Laura woke later than planned and dressed in a hurry. She could not be late. It was dark outside as she fumbled through the clothes she’d laid out the night before. With her pants on, tight from her leggings underneath, she buttoned her shirt as she walked to the kitchen and started boiling the water. She measured the loose tea and returned to the bedroom for her boots. She could not be late. She needed this meeting today.
While the tea steeped she pulled on her sweater and zipped her coat. She laid her hat and gloves on the counter and poured the tea through a strainer and into her thermos. She put the spent tea leaves in her compost box, slipped the thermos into her bag, and stepped out into the cold dark morning, thankful to have remembered her gloves and hat from the counter. She did not want to miss this appointment.
Laura loved Budapest. It was a beautiful city. She liked the sounds of the streets. The traffic, the people talking, the buses, the trams, the bridges, the Danube, the bakeries, the bustle of it all was just bliss for her. Even on a dark morning like this one, the city up close had a sparkle. But living in the 1st district she’d sometimes grow frustrated by the romance of it all. And when the frustration grew too loud she had to escape, hence this morning.
She walked a few blocks from her flat to Batthyány tér and took the #2 Metro to Moszkva tér. She knew the name had been changed to Széll Kálmán tér but for her it would always be Moszkva tér. From Moszkva she’d take bus 21A to its end. 21A started at Moszkva so she looked forward to getting a seat for the long ride into the Budai-hegység.
She rode through the 12th district awaiting her stop. From there she’d still walk another 15 minutes or so. Oh how she hoped to be on time.
She watched stars fading in the cold gray light of dawn. She needed to hurry, but what could she do? It was up to the bus driver now. So she sat back into her seat on the right hand side and stared out the window watching the city be overtaken by the Budai-hegység.
The bus climbed up through the Buda hills passing the sprawling homes and renovated apartment buildings. She sweat some from the rush to make the connections. But she’d made them. She loosened her scarf a little to cool off. Sitting between the back and middle doors she enjoyed the cold draft each time the doors opened. The buzzing of the door at every stop simply annoyed her. The coolness comforted while the noise annoyed but she sat still in this best of seats in order for her to appreciate the tension. This added to all the reasons she escaped for this meeting. She rode on, cooled some now that the bus had stopped a dozen or so times.
Passing the Children’s Railway she longed for her morning meeting. Looking out the window she imagined the bust of Jókai Mór, the great Hungarian writer, at Svábhegy and silently bid him good morning. She knew the bust was there, though she’d not actually seen him this morning. Stars were no longer visible in the sky. Just a gray outline of the hills and trees and homes. Most of what she remembered she only remembered from her previous meetings.
These meetings always served the same purpose for Laura. They were never at the same time and they never looked exactly the same either. Maybe there would be other people there, or maybe she’d be alone. It didn’t matter that the meetings were never the same, for her the agenda was always the same.
Just 2 more stops and she realized she was the only one left on the bus. Perfect, she thought. No distractions now. The bus slowed to a stop at Normafa parkoló, the end of the line, and she exited quietly through the buzzing door. She walked now in this dark gray morning. The air was clean and crisp. There was no fog and she made her way the kilometer and a half to her favorite bench. She walked faster now because she was excited and no longer feared being late. She had made it. She was on time. She knew the meeting was only moments away and nearly ran the final 30 meters to her bench.
She sat down and poured her tea, careful not to spill any. The tea steamed in the cold air and smelled wonderful. She felt the warmth on her bare hand through the mug she’d brought along. She took a sip and the temperature was perfect. She settled back into her bench and looked off to her right. He was right on time. It was mid-February and the sun would arrive at 6:53am and she had 2 minutes to spare. She loved meeting him this way, when she was early.
She could just see him, the sun, peeking up from behind the trees and making every limb visible. He showed bare silhouetted trunks to twigs providing a different bliss than the city center’s. She smiled and took a deep breath.
“Good morning sun. Thank you!” she lipped. Watching the sunrise at Normafa, this morning’s meeting, allowed her to fall in love with Budapest all over again and to love it differently, more completely, as well.
She sat watching his light expand over the vast landscape in front of her. She watched the Parliament’s shadow grow visible. The light now made most of Rózsadomb visible as well. She saw the streets fill with cars which looked like ants from here. She couldn’t make out the details of all the lives she saw but she knew the transportation lines were loaded with folks headed to work and school and home. She had made her meeting and she was in love.
The sun continued to rise and with every moment some new detail became visible. From Normafa it all felt so fresh. The distance faded the details of the city, but she knew they were there. She’d seen them up close so many times. But now from her bench she felt superior. She too was the sun, but she didn’t do this everyday the way he did. And she wondered what the sun felt. Does he see it fresh everyday or just mindlessly pass by the 2.2 million people in this beautiful city. And do the people see the sun or just the details of what he exposes directly in front of them? Sitting there she always remembered the same cliche – Absence makes the heart grow fonder. She mulled it every time and never could decide its truth, if there was any at all.
Did she love Budapest more up close or from a distance? Sure the absence, distance, allowed her to take in the city all at once. But the distance simply wasn’t enough to appreciate all that was taking place on this magnificent morning. She thought too of her local bakeries and how she’d missed Zsolti this morning for her kakaós csiga. Laura could almost smell the fresh baked zsemle and kifli. She also knew that down there near Eötvös tér just off of Belgrád rakpart was Zsani, the artist, who drew tourist’s caricature portraits to fund her budding contemporary art career.
How could she sit here and long to be there so badly? Yet when she was there she longed to be here. Budapest was black and white and beautiful from here, but was also high definition color view from up close.
As she poured the last bit of tea from her thermos she realized it could be both. She couldn’t love just one view, because there wasn’t just one view. She felt she loved the whole from here because she knew the individuals. She longed for the locals. She strained to smell the busses but alas there was nothing except clean air in these hills. Soon she’d be back in the heart of this metropolis and would then wish to be back here on her bench taking it all in again from afar, longing for this breath of clean cold air that would freeze her nostrils and sting her lungs.
She hoped everyone could see this. See the cityscape fill their vision but also know the finite details of all the lives that filled Laura’s beautiful Budapest.
~~~ The End ~~~
About the author: Russell Ridgeway is an American writer living in Budapest. He posts stories weekly at www.neildylan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be republished in any form or by any means without prior written permission.
She has a swarm of children, a whole regiment of children. Her name is Iris. She is wearing a long flowery skirt and pearl drop earrings. She doesn’t mind when someone calls her “young lady”. She had never planned or imagined that one day she would look after a daily schedule of so many lovely children and would recognize each one’s cry instantly and without a mistake.
Usually her morning starts at 8am, the moment friendly birds’ noise is interrupted by the creaking of the old Károlyi Kert gate. Iris wouldn’t mind to have another hour’s sleep, but she can’t sleep when tiny Anna, who’s two months old now, is screaming the entire neighbourhood down. The only possible way to calm her down is to rustle the gravel on the pathway for a couple of hours.
Anna is the first one. The other rowdy ones arrive soon after her. Five of them, no less.
“Dani, János, Léna, Ági, Ványa” – Iris is counting.
Everything is just like she expected. The tiny people who are sitting in their buggies, crawling, crying and sleeping peacefully, one after another. Iris eventually recognizes a melody in a baby’s screaming.
The air has not warmed up yet. There is no heat at this time of the day, but there is a nice breeze, and workers who cut paving slabs into small pieces, making the street look nicer, are not making any noise yet. They’re eating sandwiches, smoking and chatting quietly.
Iris has several coffees, too. She is thinking about her littles ones growing bigger, how they are now talking more than screaming, how they slide down the slide for the first time and want to go higher on the swings. They would happily wave at her and she would wave back at them, too.
The fountain starts working at 9 o’clock. The door of the marketing agency also opens at 9am, and young men dressed in skinny trousers with suspenders (that make them look like boys instead of grown men) play with their smartphones, sip coffee from colourful mugs and clean their glasses before an important meeting. Later on, the Csendes Társ café opens too, and tables instantly fill up with people who anticipate the heat and want a lot of lemonade with mint and ice.
The group of toddlers, the “over ones”, arrive, filling the old park with noise and usual hullabaloo. Local cats and birds skedaddle as soon as they hear them. And the rabbit, who lives in the park, retreats to his burrow underground to escape from the crowd. Iris tenderly calls them “the suicide squad”.
For Iris, this is a magical but anxious time of the day, when any step or movement can easily end in death. At least Iris is convinced so. That’s why she feels that it is by pure magic that the toddler “suicide squad” members stay alive. But before this, Iris goes through drama. She imagines herself having a cigarette (although the one cigarette that she allows herself to have every day is still hours away) and she is whispering with hope, then despair, and then with hope again:
“Be careful, sweetie! Where are you going, my dear? No, not there, honey! Poppet, it’s your head. Be careful please! Oh, no no no…. darling, watch out for the swings! But, sweet-pea, you see, the horse is a bit too big for you… My poor child! Be careful, my love, look out for the curb… And stairs, stairs, stairs.. Oh no! Not again…”
Iris adores them and she would do anything for them to stay safe.
It’s getting hotter, and the park is peppered with coloured spots of people wearing sunhats. Sandals seem like a good idea. The slide is hot and therefore empty. Children start winging as they get hungry. The tap with drinking water is a popular place: hands, faces, tummies need to be washed. Mothers, nannies, fathers on duty open lunch boxes and offer drinks. Peach juice runs through little fingers as they squeeze the ripe fruit, rounds of cherry pits are shot at the bushes.
Iris follows suit. She puts on a wide-brimmed hat, she washes the fruits and berries, she eats cheese and spits cherry pits into an empty coffee cup.
The small kids are not the only ones bringing amusement to the park now. It is filled with students, couples, tourists. Younger women are stepping out in their elegant shoes and perfectly ironed silk dresses. Then they sit on the benches, chat and pick at a sweet cheese pastries while observing the universe. Older women are just happy to be among the babies and they feed the birds with freshly baked bread – their tiny leather bags seem to contain nothing else.
The fountain is going crazy and now it’s not just sprinkling but jetting around. A pure happiness for schoolchildren who drop by during their lunch break and get thoroughly wet in seconds.
Iris looks after the older ones too. She knows about their achievements – Tamás is good at football, Viki sings songs in different languages, László lost ten kilos which is also good. She feels bad when boys fight and girls cry. Iris turns out to be the only one who really cares. The only one who doesn’t want László, who lost weight, but is still rather overweight, to inadvertently push small smiley Ádám… She is the only one who wants things to be peaceful and in order.
Finally her eyes and ears need a break, she is hungry, and she is not made of stone after all. She has seen enough tears and bruises today. And anyway how could she really help if she is only guarding from the balcony?
Straight after the clock on the watchtower strikes twelve times, sounding not much louder than the children, the park is starting to empty. Iris, the guardian says good-bye to the children who don’t see her and sends air kisses that get stuck in the treetops and never reach the tops of the heads that they were meant to land on. Iris walks over to her sofa. Now it will be quiet, and Iris can eat and read, and close her eyes, and not worry about any of her kids. She can even have a nap and dream about an evening walk with someone by her side.
Iris knows well that in a few hours the park will be buzzing again. The evening air will be filled with adult voices this time. The adults, who had an awful day and now are looking for a retreat. The adults who would be on the phone, cursing and shouting, talking and not hearing. Feeling tipsy after drinking all that wine, they would sit by the fountain in tears – as if trying to hide behind the fountain stream.
Awkward violin sounds would be heard from an open window and less awkward sounds of a piano. They may be joined by a base and a flute. This would mean that a mother of three and a conductor named Magda called in her chamber orchestra for a home rehearsal.
Then the night would fall and the children would fall asleep, and the park would remain in Iris’s charge. She would go out to the balcony and sit there, calmly and peacefully, for as long as she wants, and no one would interrupt her thoughts.
~~~ 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.
Hi Adam, thanks for commenting. Laura is peaceful and delighted, and yes, torn as well. She rather feels displaced, not discontent. She is comfortable both places, but equally longs for the other.
So is Laura discontent? I felt I was supposed to see her as peaceful, with inner delight. But she’s also torn. How does that work?