Illuminato [excerpt] – Maté Jarai
November 15, 2020
– Part One –
“Imagine people living
in a cavernous cell down
under the ground; at the far end
of the cave, a long way off, there’s an
entrance open to the
1 Plato, The Republic, IX: The Supremacy of Good (translated by Robin Waterfield), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) p. 240
On a flight to Budapest, Flo sits by the window with his eyes closed. He’s slept through most of the journey, exhausted from the last few days. He lets his thoughts loose, allowing his subconscious to take charge, something he is able to do effortlessly. On this occasion, he sees himself as a blind man in a dark cave, not for the first time. The transition from one place to another, airplane cabin to cave, is clean, and he thinks ‘teleport’, but erases the word from his mind, because the thought is ‘active’ not ‘passive.’ Inertly he steps through the dark, walls and ceiling too far away to guide him, cold rock beneath his bare feet. He begins spinning in circles with arms out at his sides, finally opening his eyes only because dizziness mutates into something feverous, a falling feeling takes over, falling backwards, and he can feel a sharp stab at the back of his head, momentarily, a coolness. When he opens his eyes a few moments later, he smiles at his reflection in the small, circular window. Only the green of his eyes is visible. The rest of his face has been erased by the external sunlight. Outside, there are only clouds below. The clouds could just as easily be sandy plains or snowy flats. It’s all about perception, he thinks, his own, continuously evolving, so he flexes his fingers, feeling detached from the person staring back at him, the face in the glass shifting left and right for a while until his dizziness fades.
He turns his attention to the sketchpad on his lap. Using a black ink pen he draws a cave entrance in a sheer, stone wall. He shades the shadows, pressing the pen deep into the paper, scratching at it. The sound of the pen becomes clearly audible even over the hums, rattles and whooshing sounds of the airplane. The pen breaks through the page. It’s a shit sketch pad. He says, “Fuck,” unaware he’s said it out loud until he senses the man in the seat to his right looking at him. He glances at the man, a bald man with glasses in his early thirties, who has a surprised and slightly offended expression. His features all seem to have expanded, wide eyes, flared nostrils. The man has been working on a Macbook but has stopped typing. It looks like an email, in English, to someone called ‘Laci’. Flo raises a hand and says, “Sorry.” The man doesn’t say anything, returning his attention to the email.
Flo turns the page in his pad. This is a prelude to shifting his mind’s active focus towards the immediate future. He begins sketching a horse, recalling vague childhood images of a rusty horseshoe hung over a nail, embedded in a red brick wall, and a painting somewhere in his childhood home, a watercolour of stallions galloping, merging into one another, like reflections and impressions of the same animal. Realising he’s re-entered the past he pauses, glancing at his reflection in the window again, still detached from those other eyes, and he grins, hoping his reflection won’t grin back.
The landing is bumpy. Once the plane is on the ground every single passenger begins to play with their phones immediately. Social media checks, the needed fix after a precious two hours off the grid. He remembers when he used to do the same, feeling both shame and relief, thinks, ‘thank fuck.’ At passport control, the woman in the booth stares at his British passport with a Hungarian name for a long time, eventually shrugging and letting him through with a nod that’s somewhere between ‘welcome’ and ‘watch yourself’. In the taxi from the airport, the evening darkening, he rolls down the window and breathes in the air, sensing something unnameable but significant, historical, his own history, maybe. He takes his sketchpad out of his satchel and stares at his drawing of a horse. He thinks about how he never really asked his parents about their family history. Too young to care much about ‘real things’, he could never have known that soon they’d be dead. He closes his eyes and takes several deep breaths. His focus is that ‘significant feeling’ in the air. The sense of smell is the most evocative of memory. He read this somewhere once, or heard it, so he breathes through his nose. The air seems loaded with something like nostalgia, but more ambivalent, possibly an uncertainty relating to his present self and what it means to be here in the city of his birth. The road from the airport is long and dusty. There are billboards and outlet stores. Last time he was here was for his parents’ funeral. He sat in the back of a taxi not dissimilar to this one, a small boy with tears in his eyes, rolling towards the cemetery. The memory arrives with weight, pinning him into his seat and causing his insides to ache, so he pushes it quickly away. Too much all at once, an unfathomable amount of distance, it seems, so he counts backwards, fifteen years since their death.
He drifts back from the past, recognising where he is. This surprises him. He thinks ‘dreamlike’ and sits up, feeling himself physically transforming into his boyhood self, no longer able to control the inevitable, the power of mind and memory too much. He glances suspiciously around, wondering if he is now part of a greater game, some grand illusion or trickery, before asking the driver to stop. At the airport he’d requested to be taken to the Chain Bridge because he’d wanted to see the stone lions that guard it, but he can see them later. This is important. He remembers Fred’s words, ‘Just roll with it.’ So he pays the driver and climbs out of the cab because he is on Mester Street where his grandmother, Gréti, had lived.
He walks along the pavement hoping he’ll recognise her building, a place where he spent at least three summers as a boy. It’s fully dark, the air steamy and sticky. Yellow trams squeak along tracks in the centre of the road beside the occasional passing car. The buildings either side of him are grey, communist-built apartment blocks, ranging more or less between eight and twelve storeys high. Further along Mester street the buildings are older and more decorative. He’s getting closer, recognising a large school building, slowing down, stopping and turning to face the adjacent bakery which is instantly familiar. Gréti used to send him down to buy kiflis in the mornings on occasion, crescent shaped bread rolls. The bakery looks exactly the same as it had; cakes in the window beneath a faded brown sign, fresh coffee behind the counter in large sacks. He’d been terrified the first few times he was sent down alone, standing outside while trying to find the determination and courage to complete his task, a hesitance not dissimilar to what he faces now. He’s fairly certain the next building along is Gréti’s. The glass doors are cracked and the paint around the edges is peeling but he thinks he recognises the letter boxes and the red linoleum flooring, which had been lava to him, once upon a time, lava he’d avoided by sticking to the edges of the entrance hall. He moves cautiously towards the buzzers and list of residents. His grandmother’s name, ‘Egei Gréti’, is there among the others.
As he pushes the button he feels nervous. When her voice finally comes crackling through the ancient intercom, “Hallo? Ki az?” he thinks he is shrinking again and hears a child’s footsteps behind him. He turns around but is alone. It’s undeniably her voice. He isn’t aware he remembers it until he hears it. Maybe he was secretly hoping not to find her, since he’d not thought about what he’d say or do if he did. The loud rumble of a bus rolls past followed by a tram going the other way. He forces a smile, attempting to feel nostalgic in a good way, and imagines himself saying, ‘It’s me,’ but the words seem preposterous.
She speaks through the intercom again, “Hallo? Hallo?”
An ache fills him. He thinks ‘guilt’ because they never visited her. When he grew older he could have come alone and still didn’t. The urge to travel backwards is overwhelming. He finds himself reaching for the buzzer again, thinking his past is a certainty while his future barely makes any sense at all. He lowers his hand, listens as the intercom clicks off, slowly becoming aware of coloured lights flashing in his vicinity. The building across the street is a strip club. He can’t remember it being there and thinks about his grandmother staring at flashing neon-breasts each time she goes to the market. This would usually have made him angry but he feels nothing. He accepts it, doesn’t fight it, thinks, ‘Maybe I have no fight left,’ before walking away with his hands in his pockets.
On the banks of the Danube, a point at which he arrives by total accident, after an amount of time that is unknown to him, he stares down at the dark water, all lit up by the golden lights draped in rows over the bridges. He can see the Parliament building in the distance to his right, its gaudy domes and intricate towers. The castle is opposite him on the other side of the river. He remembers fireworks from a distant night much colder than this one, roasted chestnuts, his mother’s gloved hand holding his, and he stands there like a statue, looking for his own reflection on the water, but it’s too dark. He is invisible amidst the electric city glow.
He smokes a cigarette while sitting on a bench a little further along the river, examining a copy he made of Fred’s ‘recipe’. He contemplates the many things that could become his next action. There are countless possibilities, like a leap into the river, maybe a cannonball, or an elegant dive. He could run, run until he can’t run anymore, or simply do nothing, remaining there on that bench for eternity. But among all the possible courses of action, he knows that really there are only two. Following Fred is one of them but now, suddenly faced with having to do so, he is tentative. He thinks ‘fear’ but doesn’t want to associate that word with himself. He forces a determined expression, lowering his brows, before letting his thoughts loose again, attempting to drift, hollow as he needs to be, the only way he might be able to go down that particular path.
He walks along the river bank. He passes several boats for hire. There are groups of people wearing dresses and suits moving on and off them. Lots of people are taking pictures of themselves and of the scenery. Instagram and Facebook for sure. Maybe Tweeting, even here, naturally, he thinks. He crosses the street and moves into a pedestrianised part of the city, somewhere in Pest. He wanders into smaller alleyways. He passes bars and clubs. He stops outside a strip club called LUSTRE that’s next to a sex-shop also called LUSTRE, cheaply lit with blue and red. This could be the kind of place where he might find the things on Fred’s list, the ingredients he needs to complete that other quest, or at least someone who could point him in the right direction. He steels himself to enter but remains motionless. He can’t find the motivation to go all the way, feeling done with those sorts of places, hating them even more than he always has. But it’s not fear, he convinces himself. Disdain, revulsion, absolutely, but not fear.
He walks back to the river’s edge where the smell of tarragon alerts him to a restaurant facing the water. A waiter is standing outside beneath a cluster of large umbrellas, with a crisp towel over his arm and a silver tray in the other hand. The ten-or-so tables outside are full of happy looking patrons. The chalk-board lists the day’s specials, among them there is veal and tarragon soup. One particular family catches his eyes, parents and two kids with balloons tied to their chairs. The kids look excited to be up so late, maybe, he thinks, re-awakening the sense that he’s regressed continuously since the moment he stepped off the plane and is now five years old, also excited to be up so late. He makes eye contact with the small boy at the table playing on an ipad and smiles, but the boy looks away. The father of the family is talking and joking around, gesturing animatedly, making strange faces. Throughout his act he glances repeatedly at Flo, warily, as if he were some kind of hobo about to ruin their meal. A pigeon lands on the canopy of the restaurant and the waiter quickly moves towards it with a broom, poking at it until it flies away. The waiter then looks at Flo and wags a finger, pointing to a laminated sign that says ‘No Begging’ beside the specials board.
Turning away from the Danube, Flo heads back up into the centre of Pest, far away from the water, those reflections and ‘other sides’, which he can almost hear humming ominously somewhere behind him, sounds and sensations he consciously ignores while walking back towards his grandmother’s home.
The moment he pushes the buzzer again he feels intensely nervous. He glances up at the building, unable to remember which windows belong to his grandmother, which means he isn’t sure if her lights are on or not. He buzzes a second time and the voice comes through the intercom moments later, “Hallo? Hallo?”
“Szia Gréti, Florián vagyok,” he says, hearing the hum of his heartbeat, a new phenomenon, finally drowning out those other humming sounds that have continued to tail him from the riverside.
There are a few seconds of silence before in rapid Hungarian Gréti asks, “Who? What did you say?”
“Flo,” he says, “Your grandson.”
The buzzer rings out and he enters the building. He heads up in the ancient lift, feeling as though it might fall at any moment, hopes it will, pictures the event like a film in his head, soundless, black and white high-contrast, his own emotionless face looking upwards before disappearing into shadow. At least he wouldn’t have to explain himself.
When he reaches the fourth floor and steps out of the lift his grandmother is waiting on the landing. She looks a third of the size he remembers, almost like a miniature version of herself that’s been left out in the sun too long, sinking and arching gently towards the ground, only present as a reminder to him of what life is. He remains expressionless. She stares at him and studies his face. Her mouth is pulled wide like an old frog’s and her entire form seems to decrease further in size the longer they stand there. He smiles because he feels awkward and then she starts smiling. Tears appear in her huge owl eyes. She shuffles forwards, pulling his head down to hers with both palms, hugging him with an arm around his neck while kissing his face.
“This is unbelievable. Totally unbelievable!” she says in Hungarian, speaking loudly and musically.
He hugs her tightly, first with one arm, then wraps both arms all the way around her. For a moment he feels truly happy, burying his face in her cardigan and sobbing, shaking, and then almost laughing at himself in surprise with regards to the emotions overwhelming him, emotions he cannot control, a magnitude of feeling he thought he was incapable of.
“How can you be here? Did something happen? Am I dreaming? Is this really my Florián?” Gréti asks, grabbing hold of his wrist and leading him into the apartment before he has a chance to consider an answer.
The apartment is just as he remembers it. Like her voice, he doesn’t know he remembers it until he’s seeing it again, the shelves of books along every wall, stacked all the way up to the high ceilings, the classical music playing on the radio. He can smell cooking even though it’s after midnight. He looks around suspiciously and thinks about time travel.
She seats him in one of the old arm-chairs and dabs his face with a tea towel, explaining that she’s making pörkölt for the boys upstairs because she can’t sleep. She says she always cooks when she can’t sleep which is often. “It will be ready soon, and I’d rather you eat it anyway,” she says, passing him a glass of water.
“What happened to you?” She asks, solemn all of a sudden, her eyes narrowed and a little tearful again. She looks even older in the warmly lit room. Her wrinkles appear deeper and the shadows around them seem to cling to all the crevices of her face, as if magnetically pulled there.
“I’m fine,” he says, calmly smiling and closing his eyes to indicate that he is relaxed. “I’m just happy to be here.”
She nods slowly and seems to force a smile, then goes out into the kitchen to stir the food, before re-entering the room and starting to clear away the books and papers crowding the coffee table. She speaks without drawing breath as she’s always done, he remembers now. She talks about her work, a set of renaissance art books she needs to finish translating from Italian. He listens while looking at the photos around the room. There are several of his mother at varying ages, one of Grandpa Sanyi and some other black and white photos of people he doesn’t recognise. There are some of him and his two older brothers, including one from the Alps, skiing one year, in which he was around five, a photo he recognises because his parents had hung that same photo over their mantelpiece in England. There’s another photo from Christmas one year when the whole family had come together, here in Budapest. Both sets of grandparents had been present, his father’s brother, even some second cousins. Flo remembers his mother telling him that was all Gréti had ever wanted, to have a big family so that she could host big familial occasions. That Christmas was the only time it ever happened. They ate venison and Grandpa Sanyi found a bullet in his meat. It both scared and excited Flo. His father, János, got a job in England a few months later. Flo doesn’t remember the move at all, just being here in Budapest, and then suddenly being there. Grandpa Sanyi died shortly after they emigrated. The rest of the family were Hals, not Egeis. Gréti was all alone, is all alone. Tears fill Flo’s eyes again. Other than he and his brothers, the only family she has is her son the taxi driver, but who knows where he is. Flo vaguely recalls a tall, funny guy who smelled of cologne and cigarettes, that was his uncle. There are a couple of photos of him too, one of him with Flo’s mother when they must have been in their early twenties, and another of him alone, a portrait, but this photo is also very old. His name is Béla, Flo remembers.
A gold clock on ivory coloured pedestals sits in between two of the book shelves on a low cabinet, safely inside a glass case. Flo remembers the clock very well – its haunting chime every quarter hour – but the pendulum is motionless. The clock seems small now, only a metre tall. When he was a boy it loomed in Gréti’s living room, sometimes waking him in the night with its low song. There was something magical about it which had always fascinated him.
He flicks through the set of Italian art books on the table beside an old typewriter and piles of translated pages. Gréti explains she’s glad to still be working because it keeps her mind sharp while many of her friends have become braindead. When she’s finished clearing up she goes into the kitchen and brings out a plate of cheese straws. She apologises for making them too dry. Flo eats one and laughs because it tastes great, remembering how she’d always done this, never happy with anything she made. He stops laughing because suddenly he realises it’s kind of sad, but hopes she does this out of modesty and that occasionally, deep down, she does feel the satisfaction of success. Not a lot of that feeling in his own life either. Maybe ‘The Wooden Gargoyle,’ a short story he wrote and used as an exercise with some of the kids at school, was the last time he felt like he succeeded at something, because the kids loved his story, especially Samuel. He’d decided to put the story on his blog but no one else had ever read it. Google Analytics informed him of this. His only other reader, of a paper copy he’d printed, was Angie. She claimed to really enjoy it, but, he seemed to recall, with little conviction in her voice. He sighs, wishing he hadn’t thought of Samuel or Angie, that other life.
There are some loud crashes from the apartment above them. Chugging heavy metal starts blaring down. Gréti explains it’s just the boys upstairs, that they’re very nice but a bit loud. She says it isn’t a problem. She never sleeps much anyway and simply turns her radio up to drown them out, something she does right then while explaining it is often her course of action. The theme from The Gladiator soundtrack plays. Flo eats some more of the cheese straws. Gréti is only in the other room talking breathlessly about her translation work, something about Da Vinci, but her voice seems to come from somewhere further away, drifting from beyond known dimensions through ways that can’t be seen or explained. He’s hearing her voice from the kitchen, but also inside his head, in memory, simultaneously. It’s quadraphonic, something he’s never experienced, except for maybe while in that ‘other place’ with Fred, but he doesn’t want to think about Fred either, and assures himself this is different, relating to ‘time’ while with Fred the catalyst for abnormally layered and resonant audio had been ‘space’. He thinks about how twenty years, the last time he was here in her apartment, is worlds away.
Finally Gréti sits down and sighs, with nothing left to clear up and tidy. “Well, that’s enough about me. It’s time for me to ask about you,” she says, staring right at him, lips flat. “I didn’t want to push you before, because I could see you needed to rest for a while and gather yourself.”
“There’s not much to say,” Flo says.
She laughs. “I haven’t seen you in fifteen years, and you arrive in the early hours of the morning looking terrible. I’m sorry but I have to say it. When’s the last time you ate something?”
“I’m fine. I’ve just had a rough few nights,” he says.
“Your skin is greyer and paler than mine. Are you in trouble? Is it drugs? Don’t tell me it’s drugs. We need to get you vitamins. I have a wonderful doctor who you could see. She’s kind, intelligent, she’ll figure out what is wrong.”
Flo laughs quietly at the slew of questions that finally come rushing out of her. He imagines the mental strength that must have been required for her not to pry up until that moment. Smiling deliberately, holding her stare, he says, “I’m fine, really. Just a few rough nights.”
She gazes at him while perched in the armchair opposite, lowering her chin and moving her head up and down slowly, as if the movement might cause his mouth to continue speaking.
“I’ve been in Amsterdam, with a friend,” he tells her reluctantly, feeling it’s necessary. “Haven’t been home in a while. Just enjoying some free nights, that’s all.”
She looks at him sternly, waiting for more. He rests his palms on his knees and shrugs, indicating that there isn’t much else.
“Ok, I understand that,” she says. “And as happy as I am that you’re here, it’s all very sudden and strange, if I may say. You could have called me or let me know in some way.”
“It wasn’t exactly planned. It’s a long story.”
“Alright, I understand. We can talk about it tomorrow. You’re tired.”
“I’m not tired,” he says, in a monotone, shifting in his seat, staring at his hands. “Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a few days. If I could stay a few days?”
She smiles, grabs hold of one his hands and starts to massage it gently. “Of course you can. As long as you want.”
“I just had to come here,” he says. “A feeling I had, maybe more than that, I don’t know.”
She smiles placidly and nods. “I’m not sure why you needed to come here but I’m glad you did. I still can’t believe it’s you. I knew those eyes when I saw them, and that smile hasn’t changed a bit. But you’re so tall and thin, like a basketball player! And your nose got so big.”
He grins and glances at her. “You look exactly the same.”
“Of course I don’t. My skin is terrible and I shuffle around like a hoover. But it’s sweet of you to say,” she says. “Your hair is much darker than it was. You were so blonde as a boy.”
He nods as she continues to study him.
“It’s very long, your hair, and I don’t like the beard,” she says. “It makes you look old.”
“I am old,” he says.
“Don’t say such stupid things. I’m old. That clock is old. You are not.”
He nods towards the ornate clock and asks if it’s broken.
She smiles. “Yes, it’s a shame. Imagine, it belonged to my great, great grandfather and sat in the dining hall at the Inn my family owned before the First World War. They were very wealthy back then,” she says, gazing around her humble little apartment. “It’s probably worth quite a lot now, more than one hundred years old.”
“Don’t ever sell it,” he says.
“Do you remember it?”
“Of course I do,” he says.
He eats pörkölt with nokedli, paprika stew with tiny dumplings, shovelling it down, amazed she could remember his favourite dish when he’d almost forgotten. Gréti makes it well but he remembers his father’s was even better, spicier and thicker. He used to help János Hal peel the onions when he was two years old. He recalls seeing it on videotape. He sips a beer, realising he hasn’t eaten in almost two days. Gréti watches him, evidently enjoying his hunger, telling him he’s eating like a bear and laughing. She asks him about his life and he tells her some things; that he’d gone to university, hadn’t seen his brothers in several years, how they’d pushed him aside and left him alone when they’d fallen out. His brothers haven’t been to visit her either, he learns. Just the odd phone call every few years and promises of visits never realised. In spite of this Gréti is still shocked to hear that he hasn’t seen them either. She won’t let it go. “Such a great shame,” she keeps saying. “The three of you should have stuck together. Especially after what happened.”
He shrugs. “They were always close. I was so much younger.”
“I told your mother not to go. Brazil is a dangerous place,” she says, becoming tearful again.
“They both spent their entire lives flying from city to city, for business or whatever, and nothing happened. They leave to see the world and bam, down goes that little plane and they die. What does that tell you?”
She shakes her head. “Unfortunately this is how it goes. Sometimes monstrous things happen. There is no reasoning.”
He nods out of politeness.
She asks whether he has a girlfriend or wife and he tells her he doesn’t want to talk about it. He visualises Angie holding his acoustic guitar. It’s a memory from an afternoon when he’d taught her a few chords in their living room. She’s laughing, smells like vanilla and the rain because they’d been caught in it, though he can’t remember where they’d been, or why, just this moment with the guitar. He can hear her laughter as she struggles to place her fingers correctly on the fretboard. He will always be able to hear her laughter. When he finishes eating Gréti takes the rest of the pörkölt upstairs to her neighbours and he falls asleep around that time because he doesn’t hear her come back.