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Friends in Sly Places
It seemed right to take flowers. A gesture had to be made. A nurse accepted them from Burnell and stuck them in a glass vase. Burnell went and sat by his friend's bedside.
Peter Remenyi was still in a coma. He lay propped on pillows, looking the picture of health, his skin tanned, his jaw firm. So he had lain for two weeks, fed by drip, completely unaware of the outside world. Yesterday's flowers drooped on a side table.
Burnell had escaped from the car crash with nothing more than a bruised arm. He visited the hospital every day. He had taken to reading aloud to Remenyi, from Montaigne or the poets, hoping that something might penetrate that deep silence into which his friend had fallen.
He stayed for half an hour. Rising to leave, he patted the patient's cheek.
"You always were a mad bugger at the wheel, Peter," he said, with some tenderness. "Stay put, old pal. Never give up the struggle. I'll be back tomorrow. I have to go now. I have a date this evening with a beautiful lady, a star in the firmament of her sex."
It was the evening of all evenings. The sun went down in glory, the lights came up in competition. Budapest's Hilton Hotel, installed in the ruins of a sacred site, piled on extra floodlighting. A reception was being held by World Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, which several important functionaries from several important countries were attending.
Everything was on a lavish scale, slightly tatty only round the edges. Gipsy orchestras raced through their notes in every available space. Their violins swooped through czardas after czardas, just as drink poured down throat after throat. A Ukrainian dance group threw themselves about with abandon in the center of the main ballroom.
Undeterred by wars in the Caucasus, the East, the Far East, and several points West, the guests paraded in finest array, embracing or snubbing one another. Powdered shoulders, jewels, and luxuriant moustaches were on display. Many smiled, some meant it. Suave waiters, Hungarian and Vietnamese, moved among the crowds, delivering messages, pouring Crimean champagne into ever ready glasses. Conversations surged and popped like the bubbles in the champagne. Some who talked looked over the shoulders of their partners, in search of escape; others moved in closer. Loving, lingering glances were exchanged. Formality increasingly gave way to something more physical. The most recent jokes circulated, political or scabrous in content. Gossip chased itself among the international guests, the potted palms.
The air-conditioned atmosphere, as time wore on, became charged with alcoholic fumes, excitement, innuendo, enzymes, exaggeration, assignations, assassinations of character, and the most fragrant of sweats. Couples started to slip away. And Burnell looked deep into the green eyes of Blanche Bretesche, breathing faster while trying to keep his usual cool.
He, she, and some of her friends, left the reception and went together into the warm night. Music came faintly to them. They climbed into taxis, to be whisked downhill and across the great glittering city of Budapest. Streets, shops, restaurants sped by. The extravagant elephantine Danubian city prospered, fat on arms sales and many wickednesses, as befitted the over-ripe heart of Europe.
Burnell never quite learned the names of all his noisy new friends. His senses were alert to Blanche Bretesche, to her eyes, her lips, her breasts. Blanche was Director of the Spanish Section of WACH. One of her friends—the one in full evening dress—directed them to a restaurant he knew in Maijakovszki Street, near the opera house. Here were more crowds, more musics.
The restaurant was neo-baroque, ornate inside and out. Though it was late, the place was crowded with a confusion of people, laughing, eating, drinking. Two inner courtyards were filled with tables. Burnell's party found a free table in the second courtyard. Above them, along flower-draped balconies, a woman sang passionate Hungarian love songs. The man in evening dress, summoning a waiter, ordered wild game specialties, which were not available. Without argument, they settled for lecso all round, accompanied by mineral water and a red wine from Eger. Although the main point of the gathering was to enjoy each other's company, the food was also excellent. The warm evening held its breath in the courtyard.
Saying little as usual, Burnell allowed his gaze to alight on the flower of Blanche's face as she talked. The quick wit of her replies always pleased him. Her contributions to subjects under discussion were shrewd, often dismissive. He liked that. She was as much a citizen of the talk as any of the men, though they did not defer to her. While the conversation grew wild and ribald, it remained magically on course, contributing, like all friendly talk, to a general understanding.
When the question turned to a scientific paper of Blanche's, he saw her quick look, sheltered under long dark lashes, turning more frequently to him, as if questioning. A signal flashed unspoken between them. Round the convivial table, between spates of talk, they applauded every song the resin-voiced woman sang, calling up to the balcony in acclamation, though they had scarcely listened to a note. And at two-thirty in the morning, Burnell summoned a taxi. The taxi carried him back through the scurrying town, with his right arm about Blanche Bretesche, to his hotel.
Even before he woke next morning, he was conscious of her warmth. He found himself lying on his stomach. Her arm was across his back. Turning his head cautiously, he was able to watch her sleeping. Happiness flooded him.
He had always admired the look of her, from the alert walk—much like a stalk, he thought—to the well-shaped intellectual head.
With those closed green eyes went a dark coloring particularly to his taste, though her hair was now cut fashionably shorter than when they had first met, some six years ago. She had been Stephanie's friend, and was about Stephanie's age, thirty-four or so. Now she was his friend—truly a friend, trusting and direct.
Raising himself gently, he surveyed her sprawling body. Nothing was one quarter as beautiful as the female body, no sky, no landscape.
Blanche was calm about her lovemaking, not stormy. The affirmatives she had uttered still sounded in his ears. There was another sound now, in their shared room. Not merely the distant hum of traffic as it crossed the bridge from Buda to Pest. A fly buzzed against one of the window panes.
Cautiously, Burnell maneuvered himself out from under that arm with its lashes of dark hair chasing themselves from midforearm to elbow. Padding over to the window, he opened it. The bluebottle, after raging against the pane a minute longer, was caught by the breeze and made its escape into the open air.
Perhaps it said to itself, "Ha, I figured my way out of that ..." But flies had no hold on truth. For all their countless generations born since glass was invented, they had never comprehended its nature, and so remained continually trapped by it.
When he turned back into the room, Blanche's eyes were open.
"All the time I was asleep, one of that woman's songs was going through my brain. What do you think she was singing about? Did you understand a word of it?"
"It would be the usual things," he said, closing the window. "Love betrayed, a starry night, a white glove dropped in a garden ..."
She smiled. "I wonder what Neanderthals sang about, if they sang at all."
"Oh, I'd guess love betrayed, a starry night, and a white mammoth tusk dumped in the cave. Why?"
"Some Catalan archaeologists have found an undisturbed cave in the mountains near Burgos, the home of early man. I'm interested in the way primates turned into men and women. When did speech develop, when did simple simian games of tag become elaborate human games with rules, and aggression codified. That kind of thing."
He went toward the bed. "Who sang the first love song. Who invented the wheel. Why did the English invent marmalade from Seville oranges."
She reached out and took his hand. "Talking of the English, Roy, come and screw me again, please, just a little, will you?"
"There's no breakfast for you until you let me."
The breakfast was good too. They ate in the room, talking mainly of their work. WACH both brought them together and generally kept them apart. Burnell had recently been in Milan, documenting the restoration of the Duomo. He was due to report to his superior in Frankfurt, where WACH had its headquarters, in two days. Blanche was now mostly at her desk in Madrid, able to get out on field work infrequently. She had to catch a flight back to Spain the following day.
"I speak German and Spanish—in fact, Castilian—more frequently than I do French. I don't regard myself as particularly French any more. I belong to the Community."
"You're an enlightened woman."
"Don't be silly. I know you speak half a dozen languages, you footloose creature. Why didn't you go back to England for your leave, instead of pottering about Europe? Do you like the German domination of the EU?"
"I don't mind it. It was inevitable. One reason I'm here and not in England is there's something I want to check in the anthropological museum. No, whenever I go back to England ... well, everything seems to come in quotes nowadays. It all seems old-fashioned. You know, things maintained for tourists, like 'The Changing of the Guard.' People still have, insist on, 'toast and marmalade' for breakfast. They 'drive down to the coast.' They go to 'the RA private view' and in 'the season' they attend what they still call 'Royal Ascot,' despite all that's happened to the royal family. My father still likes his 'cup of tea,' and talks of Europe as 'the Continent.' That kind of thing."
She laughed over her second croissant. "They only do that kind of thing in exalted Burnell circles. Oh, I remember you dislike those circles, but they're bred in you. That's why you're so self-contained. I like that, really. It's quaint ..."
He put a hand over hers and laughed with her. "Quaint! Yes. The French also have their traditions, if I remember correctly.
Listen, my boss has a bungalow on Lake Balaton. I've got a hire-car. Let's drive down to Balaton for the day. We can swim and sail. You can tell me about your latest paper. Come on."
She smiled at him, with slight mockery. "You look a little more boyish than you did yesterday. And I feel a little more girlish. Is that a word? Girlish? There are several things I am supposed to do today. I could cancel them. Let me make a few phone calls ..." Setting down her coffee cup, she gave a sudden exclamation. "Oh, Roy, come to Madrid and live with me. I'm sure we'd be so happy, truly."
He lowered his gaze. "You know I don't speak Spanish."
They drove through hectares of sunflowers to Lake Balaton. They had chosen a perfect day for the jaunt. At one point they passed a refugee camp, protected by razor wire. Hungarian and Croatian flags hung limply from flagpoles. They were past it immediately.
At a minor crossroads, Burnell slowed the car. This was where the crash had occurred which left Peter Remenyi in a coma. Both cars involved had been wrecked. No sign remained of the collision. He reminded Blanche that the previous summer, he, Remenyi, and another friend had gone horse-riding in the Alps, bivouacking most nights.
"What did you read him today, when you were sitting with him?"
"Oh, whatever's to hand—just in case it gets through to him, wherever he is, Shelley. 'Whence are we, and why are we? Of what scene The actors or spectators?'"
Blanche gave an appalled laugh. "Oh, that's awful. Isn't that a lament for someone dead?"
He speeded up again. "In this case, the nearly dead."
The bungalow was situated in the diplomatic strip, away from the crowds. It proved to be a mansion built in ornate mock-art-nouveau style. Its verandah overlooked the blue waters of Balaton. They admired the frightful taste of its decor, joked about the garish nude paintings, sailed, swam, sunned themselves, and made love on the reindeer rug in the living-room to the music of Smetana. Although the forests and rivers the composer had celebrated were destroyed by pollution, his music remained pristine. The hairs of the rug came off on their damp bodies.
Sometimes she looked up at the mock-Mucha ceiling, sometimes he did.
At sunset, they strolled arm in arm to the nearest restaurant. Foal was on the menu, so they ordered foal.
As if an earlier conversation was in Blanche's mind, she said, "Spain's the most successful part of the Community, except maybe Sweden. Outside of Germany, that is. It's a wonderful noble country. At least you might come and visit me, meet some of my friends. Drive down to Cordoba, meet the statue of Averroes."
"I hear Spain is rather autocratic, nowadays."
"Oh, that! They've banned this e-mnemonicvision craze, if that's what you mean. EMV is treated as if it was—were, do you say?—the subjunctive?—a drug. I am inclined to agree. Violent videos were bad enough, but to experience other people's actual memories—isn't it a kind of rape?—it's regarded as obscene in a Catholic state."
"You've never tried EMV? Properly used, it can be a good learning tool. I ran a bullet of Umberto Benjamin's memories of cathedral building. It's in the WACH library in Frankfurt. The insights were startling. It was as if for half an hour I really was Benjamin. EMV is mind talking to mind. There's nothing like it."
"I would have guessed e-mnemonicvision would be too invasive for you."
The waiter was pouring wine into their glasses, red and randy. As they toasted each other, Blanche said, "Mainly EMV is used for second-hand sex and misery and violence, not learning. I'm inclined to think it is demeaning to human nature." She laughed. "'If God had meant us to pry into other people's minds, He'd have given us telepathy' ..."
"It may prove in the end to allow us better insights into others. God knows, we could use that. While you're experiencing the false memory, you do seem to be the other person. You know the old Indian saying, 'Don't criticize your neighbor till you've walked a mile in his moccasins.' "
"Well, I still prefer reading. Old-fashioned of me, I know. I also think it's an abuse that people—poor people—are forced to sell their memories. It's selling your past, a new form of prostitution, worse than selling a kidney ... Where's that hunk of foal? I'm hungry."
"But lovers, exchanging memories ..."
"And becoming confused and neurotic. EMV is not a decade old and already it's causing all kinds of psychosis. But not in Spain, happily."
He saw it was time to change the subject. Besides, a violinist was sawing his way towards their table, eyes levelled at them along his instrument, a marksman aligning his sights on a target. A burst of "Elegaila" was due. "Tell me more about your work. I'm so ignorant, spending my time in decaying places of worship. I've lost touch with the modern world."
"Lucky Roy! Well, my work is more interesting to me than its description would be. Let's talk about you. I know you've got problems. We all have. You've heard about my mother's lawsuit before. It goes on ... It's your quality of remoteness I like, do you understand? Everyone is so bloody engagé these days. To take a position, a stance. You don't have a stance, do you?"
"I'm ruled by circumstance. Blanche, I don't know how you put up with me."
"I'm an idiot, that's the reason." They laughed.
As the waiters began to load their table with plates, she began to talk about Spain, its recent past, its distant past. The full-bodied wine, the tender foal steak, the cry of the violin, robbed what Blanche was saying of its nuances.
Next morning, he drove her to Ferihagy airport. As they embraced and kissed each other goodbye, she said, "I'll think of you—and remember we shall need more of one another very soon. Just bear my invitation in mind."
"Blanche—of course. Of course I will. It's just ..."
"It's still Stephanie, isn't it?" Lines of a gathering frown appeared on her forehead. "I thought you might have stopped that foolishness."
He shook his head, not in denial but in impatience with his own nature. The green eyes were suddenly luminous with anger.
"Why don't you bloody well forget Stephanie? She's bloody well forgotten you."
Excerpted from Somewhere East Of Life by Brian W. Aldiss. Copyright © 1994 Brian W. Aldiss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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