New work – 19th January, 2018

Zsuzsa Rakovszky: Célia (Extract)

translated by Peter Sherwood

New work–19th January, 2018

New work

translated by Peter Sherwood

Between bouts of sobbing Zsani keeps repeating the name of a small town, far away: would that be where, in a playground, they'd found... who? Célia? – We are pleased to bring you an extract from Zsuzsa Rakovszky's Célia, translated by Peter Sherwood.

I ring Zsani. She picks up at once and starts sobbing into the phone, unable to choke back her tears. I can't make out much of what she is saying, initially just the words "police" and "playground"; this last seems so preposterous that for a moment I have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps this is all a dream: I must have fallen asleep in the warmth of Heni's embrace, and I was sure to wake up any moment. Between bouts of sobbing Zsani keeps repeating the name of a small town, far away: would that be where, in a playground, they'd found... who? Célia?

No, they're not yet sure it's her, but a dead body, a young girl's, fitting her description... a dog-walker found her at daybreak, totally... (gulps and sobs as she struggles and eventually manages to get the words out) well, she was completely naked, no papers on her or anything like that, the police issued her description online, with a grainy photograph of a dark-haired girl, her face a mass of black and blue, so she can't be absolutely sure that it wasn't her, and, well, now... Yes, she has to travel down there to identify her positively... if it really is her, that is. But no, it can't be, what would she've been doing there, she's never in her life... She fulminates, sobbing, seemingly sensing the surreal evil of the situation, its dream-like absurdity, which nevertheless suggests that what she fears is true: this is what life comes down to, some kind of diabolical irony showing through the dark, apparent meaninglessness of chance events. No, not tomorrow. Tonight. There is a late train, she's checked on the web. She's booked accommodation on the net, so that tomorrow we can go first thing, straight to the... that is to say, we can take a look at... And anyhow, she wouldn't able to sleep now. Could I, would I go with her?

We reach Földvár around nine. The station has the standard wooden benches, empty paper cups litter the floor, there's a sharp smell of ammonia from the toilets. In the greyish-green of the lights Zsani's face, worn-out with fatigue, seems as if it weren't even a woman's but that of some accursed hobgoblin; her dread of what she might see gives her a dejected and strangely malign look. We met at the Keleti, under the black departure board with its ever-changing green flashing lights, amid the booming announcements, the smell of vomit and hamburgers, people carrying wreaths in nylon carrier bags – of course, it dawns on me, today is All Saints, tomorrow All Souls' Day, with everyone heading to the place they or their parents came from a generation ago, to light a candle at the graves of their ancestors.

The train trundled its way to Földvár. Like all the carriages, the one Zsani and I were in was packed to the gills. We didn't say a word to each other the whole time: Zsani stared stiffly ahead, I tried to look out of the dirty window, blinking in the direction of the pinhead-sized lamps that flickered beyond the dark fields and, as always when I travelled somewhere, what was running through my head was that it was there – out in the streets echoing with the barking of dogs and lined with squat houses, where there was always a pub, a convenience store, a church, and a memorial to the First World War dead – that was where real life went on, that life to which I had never really gained admission. After that you couldn't see anything for a long time, apart from the slightly fainter darkness of the sky above the black fields, nothing to distract me from the horror-film scenario that kept stubbornly running through my head: the female body lying on its side in the sand of the playground, the figures in hoodies repeatedly kicking the moaning, still breathing body, their grinning faces contorted with hate, her dark eyes finally rolled back heavenward, with the last thing they saw seared into them, the expressionless face leaning above it, a hollow mask behind which there seems to be no being, just a pair of eyes ablaze with the euphoria of cold cruelty...

When we finally rolled into the station, along with us the train disgorged a smallish knot of people who crunched their way across the gravel and left via a side exit, dispersing as was their wont into the streets beyond the station, darkly mysterious to us but for them clearly familiar. Only Zsani and I were left standing uncertainly in front of the closed ticket-office window; apart from us there was just one soul, lying on the furthermost bench, swaddled in a coat and the penetrating smell of plum brandy.

"Something to drink?" I ask Zsani, because in the corner I can see the inevitable Coca-Cola vending machine. She shakes her head silently, sinking down on one of the benches, while I rummage in my pockets for some change. The bottle of Sprite lands with a thump behind the see-through flap. When I sit down beside her with the ridged plastic bottle in my hand, Zsani turns her tormented hobgoblin face towards me:

"You know what, could I have some after all..."

She wipes the mouth of the bottle with the sleeve of her pullover before handing it back, then says, pugnaciously and in a voice so hoarse that it's barely recognisable:

"You don't think, do you, that it will be her? It's impossible that it's her... even the medium said she was sure to be alive!"

"Said who?" I say, fixing her, almost dropping the bottle in my hand.

Zsani turns away defiantly, stares stiffly at her knees, nervously tugging the sleeve of her coat.

"Yes, if you must know, I rang her... that woman recommended her, the one I met at your house... we bumped into each other in the shopping centre, that's when it happened. She found this woman's name on the internet, and she says she told her all about herself, what had happened to her until then, which she couldn't have known, no way, and that everything she predicted would happen all came true! She's called Szemiramisz, the medium I mean... and it was really nice of her, when I told her what it was all about, that she was willing to give me her time, because you normally have to make an appointment with her weeks ahead! But she rang me back straight away, the moment she saw the confirmation from my bank... I sent her the money over the net. No, I didn't speak to her in person, only on Skype. I e-mailed her a photo of Célia, and the moment she saw it she said she had a vision, an intimation that the person in the picture was alive! Where she actually was she couldn't say, she said she hadn't had a vision about that yet, but she sensed she wouldn't be all that far from her home. So she can't be in Földvár, can she? Right? That's over three hours from Budapest by train..."

I feel truly ashamed to find myself hungry. Hungry and sleepy. Sleep is out, for the moment; perhaps once we're in the guesthouse. Would Zsani think it very inconsiderate of me if I suggested we went and had something to eat?

We set off. I'd printed out a map of the town at home, before we left, and Zsani had circled in red the guesthouse she'd booked. According to the map even on foot it isn't very far.

The square in front of the station is deserted, in the flower-bed by the exit there shine the last blooms of autumn, their hues unreal, even impossible, in the cold glare of the street lighting.  On the far side of the square, a deserted, tree-lined street stretches away darkly into the void: the trees, by now bereft of their foliage, their gnarled, black branches with only the odd leaf or two still fluttering on them, surely yellow in the light of day, but bleached by the artificial glow to an ashen grey. The houses must have been built sometime in the thirties, but in this light they had the look of a stage set cut out of cardboard. Shuttered windows all around, even though it was barely after nine; the clock that shone green on the distant tower rising above the dark houses showed ten past the hour. We pass a dark window, behind the glass glow two yellowish-red triangles, below them a gap lengthwise, with sharp, zigzag edges: the triangles and the gap combine into an intimidating face, a pair of blazing eyes and a snarling mouth, the face of creature ablaze inside... A few houses further on there's another. The street seems endless, with not a convenience store or a McDonalds to be seen. Among the dark gateways there gleams, here and there, the window-display of a closed shop, where the food supplements, the hand-held blenders, the cuddly Winnie-the-Poohs in their striped jerseys, manage to take some of the edge off the overwhelming sense of the unreal that is, nevertheless, accompanied by a strange kind of deeper reality, as in a dream: above the tower, the face of the moon, looking like the paler and more enterprising twin brother of the clock, floats off ever farther into the vault of the sky.

The street does finally come to an end, however, and we emerge into a square where the houses are taller and older; an island of gravel that surrounds a high pedestal supporting an erstwhile patriot boldly stepping forth in a green patina'd bronze cloak is ringed by black bushes that shake and rattle in the wind. The street continues on the far side of the square, the blue fluorescing outlines of molars the size of human heads pulsate against the backdrop of the dark, proclaiming to all and sundry that here during the day is a dentist's surgery. In the far corner, just as I'd given up hope, I spot a lighted entrance, above the door a sign: Snack Bar, evidently they are open. I give Zsani a pleading look, she nods understandingly. We sit down at one of the beer-stained plastic tables, and wait for the grim-looking employee to take the two wilting sandwiches out of the microwave. We are the only people in the place: outside, a deserted square, wind, and darkness.

We are eating our sandwiches, Zsani desultorily, I with barely disguised avidity, when we hear a noise from outside, getting steadily closer; the door suddenly flings open and a throng of squealing, cackling, twittering corpses come charging in, golden-haired, bird-beaked witches, ring-eyed, teeth-bloodied vampires, a jovial skeleton sporting a poloneck with her ribcage on it, and Death, with a hood, an elongated, El Greco head, and eyesockets without eyes. They don't sit down; they buy cans of beer, loads of them, and bags of chips: no sooner have they arrived, they are gone, disappearing into a darkness somewhat mitigated by the halogen lamps and pumpkin lanterns.

By the time we step out into the street, the moon has paled to total whiteness, now barely bigger than a cufflink, or one of the ten-fillér coins of my childhood; embedding itself ever deeper into the black sky, it becomes unattainably distant. I am once again seized by the feeling that I have crossed over into another, dreamlike, and yet, at the same time, more real reality. I knew – I always knew – but tried very hard to forget that behind the Potemkin-world of the everyday there lay in wait, ready to pounce, this other world, in which anything could happen, even absurdities like death.

Suddenly, for the first time, I'm convulsed by the full horror of the possibility that tomorrow morning, in some run-down basement room – tiled walls, linoleum or cement floor, a few metal chairs, grey fluorescent lighting – on a gurney impassively trundled in by a man in a green lab-coat, there lies, covered by a crumpled sheet, something of which only two slim feet are visible, a number in ink on a label attached to one of its big toes, and when the man in green's indifferent, rubber-gloved hand lifts up for a moment the corner of the sheet – Zsani keeping her eyes tightly shut and at the last moment even burying her face in my neck – to reveal the swollen and bruised face on the police photo, now tinged a bluish-grey by the fluorescent light and the cold of the freezer, one eye open and staring at the ceiling, the other closed, as if she were winking mischievously, and all of a sudden, as if diffracted through water, but with gradual yet unrelenting clarity, the contours of Célia are revealed... then the pillars supporting the world will collapse and entomb me, or – even worse – I'll have to live with the memory of that moment for the rest of my life. If it's not her, if it isn't her after all, I keep repeating to myself, if she should turn up alive, I swear, even though it's very late in the day, I will be a proper father to her, I'll move in with them, we'll play board games in the evenings, and discuss the meaning of life, every Christmas I'll bring home a proper pine tree that reaches up the ceiling, and we'll spend time together putting up the decorations inherited from my mother...

Before we set off again from the sandwich bar, we pushed the map under the nose of the unsmiling employee (you would have had to be blind not to notice he was desperate to close up) and asked him for directions to the red circle marking our guesthouse. If he just told us where we were now, even that would be a great help, as there was not a street sign anywhere. At first he thought this a nasty trick, with which we wanted to sully his dignity but eventually, reluctantly, he vouchsafed us the name of the square. From here it would be child's play to get to where we are staying. We pass below the pulsating blue molars meanwhile it starts raining, cold drops hit us in the face. We turn into a narrow lane, enveloped in total darkness, and hear a clock somewhere, perhaps the one in the church tower, striking ten. We come out into the little square; opposite, on the corner of a narrow street emerging into the square, we can already see the neon light of the guesthouse flashing red. The girl at reception stifles a yawn as she hands us a key; the room is at the top of the building, with the usual, cheap watercolours of the sights of the town, and mass-produced crocheted items, bleak attempts to mimic homeliness. Right above the bed is a loft window set at an angle in the ceiling. At the sight of the double bed we are both slightly embarrassed. Zsani showers first, then me, finally we manage to settle ourselves down in the bed side by side, me in my ridiculous striped pyjamas (I hadn't worn them for ages, I can't even do the button up over my stomach), Zsani in her short, girlish nightie, which makes her appear curiously youthful and vulnerable as she comes out of the bathroom. She pulls the duvet up around her, props her book against her drawn-up knees, and asks if it's all right if she reads a bit, she wouldn't be able to sleep anyway. I certainly would: I sink into unconsciousness as if the universe had caved in beneath me. A few hours later I startle awake: Zsani's bedside light is no longer on, a bluish light filters in through the attic window, as if the dazzling, effervescent tablet of the moon had dissolved in the sky creating an even, delicately shivery glow, sprinkled with the cold, unmoving silver pinheads of a few stars. The dream from which I had awoken had slipped the noose of my consciousness and sunk down into the subterranean fronds of the unconscious, but the terror it had created I carried with me into my wakeful state. I watch the motionless stars, trapped in the square of heaven delimited by the window, and I think of Célia, her skin perhaps blue with cold, a tag tied to her big toe, lying naked in the depths of some narrow, grey sliding drawer, and I think, too, of my own death. I instinctively draw closer to Zsani, touching my leg against hers; Zsani mumbles in her sleep, no doubt she, too, is having a bad dream. I graze her shoulder, which makes her shudder, her body trembles, she opens her eyes, looks at me, but it's as if she didn't see me, she seems to be asleep even though her eyes are open. I lean over her, sense that she is trying to say something, she makes several valiant attempts, but her voice falters. I pat her hand encouragingly, whereupon in a soft, halting, and strangely gruff voice, continuing some argument from her dream, she informs me that medical science has indeed reached the point where they are able to clone human beings as well, just like Dolly the sheep... Yes, she is aware, of course, that this is forbidden, at least for now, but perhaps, for a great deal of money... perhaps if she sold her flat, might that be enough?

On the way back we sit side by side on the train, amid the euphoria of relief. Yes, it was all as I'd imagined, the underground corridor, the room with the tiled walls (it was just that, without the phantoms of the subterranean terror fuelled by the night and the dark, everything was, rather, merely sad and miserable in an ordinary way, like a hospital ward), the gurney, the crumpled sheet, the bare, tagged foot, (but wider, so much wider than Célia's!), Zsani clinging to my arm, eyes tightly closed, the hand of the man in green as it reached for the corner of the sheet – but the face that was revealed bore none of the likeable, familiar lines that it had in my terror-stricken imagination: its nose was wider, its eyebrows thicker, its brow a shade broader... I shake my head in the direction of the man in green, then realise that Zsani with her eyes shut can't see this and so I also say, out loud:

"It's not her!"

This time the lightning bolt of fate had struck somewhere else. In the office there are some papers to sign, Zsani, immeasurably relieved, beams at the family waiting in the corridor – a heavy-set, worn-out mother, a father small and wrinkled, an unattractive older girl, rather overweight – and then comes to her senses and tries reassuringly and apologetically to look the other weary mother in the eye; of course, they pay no heed. We have breakfast in a café, Zsani wolfs down three croissants with her coffee ("I haven't really eaten anything for two days"). While we wait for the train at the station we jabber away uninhibitedly, I tell her all about the sale of the flat, my plans to do nothing but write for a year, that I'm looking to rent somewhere... In the giddiness of our relief we spend all our change on Sprites and bars of chocolate. As I hurry back from the vending machine to the seat in the waiting room where Zsani is huddled, on a sudden impulse, I pull my mobile out of my pocket and slip it unobtrusively into the litter bin. With this gesture I have liberated myself, once and for all, from the world and its temptations: I haven't noted down Niki's phone number anywhere else, now I can no longer call her even if I wanted to. I'll also change my e-mail address, I reflect with painful satisfaction, another way of asserting that from this moment on I am a changed man.

On the Budapest train Zsani sits quietly, frowning, visibly racking her brains. Clearly she has only now realized, it seems to me, that although the body under the sheet was that of a stranger, this doesn't mean that Célia has been found, nor is it even certain that she's alive, whatever the medium Szemiramisz might have said. We are only about a quarter of an hour from our destination when she looks up at me sheepishly, and touches my arm... She knows I set great store by my independence, but since I'm looking for a room anyway... she really wouldn't ever bother me or interfere with my work, but it would mean so much to her if... at least until Célia is found... what she means is, wouldn't I like to stay with her? In Célia's room, naturally... I could just turn the key and keep the world out, if I wanted to.


Rakovszky Zsuzsa, Célia, Magvető, 2017

English translation © Peter Sherwood 2017


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