Sympathy for the hitchhiker as he gets seduced by a Hungarian beauty who runs the local cinema. All’s fine until he falls for an Estonian blonde.
Within an hour, Marianne and I were on the train to Budapest. We sat close for the whole of the two and a half hour journey, slowly uncovering the secrets of each other’s souls. As usual, it was a complete surprise to find myself sitting next to a beautiful woman with the hint of intimacy in the air and everything about her nervous, pouting features suggested that she also yearned for some company.
I was returning to the capital with a guide this time and I had to concede that the magnets of Fate will always pull you back to a place or a person until they are quite ready to let you go – by no other device than that circumstances will fall so sweetly as to make you choose to follow the path laid down before you.
It was a romantic evening with sunset goldness kissing the streets. A breeze caressed our necks and Marianne told me how she thought that I might be the most important person to turn up in her life. Gulp. We didn’t touch though due to a timidity and shyness that seemed strange in a woman nine years older than me. We had not been in her flat on the third floor for more than fifteen minutes, before there was a knock at the door that sounded familiar even to my ear. It was her ex-boyfriend.
Later I found out that he had been in the habit of coming to see her every day, even though they had broken up a year before and the way they spoke to each other yielded a closeness that was yet estranged by embedded and unresolved issues. I felt like a cartoon character stepping into a Shakespearean script; a new player stepping into an old story with a bold new Iambic cadence and foreign wit, that threatened to invent an entirely new subplot. Communications were strained as they were obliged to talk in English for the sake of politeness and, despite some amicable chat about my journey, there were some pretty awkward silences. We were all relieved when he eventually left.
“I would feel strange, too.” Marianne told me. “If I went to his house and saw him with a girl there.”
He didn’t call around again for the week that I stayed there but he was friendly enough when I bumped into him in the street.
Marianne was small; her delicate head reaching my shoulders and her short, tidy hair, roasted almond eyes and cheeks puffed with hope, all suggested the innocence of someone who wanted life to be above all, nice. That things weren’t consistently pleasant bothered her a great deal and she harboured a ‘sad-eyed lady of the lowlands’ anxiety.
However, at the age of 29, she was the manager of a popular cinema and maintained a small and attractive apartment, laid out and adorned with her natural good taste and sense of order. The double futon lay in the corner, draped with a flowery batik and a sophisticated library of classic authors lined the far wall (alas, all the titles in Hungarian). The window to the courtyard let in light upon a writing desk by the stereo on the floor and I immersed myself in the selection of CD’s.
Marianne prepared a dinner that she served with homemade pickles, chutneys and relishes. I was hungry for only one thing but felt a little like someone surveying the terms of a new contract. She was clearly not happy alone and her homely nature suggested someone keen to make a family in the near future. This was my first reason for holding back.
Secondly, I generally prefer to wait for women to seduce me. I’ve spent so much time alone that I’m always nervous about intruding upon another person’s space. I was also only 20 years old and had spent too much time caressing harmonic minor scales to know much about seduction. With Marianne as coy as me it seemed we might have to wait a while longer yet.
“Do you want to sleep in the bed or shall I make a place on the floor?” she asked, avoiding my eyes.
“Oh, I’m happy in the bed.” I assured her, placing my pillow where I assumed was the headrest.
“Oh, are you going to sleep at that end?” she asked in disappointment. After a bit of confusion, careful coordination enabled us to fall asleep that night with our faces just a few inches apart, still with no clear statement about our relationship. In the early hours of the morning the storm broke as a series of tentative nose proddings broke the humid tension and the rain of love came tumbling down.
From the beginning, I knew I’d bitten deep into soft clay and I swallowed events with a lumpy unease. No way was I staying for the full romantic trip and so I made every effort to preserve her heart intact.
“I’m going to leave, you know.” I told her at the first. “I’m a travelling man.”
I could not help but think of Leonard Cohen’s Stranger Song:
‘_And then, taking from his pocket, an old schedule of trains, He’ll say ‘I told you when I came I was a stranger._’‘
I was following in the time-old footsteps of the itinerant minstrels who would drift into a town and win themselves tender company and free accommodation by virtue of the legend that curled up in smoke from their heels. For, as a travelling man, you sometimes become the symbol for the missing piece in the emotional jigsaws of the women you meet. Confusing all kinds of dreamy notions about Destiny and magic bells, they project their hopes and desires unto you as a long-awaited romantic saviour, sculpted by the winds. Yearning to grasp the ethereal in their hands they find only air in the morning.
Five times around Europe that year, girls became convinced that I was some magical seed with whom they would wake each day to find fresh flowers. But with my emotional immaturity, I couldn’t pretend to be anyone’s hero and by the time they fully opened their eyes, I was gone.
We lived together in a strange pattern, where we would lie in bed all morning and she’d teach me Hungarian folk songs that I’d play on the clarinet. We’d struggle to translate the lyrics and bridge the linguistic gaps of imagery that were the metaphorical canyons between us. Then she’d be at work from 4pm until 11pm (I watched a lot of films that week) and I would spend a lonely sunset by the Danube, before returning to the flat to await her key in the lock a few hours later.
Marianne was quite open to the novelty of taking in such a ragged vagrant as I, though she took exception to some of the habits I picked up in Asia. She scowled each time I let loose a satisfyingly large piece of throat phlegm into the gutter:
“This isn’t India.” she’d scold.
“But baby,” I’d rejoin, “I carry India in the heart.”
The days were hot and I enjoyed hanging around the market. The main streets were bustling with colour and I could usually find adventure of some kind. On one day, whilst waiting for a film to start, I saw a strange old guy walking up and down with a placard reading:
Jesus is the Messiah! and on the other side: What do you think of the Lord your God? And that was the weird part – that I could read it – the poor fool was walking around with a sign printed in English in a country where the second language was Russian. Seeing me smile, he recognized that I was probably the first person all day to understand his message and he came over to chat. He was a sweet old soul, if a touch lost in the head and for the whole half hour that we talked, he didn’t mention religion once.
It turned out he’d been to India a few months before and that seemed to fit the picture perfectly. If something or someone is beyond explanation then you’re more than likely to find them on the Indian subcontinent sooner or later, where everyone has a place. Maybe that’s why I was going.
Then, with this new revelation, I strolled home after the movie and met an old hobo who, after finding that I didn’t speak any Hungarian, addressed me in the universal tongue to indicate his need:
“Coca-Cola? Cigarettes? Hamburger?” As we were essentially on the same plateau, though I happened to be in Fortune’s good books at the time, I gave him the contents of my pockets and tried to communicate by means of hand gestures that it was all just part of the Great Cosmic Cycle of Giving and Taking. I knew that before long I’d be on the street level again myself and I smiled inside at the poetry of things, deciding that I dug the wheels of the world and that I could ride the horses of fortune in good enough style the world over.
I was a long way off being killed just at the moment, my Austrian friends would have been glad to know and I wished certain people in England could have seen me now. I felt the kind of smug pride that comes when things are going invincibly well and which ought to have suggested the approaching comedown lesson. It struck me in a way I was totally unprepared for and it hit me deep and low, coming a few days later on the weekend as I got ready to be on my way and make some new tracks.
I hadn’t been doing much more than hanging around and all the time I felt like getting back on the road again. Various hellhounds were on my trail and the discontentment blues stared back at me every which way I turned, churning deep inside with a howling and a growling that just left me plain old unsatisfied. Them restless blues that do a man no good and even worse to the woman he’s with – for they make him unreliable, shiftless and unsteady, so that the only thing he knows how to do is to rock and to roll and to reel around with awful mean things upon his mind.
Marianne wanted me to come with her to a wedding party in the countryside but the romance was becoming sticky and I felt it was time to leave. When Saturday afternoon arrived however, I started to move my bags out of the door to the inner courtyard on our third floor level and ominous peals of commanding thunder suddenly broke out, causing the windows to rattle. We exchanged glances and laughed only to be drowned out once more by the resounding claps of great hands in the sky.
“Maybe the gods are telling you not to go?” Marianne suggested hopefully, wanting to show me off to her friends at the party. I had to submit to the poetry of the occasion and consented to come along to this wedding thing, which was at least in the right direction towards Romania.
But pretty much from that moment our relationship ended in any meaningful sense. I began to drift away into my travelling dream world where none save the wind can find me. On the train journey, I stood in the corridor, gazing out the window at the diminishing Hungarian countryside, leaving Marianne to talk with her gaggle of friends in the cabin. The clack-a-clack of the carriages told me I was being unfair but it was none of their business. I stared obstinately out into the fields and forests, so far from the sea.
They all elected to hit the village pub before arriving at the country house of the newly-weds and again I left them to booze it up indoors, whilst I went to sit on the grass and dig the August evening. I mooched with the melancholy meditation of getting back on the road and was already beginning to miss the comforts of the settled life in which I had indulged this past week – tomorrow morning there would be no pair of nipples to nibble at and no fresh cakes baked for me in the afternoon.
Changes, changes, I told myself and decided to centre my mind with some Tai Chi movements on the lawn. Pretty soon, the attention of the locals was aroused and they wanted to know if I was completely loco or what – quite understandable, considering that even practising yoga got people into trouble in the communist times, thus all of the esoteric arts were strange and new to them. Three young men came up to me and uttered some throaty greeting. I stood on a stone to reply (for Hungarian yokels are all enormous):
“Anglezi“I told them with that half-crazed, self-excusing smile, common to all English abroad – Ahem! Which way is it to the beach? Do you speak English? You people just don’t try, do you? The youngest of my new friends moved forward, wanting me to teach him how to make the movements, so I grabbed his beer bottle and began to raise it to my lips with an exaggerated slow motion concentration. That convinced them that even if I was a weirdo, I was also a good sport and they left me alone.
The country home of the newly-weds was nothing short of a manor with wide, lounging gardens, pear and plum trees amongst the casting shade. Hardly anyone spoke English and I couldn’t really be bothered trying to make conversation, despite Marianne’s attempts to introduce me to various groups. The only two that I knew did speak my language were a beautiful blonde Estonian girl, whom I carefully avoided and a New Zealand guy ho had learnt to speak fluent Hungarian from his girlfriend in Budapest. He was as much as a social oaf as I and once he was sure that I wasn’t the kind of self-righteous ‘spiritualist’ that he couldn’t stand, we got on famously; our mutual appetite for gluttony bringing us together as we devoured beef, beer and cakes throughout the evening.
I was saved from having to participate in small talk by the dancing frolics of two small girls, who pranced about in carefree fun to the music playing from the large speakers. In no time, I joined them and found playmates far more on my level of sophistication than the society of the adults who sat in small groups with large wine glasses.
Dinner was traditional cow and it sat heavy in my usually herbivore stomach. Everything was going fine until after the dessert, when the Estonian chick sauntered by the opposite side of the grand banquet table and flashed me a quick, inviting glance. A minute later I found myself talking to her at the far end, making use of the obscuring shadows there.
Her name was Ciscelia and she was a 19 year old studying to be an architect. She was on a seven-year university course in her home town in Estonia, a country bordering the icy Baltic Sea. She was in Hungary for the summer holidays and was not having such a great time, as her host was a languid bore who tired her with his sticky amor. He clung on past all conceivable hope – I’d heard him say to her in English earlier:
“The only thing I seem to be a master at is annoying you.”
He must have been fuming as he saw me with this pristine goddess who was telling me:
“I don’t mind telling you that I think you’re very handsome.” she said quickly and with a blush that endeared her to me straight away. I almost turned around to see if she was addressing someone standing behind me. Her eyes were wide and new-morning blue, her skin dripped with melting butter and her hair draped in fine golden threads across an elegant, slender neck and bronze shoulders that ought to have been the subject for every sculptor in Europe.
She spoke with intelligence and perception and yet she seemed about fifteen seconds old. Our hearts leapt into each other’s mouths at once and our eyes met constantly, seeking reassurance that the feeling was mutual. I boasted about my travelling exploits to milk all the admiration I could get from this angel who fixed me with an adoring gaze I could scarcely have deserved.
I tried to understand the significance of our meeting at this time – surely someone had misplaced the pages of the script. I was in the middle of the Character-Making Epic Voyage movie – this was no time for the Irresistible Girl Of My Dreams theme to come along.
Cis told me about her family back home and the affection with which she spoke about them and her life there, made me want to throw my plans up in the air and go to huddle close with her throughout the pneumonic darkness of the Baltic winter.
“My mum would have filled your bag with sandwiches.” she said proudly.
I’m still not sure that I shouldn’t have gone with her and if I had the money, I’d go and try to find her now, though it’s too many months later and it occurs to me that I only know her first name and type of university course. These are the moments when the drifts of lives are determined and I could just as easily now be trudging through snow as I am presently sitting in the shade of a palm tree.
The whole evening was made more complicated by the fact that I was still together with Marianne – you remember Marianne? And also by the jealous sulks of Cis’ host who hunched moodily over a growing pile of emptied beer bottles. I allowed the haze of the celebrations to blur my nagging guilt that we were walking on the wrong side of the fence but then as I was trying to persuade Cis to come to Romania with me, Marianne mooched over and tried to drag me off to dance with her. No way.
“But you were dancing with the children, before.” she protested in a slurred voice.
“Yeah but I don’t dance with adults – especially drunk ones.” I told her, my sympathies now captured elsewhere. I tried not to feel the looks that Marianne was throwing at Cis and it was a relief when she gave up, allowing me to feel like a hero again in the eyes of my newly-found beloved.
“Hitchhiker in action!” Ciscelia declared as we watched Marianne walk sadly away. That seemed to be about the face of it and maybe that meant I was a bastard but what to do? I reached for her hand under the table and she braced herself for a kiss – but that would have caused Marianne too much pain and so we just sat talking until the early hours, trying to make the most of the time we had been given together.
Fatigue eventually overtook us and we separated for sleep with both of us longing for what was not-to-be. Marianne left early in the morning and I stumbled up to see her off, hoping to leave a good last impression to smother the grief that she must have felt the night before. Thankfully, she didn’t cry and I did my best to say all of the right things before falling guiltily back on my mattress. I’ve not written to her since and I only hope she managed to round the whole thing off okay in her mind. Where did all my shining armour go?
After a few hours, everyone who had tried to sleep roused themselves from unconscious, drunken catatonia to join the blitzed hardcore partiers who had stayed awake throughout the mosquito-swarming night. Cis and I could hardly look each other in the eye that morning. Our dreams could no longer hide under the sweet deceit of night. The light of day left the situation bare and bleak – the obvious and depressing truth was that she would not be coming with me to Romania as she had to rejoin her college in Estonia within ten days. It was clear also that I could not abandon my journey. I was signed up on a contract to blunder on East with no ticket to ride.
The awkward atmosphere began to ease as the morning wore on and we realised that this would be a test of our maturity -to understand that in the true alchemy of love, the perfect will always keep its essence and find its place and meaning through changing tides of fortune – only that of transient worth could fade. But what did we know? We were just kids.
“We should never have met.” she complained and I was careful not to drink in her expression too deep, lest I might never again emerge.
I appeased her jealous host with some charming morning conversation and managed to arrange a lift with him and Cis into the next main town where I could hitchhike on. I clambered into the back seats on the 20 minute drive whilst he and Cis sat in the front. I continued to maintain amicable chat with him, whilst my real focus of communication went into my right hand, exploring the soft nape of Ciscelia’s neck on his blind side. My fingers contained the entirety of my soul as they probed her shoulder, smoothed the lobe of her ear and squeezed her free hand. All the while, my voice rattled on cheerfully, hollow of any attention or being.
Finally, we came to a road where I could start to thumb lifts and the farewells were made. I managed to plant a soft kiss on her neck as we embraced but we pulled apart to maintain the illusion to her host that nothing was going on. The car drove off and I was left to stand alone by the side of the road in the heat of noon. Two bags for company and feeling very sad, I watched as my last chance pulled away.
“Fuck! Fuck this! Why?” I shouted to no one in particular. A few mothers waiting for buses drew their children closer to them protectively. I didn’t care. I stuck out my thumb with an expression that would have deterred all but a blind man. I held my head in my hands and looked up at the sky for answers. But there was no escape there either and nothing could change the basic story: She was going North and I was going South.