It is a warm early morning at Széchenyi Thermal Baths. Nobody has arrived yet except for a few insomnia sufferers and three other people who didn’t want to sleep: two young lads and a young woman with them, wearing a polka-dot swimsuit. They each have a glass of champagne on the side and there is also another unopened bottle.
“To the happy couple, Magda and Jacob!” the man with a star-shaped birthmark in the middle of his forehead says.
“Thank you, our truly best man – Mark!”
“Who knew that my best maid would drink like a fish!” Magda says with a slight disgust.
“We are all just human-beings! Silly as we are!” Mark says peacefully.
And they clink their glasses. Magda and Jacob, the guy with a light-red beard, kiss each other.
“Isn’t it marvellous that we escaped here?” Magda says. “I bet they will be astonished when we don’t show up for breakfast”.
The summer sun is high and it is reflected in the water of the outdoor swimming pools. The statues and the sun remain the same through the years.
On the same spot, where years ago the young couple and their best man celebrated life, now is a trio of middle-aged people: two men and a woman. When the sun light is at a certain angle, these middle-aged people start looking similar to the youngsters they once were. One of them still has a beard, the other one has the peculiar birthmark, and the woman wears the old-fashioned swimming outfit. All three of them look in different directions. There is a chess set on the side, unpacked, three half-smoked cigarettes butts, and a handkerchief, previously white, but now covered in black mascara stains.
“Does anyone want to play chess? Mark?” the man with the beard says.
“I think I will pass, Jacob,” Mark replies and observes the small group around them. – “We came too early. All the posers and other amusing individuals are still in bed”.
With these words Mark dives into the water.
“If you plan to leave me, do it now,” Jacob says to Magda – it’s her, of course.
“I am not gonna leave you,” Magda says without a tone of outrage in her voice. – “I am just going through my personal crisis. It doesn’t have anything to do with you or, especially, with him”.
She nods at Mark’s direction.
“What’s with those smiles then?” Jacob insists.
“There were no smiles,” Magda says.
Mark dives out and at the same moment notices a tall and skinny woman competitively pacing among the statues. He jumps out of the pool and elegantly wraps the towel around his waist.
“Although it’s wildly delightful to be here with you, fellows, and to celebrate your glorious anniversary together…” Mark says, staring at the female stranger without blinking and not even giving a quick glance at his intended audience. He looks like he is preparing for a leap, he even stretches his legs like some jungle animal.
“…I’m gonna go now, lads. I’m gonna follow this, pardon my French, chick,” Mark resumes his speech.
He rushes towards the woman and with the words: “I am having my birthday tomorrow, would you consider joining me at…” Mark disappears from sight.
The sun is high, and it’s getting busier at the thermals. The local canteen finally opens. The ladies who work in the kitchen display sandwiches and desserts on the counter, just like they did ten years ago. Not much has changed in the pool area either during this time.
There is one elderly gentleman soaking in the pool. He has a cup of coffee on the side and a glass of something bitter and strong, too strong and too bitter-tasting for this hour. And another gentleman, of a similar age and statue, approaches; he also has a coffee, and a book, and whiskey, although in his case the whiskey is already mixed with the coffee. Their looks have nothing in common although an inattentive stranger could call them identical twins: both grey-haired and light-blue skinned, with flabby pit muscles and sparse chest hairs. Even the birthmark on the forehead has blurred over the years, and the red beard has faded.
“Jacob?” Mark says, he carries the book.
“What are you doing here?” Jacob replies.
“Well, as usual, celebrating my birthday in lovely Budapest. You?”
“As if you didn’t know,” Jacob snorts. “It’s our wedding anniversary. And now I am alone. Have been for a year now”.
Mark casually steps in the thermal pool.
“Do you know how many books I have left to read in my lifetime? One hundred! And that’s it. A hundred books and then I am done and dead. Three hundred tops – if I read fast,” he says in an easy manner.
“What are you talking about?”
“They did a research. The scientists I mean. Based on a person’s age, gender and an average reading speed, you can estimate how many books you will read until, you know, you kick the bucket”.
“What a waste of money and time”.
“Can’t agree. I try to choose carefully now – thanks to the science”.
“I realize it now”.
“Why you didn’t even bother to call when my Magda passed away – you were busy reading!”
“Oh Jacob…” – the gentleman sighs, takes a deep breath and dives into the pool.
While he is under the water, Jacob stares at the book cover which says “Anna Karenina”. He reads it longer than it takes to read just two words. He sees an edge of a postcard that serves as a bookmark and takes it out automatically. The Alps are depicted on it, and the postcard looks old.
“Don’t you dare!” Mark shouts and snatches the postcard with his wet fingers. “Do you even remember on which page it was?”
“We went to the Alps for our honeymoon,” Jacob says. “Is it the postcard? The postcard from Magda?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mark says. “And better look at these two lovelies”.
He points at a couple of elderly giggling ladies in flowery hats – one’s got lilacs, the other one – daisies. They play joyfully with the thermal bubbles and take selfies under water.
“Why didn’t you call?” Jacob insists.
“I texted. That’s what people do these days,” Mark explains. “Let me remind you, if I may, that I was a persona non-grata at your house for a damn long time! And only God knows why!”.
Mark takes a sip of the coffee-whiskey mix and he is calm again.
“Now, I will play your card and arrange a sweet little dinner double date for us,” he says.
“A mourning, yet still alive widower, card,” Mark says and swims towards the ladies, preventing any objections from Jacob’s side.
In a few minutes, Mark returns with good news:
“Széchenyi restaurant, posh, expensive, with good food and some dancing by request. A table for four. At noon”.
“You are a son of a bitch,” Jacob says rather with admiration than disgust. “Should we be in a hurry?”
“Still got my charm,” Mark confirms contentedly.
So they sit at the dining table, a bit too posh for people who still have wet hair and after-bath wrinkles on their fingertips. There is a small bouquet of roses on the table, light music in the air, and a slightly arrogant waiter standing by.
Mark put his “Anna Karenina” copy on the table, and Jacob stares at the edge of the old postcard again. Mark leaves the company for a minute, and Jacob can’t help but take out the postcard again; he turns it over…
“I will have a pork medallion and a goulash soup, if you please,” one of the ladies says so joyfully and loudly that Jacob jumps up in his chair; this is the one with the lilacs on her hat. “Is it sour?”
“No,” the waiter replies.
“Is it spicy?”
“Should I take it in a cup or in a bowl?”
“In a bowl”.
The order is made, and the daisy lady, without any change of tone, refers to Jacob, who still has the postcard in his hand:
“Was she poorly? Your wife? Did you not look after her? I mean – girls live longer usually. I mean – look at us. Our chaps are long dead, and we are still going out – we are off to a ruin pub tonight”.
“I did look after her,” Jacob says in confusion.
“Did she have the C word?”
“Oh no, she definitely wasn’t a C word,” Mark returns from the restroom and interrupts the conversation immediately.
Jacob carefully puts the postcard back in the book. It seems that nobody had noticed.
“I believe our new friend means another C word. I believe, she hates to say “cancer” and – yes, my Magda had it,” Jacob says.
Both ladies sigh sympathetically.
“They were so cute, Jacob and Magda. They got married here, in Budapest, when nobody did it – except for Elizabeth and Richard. Although I didn’t like her.” Mark says.
Ladies sigh again – with admiration this time.
“You didn’t like whom?”
“You didn’t like Magda?”
“Well, at first! Then I did! Does it even matter now?”
“How it is possible you didn’t like her?”
“She had an odd smile, and, I don’t know, her eyes were too blue…”
Meanwhile, the flowery ladies order their second dessert.
“Well, yeah, and she was older than you”.
“I just can’t believe it”.
“Listen, dear, how could I know that you will go as far as this. That you will get married, and live your lifetime together and all that shit”.
“I can’t believe that you didn’t like Magda,” Jacob sighs.
“Then don’t!” Mark exclaims and pops up from the table. Jacob rushes to leave through the other door,
At the door, the waiter stops him:
“The ladies said that you will pay the bill”.
“Which ladies?” Mark looks at their table. Only the light aura of daisies and lilacs is left after the ladies.
“Right,” Mark agrees. “It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t pay for some strangers’ food”.
Mark wanders around the Сity Park, and Jacob secretly follows him, hiding behind the trees. Finally, Mark reaches the big plane tree and shouts:
“Why are you stalking me?”
Jacob reveals himself and he steps out from behind the tree.
“You forgot your stuff in the restaurant,” he says and, as a proof, shows a small wet plastic bag.
Mark sits down on the grass.
“Do you know what the old age is about?” he says. “It is not about wrinkles, or illness, or senility. Not even about the tiredness. Old age is when you start saying words that are not yours. As if someone puts them in your head first, and then in your mouth. And you have no idea where these words came from and why you keep saying them”.
“I miss my Magda so much. I did torture her – with my jealousy. I was sure you were lovers. And you didn’t even like her,” Jacob says.
“Here you go. Read it,” Mark gives him the postcard.
And Jacob reads:
“To Mark. From Magda and Jacob. With love”.
“That’s it? That is it?” he asks as if it wasn’t obvious.
“That’s pretty much all good words, all “I words” I’ve got in my life. And still I’m not complaining,” Mark says.
“What do you mean?” Jacob looks at Mark ashamed. “Let me fix it. Let me tell you how much I care. One I word for each year we’ve known each other”.
“No, thank you!” Mark stands up.
“And one for each year which is yet to come,” Jacob insists.
Mark starts running away from him, but Jacob keeps following:
“Just listen to me!”
“These are good words, healing words!”
“There may be no next time! It can be our last meeting!”
“There will be a next time”.
“How can you know that?”
“I’ve got a hundred of books to read! Just please – don’t say it now!”
~~~ The End ~~~
About the author: Masha Kamenetskaya is a journalist, psychologist and a writer, originally from St.Petersburg (Russia), currently living in Budapest with her family. Her short stories appeared in online and printed magazines in various countries (in Russian and in English), and they were included in several anthologies of short stories. She is also co-author of the non-fiction book for new mothers called “A Mother and a Child: The first Year Together. The Path to Physical and Emotional Connection” which was published in Russian.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be republished in any form or by any means without prior written permission. Cover image by Széchenyi Baths.
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About Széchenyi Thermal Bath: Located in Budapest’s City Park, Széchenyi is one of the biggest bath complexes in Europe with its 21 pools, both indoors and outdoors. Besides the thermal area, you can also enjoy the health and wellness services, including saunas, gymnastics and aqua fitness.