New York City skyline at night

Essays

 

 


Deep Water Dividing Budapest
An extract from Facing the Music
by Patrick Henry

Joseph Cotten as writer Holly Martins (left) and Orson Welles (right) as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949)
Joseph Cotten as writer Holly Martins (left)
and Orson Welles (right) as Harry Lime
in The Third Man (1949).
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/
wiki/Orson_Welles

The night sleeper compartment shared with three football supporters from Ireland, brought no hint of intrigue: even Waldemar not recruiting such unlikely agents. They had a hostel booked, but I took a cheap apartment on offer. Privacy seemed needed. The Opera nearby proved almost magnificent as at Vienna. A ticket bought, and my usual message sneaked onto the foyer poster, I explored this vast city on the Danube.

Back at the theatre foyer I glanced at my minute addition to the big Tosca poster. An English group chattered nearby, sounding Civil Servant types from London, maybe high grade, in diplomacy, if not espionage. Would they spot my scrawl on the poster, and guess an undercover agent almost brushed against them: one of their own? I had no idea who I worked for, or why, but felt as important as their own manner implied.

A Circle seat vacant next to mine: any femme fatale to sweep in there, and conduct liaisons, need hurry. Tosca herself was due. A figure slid along the row, towards me, No lady. A pale, thin young man. Had the Network's stock of fine females ran out, or reported my responses as tedious? Or was it assumed I preferred male company? He might be no contact. A mere Opera-goer. But I let my classic book be noticed.

In the interval bar, I wondered if my use had terminated. The young man might be here to close my contract, drastically, because he was heading my way now.

"Excuse me. I see you have Steiner's 'Gems of Opera'. Has it 'La Traviata'?" he said.

"Do you not mean 'Tosca', which is on this evening?" I corrected his query.

He said: "Of course I know what I am watching. It is because 'La Traviata' has another formidable lady, but different structure, separate composer. Have you seen it?"

"In Prague last week," I admitted, rashly. "Would you like to look it up?" I offered.

"Might take time reading up the Verdi section," he said, accepting the book.

"I shall be at the Arts Palace tomorrow night for the symphony concert, then here again in two nights, for Verdi's 'Don Carlos'" I said. Why was I giving so much information? Desperate to be still in the picture? Any alternative could be bleak. But telling moves ahead to my liquidator? Mad! His seat stayed empty afterwards.

Feeling naked without that book, I wondered if Pinky, as I thought him, would return it: re-floating my career. Still having microfilm copies, thanks to the Vienna police contacts: at the apartment, I saw it was not 'La Traviata' they showed, but Tosca, tonight's piece. This linked back to Prague and Vienna. So, Budapest Opera held a continuation, of whatever it all meant. Next day I bought another copy of the Opera book, my credentials. That film hidden in the original book, still a clue yet unclear.

Down the Pest side of the Danube, the Arts Palace Complex, exhibited works by Kandinsky, Klee, Kokoscha, Klimt. Dense vitality of Central Europe depicted to match the music it breeds. Today I'd visited the House of Terrors: an historic Soviet tank outside signifying the grim panorama of torturous occupation exhibited within. Nearby, the Liszt museum unfolded his life, lugubrious in its creativity. Tonight's performance featured a concerto of his, which frantically rattled cascades of notes. Once, another pianist playing this, said, "Here come the skeletons." Now I was reminded of the House of Terror and the Liszt Museum, back deeper in Pest today.

Next came Tchaikovsky's tempestuous Fourth Symphony, his only one unnamed, commissioned by a lady from St. Petersburg he never met, both agreeing this the best outcome. Not Hungarian, he seemed paired well on this bill, with the native Liszt. Two spirits haunting this intriguing city, I would plunge deeper inside. Pinky not showing up, lines of discovery might depend now on my own inventions.

Afterwards, I boarded the wrong tram, number 24, instead of number 2A, needed for the central, Octagon area, near jazz clubs. Now I was swept into wrong parts of Pest. I got off, asking for routes back. A girl said in poor English, why not spend time here.

"I can take you to good places. A great time, not costing a lot."

Her nightspots might be very cheap but awful. Not the good clubs I had in mind. Then the penny dropped. "You are on the game," I blurted out. She replied: "No need to say that. I can be your friend, as long you like. Take me for a drink."

Down dark streets, I hoped no Romanians lurked. Hungarians may be trouble anyway.

Her club in no plush penthouse, but a dismal cellar: fake local champagne I refused.

"Give me a beer, and the lady a glass of wine or vodka, maybe," I told the waiter.

"You came in with her and now you must pay," the owner snapped, intervening.

"I never ordered that bottle. Get me the drinks I asked, or I shall leave," I said. The owner, barman, other guys loomed. Fights I can avoid by looking big, yet calm.

"All right. Sit down. It's okay," the Owner said, backing off. Then the girl asked: "What's up? Broke? Why go around Budapest and spend nothing." I said I paid for things, if reasonable, not a total rip off. Red marks showed on her arm.

"Luigi will get mad and blame me for all this," she muttered. I said I would square it with him. Looking at those marks, again, I hit on an idea to try out. She said: "Only money talks to Luigi, if it does not come, talking is the last thing he'll do."

Velda was her name. I introduced myself, Victor. I could deliver things to her boss.

"Who are you? American tourist. German, maybe?" she said. "Low life in this city is not easy to face, even harder to escape. I have to work here. So buy some drinks."

But manic tones of Liszt and Tchaikovsky had given me a mood for intrigue.

"I am English, and work for an organisation. We might have a job for Luigi," I said.

"He's coming back to fix me, unless you shape up," Velda said. Luigi brought drinks.

"Here's to a good evening," he said. "We hope. But Velda comes out back a minute."

"She stays here with me. Her company feels fine," I said. Luigi replied: "Well, that costs. A couple of drinks buys only two minutes of her time."

So I said, "I've only got one mouth, for a drink at a time. She stays, and I'll tell you the score."

"Score? You? Can't even buy a bottle. No big deal from you," he said. "Operation? Drugs, small stuff, I bet. What are you, British? I know you guys. Bit of dope. Car scams, Think you're big time. Holiday jaunt in tough territory. You picked the wrong spot, friend. Budapest is dead serious. Will be, if you go wrong. In too deep," Luigi scoffed. That could already be the case. This tingle of temptation and fear had driven me since Waldemar's affair began. I handed him the Opera book.

"Opera? What we going to do, rob the box office, mug the audience? No cash in all that, mostly credit cards now," he said. I winced, reminded of the scam against me in Vienna. From there, much of the Danube had flowed down here: to Budapest; carrying on the danger, hiding secrets of the past, or debris disposable, pretty soon.

"You need know nothing about Opera. There is a code in that book, I do not know, but it needs be passed over tomorrow night. A deal you can be in," I said.

"Why me? I take the heat you cannot stand? Very funny," Luigi said, not laughing. "You could handle it better. You think our stakes should get bigger, rounds higher," I said, passing him my ticket to Verdi's 'Don Carlos', bought today.

"Seeing you in that seat, they will approach you, maybe at the interval. Hold out a while, not give the book straight away; might get you to know more. It's a wide operation, across Central Europe. Big results. Good pay off. I'll be at the Opera, close by. Local experience sounds good for this job. But maybe too hard for a bar-owner."

"I can handle anything. Look nowhere else. You're only right about one thing. I'm the man for it, not you. Front in here with one of my girls, and can't even buy a full bottle, let alone grab any action. Holding hands like a dumb English schoolboy. Eton, Oxford? You went there, partied girls, scored dope, think you grew big enough to take on Central Europe? Budapest, hardest of all. Even rats think fast to survive here," Luigi snarled. I saw his point about rodents.

"You're right about all that," I admitted. "But I'm asking for your help, and you could help yourself to a piece of the action. You only need watch the first act, if you can't stand Opera, the real scene comes afterwards."

"What you mean, not stand Opera? I am Hungarian. I know all music. We invented most of it. In England, what Opera have you? God Save The Queen: Redcoat soldiers singing and marching? Do me a favour," Luigi snapped, examining his ticket.

"Don Carlos, Mozart's finest," he thought. I said it was by Verdi, but as good as Mozart. He could read it up in the book before tomorrow night: might give a clue.

"Clue? You do not know what all this racket is about?" Luigi asked. I said: "Not all of it. But we'll get into the action, find out, and make money," I said.

Luigi approached his bar for drinks, myself paying, but fair prices. Partnership now. To collapse, the paybacks seemed unthinkable. Folded Florint notes I held in my hand for Velda. To go where? She had no bag, no pockets, nearly no clothes. Low cleavage on ample breasts, received the cash; whispered, all for her. Luigi, I'd deal with later.

"I saw that! Hands off the merchandise. Not paid for yet. Want to go upstairs with her? Partnership is one thing, business another. Women mean cash up front," he said.

It had gone up front, though he never saw it as currency switch, only erotic fumbling.

"What is your name, friend?" he asked. "Victor Peznan? That isn't English. Johnny Jones they're all called. Your footballers. Great once. Gone down now, like you all."

"My grandfather was a Polish pilot in World War Two, whom I never met," I lied.

"A Polski? Last thing we want in Budapest. Those robbing swine! Better knock that out of your system, if you're working for me," Luigi suggested.

I said: "Just call me Victor, forget the rest." He was working for me, but best that not said.

"Victor! Some negotiations remain. You want Velda? It's not on the house," he said. Attracted to her more now, on seeing her fear, danger and entrapment, I knew to keep my powder dry, having already paid her for nothing but holding hands. Luigi unaware of this, made it all seem sweeter. I left him the book, and walked from the club.

"Don Carlos" about to commence, had extra walk on parts, including Luigi, not always in the libretto for Verdi. My role came cast well off stage, seated back of the Upper Circle. Determined to miss no Opera, I must also observe this side operation, for once not commanded by Waldemar; but he'd soon hear about it. I had penned the usual message on the "Don Carlos" poster in the foyer 'Victor', plus the date and the seat number, now the place Luigi would occupy, unless he sent someone else, Velda, or one of his boys. But now I saw the man himself down in the Grand Circle. Would anyone contact him during this evening? The Waldemar gang shadowed me all over Central Europe. They must know all going on right now, and be furious that Victor, their employee, started plans of his own. Or else amused at it, not caring a damn. My role might be over before this extra grand performance at "Don Carlos" had even been executed. My exit sealed, in some way. The Civil Servants filled a row of Circle seats.

At the interval, I slid into the bar, past the Civil Servants crowd, laughing over wine or vodka. Luigi stood at the counter, Opera book in hand. Pinky approached him. Half hidden behind the Civil Servants' throng, I guessed Waldemar's people surveilled me, backing up Pinky. He left with the Opera book. I moved up, asked Luigi how it went. "How should it go? The man took the book, gave no name, set up a meeting tomorrow. Why should I tell you where?" Luigi snapped, when I asked. "I am The Man now."

"You do not know who they are. Could be dangerous," I argued.

"Neither do you know. And I can be dangerous myself," he answered. I did not doubt that, but suddenly had another idea, and beckoned Luigi to follow me across the bar.

"Sir Geoffrey. Let me introduce a colleague." I addressed the large Civil Servant I had overheard called that name when they talked about cricket, minutes ago. "This is Luigi Pestacci: a key figure in this city, great help to us all." The Civil Servant and Luigi shook hands, both mystified. "Do give him your card, Mr. Pestacci?" I urged. Luigi obliged. That card read: 'Cave Vladivar, 101, Svenkgasse. Licensed for Drinks and Entertainment 24 Hours.'

As we took our leave, I heard Sir Geoffrey exploding with astonished annoyance. "Who the blazes was that?" A colleague said they were about to ask him the same. "Cave Vladivar?" A female friend snapped, "Geoffrey, where were you last night?"

Out in the corridor, Luigi asked who was Sir Geoffrey Evans.

"Pretty big in our Foreign Office. Central European Affairs. Has me keep an eye on these Opera book people. Now you are helping us, and meeting one of their gang tomorrow. We should know where, Luigi. I am giving you leads and information."

"Eleven A.M. Lenchen Bar, Lenchen Bridge, Buda," he muttered. I said I knew it.

"Listen, I love opera, but this other business gives me a headache. I am going home. See you in the morning," he said, and sloped off, missing the rest of Verdi.

This made his Circle seat available for the next two acts. Sinking in the plush velvet, I suddenly realised The Civil Servants were filling up their row nearby, and must not spot me. I buried my head, my guilt and identity in the programme, until the lights dimmed, and the intrigue of Don Carlos, continued.

Luggage light: my midday train I felt ready to catch after observing events at Luigi's liaison. Across the long Chain Bridge, over the Danube, under the grandeur of Buda.

Another bar or café stood yards along the riverbank, north of the Lenchen corner site. Arriving early, I drank beer inside that joint, standing up inside the doorway, as if a tourist gazing out at the river. A sharp angled view could focus on the Lenchen bar, and Luigi, now dropped there by a car that sped on past my position. Ducking out of sight, I glimpsed a couple of faces in the vehicle; familiar from Cave Vladivar last night. Luigi had brought his boys for back up, as I should have expected. My blood ran cold. A bus stopped at the junction by the bridge. Pinky got off and entered the Lenchen bar. That was all I needed to know. Nothing remained but to get the hell out of here: this bar: this city. Others now took seriously the game of bluff I started. No doubt Waldemar would remark on my initiative. All others now involved must ponder these mysteries for themselves. I had faced this tension for weeks. But now, I'd become a real player. God help me! I must reach Pest station unseen. Pinky's backers might know my exact position and moves ahead. But Luigi's mob must have no idea.

I recalled that great movie, "The Sting". Near the vital location of the fake bookie's shop, the gang leader's men waited in a corner bar, ready as back up. That same way, Luigi's guys could burst in here any second, to mirror that scenario. From my bag I drew a big-peaked cap and light raincoat, kept for bad weather: looking that way now.

"Expecting storms, in Buda, in summertime?" the barman asked.

"You never know. Auf Weidersehn," I replied, and exited. The Boys had parked up along the kerb and were walking back towards me. I pulled up my collar and tipped down the cap, and limped along with my backpack, like a hopeless old wanderer; not finding it hard to play the part. Seeing no kind of guy who makes sharp deals at night clubs with their Luigi, his Boys passed me, entered the first bar, to watch out for him operating in The Lenchen joint. I walked north up the Buda side of the river, to catch another bus across a further bridge, going to Pest station, making my getaway: for the train through lurid Transylvania, to more orders, or disobedience, due at Bucharest.

 

Patrick Henry: Born 1938, Yorkshire, England, Irish parentage. Customs Officer London, Royal Airforce Draftee, Cyprus, 1957-59. Wrote poetry in London, Paris, Cornwall; worked construction, farming, factory, café, bookshop jobs. Published On the Track, Peterloo Poets 1971. Published translations of Fruits of Winter, Prix Goncourt, 1970 and Women of The Celts, Cremonesi, 1975. Adult student at University of Wales, University of East Anglia, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut during 1980s. Painting exhibition Paris, 1998. Poetry Reading Tour in New York 2001 arranged by BigCityLit. Painting Exhibition, Australia, 2003. Poetry Reading and Painting Exhibition tour New York State, 2004, arranged by The Author's Watermark and Poets & Writers. Poetry and prose featured in BigCityLit and in www.thisisull.com (UK website), 2001-2007. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.