Authors: Magda Szabo
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #War & Military, #Psychological
A busy young writer struggling to cope with domestic chores, hires a housekeeper recommended by a friend. The housekeeper's reputation is one built on dependable efficiency, though she is something of an oddity. Stubborn, foul-mouthed and with a flagrant disregard for her employer's opinions she may even be crazy. She allows no-one to set foot inside her house; she masks herself with a veil and is equally guarded about her personal life. And yet Emerence is revered as much as she is feared. As the story progresses, her energy and passion to help becomes clear, extinguishing any doubts arising out of her bizarre behaviour. A stylishly told tale which recounts a strange relationship built up over 20 years between a writer and her housekeeper. After an unpromising and caustic start, benign feelings develop and ultimately the writer benefits from what becomes an inseparable relationship. Simultaneously we learn Emerence's tragic past which is revealed in snapshots throughout this book.
I seldom dream. When I do, I wake with a start, bathed in sweat. Then I lie back, waiting for my frantic heart to slow, and reflect on the overwhelming power of night's spell. As a child and young woman, I had no dreams, either good or bad, but in old age I am confronted repeatedly with horrors from my past, all the more dismaying because compressed and compacted, and more terrible than anything I have lived through. In fact nothing has ever happened to me of the kind that now drags me screaming from my sleep.
My dreams are always the same, down to the finest detail, a vision that returns again and again. In this never-changing dream I am standing in our entrance hall at the foot of the stairs, facing the steel frame and reinforced shatterproof window of the outer door, and I am struggling to turn the lock. Outside in the street is an ambulance. Through the glass I can make out the shimmering silhouettes of the paramedics, distorted to unnatural size, their swollen faces haloed like moons. The key turns, but my efforts are in vain: I cannot open the door. But I must let the rescuers in, or they'll be too late to save my patient. The lock refuses to budge, the door stands solid, as if welded to its steel frame. I shout for help, but none of the residents of our three-storey building responds; and they cannot because — I am suddenly aware — I'm mouthing vacantly, like a fish, and the horror of the dream reaches new depths as I realise that not only am I unable to open the door to the rescuers but I have also lost the power of speech.
It is at this point that I am woken by my own screaming. I switch on the light and try to control the desperate gasping for air which always seizes me after the dream. Around me stands the familiar furniture of our bedroom, and, over the bed itself, the family portraits, ikons in their high starched collars and braided coats, Hungarian Baroque and Beidermeier, my all-seeing, all-knowing ancestors. They alone are witness to the number of times I have raced down during the night to open the door to the rescuers and the ambulance; and they alone know how often I have stood there while the silence of the early-morning streets slowly gives way to the sounds of restlessly tossing trees and the cries of prowling cats that flood in through the open door, imagining what would happen if my struggle with the key proved in vain, and the lock failed to turn.
The portraits know everything, above all the thing I try hardest to forget. It is no dream. Once, just once in my life, not in the cerebral anaemia of sleep but in reality, a door did stand before me. That door opened. It was opened by someone who defended her solitude and impotent misery so fiercely that she would have kept that door shut though a flaming roof crackled over her head. I alone had the power to make her open that lock. In turning the key she put more trust in me than she ever did in God, and in that fateful moment I believed I was godlike — all-wise, judicious, benevolent and rational. We were both wrong: she who put her faith in me, and I who thought too well of myself.
Now, of course, none of that matters, because what happened is beyond remedy. So let them enter my dreams, the Kindly Ones, whenever they choose, with their high-heeled rescue-service buskins and tragic-mask faces beneath their safety helmets, to stand like a chorus with double-edged swords round my bed. Every night I turn out the light to wait for them, for the bell of this nameless horror to clang in my sleeping ear, for its ringing tones to lead me towards that dream-door that never opens.
My religion has no place for the sort of personal confession where we acknowledge through the mouth of a priest that we are sinners, that we deserve damnation for breaking the Commandments in every possible way, and are then granted absolution without need for explanation or details.
I shall provide that explanation, those details.
This book is written not for God, who knows the secrets of my heart, nor for the shades of the all-seeing dead who witness both my waking life and my dreams. I write for other people. Thus far I have lived my life with courage, and I hope to die that way, bravely and without lies. But for that to be, I must speak out. I killed Emerence. The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.
When we first met, I very much wanted to see her face, and it troubled me that she gave me no opportunity to do so. She stood before me like a statue, very still, not stiffly to attention but rather a little defeated-looking. Of her forehead I could see almost nothing. I didn't know then that the only time I would ever see her without a headscarf would be on her deathbed. Until that moment arrived she always went about veiled, like a devout Catholic or Jewess sitting shiver, someone whose faith forbade her from venturing too near the Lord with an uncovered head.
It was a summer's day, but by no means one to call for or even suggest any special need for protection, as we stood together in the garden, under a twilight sky tinged with violet. Among the roses, she seemed thoroughly out of place. One can tell instinctively what sort of flower a person would be if born a plant, and her genus certainly wasn't the rose, with its shameless carmine unfolding — the rose is no innocent. I felt immediately that Emerence could never be one, though I still knew nothing about her, or what she would one day become.
Her scarf projected forward, casting a shadow over her eyes, and it was only later that I discovered that their irises were blue. I would have liked to know the colour of her hair, but she kept it covered, as she would for as long as it remained synonymous with her inner self.
During that first early evening we lived through some important moments. We each had to decide whether we could live and work together. My husband and I had been in our new home for only a couple of weeks. It was substantially larger than the previous one-room apartment which I had managed without help, not least because for ten years my writing career had been politically frozen. Now it was picking up again and here, in this new setting, I had become a full-time writer, with increased opportunities and countless responsibilities which either tied me to my desk or took me away from home. So here I stood in the garden, face to face with this silent old woman, since it had become clear that if someone didn't take over the housekeeping there would be little chance of my publishing the work I'd produced in my years of silence, or finding a voice for anything new I might have to say.
I had begun enquiring about domestic help the moment we finished moving our library-sized collection of books and our rickety old furniture. I pestered everyone I knew in the neighbourhood until finally a former classmate solved our problem. She told us there was an old woman who had worked for her brother for more years than she could remember, and whom she recommended wholeheartedly, assuming the person could find the time. She'd be better than a younger woman, being guaranteed not to set fire to the house with a cigarette, have boyfriend problems or steal; in fact she was more likely to bring us things if she took a liking to us, as she was a relentless giver of gifts. She had never had a husband or children, but a nephew visited her regularly, as did a police officer, and everyone in the neighbourhood liked her. My former classmate spoke of her with warmth and respect, and added that Emerence was a caretaker, someone with a bit of authority; she hoped the woman would take us on, because frankly, if she didn't warm to us, no amount of money would induce her to accept the job.
Things got off to a less than encouraging start. Emerence had been rather brusque when asked to call round for a chat, so I tracked her down in the courtyard of the villa where she was caretaker. It was close by — so close I could see her flat from our balcony. She was washing a mountain of laundry with the most antiquated equipment, boiling bedlinen in a cauldron over a naked flame, in the already agonising heat, and lifting the sheets out with an immense wooden spoon. Fire glowed all around her. She was tall, big-boned, powerfully built for a person of her age, muscular rather than fat, and radiated strength like a Valkyrie. Even the scarf on her head seemed to jut forward like a warrior's helmet. She had agreed to call, and so now we were standing here, in the garden in that twilight. She listened in silence while I explained what her duties would be. Even as I spoke I was thinking that I had never believed those nineteenth-century novelists who compared a character's face to a lake. Now, as so often before, I felt ashamed to have dared question the classics. Emerence's face resembled nothing so much as a calm, unruffled, early-morning mirror of water. I had no idea how interested she might be in my offer. Her demeanour made it quite clear that she needed neither the job nor the money. However desperate I might be to employ her, that mirror-lake face, in the shadow of its ceremonial scarf, gave nothing away. I waited for what seemed ages. When she did finally respond, she didn't even raise her head. Her words were that perhaps we could talk about this later. One of her places of work was proving a disappointment. Both husband and wife were drinking too much, and the grown-up son was going to the dogs, so she wasn't going to keep them on. Assuming that someone could vouch for us, and assure her that neither of us were likely to brawl or get drunk, we might perhaps discuss the matter again. I stood there dumbfounded. This was the first time anyone had required references from us. "I don't wash just anyone's dirty linen," she said.
She had a pure, impressive, soprano voice. She must have been in the capital a long while — had I not at one point studied linguistics I would never have known from her accent that she came from our part of the country. Thinking the question would please her, I asked if she was from the Hajdú area; she just nodded, and agreed that she came from Nádori, or, to be more exact, from its sister village, Csabadul. Then she immediately changed the subject, in a way that made clear she had no wish to discuss the matter, she was in no mood to reminisce. It took me years to realise — as with so many other things — that she found my question pushy and prying.
Emerence had never studied Heraclitus, but she knew more about these things than I did. Whenever I could, I would rush back to my old village to seek out what had gone, what could never be brought back, the shadows that the family house had once cast on my face, my long-lost former home. And I found nothing, for where has the river wandered whose waters carried away the shards of my early life? Emerence knew better than to attempt the impossible. She was saving her strength for the time when she might actually do something about the past, though I would not understand what this meant until much later.
What I did gather that day, when she first pronounced those two names, Nádori and Csabadul, was that they were never to be mentioned, that they were for some reason taboo. Right, I thought, let's discuss the business in hand. Perhaps we could agree her hourly wage; that should mean something to her. But no, she didn't want to rush her decision. She would decide what we were to pay her when she had some idea of just how slovenly and disorderly we were, and how much work we'd be. She would set about getting references — not from the old schoolmate, who would be prejudiced — and when she had, would give us her answer, even if it was no. I stared after her as she calmly strolled away, and there was a moment when I dallied with the thought that the old woman was so odd it might be better for all concerned if she turned us down. It wasn't too late — I could call out after her that the offer no longer stood. But I didn't.
A mere week later, Emerence reappeared. We had in the meantime bumped into her more than once in the street; but she had greeted us and passed on, as if she wanted neither to hurry the decision, nor slam a door shut before it had even opened. When she did at last call round, I noticed at once that she was dressed in all her finery. I instantly understood this language of clothes, and shifted about awkwardly in my scanty little sun-frock. She wore black — a finely-woven long-sleeved dress and gleaming patent-leather shoes. As if our previous discussion had never been interrupted, she announced that she would start the next day, and would be in a position later in the month to say what her wage was to be. As she spoke she stared stiffly at my naked shoulders. I took comfort in knowing that my husband would escape censure, sitting there, in thirty-degree heat, in his jacket and tie. Even in a heatwave he never wavered from the habits he had acquired in England before the war. The two of them beside me, thus attired, must have looked like a demonstration of dress code created for a primitive tribe, to which I belonged, inculcating the respect for external appearances considered appropriate to human dignity. If a single being in this world ever approached Emerence in his attitudes and values, that person was my husband. Naturally, for that reason, it was many years before they truly took to one other.