I decided to go to the café. The encounter with Karolina had unnerved me.
The café was unusually busy for the time of morning – the breakfast crowd had gone but it was still too early for the first lunches. Yet, on this particular May morning, almost every table was occupied. So, it came as no surprise when a figure hovered at my table. ‘Can I take a seat?’ The deep voice, I thought, had a Russian accent.
‘By all means,’ I said, gathering in my newspaper to make room on the table. Not that I meant it; I had no desire to share my space with a Soviet.
‘Thank you, comrade.’ He seemed too young to possess such a low growl. He’d bought a coffee and a white bread cheese sandwich. ‘A lovely day,’ he said.
‘Mmm.’ Equally, I had no desire to converse, and concentrated my thoughts on an article about the AVO’s unstinting devotion to duty. But my thoughts were full of Karolina. How vulnerable we all are. I realised I was in danger. If she was angry with me for not having come sooner, it would be so easy for her to denounce Josef and, by association, me. The central AVO office was at 60 Andrassy Street – everyone knew that. The address alone was enough to induce fear in the stoutest of hearts. I wondered whether I should try and visit her. The thought of stepping into the place made me shudder. And would it do any good? I tried to read.
Within my peripheral vision, I could tell the Russian opposite felt self-conscious eating next to me. He took small bites at a time and kept wiping non-existent crumbs from his mouth. He was handsome, dark with wavy black hair, and thickset eyebrows beneath which his eyes were surprisingly blue. I wondered what had brought him to Budapest. I began to feel annoyed with myself for giving him so much thought. But the more I tried to concentrate on the tiresome prose, the less I saw of the words.
It was almost a relief when I realised that someone was arguing at the counter. ‘All I want is a cup of tea; is it that so much to ask?’ The irritated voice cut through the babble of conversation.
I couldn’t hear the reply. My companion was facing the right direction to see what was happening but either he chose to ignore it or perhaps hadn’t noticed. I wanted to turn round but feared I would appear nosey.
The voice at the counter was becoming louder. ‘I can pay, I can’t see the problem.’ This time the Russian heard and looked up at the agitated man.
‘Oh, this is ridiculous. A cup of tea, that is all.’
By now the café customers were silent, conversations paused, ears pricked, waiting. Now it would have appeared odd not to have taken an interest. I turned to see the red-faced young girl behind the counter say, ‘I am not allowed to serve you.’ Her voice shook as she spoke.
The old hag appeared next to her young assistant. ‘Oh, it’s you again. Don’t you ever learn?’
‘I want to see the manager,’ came the retort. He was an old man with a long, white moustache wider than the width of his face, and a beard. He wore a large hat, black and battered, and an equally battered long coat. The man was a Jew.
But instead of the manager, out came two burly boys in stained white overalls.
‘He’s back again,’ said the old hag, with a roll of her acid eyes.
‘Get out,’ said the taller of the two boys through gritted teeth.
‘I will not. I demand a cup of tea.’
The boys looked at each other and then emerged from behind the counter from opposite ends. ‘We’ve told you before, we don’t want your type in here; now get out.’
‘I will not; I insist –’
Before he could finish his sentence, the boys grabbed an arm each, lifted the man off his feet, and carried him to the door. ‘Get off me, you bastards. Get off!’ But the boys were strong and in no time had opened the door and dumped the old man unceremoniously on the pavement outside. The man sprang back to his feet with surprising nimbleness and resumed his protest. What happened next shocked me – the shorter of the boys punched him. The man’s hat flew off as he staggered back. The boys re-entered the café, satisfied grins plastered over their faces for a job well done. The old hag nodded a thank you, and the pretty girl went redder still.
‘They needn’t have done that.’
I’d quite forgotten about my silent companion. ‘No, I agree.’
‘Look, he’s coming back in.’
I looked back round and the old man, his hat back in place, was coming in, pulling on his moustache and shouting, ‘How can you do this, eh? Me, an old man?’
With my back turned on my companion, I hadn’t noticed him rise from his chair. Approaching the old man, he called out, ‘Hey, comrade. Come join us at our table. I’ll buy you your tea.’
The man eyed him for a few moments and then grinned broadly, first at the Russian and then at the young girl and her frosty old colleague behind the counter. ‘Thank you, young man,’ he said triumphantly. ‘Thank you.’
Well, I thought, he might have asked me first for my consent. I had no desire to share my table with a misfit. What if word got round? Eva Horvath mixes with socially undesirable elements. People are routinely arrested for less. No, I wanted nothing to do with this. As the Russian returned to the table (‘our table’ he’d said), the old man behind him, I swigged the last of my (now cold) coffee, and quickly folded my Free People. I snatched my string bag from under the table and rose.
‘You don’t have to leave,’ said the Russian.
I blushed. ‘No, I have to… to go now.’
I paused and, despite my embarrassment, looked him in the eye. He held my gaze.
Sometimes one’s fate lies in moments like this. I could have said no, could have stuck to my instinct and left, walked out of the Café of the Revolution and never seen him again.
But for some reason, I didn’t.
The Secret Policeman
Zoltan Beke felt the need to undo his top button and loosen his tie. But he couldn’t – he had an appointment to keep. Even with the window wound down, the heat in the Pobeda was suffocating, (these Soviet-made cars were the AVO’s vehicle of choice). Fischer sat to his left, gazing out of the window. If his assistant felt hot, he certainly wasn’t showing it.
‘Shouldn’t be too long a job,’ said Fischer.
‘As long as it takes,’ replied Zoltan, hoping his reply sounded both offhand and authoritative.
The driver, a woman, glanced at him in the rear-view mirror.
But no, thought Zoltan, it shouldn’t be too long. He’d spoken to the manager, to the centre forward, now it was simply a matter of nobbling the goalkeeper, and that’d be it. Not that it would make much difference, by all accounts. This goalkeeper, Milan Ignotus, was once a player to be reckoned with but his best years were far behind him. Liable to drink one too many, on a bad day he was as much use in goal as a sack of potatoes.
It still bothered Beke, however, that Donath was sending him out on these jobs. Surely, it was a job for Fischer and someone more junior in the department. Had he fallen out of his boss’s favour? It rankled that he should work so hard, striving for the promotion he thought was his by right, only for Donath to send him out on these errands. It diminished his standing in Fischer’s eyes; it wasn’t right.
The car had stopped, halted by an overly efficient traffic policeman, who hadn’t noticed the official car nor the distinguishable small-numbered licence plate. ‘Just push through,’ he said.
The driver beeped her horn, attracting the policeman’s attention who, on realising his oversight, waved them through. The man saluted as they passed, the shadow of his peaked cap obscuring his eyes. Zoltan didn’t salute back.
The driver laughed. He knew that she was relishing the power that came with the job. She’d once been a prostitute but after the Party had closed down the brothels, many of the girls were retrained as taxi drivers and used by the AVOs as chauffeurs and informers. No one dared hail a female-driven taxi any more – they drove terribly, too busy eavesdropping, and never knew the way.
Zoltan’s thoughts returned to the job in hand. At least the consolation in this menial task had been meeting George Lorenc. The boy had prospects, not simply in footballing terms, but as a new man in Hungary’s communist future – earnest, dedicated, and strong. You could see it in his bone structure. Zoltan believed you could tell a lot about a man by his bone structure. George Lorenc had a strong jaw line and deep set eyes. He had, Zoltan reckoned, a strength of character etched into his face that matched his undoubted physical prowess. He only hoped that the boy had the mental maturity to correspond.
‘This is it, boss,’ said the driver.
Milan Ignotus lived on the seventh floor of an apartment block on the outskirts of Pest, a relatively new but run-down affair, the street outside poorly constructed, littered with potholes and cracks. No one would dare complain, however. A small group of children played on the pavement, racing snails then cracking the shells. He thought of his own daughter. He’d never allow her to play such crass games, let alone out on the street with a rabble of children dressed like orphans straight out of Dostoyevsky. A child of about seven came out from the apartment block and Zoltan grabbed the door before it shut. The block was eight storeys high and he and Fischer began the climb to the seventh floor. There was no way he’d ever risk the lift. For such a new block, the stairwell was already in a poor state – the concrete steps chipping away, the paint falling off, half the light bulbs gone. Another child came racing down the stairs and shot at Zoltan with his wooden gun. He was in no mood to feign death.
On reaching the seventh floor, he paused to catch his breath and wipe his brow with a handkerchief. It was too hot a day to be climbing to the top of apartment blocks. Fischer looked as cool as ever.
He knocked on the door and straightened his tie. A young mother with a baby in her arms answered.
‘Yes?’ A wave of her hair obscured one eye; her clothes seemed surprisingly neat.
‘Milan Ignotus, please.’
She eyed him for a moment, nodded and then stood to one side. After the bright sun, the apartment seemed depressingly dark. The goalkeeper was standing in the middle of the room, all six foot something of him, as if he’d been expecting them. In contrast to his wife, Milan Ignotus looked terrible – dressed in a string vest, unshaven, his hair unkempt. Not an image Zoltan would associate with a top athlete; a far cry from George Lorenc. Zoltan introduced himself and Fischer. He noticed the sunken settee, the newspapers littered on the floor, an empty pack of cigarettes, a dirty plate on a chair, and, amongst the squalor, a sideboard decked with two glass footballers, some ten centimetres high.
‘Have you come to arrest me?’ asked Ignotus, as his wife came to stand behind him.
‘No, no.’ He tried to keep his tone light and realised he felt slightly intimidated. It wasn’t a feeling he was accustomed to (except when in the presence of Donath).
‘What do you want then?’
‘A courtesy call, if you like.’
‘Cut the crap.’
Zoltan exchanged a quick look with Fischer. ‘I’ll get to the point, then. May we sit down?’
‘Whatever.’ Ignotus sat on a hardback chair as his visitors sunk inelegantly into the settee.
Zoltan launched into his spiel – the visiting Russians, the role of the generous host, the need to stand aside for the greater interest. No one would blame you if you let slip two or three through. We all have a bad day. Ignotus listened carefully, leaning forward, stroking his stubble.
Zoltan finished, aware that he’d ended with his last word on the up so that it sounded less like an order and more like a request. Fischer, he knew, would be taking mental notes – how not to intimidate a suspect.
Ignotus did not respond. Instead, he opened a new packet of cigarettes and lit one without offering any to his guests. He blew out a puff of smoke and watched it dissipate. The baby stirred and Ignotus’s wife held it up and sniffed its behind. Pulling a face, she disappeared into another room.
The smells interlocked and lingered, baby shit and pungent cigarette smoke. The olfactory assault and the silence seemed to mock Zoltan. He tried to rise to his feet but the settee sucked him back down. With greater determination, he hauled himself up, his face red with the effort and embarrassment.
Clearing his throat, he broke the silence. ‘Well, if that’s understood, we won’t detain you any more. Fischer?’
Fischer too struggled to disengage himself from the smothering piece of furniture. But Zoltan was damned if he was going to humiliate himself further by offering his assistant a hand. Finally on his feet, Fischer stretched his neck and pulled the creases out of his jacket.
Milan Ignotus still ignored them, watching a shaft of sunlight cut through the weaving strands of smoke. ‘We will expect your full co-operation come Sunday then. Thank you, Comrade Ignotus, for your time.’ He turned to leave, relieved to be escaping the fog of disgusting smells.
But Fischer, who rarely spoke, was speaking now. ‘Answer him, you arrogant shit.’ Zoltan glared goggle-eyed at his assistant.
Ignotus held his nerve. ‘You expect me to play ball with your stupid games; get out of here.’
The shattering of the glass took Ignotus by surprise. Fischer had moved to the sideboard and now one of the glass football figurines lay smashed at his feet beneath his AVO boots.
Ignotus moved off his chair, stretching himself to his full height. ‘You bastard, that was my –’
‘I don’t care what they are. You still have one left…’ He ground his foot into the pieces of glass. ‘For now.’
Ignotus stepped towards Fischer. Zoltan noticed his fists clenching at his sides. Neither he nor Fischer would be any match for the enormous goalkeeper. He had images of throwing himself onto the man’s back like a child clinging onto the playground bully.
He knew he had to speak, to somehow take control of the situation. ‘I think you should have the hint by now.’
‘Fuck off, you,’ yelled Ignotus over his shoulder.
Fischer held his ground. ‘That’s a lovely baby you have there,’ he said. ‘You have another, don’t you, a girl, aged three?’
‘So? What of it?’
‘No doubt she dotes on you. Does she come see you play, or perhaps she’s a bit young? Still, she will one day, I guess. Unless of course…’
‘Get out,’ growled Ignotus, so deep that the floor seemed to vibrate. But Zoltan knew the sound came not from aggression but from fear. ‘Get out before –’
‘Before what, citizen?’ said Fischer.
Ignotus’s wife reappeared, still holding onto the baby. ‘What was that noise?’ she asked. ‘Did something break?’ She looked at the trio of men, Fischer and Ignotus only inches apart. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Nothing to worry about, comrade, we were just leaving,’ said Zoltan, nodding at Fischer that it was time to make a move. As they reached the door, Zoltan turned and said, ‘We’ll be there on Sunday, cheering you on, comrade. Make sure you don’t fail us.’ He winked at the goalkeeper but the man ignored him, his eyes still fixed on Fischer. ‘Good day,’ said Zoltan as they left.
Outside, the children had gone but the squashed snails with their shattered shells lay round and about. Twenty yards away, the ex-whore leant against the Pobeda, reading a paperback. She hadn’t seen them yet.
Zoltan reached for his Red Stars in his pocket. ‘That told him,’ he said, circling his shoulders.
Fischer shot him a look designed to diminish.
And diminished is how he felt.
Read the rest of Anastasia.