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Authors: Diane Awerbuck

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Cabin Fever (17 page)

BOOK: Cabin Fever
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She gathered herself and stepped down from the train onto Keleti Station. The platform pitched beneath her, unsteady, volcanic. Sophie was dazed by the number of people waiting for the train and the cargo it disgorged. Her neighbours pressed in, elbow to elbow. They smelled like untanned animal hides, though their clothes looked clean. When you got up close you understood how deep the dirt went.

It was the shouting Sophie couldn’t get used to, though back home she’d often trawled Victoria Road on a Saturday morning. It was a level shriek that mimicked the brakes of the train. She had thought it would end when the engine eased into Budapest, but when the doors clanged open it was still there, electrifying, persistent.

Where she stood undecided on the platform, a sweating man in a red bandanna had taken to screaming steadily. He threw his arms around, trying to sell travellers his services. Dried spit was crusted at the corners of his mouth; his throat was ruined; Sophie couldn’t make out what it was that he wanted to tell her.

She smoothed her hair down and stepped carefully around him, heading for the universal place of safety, the coffee concession. When she offered her precious euros – astoundingly, worth more than ten rand apiece – the girl laughed and said that she had to have forints.

‘Forints?’

The girl shook her head and pointed to another sallow girl in another glassed cubicle, breathing her own outbreaths, ensconced from the screaming and the endlessly moving mass outside. Sophie, sudden and sharp, missed rands, the familiar green and brown paper with their animal watermarks: zoo money. Her mother had pressed the notes into Sophie’s hands, her gift reduced to nothing in euros at the Bureau de Change. She had felt the two familiar stumps, measured their height against the other digits, thought, This is the last time I will be touched by someone who loves me this much.

As Sophie leaned closer to the new girl and tried to understand how to find forints, the stubbly man’s voice rose hysterically behind her.

‘She will
CHEAT
you there! There are
CHEATS
at that window!’

He screamed and screamed and drops of sweat flew from him; he shook as if he had a fever. Other people dropped their haggling to watch him, and the yellow girl who was converting Sophie’s euros backed her stool away from the window. When Sophie checked her cash later in the hostel – wishing that there was someone to stand back to back with her, like cowboys, one always looking out for the other – she found that the screaming man was right.

Budapest was a series of obstacles. It reminded her suddenly of playing Risk with her sisters when it rained and rained and the rickety house flooded because it was built on sand. They would deliberately mispronounce the names of the countries, safe in the knowledge that these places would never need to be negotiated. ‘Irkutsk!’ the girls would shriek, as the water pinged into the buckets around them. It was impossible to think it really existed. Now, to be here – in another country – was more serious than Sophie had imagined.

She couldn’t waste money on taxis, and it had taken an hour on foot to find her hostel. The maps for Budapest rendered her illiterate. The one she had was in Dutch, left at the station by someone long gone. She had thought it would make more sense because of her Afrikaans. Plague, she kept thinking. The name means
plague
. The word sang zippily in her head as she walked, her feet swelling in her boots. Still, Sophie kept her eyes open as she concentrated on staying on the pavement. Soon she would see signs of the Black Madonna. She must. The guidebooks and art books said so: in France and Spain and all over Eastern Europe, the faces of the Madonnas are black as granadilla seeds. I just need some proof. A photo, a postcard, said Sophie to herself. Something to keep, so that I know that I’ve been.

She marched on through the city, crossing and recrossing an ornate rusting bridge that separated Buda from Pest, following her own invisible tracks like an ant. Around her, plaster fallen long ago from the buildings lay on the pavements in chunks, like stale bread. The city smelled of damp cement.
Plague-plague-plague
, sang Sophie’s brain. She hitched at her backpack and kept walking, and the birds tottered on their twisted pink feet around her. This was worse than her own neighbourhood back home.

Here and there were small shops. Sophie was confused by the dead sense of empire. In their windows were the remains of strange shipments – a plastic comb, women’s shoes in size four, bald mannequins showing their pudenda – all dusty, sun-bleached, twenty years too late. Men with brooms smoked home-rolled cigarettes and swept the pavement as she passed. They had no effect. The filth was in the atoms, haunting and ineradicable. The men swept and swept.

The room she had booked online was the same. Over the lintel of the hostel a noseless Mary looked down at her, syphilitic with apology. Sophie rang the bell and hammered on the door. She was about to give up when it opened stiffly on its own. There was no lock to bother her. A spiral staircase stretched up, as if the building was a bell tower, as if people routinely threw themselves from it. Sophie wrestled her backpack up the stairs, stopping to rest when she felt her eyes popping with the strain. No one came down to help.

She hauled the backpack onto the landing of the second floor, which was burned out and stinking like a braai grid. The damaged rooms lurched blackly in the daylight and a feral cat wound in and out through the shattered windows. It was fatter than anything else she saw in Budapest. Sophie kept going up. She tried to turn her mind away from what the animal fed on there in the darkness.

The bleached girl at reception wore slippers. She looked Sophie up and down, sighed and put down her cigarette. The girl led her down a narrow passage past silent curtained-off rooms, then stopped at one that contained six bunk beds. There was a copy of
Steppenwolf
on a sleeping bag, some drying socks near the window.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Sophie, her voice so loud and polite – so English – that the girl saw she wasn’t sorry at all, ‘but I can’t stay here. I booked my
own
room.’ She’d already paid for it, her mother’s lovely rands digitally dispersed, breeding a squillion useless forints.

Without a flicker, the girl turned and led her to the room next door. It had no curtains or mattress, but at least she could lock it. The key was thin and tinny, as if it opened a music box. Everything in the former communist countries was like that: fearful and temporary and cheap, or else unwieldy and baroque, fairy-tale artefacts from an older order.

‘Hokay?’ said the girl and, without waiting for an answer, shuffled off back to the kitchen that was also the living area. Sophie watched her go. There was a perpetual twining of smoke above her head even when she wasn’t smoking. The girl exuded ash: like a halo it attended her. Hokay.

The backpackers in the hostel were American and Spanish and Irish, the offspring of monied democracies. They lay around the kitchen, grinning at Sophie and each other. They reeked of being inside, of living in rooms without windows. The smoke from their hash hung over everyone at neck level so that they were either headless or disembodied. They made her want to match each amputee with a suitable part, like the Piatnik card game her mother preferred to her daughters’ rowdy games of Risk.

Sophie retreated. That
stink
. It was something more than the burned second floor, the effluvia of bodies and the oily exhalations of cars. It lodged under Sophie’s fingernails and spotted her pink African lungs. She coughed as she unpacked her few things and rejected the pillow she found in the locker. She lay down in the nest she had made, shifting between the lumps of her clothes, trying to place it. It was the smell of history. The past left traces – in the faces of people, the ones picking through the remnants of the buildings, pawing the faded objects in the shop windows, looking for treasure, for direction, for meaning. Sophie knew it; South Africa was, after all, a place where people were adjusting twelve years after. Living with the new order, learning its smell, making it ordinary.

She gave up trying to fall asleep –
plague-plague-plague
– and thought deliberately of her mother, her face dark against the twilight curtains of the room Sophie used to share with her sisters. The girls liked to hold her hands as she spoke, stroking the place where the missing fingers used to be.

‘This is the story of Regina Mundi. It means “Queen of the World”.’ The girls snuggled under their thin duvets with the galaxy of fuzzed threads. Their mother’s weight on the bed held things in place.

‘If you go inside this church, this Regina Mundi, and you go all the way up to the altar, you will see a painting. It was made by a man named Larry Scully.’ She cleared her throat, then picked up the rhythm again. ‘This painting is of Jesus and his mother. It’s called
The Madonna and Child of Soweto
.’

The girls turned their pillows, searching for the cool spot on the other side. In her Budapest room, Sophie’s divided head nestled on her makeshift headrest.

‘This church is near a graveyard at the top of a road. There were lots of funerals at this graveyard. In the 1970s and 1980s – before you were born, before I even knew your father – many, many people were buried there.’

The girls shifted. Snow White had lain in her coffin; Hansel and Gretel were left for dead; young people were dug under the earth at Avalon.

‘The graveyard was where people gathered after they were at the church, this Regina Mundi. It was a place where you could meet without the government bothering you. Sometimes those meetings became rallies, where people marched and sang protest songs.’ Sophie’s mother’s voice wavered and lifted, a few notes of the old song they all knew. Her hoarseness lifted when she sang. ‘Like that.’

‘One day – on June the sixteenth – the school children are not in school. They have left. They are marching against the government, and the police have come out to watch them. But something goes wrong – which sometimes happens – and the police start to fire real bullets into the crowd, and the children – they have to run for their lives.’

In her sleeping bag, the adult Sophie’s legs twitch. She has always had a dream where she is running and running, trying to dodge the men who are chasing her. She shelters in a grey warehouse: the men’s footsteps ring on the iron stairs as they search out her hiding place.

‘Some of the children remember about the church. They stop screaming and they run as fast as they can for Regina Mundi, because they know that the rule of war is that
you cannot shoot somebody inside a church
. It is a holy place, a place you will be safe.

‘They drag open the doors and they run inside. It is hard to see in the church because the lights are not on. The children split up and hide. Some of them are behind the pillars; some are under the pews. They are all trying to be as quiet as mice.’ She puts her thin finger to her lips.

‘But the police know where they have gone. They find the children. The police burst in through the doors of the church. They see that there are too many children to chase, and they see that there are no grown-ups there, so they start shooting. There are bullets spraying everywhere …’ Sophie’s mother paused. The girls’ pulses were pinging in time to the policemen’s bullets; they thought that their hearts would jump out of their chests. They held their breaths with the hidden children.

‘The bullets are still there, in the walls and the ceiling and the altar. You can touch them. But not a single child died in Regina Mundi. Some of them were hurt badly …’ her hand with the lost digits twitches under theirs, ‘but nobody inside the church was killed.’

‘They came to her and she protected them. The Black Madonna.’

Sophie turned for the last time in her hostel bed and drifted off. The yellow light from the smashed courtyard below didn’t bother her, and when a drunk girl stumbled from the smoke in the kitchen to retch and cry in the foreign toilet, she didn’t hear that either. Sophie slept deeply, and well.

During the night, she found that her slumbering mind had made her decision for her. One last museum or church – she would see where her sore feet took her – and then she would board the train back to Vienna. The idea of negotiating the station no longer bothered her.

Along the Váci Utca the smartest and most handsome Hungarians were waiting on tables, smiling desperately at tourists. Other, uglier men lurked in the smaller streets with their obsolete goods on rickety tables, endlessly smoking and touching their ratty moustaches. The music they sometimes played – as if to entertain themselves – was ancient, a mournful recycling of accordion and violin and cello. The notes bumped mildly against Sophie’s nose and forehead and ears, and were refracted. On the hill above her stood Budai Várnegyed, the Castle District, endlessly pillaged and rebuilt over the centuries. Now that it was safe under the wing of
UNESCO
, it had become a yawning run of restaurants and souvenir shops.

Sophie panted her way up and then caught a bus the rest of the way. She felt smothered by the useless objects she’d been offered, the kilometres of lace, the hundreds of painted eggs. The idea of the whole female population bending to the production of these things appalled her. Sophie stayed out of the overpriced shops and stared over the castle ramparts. The horizon was spiked with the surviving towers and spires of Pest. From a distance it looked like a picture in one of the art books in the library.

She dawdled in the yawning courtyard of Mátyás Templom, memorising it, gathering her courage. Then she let herself be rushed down with the other tourists into the guts of the church.

Sophie gripped the handrails in shock, ignoring the pushing that came irritably from behind her. Instead of respectful silence punctuated by the creaking of knees, people shrieked and giggled around her in the dim narthex. They jabbered and pointed and laughed under the holy nose of the Mother of God, Virgin Most Precious, the Mystic Rose. It might have been the train station.

Sophie drew off to the side and sat down by herself in a pew. There were a few other people at their prayers, but it was hard to concentrate in the market noise. Everything – everything – she saw in real life seemed paler, or smaller, or dirtier, or poorer than the pictures she had pored over for so long before she came. She opened her forlorn guidebook to find out what she was missing. The pictures were glorious. Saint Matthew’s
was
special – not because it was made into a mosque in 1541, or because it was reconverted 145 years later. What was special about the church was that the invaders did not deface or destroy anything within its space
.
They had obeyed the rules of war.

BOOK: Cabin Fever
12.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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