When I was a little girl I used to think that the place was called Underhill because it was in the valley next to Toboggan Hill. Under the chestnut trees the ground was steep, slippery and covered with chestnuts in the autumn, when you could gather them by the bagful. Incidentally I don’t know anybody who ever tobogganed on Toboggan Hill, as the snow quickly wore away and the ground showed through: instead we just drank hot tea at the wooden kiosk under the trees and went walking. Our parents always warned us to watch out for ‘the mental patients’. The patients often used to stand waving at us from the other side of Underhill’s chain-link fence, over which we would pass them plastic cups of tea. They were pleased, but they didn’t drink it straight away: they just held it and looked at it for a while. We took a few pretzels, too. Most of them didn’t seem to me to be really retarded – though I was no position to judge – these smooth-faced men and women simply had slightly confused looks in their eyes. They stood around silently in the late autumn and winter cold, their socks peeping out from their sandals. It’s funny, but since then I’ve always associated intellectual disability with those childlike, smooth faces, and those hands with short-clipped nails. Our parents had proper, veiny, adult hands, but these elderly children were ageless and waxen-skinned – as if they lived outside time.
Only as an adult did I find out that the institution’s name was really ‘The Dr. Augustine Underhill Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Occupational Therapy Centre’. This was where I would travel to at the end of last June – back to my home-town.
I only mention Underhill now to explain how strongly it was connected to my childhood. That’s why I agreed to go on this particular business trip. I never go back home otherwise: I don’t get on well with my mother, and nowadays I hardly know anyone in the town. Now I was going to present a drug called Cymbalta to the doctors there, and when it turned out that I could go down for a whole week, I accepted the project immediately. I had to go to the two neighbouring towns as well, but the main attraction for me was that I could rent a room and walk in those streets just like I did twenty-five or thirty years earlier. Nobody else put their name forward anyway – who would want to be in the hills in that heat?
I never came this way with Gábor. Once on a car trip to Slovakia we almost made a detour here, but in the end we didn’t have time. He met my mother once, but only in Pest – I didn’t want to take him to that gloomy, nicotine-polluted place of hers. On that Besztercebánya trip he still loved me – at least I think so.
When he moved out before Christmas, I brooded a lot. I hadn’t noticed anything; it seemed as if suddenly without any warning he had had enough. ‘Had enough of what?’ I asked. He said that for years we hadn’t spoken, and it felt as if I didn’t even take any notice of him. It was as if I got up and went to bed next to him, but didn’t speak to him. I did, of course – but just about my job. Perhaps he was right: I really didn’t think that we had to talk about things that were obvious, about what we meant to each other. That was more than six months ago.
When I heard on the radio that there would be a national folk-dance convention in the town, Cymbalta suddenly became a sort of mission. It seemed that this was not just a coincidence, but a chance to deal with some unfinished business.
My first love was a folk dancer. It’s a bit much to say that he was my love, but I still think of him like that, although we never even said a word to each other. He lived near Underhill in an old one-storey house, and we were on the other side in the new concrete housing estate. He came over to our school, and was three years above me; we were sweethearts.
For years we stared at each other, and frequently I couldn’t even sleep after one of our meetings. If my parents sent me to the supermarket my heart pounded at the thought of bumping into him. Sometimes we really did meet, but we just stood there looking at each other, as if there was a sort of glass wall between us. I didn’t say a word, and neither did he: he just stood there with his bread rolls and looked at me. He wasn’t particularly good-looking or tall – in fact he was a bit shorter than his classmates. He had close-cropped dark hair, which I would have liked to stroke just once if I could have. Whenever there was a folk dance performance at school he always took part, and I sat in the audience watching him. He knew that I was watching – I don’t think he was aware of anything else – but our eyes rarely met. Later the others gave up dancing, but he didn’t. My mother liked collecting copies of the local paper for me, and in them I read that he performed at all sorts of festivals – abroad as well.
Our strange dumb-show went on for years, right up until I went to boarding school in another town. During my later school years I only went home every other week, and in the meantime he had got himself a proper girlfriend. She was a long-haired girl – I saw them when I went by the cake-shop on my bike. Someone said that she was called Andi.
Even then we loved each other – that hadn’t changed. I seem to remember that for a while I was angry with him – and later furious – because he never once came over to me. I couldn’t understand why he was so cowardly. Of course I knew all the time that I’d never given him any encouragement either – I’d just stared non-stop. That was our game: silent staring and leave-taking.
Then I went to university, and later abroad. No, I wouldn’t say that I loved him all the while, but to this day my heart pounds if, say, I see a man with hair like he had. There are a lot of slightly stocky men like him around, and I’ve often thought I’ve seen the back of his neck. Looking at strangers I’ve suddenly got the feeling that he’s there – we’ll meet – and my heart has started racing. And then I’ve thought that I still won’t know what to say to him. Once in Vienna he was standing on a bus, then he turned around and was someone else. In London he was lying in the airport with his head on a folded jacket, and I wanted to stroke his shoulder. Then he turned around and became another person. In my mind I knew that if I was suddenly able to go back in time, I wouldn’t find him where I’d left him in my memories. He must have changed – perhaps he was married with children or whatever. A couple of times the thought occurred to me that maybe he’d died. Then I thought that it wasn’t possible: I would have felt the moment when he disappeared from this world, the point after which I could never see him again.
I didn’t talk to Gábor about this. ‘Not about that,’ he would say straight away. But what could I have said about an immature teenage love, except that there was once somebody who was important to me, but I never spoke to him, and that he danced beautifully – especially the legényes. I don’t think Gábor had a clue what the legényes is: ‘Some sort of dance?’
So I heard on the radio that there’d be a national folk-dance festival. I felt as if I’d just seen the back of his neck again somewhere. I knew that I must go.
I had to speak to him, about anything; I had to hear his voice, so that I could find my own. There used to be an exercise in school, in which we had to tell a story in our own words. That thought had stayed with me: one’s own words. Now I’m not sure by the way, that I have my own story – maybe I’m just a product of things that have happened to me.
I thought that if he was still in the country he would surely go to the festival. And then we would meet. In my mind I rehearsed a whole series of possible meetings, but usually they involved him coming along the road by Underhill – and then always on his bike. I know this was silly – he must have had a car – but for some reason I imagined it this way.
He would ask me why I was there. But we weren’t going to stand there silently like idiots – no, I would be casual and witty. I’d say something like ‘I’m doing a presentation on the neuropharmacologic effects of purinergic modulation of dopaminergic transmission in the brain,’ and then we’d laugh. Then he’d say something funny, and we’d just sit down and talk. About all sorts of things – casually, like grown-ups. I don’t know why, but I always thought of the back of his neck, as if he was forever walking away from me.
On Monday I gave my presentation and then rushed to the Centre. The Underhill of old had gone to seed: the wide slope was worn and litter-strewn, and the park was neglected. The wooden kiosk on Toboggan Hill had disappeared. Lawn sprinklers were watering the yellowed grass, and one wing of the building was covered in scaffolding. They had spruced up the square nicely since the old days, though – when I was at day-school we always used to come here to play ping-pong – and the dusty library was still here, with its snake plants in pots of musty soil. Visitors must have come from the surrounding towns – there was a swarm of coaches in the forecourt, their wing mirrors bristling like huge antennae.
I had a ticket for a seat at the front – I wanted a good view. All the way through I had the feeling that he was there, somewhere in the hall. I had that strange, unsettling, visceral feeling that can’t be put it into words: the feeling that someone important is nearby. And yet this was someone practically unknown to me. Isn’t that silly?
I watched the dancers, and walked in a corridor full of children running up and down. Someone carried a heap of skirts past and I pressed up against the wall. A little girl in white tights was crying, while her mother tried to comfort her. It was stiflingly hot in the foyer, and in the hall the heat was simply unbearable, so I felt sorry for the little one in her tights. An elderly lady came from the direction of the dressing rooms with a bunch of tresses in her hand. I watched her as she passed, and it looked as if she was carrying scalps. Then someone said that audience members had to wait at the other door, so I went back towards the entrance. From the hall came a smell which I remembered from my schooldays: dusty velvet upholstery and warm children. I drifted among parents with video cameras, watched the teachers and scanned the audience. I looked into one face after another. When the performance was over I edged out slowly, hoping to see him somewhere in the crowd. He wasn’t there.
That night mother made me dinner. She told me that some of her friends had seen the opening night on local TV and had phoned her: the cameras had shown the audience, with me at the front. Mother said that everyone told her I hadn’t changed a bit, and that I was just like my older brother. She was proud of course and said a lot of silly things, boasting to everyone about how I worked for a big company now and had been to university abroad. She felt jilted by my booking into a motel, and started off again on how of course her flat wasn’t good enough for me, and how I was ashamed of her: what would people say if they found out I wasn’t staying there? I knew this record well enough, and didn’t reply. There wouldn’t have been any point – my mother wasn’t interested in listening to me. ‘Why don’t you ever open the window?’ I said to her at eleven o’clock as I stood up to go. I thanked her for dinner, she opened the window, and stared at me distantly – as if she too were watching the TV.
The next day I went to the evening performance again, and then again to the third. Luckily these shows were on the outdoor stage, with the whole of the little square under lights. When it came to the legényes my heart was pounding, and I thought of the old school shows when I noticed that he was looking for me from the stage. Once he found me and I looked away in fright. But now that pair of eyes was nowhere to be seen.
That night I phoned my mother. Apparently I’d been on the local TV again, and my brother’s wife said that they showed me several times. Now, whatever happened, I wanted to find what I was looking for. The thought hammered inside me that I mustn’t leave without seeing him at least once. He had to be here. The TV pictures of my memories had no sound, and now I wanted turn on the volume. I wanted to step through the glass wall and make everything different from then on. I could have asked my mother, but I wasn’t able to. In any case she probably wouldn’t have remembered him, as she only paid attention to my classmates – and then only mentioned those who had had children.
On Friday I watched the afternoon and evening performances right through to the end, then went back to my motel in a giddy sweat. A streetlight shone outside my window all night long. I don’t know if it was the light, the heat or the determination burning inside me, but I hardly slept a wink over those six days.
Saturday was the final day. Buses stood in the square, people carried costumes, and my mother watched it on TV again in the evening, when they showed the afternoon’s closing performance. She was in an excited state, entertaining me with stories of relatives whose names I’d never heard before, and all the time asked my opinion about everything. I couldn’t follow her train of thought and didn’t even want to – I said that I was tired. I visited her for the last time for lunch on Sunday. She had made me some sandwiches, which I dutifully packed in my bag. ‘I’ll soon be forty, for heaven’s sake,’ I said in the car – more to the mirror than directly to her.
I got back to Budapest feeling dead tired and eager to collapse into bed. I threw the sandwiches away and saw my mother as she waved clumsily after the car. Then I saw the long chain-link fence of Underhill and the scruffy bushes and discarded paper handkerchiefs. Again I couldn’t get to sleep. At midnight I took a sleeping pill, but it didn’t help.
At three o’clock I woke up with a start, my heart racing. An idea had come to me – one that should have come to me before, since it was so close at hand.
I didn’t use social networking sites much, because they annoyed me. It wasn’t only that people from my old workplace used to continually post messages to me, but so did everybody I met at presentations too. Most of them I didn’t know by sight, let alone by name. I always deleted their messages and never answered: I didn’t have anything to say to anybody.
But that night an idea came to me. I could search for him.
The thought that he was there somewhere in virtual reality and that I could just click to find him sent me into a panic again.
What would I say if I found him? Would I write anything, or just reassure myself that he was still alive, as if I had cleaned the window between us with a blast of air?
I went to the opening page and clicked on search. His was a fairly rare name: Hübner. I looked it up once a long time ago – it’s got something to do with peasants on horseback. Nothing to do with hubris, though that would be nice too. But this name suited him, what with his folk-dancing knee-boots and white shirt. I could easily imagine him in the saddle.
Hübner on a white horse.
I wrote his Christian name too and the town, then waited. One result. I clicked on it.
The picture downloaded slowly, and his hair was the first thing I saw. That short hair, now grey, that I had never touched. Then his eyes. The look in his eyes – nothing had changed there. I gazed for a long time at his face – now slightly fatter, and lined. Suddenly I realised that I didn’t know what I would do if he was standing there in front of me: he was so different, yet so similar to the person I remembered him to be. I felt the room pound with my pulse, as if the walls themselves were those of my heart.
He had two hundred and twenty-three friends and three children. And one dog. He still lived in the same place. What had become of him? I read on.
He was the local TV cameraman.
This was unreal. He had been there on the other side of the camera. He had stood there all the way through and filmed my face. He had filmed me in the audience, watched, then let me go home without a word. For me to leave the sentences meant for him there in that town.
And even now, when he was there for the last time for me, I couldn’t find those sentences. He looked into my eyes through the glass of the monitor, and I had nothing to say to him.