I really don’t want to believe what I’m seeing at the bottom right-hand corner of my screen. It’s no great surprise though. After lunch, time assumes a life of its own, paralysing your muscles one by one before swallowing you whole. The only way to fight it would be to stand up and move around, but all it takes is one glance at Zsolt and I can already hear him making it abundantly clear, like he did last meeting, that this new-fangled notion of getting up from your desk at least twice every hour has absolutely no place in this particular office. By an effort of will I manage to stay put, making do instead with rocking from side to side on my swivel chair. It’s more or less like moving.
If only the window would open; if only a breeze would ruffle the paperwork and the hair-dos; if only the pot-plants would stir like the leaves on the trees outside; if only there were one godforsaken fly or mosquito, just to remind us we’re still alive… but no: there are no windows in this office, only fixed panels of unbreakable glass from floor to ceiling, an oppressive lack of air, and tedious, daily spats about the air conditioning — although now that Zsolt has a desk in the same office we politely keep our mouths shut and have resigned ourselves to perspiring over our keyboards.
For want of anything better to do, I click through the open windows on my screen. From a distance it looks as if I’m working, but in the meantime I steal the occasional glance out of the vast window. Not that there’s anything much to see: there’s no one in the smoking area, and nothing’s going on at the construction site opposite. Further off, people are rushing about in the street, always at the same frantic pace, but they’re too far away to be of interest. A little closer there are birds flitting about in the air. There’ll be rain this evening. It’ll start chucking it down five minutes before leaving time, and of course it’ll be a massive downpour. I was in such a rush this morning that I left my umbrella at home. I may even have left the kitchen window open, I can’t remember now.
By the time anyone registers that there’s a bird heading straight towards them, or rather straight towards the window, the bird has already hit the glass and dropped to the ground, leaving behind only a faint, greasy smear. There’s not the slightest let-up in the office hum; nothing changes inside at all, and outside all that’s happened is that there’s now a dirty mark on the glass. The guys with the dreadlocks will turn up before long with their abseiling gear and wash it off. My fist clenches around the mouse and I stop swinging on my chair; I simply stare at the smear without even wanting to, and I have the weirdest sensation that what I’d like more than anything is to crouch under my desk or climb on top of the filing cabinet with my laptop, if I have to: anything to get me out of this wretched chair in front of the unbreakable window: except here, of course, you’re not allowed to work under your desk or on top of the filing cabinet. You can’t work outside in the yard either; we can’t even have meetings out there now, after Zsolt was informed by the people upstairs that we made too much noise last time. As a last resort, in an emergency, you can still go to the toilets; at least it’s cooler there, not so stuffy, and you can lock yourself in and have a few moments to yourself. But it’s only half an hour since lunch and only two days since the big talking to, so it’s a bit too early for a loo break.
No, there’s no alternative but to stay here and sit it out, like being grounded. You’ll survive: just think back to that summer afternoon, how it all started with a sabotaged nap and ended with Gran getting sick and being taken to hospital. It was nothing worse than a fright, thank goodness, but that was no thanks to you, and let’s face it, you haven’t changed much since. You’re standing in the middle of the children’s room in the house on Petőfi Street, innocently weighing up the possibilities, ready to make a mess of everything. The little one’s sleeping soundly, and Gran, who’s on babysitting duty, has dozed off and is snoring with her mouth open. You’ve promised her you’ll read or amuse yourself quietly if you really can’t sleep. But it’s not exactly your fault if there’s not a single square millimetre of Sándor Kőrösi Csoma’s voyages of exploration that you haven’t already traced with the tip of your coloured pencils, or if you’ve long since sketched into your world atlas the route that you’re planning to take, although you’re not entirely sure of your next move after Darjeeling, where, unlike your hero, you manage not to succumb to malaria.
You steal out of the bedroom, and with sure but silent steps you walk to the open balcony door in the living room, take hold of the bottom of the blind, lift it, slip underneath, and pull it down again behind you. It made only the tiniest squeak, but even so you wait a moment, ears strained. Before long you’re sitting on the railing, dangling your legs over the edge as if watching a match, although there’s no one in sight. And then you jump. Or not so much jump as fall. It’s almost unintentional, how your backside merely slides off the ground-floor balcony railing while you’re accidentally not holding on. You land face down on the ground, but you’re up immediately. You’ve grazed your knees but it’s no big deal, it barely shows among all the other cuts and bruises. Occasionally, Mum digs over the dry soil and scatters grass seed below the balcony, and little patches of grass appear. The two of you water them enthusiastically, ‘Come on little grass blades, you can do it!’, but, in the space of a single night, everything’s smothered by the perennial weeds that then wither in the sun in no time at all. It’s not at all pleasant falling headlong onto couch grass, but at least it’s better than concrete. You’re flogging a dead horse there, smiles Dad as the two of you set to work, and he turns back to the match: he must have told you a thousand times it’s a hopeless task, it’s never going to be Wimbledon. And he’s usually right.
If Gran could see you now, there are three, or rather four reasons why she wouldn’t be impressed: 1. you were fiddling with the blind; 2. you jumped off the balcony; 3. you’ve hurt yourself and your clothes are dirty; and 4. you’ve wandered off again. But Gran’s out like a light, so rather than climbing back inside immediately you decide that you might as well skirt the house, which, compared to the cottages huddled on the edge of the square, and even compared to the more sizeable family houses, looks like a giant building block that someone has thrown down among the doll’s houses. And, once you’ve ventured this far, you might as well cross the road and jump the ditch so you can check out whether things are any better in the playground. There’s no-one there that you know, only kindergarten kids. You scan the windows of the houses opposite, but it’s hopeless: the glass winks back at you emptily, no sign of life anywhere. The others are probably being punished as well. There are some older kids playing football. You don’t know them, or rather you know them by sight, which is precisely why you’re not going to sidle over there and ask if you can join in: they’ll only laugh at you.
You don’t have much choice: since you’re by yourself you might as well practise. As usual, you balance on the railings in front of the swings. You’re getting better every day: you can already get three-quarters of the way across now. Once you’ve got the hang of this you’ll be able to move on to the climbing frame, then, before you know it, you’ll be dressing up in a sequined leotard and walking a tightrope across the Angel Falls, like the boy on the television, his hair tossed by the wind as he performed the stunt, only you won’t even need a balancing pole. But you’re soon bored. You know what they say, practice makes perfect, but it’s simply not happening today: you can only manage three or four steps before falling off, like a complete novice. You give up and instead clamber to the top of the climbing frame, hook your legs over the bar, and hang upside down. The world somersaults around you.
You love this feeling. Dangling with your head down and your feet in the air. Or rather, you love it when the ground is where the sky should be, and the kids playing football and the cows grazing around the pitch are all standing in the sky, and an old woman on a bicycle wobbles across the potholed sky, trailing a cloud of grey dust behind her; and the sky is where the ground should be, where your legs are, and one of the mums up there in the sky starts scolding you from somewhere above your head, asking you what on earth you think you’re doing, have you no common sense? stop it at once and get down from there, right now; you’ll fall and that’ll be the end of you, or worse, you’ll end up a cripple for the rest of your life, pushed around in a wheelchair by your parents, and it’ll take at least an hour for the ambulance to get here, and in the meantime you’ll be lying there with your twisted limbs twitching, and the little ones will be scared and they’ll start monkeying around like you, and then what? whose fault will it be? a kid your age should really know better! So you leave off, just in case you do end up falling and breaking your neck, which would mean goodbye to your life of adventure. First you pull yourself upright, then you climb slowly down; ‘monkeying around my foot’ you snarl, but you clench your teeth to stop yourself from saying anything because you’re not the type to talk back, only now you’ve lost all interest in the playground: idiot grown-ups really shouldn’t be allowed in, like kids aren’t allowed in the pub unless they’re sent by their dads. The only thing that cheers you up slightly is noticing them recoil when they catch sight of the warpaint patterns on your face, but you’re so furious that you don’t stop until you reach the Small Canal, where maybe they’ll leave you in peace at last.
You’re not supposed to go there, of course; it’s better not to go too far under the circumstances, but your sense of injustice has clouded any kind of rational thinking. The frogs are croaking in the canal as if there were nothing else in the world but them. And there isn’t, apart from a few tethered cows, but there are cows everywhere and you look straight through them, as if they weren’t even there. You listen intently to the all-absorbing croaking, and you’re aware that it’s absorbing you as well. It’s peaceful here: you calm down at last, and then it occurs to you that you could catch a bullfrog. Not to chop off its legs or cut open its belly, since you don’t have your penknife on you; besides, Szasza has already told you you’ll be dissecting frogs in fifth grade, and anyway you’d be sure to throw up or faint. No, just because. Chopping a worm in half or catching and gutting a fish is one thing; it’s quite different slicing open a live frog that’s croaking fit to swallow everything. Still, it would be good to hold one, just to feel its heart beating, as if it were about to explode in your hand, simply because it’s alive. You wouldn’t be capable of hurting it anyway. You’ll dissect one eventually in school, you’ll cut open its belly since it’s compulsory there, but it’ll already be dead, of course.
You pick flowers instead, since the ditch is full of buttercups. They look like sunshine, and that’s what you call them: sunshine flowers. You’ll give them to Mum this evening, when she gets home, and perhaps you’ll get a reprieve. Maybe you’ll be allowed to watch television at least. But no, a bunch of withered buttercups isn’t going to get you very far; in fact, you’d just be making things worse. You have been grounded after all, and there certainly aren’t any flowers growing out of the carpets indoors, so you chuck the lot of them into the water, although there’s not actually any water to be seen. The yellow flowers lie scattered over the duckweed, looking just as if that’s where they’d grown in the first place. You gaze at the water meadow for a while, listening to the frogs, and you feel the sunshine scorching the pattern in your burned skin. You start scratching, and bits of peeling skin get stuck under your dirty fingernails. Your face is really burning now, but you try to ignore it, instead plucking a blade of grass and putting it in your mouth. Then you set off home, jumping from side to side to dodge the cow-pats. When you trip over one of the tethers, the cow moos so loudly that you clear the ditch from standing.
As you walk home you kick at the stones in the road, rutted by the combine harvesters, happily picturing yourself sitting on the balcony, writing up the True Story of yesterday’s adventure in your diary. It was the greatest adventure you’ve ever had, a worthy starting point for your future voyages of discovery to distant and mysterious lands, to the life of adventure that awaits you. You’ll write about how the seven of you went well beyond the village, to the Big Canal, you, the little one, the two Joó kids, and the three Nagys. It had been a spur of the moment thing: you’d grabbed the Nagys’ rods and set off to fish. You’d only intended to go as far as the Small Canal, but then you’d all decided you wanted to find a quieter spot a bit further on, and before you knew it you’d left the houses behind and had found yourselves on the outskirts of the village, the sun blazing down, the horizon stretching further and further, and you hadn’t stopped, you’d just kept going without a word, and you’d carried on as far as the Big Canal, which was a really long way away, although it was only on the way back that you’d realised just how far.
There’d been huge expanses of blue water on the meadow, like a boundless ocean stretching before you, and you’d bravely waded across the warm shallows, which had turned to brown as you’d got closer. You’d waved to the shepherds in the distance, and they’d waved their hats to return the greeting, their dogs not even bothering to bark at you. When you’d looked down, to study the movement of the tadpoles, you’d noticed that the ground below the water was covered with sheep droppings, but you’d kept this discovery to yourself, reluctant to endanger the success of the expedition. All the same, you’d gone the long way round on the way home, because Szasza’s legs had come out in a rash, and that’s why you’d got back so late, why you hadn’t had the fish for dinner at the Nagys’ as you’d planned, and why you’d got a good telling off and all sorts of other punishments and ended up being grounded.
Above you, a stork on the lamppost clatters its bill as if in greeting, and you greet it in return, along with its whole family. You’d seen lots of birds yesterday, too: storks catching frogs, cranes and herons swooping back and forth, and even an osprey had circled overhead, although sadly it hadn’t dived, even though you’d held your breath and waited. You hadn’t come across any bustards, although you had found an enormous feather, which you’d tucked behind your glasses at once. You’d all smeared patterns on your faces, using the toothpaste that the Nagy kids had brought with them as warpaint, and you’d been so preoccupied trying to find the perfect Indian name that you’d stumbled and trodden on the little one’s heel, sending him sprawling in the water. And just to make you feel bad, he’d cried his eyes out, but then Szasza had given him a piggy-back, galloping all the way to the canal with him. By the time you’d got there he’d pretty much dried out, and Bunny Ears, the youngest member of the tribe, had been quite content, and at least he hadn’t given away this particular episode later that evening, being thoroughly ashamed about making such a scene, although he’d told mum everything else, because he’s only little and stupid and it’s pretty hard to believe that’s ever going to change, since he’ll always be smaller than you.
You hadn’t been the only one who’d struggled to find a name. The Joó girls had wanted something girly but hadn’t been able to think of anything. In the end, Gina had been Bright Sunshine and Lili had chosen Mirage: sadly, neither of them had thought much of Bog Banshee, which had been your suggestion. Szasza had taken the name Big Brother and had been the chieftain (of course), and Beni had been Little Big Brother. It was Babetta’s name that you’d liked best: Mighty Middle Finger, which she’d communicated to you all in sign language after you’d suggested that she should be Middle Big Brother. So that had left only you, but you just hadn’t been able to come up with the perfect name.
‘So, what about you? Weatherfish’, the Chieftain had nodded towards you. It wasn’t a bad name, but still you’d shaken your head and had set off at a run towards the row of poplars that lined the canal, not wanting to be saddled with this almost perfect name, since what you’d really wanted was to find the totally perfect Indian name for yourself. And as you were running, it had suddenly come to you, and you’d yelled it out triumphantly to the sky. You’d heard the two Nagy kids laughing, ‘Where on earth did that one come from?’, but you’d ignored them, galloping across the prairie, howling wildly and kicking up clouds of dust as you ran.
‘Where from? From the bookshelf, where else?’ laughed Steppenwolf to the blazing sun as she’d galloped on, before coming to an abrupt halt in front of a hole in the sand, where the remains of a large carcass lay strewn: one leg, two legs, a neck, head, beak, one wing, tufts of feathers and guts scattered over the sand, as if someone had forgotten to clear the table after dinner. It had smelt foul, but Steppenwolf hadn’t flinched, she’d simply gazed at the mess as if in a trance, and perhaps she’d still be standing there if Middle Finger hadn’t dragged her away. Minutes later, she’d been regaling the others with the story beneath the poplar trees where they’d set up camp to fish, describing how the sly fox had been gorging itself, right there behind the bush, but had been so terrified by the howling wolf that it had scurried back into its hole. The tip of its red tail had just been visible as it disappeared, but sadly the wolf hadn’t been able to grab it.
But even that had paled into insignificance, when, before setting off home, she’d gritted her teeth and jumped into the canal, swimming a lap of honour with a broad grin on her face. At last the others had been forced to realise just who it was they were dealing with. So what if she’d only caught one measly little fish? So what if she hadn’t been the lucky angler? No one could outclass Steppenwolf when it came to reckless courage. But none of the others had had any idea what was happening down there, below the shimmering surface of the water, how the weeds had stroked your stomach, how barbed runners had caught at your hands, how something had kept tangling itself around your legs, how the cold green of the canal had sapped your energy, dragging you downwards, each stroke getting harder and harder so that by the end you’d barely managed to keep going. You’d been in the water for scarcely two minutes but your lips had turned blue and your muscles had cramped, and as you’d climbed out, slithering on the muddy earth, your entire body had been shaking. You’d staggered out onto the bank and the trees had swayed around you, and the other kids had, too, and then you’d collapsed on the ground, closed your eyes and lain still, merely letting the rays of the sun gently dry the leaden drops of water from your skin, until the spinning inside you had slowly come to a standstill. If some giant child had laid you in its palm, its hand would have exploded, like your heart, which had almost burst out of your chest. The Nagy kids had laughed at you again. You look just like a little fish, they’d said, like a rudd that’s been washed up on the bank, your breathing’s getting shallower and shallower, and now your chest is no longer rising… you’re lying there motionless and… that’s it, you’re dead, you’re done for!
And you really had been done for, but up you’d got again, and to the chiming of the bells, utterly exhausted, burnt like a genuine redskin around the streaks of white toothpaste, you’d all filed back into the village. Opposite the football pitch, in front of one of the houses, two old women had been leaning against the gate. You’d caught the eye of the one facing you, and suddenly you’d heard, no, you’d seen, or rather you’d read her lips, since it was you who’d supplied the word, the voice had formed in your own head as you’d turned away: tourists. Tourists, a voice had said in your head, and you’d stumbled, dropping the bag that had held the rudd you were planning to cook for dinner. The water had spilled out and the rudd had been left gasping for air, there in the road, thrashing about on the ground like a toddler throwing a tantrum, and you hadn’t even bent down to pick it up, you’d just watched how the thrashing had begun to subside, and when you’d glanced up at the others, you’d seen only their backs, and mum standing at the corner. Mum had been standing at the corner with the Joós’ mum and their grandmother: they’d already spotted you and they weren’t moving, just waiting.
You’d hesitated, then you’d looked around as if they’d spoken. None of you said hello, you heard a voice say; that was the problem, it was rude not to say hello to the old lady! You’d looked for her, but she’d already disappeared behind the lilac bush, the squeak of her rubber boots swallowed by the squealing of the pigs and the dung, so you’d set off after the others, fearing the worst but prepared to accept the inevitable, cheering yourself up with the thought that tomorrow you’d be grounded and you’d have time to write the chronicle of the day’s adventures in your diary, and you’d even sketch a map to go with it, tomorrow, while the details were still fresh in your mind, so at least the day wouldn’t be lost like the rudd that had slipped from your hand.
And now, as you reach the house, again you stop short and your mouth opens and closes, like a little fish preparing to bite, because the blinds have been lowered and the balcony door is locked. There’ll be no diary writing today after all: you’re going to have to go and ring the bell. Now you’re officially a backslider.
People are pointedly clearing their throats behind you, and someone touches you on the shoulder. And suddenly I know exactly what’s going on. I don’t even have to turn my head to understand what’s happened. Grey spots flash before my eyes, but the desk opposite is clearly empty, there’s merely a jacket hanging dejectedly on the chair behind it. I love its comforting shade of brown: it goes so well with Zsolt’s eyes and with the blue of the chair. The only thing I can see is the play of the two colours, while everyone around me types frantically, watching under cover of their clattering keyboards. It’s as if the entire left side of my body were a knot of muscle, twitching convulsively, on the point of exploding. Zsolt is standing behind me, his hand on my shoulder, watching the reflection of my face in the screen. I can’t see anything, but I know what’s happening and I’m unable to move.