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Absence justified (english)

Once again I woke up with the feeling of parched disappointment caused by the katzenjammer inside my head. I needed air, and so after making some coffee I went and stood outside on the side corridor, where nothing ever happens; the residents of the building were born hung-over: half-corpses, Joe Averages, quiet. Not for a moment did I imagine that an interesting story was about to take shape in my mind that morning, when one of my neighbour’s two offspring stepped out the door. I don’t wish to call her by her name – actually, I don’t know her name, in spite of having lived here for the past twelve years. I turned my head to the right and followed the young lady’s footsteps. She didn’t dare look at me, and I thought I could detect from the look in her eyes that she was proud of having a desperately boring life. She tramped off in the direction of the lift like a tank with that real classic, monotonous, bulldozer stomp of puberty. Those few seconds were enough for me to establish that I wasn’t hung-over after all, and even if I was, it didn’t matter. The little lady, who K called a monstrous freak back then, stormed off with an empty gaze and a plodding rhythm. Then I thought: would there ever in my life come a moment when I struck up a conversation with the girl. When would that one fine day come, the day when she would free herself a little from parental pressure and look at me, as she makes her away across the side corridor, and thinks to herself that that lad’s got one fucked-up, hung-over face. Maybe it would be the same day that I get hold of that little, neurotic, cat-sized lap dog of theirs, which barks at no-one but me in this whole stinking block. But then I can’t be mad at her, not even at her father, or her father’s father. In this whole cycle of things you can’t hold anybody to account, and I’d even go as far as to say that you don’t have to, but then when do you reach the point where enough is enough? I know: never. I never was and never will be depressed by the fact that I live amongst no-hopers. I didn’t rebel and had no cause to avenge anything, as it would have been pointless for me to think that I was someone who could change anything.

But to get back to the little girl next door and her unfortunate ancestors, and all the other misfortunate ancestors that walked this earth, all I wanted to say was that life’s one constant parade of neuroses, an exhibition of psychological complexes, which is open non-stop dear ladies and gentlemen, but I just make the most of it, like someone walking through a field of poppies. Every dad went to school, and every teacher was once a schoolkid who one day will be a father; also, every student hates his teacher and is scared of his dad, or likes his teacher and hates his dad – in some unusual cases positive feelings for both occur, and in even more unusual cases two negative poles of feeling dominate in both instances. Just imagine the outstanding student of biology and the anarchist sitting at one desk: non-existent affection and hatred staring each other in the face, but then somehow both of them wish that nothing existed, and neither of them wants to be afraid or to have to prove himself, it’s just that a long time ago they were forced to see reality as being incomprehensible, and so they simply do their thing; meanwhile they think that they represent something, but the only thing they represent is that they are schoolkids who will be dads, teachers who were once schoolkids. Aggression fosters and nurtures fear, which then instinctively recreates itself, and neither of them will be capable of living in a world according to their lights, and so before you know it they have become displays upon the wall in the eternally open exhibition of complexes, as a feeling, a norm, a citizen and his deeds, a human being. And this, amongst other things, is why I am and always have been incapable of living in a community, and thus of going to school; I really haven’t achieved anything in life, unless it is to see through those people who supposedly set off on the path at the end of which might just come the realization that life is one continuous process composed of days, a period which, when it boils down to it, has no beginning or end; and yet it seems that meanwhile something happened: we lived, made a living, raised the next generation, and helped society towards a happier and more manageable future. But then nobody’s interested in that future here, and nobody has the faintest idea why they do things, or who they do them for, except when it’s for one person: yourself, so that you stay alive, and having been born, you might as well live as comfortably as possible. In all the constant stress and running around you retreat from the present, and then, when you’re senile, you’ve got no chance to think things over; if you’re not senile, then you have to admit that for the last forty years or so you actually were, but in some strange and anomolous form. This much I expect from everybody, from all those dads, mums, and their kids; from the dear old teacher who arises from the mishmash of fears, aggression, and complexes, that is to say, from God.

On the last day of school, when I got on the tram in the shadows of the apartment blocks in Kelenföld, I didn’t think it would be the last time I saw some dark-skinned entrepreneur adjusting his shooter as he sat his behind down on the worn seat of the creaking forty-nine tram. The “comitee” – as the late Mrs. Vincze called it on the stickers calling for cooperation amongst the building’s residents on printouts stuck by the entrance – came to the conclusion that change was needed. My six “D” grades predicted a ruinous future in an institution where knowledge was taken seriously and respected, where it wasn’t enough just to be able to sing, where you had to perform well under all circumstances, and where Lyme disease or discrimination was not an acceptable excuse or explanation. So me and my mother made a decision to look up a family friend, an acquaintance who was able to nurture deep and long-unbroken relationships with teachers, and we succeeded in finding him: Kakdu got me a resident’s permit for a school in the Angyalföld ghetto that reminds you of a young offenders institution.

Thus summer began in a light-hearted manner: there I stood on the brink of success, and the hope I placed in my change of circumstances made my eyes gleam like a summer sunbeam reflecting off the piss-salty water at the sands in Bogács. The scene really did seem to be changing, only the syllabus stayed the same, as I had a backlog of work, and I ought to have been smelling my wilting violet from behind my desk all summer in my room, but that didn’t work out – when enough is enough, something’s got to give. I stood in the kitchen, and was about to set off for the pleasure beach, when my mum said if I don’t stay then I will stay, in fifth grade that is, as this is intolerable behaviour, if you carry on like this you won’t be able to catch up on that big a backlog, and if you can’t put all your efforts into concentrating on fractions when the sun is shining outside, and ice-lollies are dribbling down the girls’ mouths, and footballs are being kicked on the pitch, and the holy water of Sorsod-Abaúj County is being poured down peoples’ throats at the No More bar, then you must face the consequences. I had to make a decision, and fast, because if I looked uncertain, as if I could be broken, then there would be no turning back. Thus I quickly turned and walked out the door, mounted my trusty steed, and didn’t stop until I reached the sands at Bogács, which by the way is an awful place, but then somebody tell me another village in this country where there’s a row of wine cellars, a hotel, a disco, and a drive-in cinema. It was simply impossible to resist all that, although the way there is a bit steep, over those first hillocks at the foot of the Bükk mountain range – not smooth riding at all. The way back is downhill with jumps, and as we all know, young teenagers in their early teens love to jump with their bikes and shout out things half-naked that they wouldn’t dare write down later on.

Thus it happened that as a result of my decision I was back in the fifth grade again in September, and I can only say that it was worth it, because the summer had been fantastic. A lighter had almost popped my eye out when, after it had been thrown to the ground, it had bounced back off the side of a trough, and whacked me on the forehead; the girls had hounded me – a whole convoy of them skulked along behind me when I went across the village after a girl who didn’t give a shit about me. That’s just the way it is; it’s how I used to keep making a mess of things, so something new would happen to me. An enraged farmer chased us from the banks of the stream to the hill at the other end of the village when we were out hunting frogs and the boys didn’t believe I would shout out that someone was stealing his plums. He had such a big stick with him that we all raced through the nettles at record speed. My older bro used a hoe to work over the bedding of the middle-aged man who guarded the cows at night – feathers flew and we drank beer, and we set lizards against dung-beetles on the side of the hill which cowpats covered like landmines, fertilizing the soil; there was life, I tell you, and sunshine, and fresh air at dawn, when we set off to the Polish market in town, which is nothing like as big as you might think from what I just said, but it does have a town center, and two department stores, and nothing else I reckon. During the night you really could hear only the crickets, but later the dogs started off, which to be honest, I hated as least as much as I hated mosquitoes at the time, but it was then, during the dead of night, that the signs of my illness, or God knows what, appeared regularly; I never could explain it to anybody, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to, because it might not even exist, but one thing’s sure, it existed then, and sometimes it comes back, even today. After a while I learned how to prevent it overwhelming me, but I didn’t win out too many times. The most important thing for me was to speak, that always put an end to it, but I didn’t know who to talk to, and if I talked to myself then it just got worse. Quite apart from the fact that if I woke someone up, like when I woke my grandparents up when I was little, in the shadow of the valley trees that slumbered in a similar death-like silence, they thought I was being silly: they thought I was just scared, or wasn’t able to go to sleep. First the space around me started to vibrate, and colourful patches appeared behind my closed eyes; then my own breathing grew increasingly heavy and loud, howling and whistling through my head, until finally I had to twist and turn or stand up and start moving; even so, every single motion was like a lightning-quick slap across the face, and it never allowed me time to think about what was happening to me. In the meantime I knew that I was talking as quietly as normal, and that my movements were as slow or quick as usual. All these symptoms seemed to be slightly delayed in their effect: my thoughts, as they left the convolutions of my brain, echoed back with a delay of about one hundredth of a second; the sounds started to blare out only a moment afterwards, and I used to think that I was being followed by some aggressive force, and that once perhaps I ought to let it overwhelm me, but then I’m only saying that now, and I’m well aware that those were unbearably nerve-racking moments. On many occasions these short lapses of consciousness knocked me sideways, but that only proves that the purpose and enjoyment of every living being on this planet is to smell, see, and hear as harmoniously as possible. It’s thanks to my senses that I feel – me too, I think – and so I’m a human or whatever, but then the same goes for dogs, too, who cabled each other during the night to ensure that I couldn’t go to sleep even if I was able to, and made me continue to sweat it out on the first floor, where the heat was seething and unbearable every night; I stuck to the bed like a fly on those sticky strips attached to the ventilator in the Sunbeam Café, where we went to play pool and try out the fruit machines, and where Józsi Krácz gradually managed to blow all his pay, which after all was worth it, getting the bonus and the record, what with all the stress of being in the army: to put it short Józsi knows how to live it up, and I think he knew it, too, when he supped his tenth coffee in front of the machine and sought his ex-teeth with his tongue.

My parents discovered the village towards the end of the seventies, and fell in love with it at once. It’s three streets wide, and fifteen hundred inhabitants enjoy each other’s company over a four kilometer stretch of shared sentiment. The hills, or the dunes that the locals call mountains, enclose the six pubs and four grocery stores (I think everybody agrees that these numbers are adequate) from all sides. There are Pig and Dog Mountains, and pigs and dogs; there’s a richly colourful ecosystem, a village museum, and an access road, on which there’s a small hump which only the wild youths from Budapest appreciate, just like Tamás, who drove over it at a hundred and sixty; I would have given up had I not also been a youth from Budapest, ‘cause in the country, I tell you, they take care of their cars, they slow down, and spare their East German wonders. Then there was the disco, for which the choice of name came when the young village lads asked one of their companions, who had experiences and memories of working at holiday resorts by Lake Balaton, for advice; after a long period working out the PR, he painted the word “skylight” on the wall of the former sheep shed which was soon to become a community center, and from that moment on there was no looking back.

These days it is the alleged record-breaking heat that causes me to sweat; outside, the blazing rays of the sun, grouped in tiny little divisions, prickle the surface of the residents’ skin, and here I am thinking about transience; I look out of the window and see a sunbeam swear to itself, as it has travelled sixty-four million kilometres in eight minutes only to bounce back off the forehead of a young restaurateur: aw for fuck’s sake, nothing’s going to photosynthesize here, I’ve gone and found myself a mammal, so much for equal opportunities, so much for life; I could have been sent to Venus, where natural forces are at least in conflict. I find the heroic sunbeam’s thoughts interesting, and my mouth immediately breaks into a smile, because I recently heard one of the restaurateur’s more memorable sayings from a young girl who collected gems of wisdom in a little notebook: it’s bad news if life don’t work out.

Now I’m rotting in the town: I’ve got no chance of leaving, I hate the pleasure beaches, and I haven’t got air-conditioning, although some multinational is selling a system for just one hundred thou; I’d even thought about going to Paris with Petra, but we thought it would be better to chip in and get the air-conditioning, and then just lie around in my room, proudly observing the spider’s web (which belonged to a spider who left years ago, it’s just that I forgot to close the door on his home rental business), as it dances in the breeze. In front of me is a litre carton of orange juice or jooce, as I think we say now in Hungary, and its content soothes my throat, although the point I was going to make is that while I was making coffee the temperature rose to about thirty degrees, and so I lost the will or energy to toddle off to the kitchen and get some ice. Otherwise everything has been washed up, the flat is spick and span, and the cockroaches must be enjoying some rare difficulties: cleanliness, and therefore danger. I really ought to be in Bogdány, where my older brother and his partner had bought a charmingly beautiful, fairy-tale German peasant cottage; it has high ceilings, a veranda, an outdoor, hole-in-the-ground style toilet, a loft, and a cellar in which barrels of “Bobby” can be found, the favourite of both my brother and his friends who go there, and his local mates and the local workers: it’s an exceptionally shite, bitter, and stale wine which they add sugar to and drink all the time. Once I was fortunate enough to encounter it, and when you wake up, you feel like a dusty, soaked, and shabby old rug.

Super 100000

That’s what I seem to remember was written on the bottle that caused my downfall in Angyalföld. Each morning I tore my way along from Nyugati railway station to Árpád bridge, and then tried to adapt to my surroundings over the next few minutes on foot. The truth, of which I’ve just become aware, was strange. No matter how many times I went somewhere new, I always squatted down isolated in the corner for a week, and made no attempt to make friends; now I could refer back to what I said in previous chapters, but there’s no point. The thing was that I carefully observed the teachers and the students, like a cat does its prey, and then suddenly exploded my incognito, ensnaring people from one day to the next, and in the end people either worshipped me or hated me, like some sort of occult phenomenon – of course, that depended on me. I didn’t like it if people were afraid of me, but it was inescapable, because I wanted to avoid superficial and false cooperation at all costs, and so I had to make the choice there, too. I remember the young, confused lad, who stole from me, but unfortunately for him, I saw him do it. I can also remember the lady who ran the choir, and my form teacher – how could I forget him, he used to pull my ear so hard that he nearly tore it off. Aside from them, only courtyard basketball and the design workshop survive in my memories, and I don’t even know the name of the school, as they expelled me in October that year, thanks to the Super 100000 gas spray, which my brother got from one of his friends who used to come round in those days; his feet stank so badly that in winter we preferred freezing to letting the stench of his socks waft around the room; also, when it was Dani’s birthday, he brought him gum drops and a book, so that he would have something to read and something to chew on whilst he gave voice to both his ceaseless interest in science and his condemnation of childish ignorance. As for the Super 100000, I haven’t any information as to how it came into his possession; however, I grabbed it off the shelf on one fine October morning, and thus took my fate into my own hands for the next two weeks, just as the headmaster later took the gas spray into his hands, after I got caught. It was in the first floor toilets that I hatched the devilish plan to press the button on the can of Super 100000, which even had a safety warning. I closed the inner toilet door onto my arm, and pressed the button on the can for about seven seconds, the only witness to this act being the young Roma lad who stole from me; thus I thought I could be certain that he wouldn’t grass on me, as it was customary to say and act in a school in Angyalföld. What I didn’t account for was the fact that the young man hadn’t had many happy, successful moments in life, and as I tried out stinkfoot Tamás’ gas spray in his presence, I sealed my own fate, and was forced to leave Angyalföld once again. However, before I did, I had to string a few really unpleasant experiences to my belt. Whilst standing in the corridor, the teary-eyed, red-faced boys were escorted past me in a line, and right away I knew that there was trouble afoot, that I‘d been a fool. My form teacher’s voice could be heard over the school radio, warning students to avoid the first floor toilets, because they had been sprayed with gas. My mental condition quickly revealed that I was a multi-celled, sentient organism, who is susceptible to pyschosomatic illness. I couldn’t breathe, and suddenly wanted to run off home, or anywhere away from there, as things like that always get found out; also, there were loads of strapping, runny-eyed lads “studying” there, as well as ones who were capable of bloodily avenging their friends at the drop of a spray. Thus I thought I was finished for certain: there was no way out and I didn’t deserve to find one. I stepped into the design workshop – it was the fifth lesson of the day, and the Roma kid was nowhere. I sat down at my bench, staring in and out of the room, and since then I’ve known that a second can be split up into hundredths and thousandths, and that the passing of time is a very relative thing. Someone knocked on the door, and the Roma came in, with my form teacher beside him, and both of them scrutinized the room, so I started to lift my backside – time to face the rap as usual, even though you never do get used to it. I was escorted to the headmaster’s office, where vultures were already circling with their ominous looking gaze; they were far more frightening – and there were many more of them – than there were simple lads from the Újpest district who were born with hands clenched into fists. The headmaster had a black goatee, and he was waiting for me at the corner of a long office desk in an elegant grey jacket. My form teacher closed the door behind me. The headmaster, because of the high level of responsibility that went with his position, remained calm even amidst such dramatic circumstances, and calmly enquired about the whereabouts of the spray with his first question; after the first warning had come over the loudspeakers I had thrown it in a bin on the courtyard, but then perhaps I shouldn’t have done that, because the boss demanded that I run down and get it, and considering that there was just one route to the courtyard, and that route was far more perilous than I was brave, this did not bode too well. I stepped out onto the corridor, and before the other kids pounced upon me, I informed them that I had been sent to do something, and so they would have to wait before they could smash my head in. One of them grabbed hold of me – I don’t know why they keep going for my ears, they’re so tiny – and dragged me down to dig the Super 100000 out of the bin. The headmaster stroked his beard with one hand, and rotated the small canister in the other, which made me think that he might not know what to do, but he did. After a long period of silence, he spoke in the husky voice of a man proud of his position who wanted to lead the world into the future: What would you say, Márton…if I was to spray this into your eyes? Under normal circumstances I would have fallen about laughing, but then there all I could muster was: well… However, even back then I already had some understanding of emotions, and I knew how to make the most of this business, so I quickly started to explain, with lots of snivelling and false tears thrown in for effect, saying I didn’t even know what it was, and of course my brother didn’t know either, and he didn’t know who he got it from, because it was his mate’s friend’s, and then there was that girl and her sister, and they found it… After this performance he spoke again, and said I had two weeks to find another institution for myself, otherwise he would get the police involved. He kept the spray, and I think this way everybody was happy, as I hated Angyalföld anyway. However, the biggest boxing around the ears I got in my life awaited me outside the door of the music room, where my mum had arrived in a flurry, all frightened; she had come from her school after she had received a telephone call telling her to hurry if she meant well. She knocked on the door, and smiled kindly at me, and the idiot I am I thought: maybe she’s not that angry, but after we’d closed the door on this school as well I got such a slap that I spun around my own axis. We stepped out of the school gates, and the vultures angrily realized that they couldn’t tear me apart; on the way home my mum began to think about sending me to a religious-based youth corrective institute in Pannonhalma, but of course nothing came of it, of which I was glad for two reasons. One, because I believe in the complementary joys of co-education, and two, because if they tried to make me take my first Communion, then at the very least the Synod would be called to assemble, because I don’t believe in predestination, but in pre-whatever, it don’t matter. So, instead I had to vacuum out the whole flat, and by evening sweetness and light reigned anew in our humble abode. I spent two weeks of the summer down in the valley, and during that time my mum drummed up her acquaintances in town (cripes!) on account of her having to ensure her difficult child a place next term. One account closed, another one opened.

This morning was one of those rare mornings when I ate a substantial breakfast with Zsigu after having gone shopping; I got ready, got the stuff, and prepared the food. Afterwards – in the same way that has happened many times before – it was discovered that there must be some problem with the beer in Balázs’ pub, or with my digestive system, because once more I spent ages sitting in my favourite room of the house, where I crawl in awkwardly each and every morning with the huge wings of my newspaper, a freshly-made coffee, and the kitchen matches, which I have no need for – every blessed day I leave them there, and the people who come after me knock on the door and angrily disturb my meditation, because there are no matches by the stove. This habit of mine has caused problems since I was little, the fact that I like to spend a lot of time in there I mean, in productive, but still monotonous and boring solitude; at such times I don’t feel that anything is important, or unnecessary; I know that I have to do something that I can’t do in any other way, and it’s precisely the triviality of the deed that lends it significance and makes it pleasurable. Thus it is not rare for me to squeeze in there, sup my coffee, leaf through the paper, and blow the smoke that irritates the organs of my still semi-conscious body away from my bunged-up nose.

So, besides the eggs and vegetables for breakfast, I was at last able to consume some Pálpusztai cheese again. I say “at last” because I have a tendency to forget my favourite cheese, and as I rarely go shopping, there’s nothing to remind me of it. But then this morning we met down at the shop once more, and in all probability it was the cheese that gave me the strength to feed, because I don’t like eating breakfast, or to be more accurate, I can’t. Contributing to this was probably – or rather definitely the following factor, which kept rearing its ugly head – the fact that I had been sacked from my job the previous day; I went back there on a Monday after the first holiday from work in my life, only to turn around and walk back into an insecure existence after two hours had elapsed. It was thanks to this new-found feeling of liberation and a bout of diarrhoea that I was able to have breakfast, and the gastronomic orgasm was now certain to help me put a different complexion on the day, when I really didn’t want to think, and was looking for an excuse not to, because I had to. It was one of those situations when there was nothing left, when the power of my ingenuity to make me a living waned; then despair, and the way you plunge into it – I despise that. It’s melancholy, a consumer good that was created as mankind’s standard accessory pack, that I find unbearable; I look back gormlessly on the past and the present, and am unable to see that there are a thousand and one things of beauty and use, different forms and moods. Now I know how to get over things, as I know that lying to myself is far more pathetic, slapping myself round the face, and saying look my boy, it’s because of him there, and then this and that. I just wait for it to pass, nice and easy, and try to sit things out on the edge of my life’s deep abyss with eyes shut, lest I should see what lies deep down in my forests; if I did I would only jump and have my mind play tricks on me.

Two days ago, following my sacking during the course of the bloody staff purges in May, I lived through similar days to those when I left the place beside Árpád bridge; once more I looked to the future with eyes liberated, hungry for change, and I awaited the scene of my next port of call. As the express train of puberty had set off at that time, my consciousness of slowly reaching manhood, and the increasing manliness of my conscience, began to condemn my existence with its increasing sense of responsibility: as it stood at the station it had to choose a path, and create its own defensive mechanisms, because I was clear about the fact that, in essence, I had no role in life, and I had no life in the community, and that acquiring one would be impossible and completely unnecessary; thus I stood before the completion of a task that required the smallest possible change of mentality and personality. I had to hide what was of no concern to anybody else, but make them aware that it existed, and use that to my advantage by causing feelings of uncertainty in those who criticized me, in my teachers, in those who valued me and tried to fuse my outsiderness with the mentality of the group, with the lifestyle of the class, through various methodological approaches. I had to find the middle way, but do it in a way that I would enjoy it as well. But then anti-social idiots like me find that the only tolerable path is to have a laugh, to make fun of everything and everybody, to rip up the world around them that they have observed down to the last detail. I was never prepared to believe that these other people, the students and their teachers, were enjoying themselves so damned much, or were paying any attention to each other. Instead I noticed that beneath a radiantly glowing exterior they were afraid of each other, competing with each other, exciting feelings of envy, and scurrying about creating their place in the group, which their position regulated and moulded perfectly. I didn’t have a mould, and I didn’t have anyone to look up to; I didn’t respect knowledge, age, or the ideals that wrenched teenagers away from their home and school desks at the end of the day with hopes to change the world, only for them to then exercise fear and desperation on others because they didn’t have the guts to face up to the small-scale progression of their everyday lives. Dreaming of causing the downfall of other theoretical and practical systems which are based on global levels of reality, in fact they cause the downfall of only one system: their own, that of their freedom. I trusted in my own interpretation of human relations, looked for the missing pieces, exploited false human feelings that operated on the basis of their primitive system, and watched and waited during every minute of the day. I didn’t break down from being alone, because it was more a case of me being with everybody, rather than them being against me. I paid attention to them, and if they asked me a question, I answered, but I never asked anything of them. That’s what I think, and so my first teenage years were spent on Nagyvárad Square in this rhapsody of private and public sentiment, and it was there that I would go to the school-leaving ball that conventionally brought my school career to an end.

 

Translated by Philip Barker

 

Scolar Kiado. 2003, 2012

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