I’m sitting on the toilet staring at the pink bathroom. The reason it’s pink is that when I was a girl I always dreamed that when I’d be big I’d have a pink bathroom. When we had the renovation done my husband, who was still my husband then, didn’t really care which colour I chose. I look at the pink tiles and my eyes fill with tears. Although I thought I’d already cried every last drop. I tear off a piece of toilet paper, blow my nose and wipe my eyes. The children are asleep but it doesn’t hurt to be careful. I don’t want them to think I’m weak.
I come out of the bathroom and hope today I’ll be able to sleep. I turn on the TV and search for the feeling known as relaxation. It’s as though I’m constantly afraid. That’s the feeling that’s keeping me from sleeping, that’s keeping me from focusing. Because more and more the only feeling I nurse is this feeling of fear. And that other one which I’m trying to keep secret. Which I hide beneath the fear.
Watching TV doesn’t work, every loud word makes me start. What the hell is scaring me so much, if only I knew. I go through to the kitchen, light up, and get out my tried and tested methods, I do a crossword.
The organ of love. Heart – I write into the squares, and bawl my eyes out. I start scribbling all over the squares and cross out heart. The paper tears but I keep on scoring at it. When in god’s name is this fucking fear going to let me sleep? When am I going to be able to think about something else? I force myself to think of my boys. But when I think of them, their dad is only half a thought away, and the whole wretched, shite situation comes crashing back down on top of me. But I have to think of my boys. I have to. I could die if it weren’t for them, but maybe in the endless silence there wouldn’t be this feeling day in, day out, this permanent fear I’ve gotten accustomed to but is constantly coiling itself around me.
Their dad left two months ago. It’s been two months since that night I’d like to turn back. I’d like to ram that frigging passport back to the bottom of the drawer, between my dad’s doctor papers. I’d like to not have called the taxi company. I’d like to go on foolishly believing everything as I had a week before.
When he came home from “Moscow”, I stiffly held out my cheek for a kiss and waited, half-tilting my head, while he gave the boys their presents. With a wily, cheeky smile, he pulled from the suitcase the latest toy helicopters, which according to him he’d spotted for them some time ago, but now since he’d heard they’d been such good boys, they’d earned them.
His face was a little tanned, which I wouldn’t have understood had I not known in my heart, behind the numbness, like fuck was he in Moscow.
The kids clung to him and outbid one another on which hand they chose. After a little wrangling finally everyone got their preferred helicopter but for a couple more minutes just swapped to see who actually needed which. Then as they were, in their pyjamas, they pogoed around the living room. I told them for a fifth time, that was enough and it was time for bed. But their dad cheekily grinned at them, and kept saying, it’s alright mum, they haven’t seen me for a week, give them another five minutes. Then, when he saw something was upsetting me, he told the boys to go on, mum has a difficult day tomorrow, she has important clients coming, don’t dilly-dally. As he cleared them off to bed he looked over to me, to see whether I’d bought the performance; yes, see, he remembers I’ve an important meeting tomorrow. How could he have known that the day before yesterday I’d quit my job, because I wasn’t capable of focusing on anything else, just the fear, this fucking fear in my heart.
I started tidying up in the living room which wasn’t even all that messy, I must have thought perhaps it’d bring me back to life. The boys huffed a bit more, and a few times they escaped from under their dad’s shooing hands. They laughed, flew their helicopters, and Tamás laughed with them. He didn’t seem a tad impatient, he held his hands by his side as he waited for them to calm down. Then once more he started to clear them off to their room. From behind the fear I half heard him telling them, on Friday the whole family would go together to the small lake if they’re good, but they were to be quiet now because it was already very late. Tomorrow morning he’d take them to school, and on the way they could work out what they’d do at the weekend. The three of them together. Giving in to their dad, the boys obediently made their way into their room. Now as they slept they’d probably be planning whether they wanted to go fishing at the small lake, or charging about in the slide park round the other side. After a few minutes Tamás came out of their room – they most probably begged him for a quick story – and quietly closed the door to their room. I was still tidying up.
He came towards me with his arms wide open.
“I thought they’d never go to sleep!” he said, laughing.
I didn’t laugh, as I would have before. No hug, or snuggling up to him like a cat, as I had done for the past 11 years when he came from a longer trip, and we were finally on our own. My expression must have been stern and pale too I’m sure, because – as it had done countless times over the past couple of days – my mouth goes numb.
“Is something wrong?”
I didn’t answer him, I just set his passport down in front of him. I lay out beside it the seven letters which he’d left for me. The seven passion-filled letters, of which I could only open one every night, and every night I was to fall asleep happy; you see, after all these years, my husband still loves me, he really loves me. But four of the seven letters were unopened and Tamás stared at them confused.
“What happened?” he asked, pointing at the letters.
I asked him where he’d actually been. Then without waiting for his answer I asked him if he had someone else.
And of course the answer came automatically, how could he, what am I talking about.
“You know how much I love you, but really. And you’re my everything, don’t joke around, where are you getting these silly ideas from?”
He said, he doesn’t understand what’s wrong, has one of my friends been filling my head with rubbish? And for a while now he hasn’t understood why we have to see Editke and Karcsi anyway, he never liked them, he’s sure that in their jealousy they’ve stuffed my head with a load of rubbish.
With a smirk he took a step closer, presumably he wanted to hug me, but I took a step back, and when he looked at me confused, I moved forward again and pushed the passport towards him a little. My hand was shaking, but I tried to restrain myself. I would have gladly screamed at him, and leapt at his face, I could have torn his heart out with my bare hands. Torn it out and stomped on it. Crushing it to bits under my feet, so all the blood came seething out that kept that heart alive.
“Do you want to go away somewhere?” he asked.
“I don’t want to go anywhere. I just don’t understand, how you did.” I prodded at the passport.
He silently opened it. Immediately the first beads of sweat began to show on his forehead. It was quiet. His brain was most likely running at a rate of knots, but for the time being he didn’t say a thing.
Then very quietly he started into some story about how the charity had a group passport, don’t be silly, he never lies to me, he loves us more than life, and it would never even occur to him, but never, to look at another woman, why would he, he has everything he needs here, and to take a look at myself, there’s no man on earth, who has a more wonderful, intelligent, and kinder wife than he does, and he’d be a fool to risk any of that with a lie.
“How did you get home?” I asked, almost whispering. My throat was dry, and maybe I didn’t ask, I just wanted to… maybe no sound left my mouth at all. Maybe he understood what I wanted to know.
He told me. I picked up the kitchen telephone and dialled the taxi firm. Now the sweat was visibly dripping down Tamás’s face. He sat down next to the table on the furthest chair. I’d never seen him so afraid. I almost felt sorry for him and put down the receiver, when a voice spoke:
“Hello. One of your colleagues brought a passenger to 12b Szellőhegy Street. At ten to eight.”
Beads of sweat crept down my husband’s face in long, straight lines. The first hit the dining cloth when the dispatcher answered.
“Yes, I see it. What can I do for you?”
“I’m sorry, but we left a bag in the car. Could you ask your colleague whether he has it or not?”
“Of course, right away. Where were you picked up?”
“Would you have a look and see where exactly? Because we walked around a little while we were waiting.”
Tamás was white as a sheet under his brown colour. The sweat was flowing down his face in unstoppable streams. He didn’t wipe it off. He didn’t do anything. He just sat there and soaked the tablecloth through.
“Just a moment,” I hear, and she tells me. She tells me the words which burst the bubble of happiness from beneath me, and I come crashing to the ground.
“Darvasi Street 2, District 11, Budapest, to Szellőhegy street. And my colleague says there’s no bag there, he’s sorry, but it’s been an hour and one of the other passengers must have taken it. Next time try to call sooner.”
“Yes, of course, thank you.”
I put down the receiver and I couldn’t speak. Although I could speak on the phone. With tremendous effort I spat out the address. He said nothing.
“Is where you were every time?”
He didn’t answer. He just looked at me, and his face dripped with sweat.
I looked at him, and kept looking at him. And I understood maybe he’d just wanted the best for me. He’d wanted the best for me with all the lies. Maybe he did love me. Maybe he just didn’t want all this pain that had come over me now. And this inexplicable, heavy tiredness.
He stood up and wiped his face in a tea towel. Any other time I would have told him that’s not what we use it for, but somehow this time it was. In that moment nothing was for what it was supposed to be.
He packed his things, in silence. He didn’t try to explain any more, he didn’t say I was talking rubbish. He just packed his things. He added a few things to the red suitcase which he’d just arrived with, and zipped it up. He made for the front door, but stopped half way. He looked back at me, he was taking note of the moment in his head. The moment the fairy tale crumbled. He went out the door, and I sat in his seat at the kitchen table. I just sat there for hours. I tried to work out what I was feeling, why I was so afraid.
Two months have passed, but I still haven’t managed.
I toss out the crossword covered in scribbles and go back into the bathroom. Again I just stare at the pink tiles, as though those pathetic things could fix everything. I simply can’t work out why I have this numb dread. Then towards dawn, as I sit paralysed on the pink stone of the bathroom floor, somewhere deep down the answer is born. I know this is my greatest enemy. This feeling I hid and have been hiding ever since with numbness and fear.
It’s called shame.
ÉVA PÉTERFY-NOVÁK was born 1961 in Diósgyőr, Hungary. Her novel A Woman,(Egyasszony) published in 2014, was a great success and was published in seven editions. The book is about a mother, a daughter born with disabilities as a result of medical malpractice and an abusive marriage from which the wife is eventually able to get out. The actress in the monodrama with the same title written from the novel got the best actress of the year prize in Hungary in 2016. Her second book of short stories is called The Pink Costume, (2017).
OWEN GOOD, born 1989 in the North of Ireland, is a translator of Hungarian literature. Good studied Hungarian language and literature at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, before moving to Budapest in 2011. He now balances translating, teaching translation at Péter Pázmány Catholic University, and editing at Hungarian Literature Online.
Good won Asymptote’s Close Approximation Prize 2014, and has published in Hungarian Review, The Hungarian Quarterly, Hévíz, Hungarian Literature Online and Dalkey Archive Press’s Best European Fiction 2016. He has worked on translations of several authors and poets such as Krisztina Tóth, Ferenc Barnás, György Petri and Kinga Tóth.
Read more work by Éva Péterfy-Novák:
Moscow in B O D Y