is Dóra,” said the young man. He was scratching his forearm which revealed a hooded figure with white eyes. The skin around it was red.
“Shut it,” said the girl.
“What now? Do you have a problem with me greeting our guest?”
“No. The problem is that you’re an asshole.”
“Uhuh. Well, that’s how it is. What’s going on, Endre?”
The man leaned closer.
“Don’t take them seriously, this is how they always are”, he said quietly.
“So?” the young man asked again.
“Your friend invited me to come up,” Endre answered quickly, then looked at Kristóf who nodded.
“Is that it?”
“Well, actually … ”
“Endre, please go on,” insisted Krisz.
He suddenly felt that the words had to come out.
“I happened to lock myself out of my flat,” he said.
“Yes,” he answered with his head slightly bowed.
“Here you are, an honest man. Seriously, did you come primarily because Kristóf invited you or because you locked yourself out?”
Endre did not answer, with downcast eyes he stared at the counter.
“It’s OK, you can tell us. Believe me, he won’t be offended,” said the guy, then smiled at Kristóf who in the meantime was pouring drinks for the others.
“I think, mainly because I locked myself out.”
Endre did not really understand why that was the right answer, but did not have any more time to think about it because the young man had raised his glass.
“Let’s drink to Endre, who was honest and might possibly help us settle an argument,” said the young man. He saw everyone, smiling, drinks in hand, all looking at him.
“What argument?” he asked quickly while the others finished their drinks. Then Endre watched the young man sucking on the lemon as if it was a woman’s breasts in need of excitement.
“I’m happy you are so interested, Endre,” Krisz went on then softly nudged the girl who was already tapping her phone.
“Fucking hell, Krisz, why are you always on at me?”
“Are you interested in Endre’s opinion?”
“Perhaps in his, but not at all in yours,” said Dóra, while she raised her head and first smiled towards Endre then grinned at the young man’s face.
“You anyway know mine,” Krisz said to the girl and turned to Endre. “I’m happy you are here, Endre, because you don’t know any of us, do you?” Endre shook his head. “And we have this problem … according to Dorka … ”
“Don’t you call me Dorka,” the girl interrupted. Krisz only nodded his head instead of answering.
“So, Dóra thinks that this phenomenon has a serious effect on us. But I think that apart from talking about it, it has essentially none.”
“What phenomenon?” he retorted, then he remembered his daughter saying something like that on the phone.
“Endre, you know even less than nothing. Don’t you ever leave home?” Krisz asked sneering.
His chest suddenly contracted. The scattered books, the fallen plaster, the muddy floor came to his mind, as well as the stench which although he could not smell at that moment still somehow came back to him. Kristóf waved to the young man not to force the issue and tried to change the subject.
“Endre, have you ever drunk gin?”
Dóra in the meantime made a motion as if to signal to him that he had forgotten about the drink.
“Frankly, I don’t know,” he answered. He raised the glass. The strong, sharp smell of alcohol hit him. He took a big breath and gulped down the shot. It tingled in his mouth and throat, then he felt it throbbing and burning in his chest. For a few seconds he couldn’t breathe.
“Endre, the lemon. Trust me, it makes it nicer,” Krisz told him.
He bit into the slice. It stung his lips. It tasted nice. While he was sucking it he thought he wouldn’t mind having another shot but did not dare say so, only hoped there would be another round. The others talked on but he was pleasantly relaxed, the tension in his back eased and his head became somehow clearer. Ági and the phone came to his mind. He turned his head round but at that moment he felt even more that the enlarging space round him was so enormous that he would not be able to find anything.
“I ought to make a phone call,” he murmured.
“What did you say, Endre?” the young man asked while filling the glasses.
“That I ought to make a call. Is there a phone somewhere here?”
“Endre, you may not believe it but we have loads of phones. I bet everyone has one. Except for you, of course. If anything, I’d bet on that.”
“Yes. Everybody has one.”
“May I use one?”
“Sure, use mine,” he said and taking his phone out of his pocket he slid it across the counter to Endre who looked at it for a while.
“Swipe your hand over it,” Chris continued. Endre held the thin phone and with a finger poked the screen, but nothing happened.
“Swipe your finger as if you wanted to wipe it,” interrupted Krisz. He put his index finger on the mobile and moved it emphatically. The screen lit up. He saw different colourful things, but didn’t have a clue what they were.
“Do you know the number, Endre?” asked the young man. He tried to recall it. He remembered that the zero six was followed by thirty, then a nine, a seven and a three. However, no more. Maybe there was a four and another seven. He didn’t know. Kristóf reached out towards the phone. Endre saw him press a green icon. Numbers appeared on the screen then a white band and in the middle he saw something like “No signal available”.
“Something’s wrong,” said Endre.
Kristóf leaned over and took hold of the mobile.
“Odd. What? Are you in a black hole?” asked Krisz, who then merely guffawed.
“You see!” said Dóra.
“What proof is that?”
“It is proof. You can mock,” snapped the girl.
“No, it’s only your shit service provider. Sure mine has a signal. Cheers!” said Kristóf and then he gulped down the gin and bit into a thicker slice of lemon. The juice trickled down his chin. Meanwhile some people were coming down the stairs. Endre heard them deep in conversation, but because of the throbbing music couldn’t really understand any of it. He just moved his head from side to side. One of them approached Kristóf, looked at him, wiped his chin with two fingers and then licked the juice off his fingers.
“You’re drinking gin without telling us?”
“That’s right, sorry. But you were so busy upstairs … ”
“I was just kidding, no problem. I’ll have one now. Is that OK?”
“Fine”, said Kristóf and kissed the man on the mouth. Endre watched surprised, then lowered his head and stared at the surface of the counter.
“Cheer up, Endre! It’s not as if Kristóf kissed you,” said Krisz, and he and then the others started to laugh. Endre suspected that on seeing the kiss he had made a strange face. He felt blood rushing to his head and that his face was turning increasingly red. He began fiddling with his glass. He realised it was full, so he held it and tried to raise it to drink, but it slipped from his hand and the shot of gin spread on the counter like a small puddle.
“Fuck,” he suddenly said. He started to search his pockets, hoping he could wipe the drink from the counter, but by the time he looked up the girl who was dancing earlier was already clearing it up. Krisz sometimes glanced at him and he got embarrassed. He scratched the back of his head.
The others were still laughing, but he thought it was perhaps about something else. Kristóf was filling the glasses again. His heart palpitations were gradually going. He was thinking how pleasantly the lemon would sting his lips when he bit into it.
“Márk, meet Endre. He’s the only neighbour who’s come up,” said Kristóf smiling, and Endre thought he emphasised “only” .
“Hello, I’m pleased you’ve come,” said Márk, holding out his hand. Endre did the same. When their hands touched he felt his was covered with gin.
“Good evening,” he said, so softly that he knew no one could hear it. Then he thought that perhaps “Hello” would have been better.
“Krisz, would you pass me your phone?” asked the girl with the red hair.
“Do you want some proof, lovey?”
“Only to wipe that stupid grin off your face!”
“That’s nothing to do with it, but never mind.”
“We’ll see,” said Dóra and she turned to the others. “Guys, would you get your mobiles out?”
“What for?” asked Kriszta.
“Dorka’ll make them disappear, that’s why.”
“Shut it, you.”
“Sorry, she’ll make us disappear, the phones will remain for the future. After all, most of our lives can be traced with them,” continued Krisz and he laughed loudly again.
“Yeah, yours for sure.”
Everyone took out their phones. Dóra pressed them all and kept nodding because there was no signal on any.
“Are you pleased?”
“It’s not about that, Krisz.”
“What about then?”
“There are things you cannot explain. Don’t you see?”
“I understand, but you’ re still trying … ”
“Will you tell me what I’ve tried to explain?”
“That what’s happened has an effect … ”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. But I didn’t want to explain anything.”
“Fine, but listen! Now I’m going to ask something.”
“It’s you who’s been asking the questions so far.”
“Haha, very funny. Which star is this?”
“What’d you mean?”
“The star that’s shining now. What’s it called?”
“Fine. How big is this shit?”
“You’re such an oik, Krisz.”
“That’s not the point now, answer!”
“Massive. About a thousand times bigger than the Sun.”
“No, I’m just kidding.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Let’s say I’ve read about it.”
“Aha, OK. That’s pretty big. And is it part of some constellation?”
“But then it’s exploded now, hasn’t it?”
“So it’s no longer part of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean there are constellations … But I swear I don’t want to taunt you.”
“Don’t wear me out, just tell me!”
“So each consists of a certain number of stars, doesn’t it?”
“And then a star explodes, are you with me?”
“The constellation isn’t there any more,” Endre interrupted.
“Precisely, Endre! There you are!” said the young man with his eyes wide open.
“No, it’s not really,” said Dóra.
“But then what will happen?”
“What do you mean what will happen?”
“Well, with all that that ‘Mercury in Gemini’ and ‘Pluto in what ever.”
Endre partly heard them but was unable to listen. The others were also talking about something, but he didn’t understand that, either. He saw them raise their glasses while their lips moved and again sensed the flashing light which he still couldn’t work out where it came from. He raised his glass. Squinting, he let the strong drink slip down his throat. He took a quarter of a lemon from the counter and bit it. The sourish juice dripped down his chin and neck. He enjoyed it stinging his lips, as well as the tingling warmth which passed through his chest and head. He again felt he was floating. He would have liked to have a dip in a lake, and that reminded him of Éva and what they had planned. His chest was tightening more and more.
Someone touched his shoulder. He looked up. He saw the girl with black hair in front of him as she bent quite close.
“Have you fallen asleep, Endre?”
“No. Or at least I don’t think I have,” he said.
“The others are already up on the balcony. Shall we go?
He rubbed his eyes and yawned. He tried to conceal it. As he got off the bar stool, his legs trembled. He felt faint, but had no pain. The girl watched him with big eyes and he simply said let’s go.
They went upstairs, through a large room, then they had to go up three stairs to reach an enormous balcony from where you could see half of the city pulsating in white light – like soured cream, it occurred to him. But then he changed his mind, it was not so thick. He saw the people as black spots. He was surprised at so many people being together. They were standing in pairs or small groups. He watched them clinking their glasses and pointing up in the direction of the white spot, which he saw only out of the corner of his eye. He did not dare to look at it directly. His head was buzzing and he felt the alcohol working. He passed by a few people, but didn’t look at them. He wanted to reach the railing so he could hang on to it. To the right he noticed a large, square shape looking like a tub, from which thick steam was rising. Some people were sitting in it. He did not see their faces clearly between the circulating and swirling streaks of steam. The stuffy smell assailed his nose. He felt like submerging in it. He bumped into someone. “Sorry,” he said, and heard the other person say something, but he did not understand it. His legs trembled. Luckily he had reached the railing. He clutched hold of it. He saw roofs with black aerials, the edges of thick chimneys, the river flowing in a greyish blue line, a mountain with a big statue on the top, alternating red, yellow and green stripes filtered in the white radiation. He also heard hooting. A blurred mixture of words spoken by those standing around him. Laughter. He sensed some pressure at the back of his head and his shoulders, and thought his anguish was returning, but then he realised that someone had simply put a hand on his shoulder. Kristóf stood beside him with those who had been at the counter downstairs. He saw the tattooed young man, his lips moving, and the red-haired girl with a wide grin next to him. He saw the girl whose hips he had held. She was close and that calmed him. A glass appeared in his hand, he raised it, smelt it then gulped down the drink without thinking and the lemon was immediately before him. Someone was holding it. He only had to bite into it. It was juicy and it stung his mouth as if his lips and gums were compressed, as if his tongue was on fire. He heard laughter, but it no longer bothered him. Two people took his arms while he watched the movement down below, the long strips of car lights. Like on photographs, he thought. He felt some pressure on his shoulders. Someone was holding a phone high up. The others laughed and on the screen he saw Kristóf, the red-haired girl, Krisz sticking out his tongue, and himself, his tousled hair, crumpled shirt and the half smile on his face. He laughed out loud. He ran his fingers through his hair and stepped aside. He caught sight of the steaming tub and thought about taking off his shirt and trousers, and of sinking into the water. The shirt was already off. He threw it far away, leaned forward and pulled off his trousers, seeing the hairs on his stomach and forearms. His tongue was still burning as if a flame was ablaze in his mouth. The steam hit him. His body flinched when he put his left foot in the hot water. His body quivered, his groin became numb, his back was cold but by the time it would have bothered him he had already bent his legs and slid into the water between the streaks streaming upwards. A thin haze covered his glasses. He closed his eyes and smiled. All his body crackled as if thousands of ants had invaded it. The white light filtered through his eyelids. Éva’s face, then his daughter’s flashed before him. Everything was only a single point. Then not even that.
He woke lying on his front. His eyes were full of tears with the remnants of a dream. His left arm was stiff. He could hardly move it and the light radiating from beyond the window began to disturb his eyes. He had a stomach ache and a pain in the nape of his neck. His tongue and face were burning. He would have given anything for a glass of water, but the tap was far away. He felt that some force was pulling him down, as if the damp floor wanted to devour him.
translated by Katalin Rácz