Songs from the Other Side of the Wall by Dan Holloway
The day the Berlin Wall came down, Jennifer returned to England, leaving her week-old daughter, Szandi, to grow up on a Hungarian vineyard with 300 years of history. Now 18, Szandi is part of Budapest’s cosmopolitan art scene, sharing a flat and a bohemian lifestyle with her lover and fellow sculptress, Yang. She has finally found her place in the world. Then a letter arrives that threatens everything, and forces her to choose once and for all: between the past and the present; between East and West; between her family and her lover.
READ CHAPTER ONE OF SONGS FORM THEOTHER SIDE OF THE WALL BELOW
December 12 2007
“You’ve gotta come see it, Szandi,” says Yang. I slam the phone down but it misses the base. I hit the clock instead, which flashes 03.00.
I put the handset on the pillow and turn over so I’m looking at it. The white plastic appears faintly red in the clock’s LCD glow. “Szandi?” I hear. The black dots of the speaker seem to wink in the dark as she talks.
“My sculpture. It’s finished. You’ve gotta come see!”
“I will. I’ll come over first thing in the morning.”
“It is first thing in the morning, you daft bitch.” I hear her laugh, but it’s distant. I bet she thinks she’s put her hand over the mouthpiece; but she’s too stoned to get it right.
“Are you gonna make me come get you, Szandi?”
“Pleeaase,” she says.
“OK.” I’m too tired to argue. I’ll be back in bed quicker if I just go.
I pull on a jumper, thick woollen leggings, and a pair of pumps, and head out of the flat into the cold city. The mist coming off the Danube wraps itself around me like the breath of a thousand ghosts.
I make my way through Víziváros. The streets get narrower with every turn until I reach a passage that’s little more than a crack, where one building has slipped down the hill with age and worked loose of its partner. There are no lights, but I know every chip and layer of orange and blue and green and brown paint on the door that opens onto a thin, concrete staircase. I climb to the top and ring the bell.
Yang opens her studio door a few centimetres, and looks me up and down as though she can’t figure out why I’m here. All I can see are her eyes. Her pupils are huge, like she’s sucked in two black moons. I was right. She’s stoned. She fumbles to free the safety chain, opens the door fully and reaches out a hand to drag me inside.
We stand on the paint-splattered floorboards just inside the door, our hands still locked together. She grins but her muscle control’s gone, and the smile teeters on her lips. She’s wearing the long T-shirt I printed for her that says slut slit a few centimetres above the hem. The black letters are spaced out and I can see enough between them to know the T-shirt’s all she’s wearing.
She steps to one side and pushes me forward. I’m standing in front of a glass tank about a metre high, the same deep and twice as long. Inside are loads of little red balloons. They’re just hovering in space, refusing to fall to earth or float off into the sky. Some of them are clustered together so it looks like they’re supporting each other, but I walk all the way around the tank and there’s clear air surrounding every one of them.
“Gelatine,” she says. “Cool, huh? Chemicals suspended in extract of cow!” She giggles, wobbles, and nearly topples through the glass.
“Like a negative of Damien Hirst,” I say, but it’s more beautiful than that; and more old fashioned, like the millefiori paperweights in Dad’s study. The concept’s modern and kind of cool, but there’s something in the execution – the smoothness of the red; the flat, crisp angles of the glass; the clarity of the gelatine – that belongs to another time.
“It’s called One Hundred Balloons Without String,” she says.
“At least that’s descriptive.”
She sits down on the floor beside a little pile of screwed-up and sticky papers, and starts rummaging through them. “Wanna hear the text?” she asks, grabbing at my leg with one hand and shaking a pair of chopsticks off a piece of A4 with the other.
“Text?” I say, sitting down next to her.
“Yeah, the words that go with the sculpture.”
“I know what a text is. Isn’t it a bit out of date, though? People don’t really do that kind of thing any more.”
“I know,” she says. She’s sitting with her legs crossed and the T-shirt’s riding up. My eyes follow the long, pale olive line of the inside of her thigh. She puts the sheet of paper in her lap. “It’s part of the whole retro thing, like you said about Damien Hirst.” She picks it up and moves it closer to her eyes, then away, then back again. “Ah, fuck it,” she says. “You read it. I’m knackered.”
She hands me the paper. The edge is covered in a thick, sticky gloop that I hope is gelatine. I’ve forgotten how exquisite her handwriting is, even when she’s scribbling. My eyes trace the narrow, inverted curves of her ns and her ms, and the almost shorthand ripples of her vowels. Her letters have the elegance and tightness of her body, the perfect proportion of its angles and curves.
“As newborns,” I begin, “we announce ourselves to the world utterly without fear. We take in a gigantic lungful of air that fills our shrivelled skin like a balloon and, for the last time in decades, without embarrassment, expectation – or fear – we let out an almighty scream. Although, and precisely because, we are ignorant of them, there is nothing in our future or our past (not the slap of the mother’s hand nor the reward of her breast) that tells us what we must do.”
“Yeah,” she says. Her eyelids are starting to fall. The skin on them is smooth, like cream-coloured suede. I watch as they move slowly up and down, trying to decide whether she’s more beautiful with her eyes open or closed.
“Hey, don’t stop,” she says, staring straight at me. Her brow’s creased like she’s cross, but her spaced-out pupils stay big and glistening and distant.
“No.” I put the paper down. “You tell me.”
“Yeah, but you’re not too tired to call me over here. So tell me about your metaphorical balloons!”
“Fuck, you know, Szandi. You’re born and you open your eyes and all around you see this cat’s cradle of ropes and cords and strings. Family, rules, race, sex. Like a balloon tied to the vendor’s hand, on the verge of floating into a limitless sky with nothing to direct us but the breeze of chance. Life feels, what?”
“Precarious,” I offer.
“Yeah, that’s it. Precarious.”
“Only,” I say, looking at the sculpture, “if you look at life from every angle you see there isn’t a cat’s cradle at all. There’s nothing touching anything else.”
“Yeah. But who can see their life from every angle? Only God could do that. Do you believe in God, Szandi?”
I shake my head.
“Maybe when we die,” I say. “Maybe we can see it then. When we’re really old, and lying in our beds with our eyes closed and all we can hear is our breathing. Maybe we get so far from the world we can see our life from every side.”
“That’d be sad,” says Yang. “You go your whole life knowing exactly where you are, then just before you die ping, someone cuts the rope.”
“Better to die young.”
“Like Claire,” she says, without sympathy, without any feeling at all. Just a statement of fact.
“Like Claire,” I repeat, and pick up her text. My hand’s shaking. The paper makes a sound like rain falling on glass.
“What did I write about dying?” she asks.
“You don’t remember?”
“I’m tired, Szandi. Tired and a bit stoned. Read it to me.”
I turn the page, reading as I go, and let my eyes find their way to the last paragraph.
“…we walk towards death in ignorance,” I read, “fearless once again of punishment and reward. We take a gulp of air with what’s left of our lungs; and announce our presence, without embarrassment, expectation – or fear – not with a scream but a gurgle, a dribble, and last a rattle. Finally the balloon has reached space, beyond hope, fear, past, present, horizon; beyond air, beyond weather.”
It’s beautiful. Her words are like poetry in the same effortless way as the sculpture. They slide off the tongue and float weightlessly away without making a ripple.
“It’s overwritten,” I say quietly. “Is that part of the retro irony?”
“Yeah,” she says, opening her eyes. “I took the style from your blog.”
“Fuck you,” I say, and start to laugh.
She screws up her forehead and leans towards me. Her head falls onto my shoulder, and a spike of hair jolts out of place and flops over one eye. She juts out her bottom lip and blows, making her hair dance. The combination of the gesture and her utter seriousness is comical and I feel the corners of my mouth twitching.
“Hey, you,” she says. “Let me be serious for a minute.”
“Yeah.” She frowns harder, scrunching up her nose. “I was going to tell you I made this for you.”
“For you. Because you’re not like any normal balloon.”
“You see all these balloons?” she asks. She tries lifting her head but she’s too tired and it slides from my shoulder to my chest. She puts a hand there as a pillow, letting it mould itself to my breast.
“Look at one of them. Any one. Pick a balloon,” she says, like she’s a magician doing a card trick. “What do you see?”
“You tell me.”
“You see that the only thing making it any different from all the other balloons is its position. The only thing that makes your balloon different is how it relates to every other balloon. It’s only when they’ve all floated off into space that you can look at a balloon and see it on its own.” She sighs and shrugs her shoulder gently against me. “Poor balloon.”
“Yeah,” she says, but now her eyes are firmly closed and her words are getting blurred. “Poor balloon. Think…need to change…in the morning.” Now her voice is hardly there at all, and it’s starting to merge with shallow, ragged breaths that will soon become a snore. “Ninety-nine Balloons Without String…One With.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask. “You’re the one floating off into space.”
It’s too late. Underneath the T-shirt her chest is rising and falling in the slow rhythm of a torch song. I kiss her head, ease it gently down onto my lap, lean back, and look up at the ceiling. The flaking eau de nil paint is textured with pits and splashes and craters. I look at the patterns they make, joining the dots in a hundred different ways. I try seeing each one separately, cut off from the scratches and marks around it; but I can’t.
It’s midday when I come back from the shops, and Yang’s in the shower, back in our flat for the first time in a week. The water rinses the sleep off her like a layer of fine powder and leaves her shining like the stone of a fresh-peeled lychee. I step in and we kiss and let our fingers flow with the water down the contours of our flesh. She takes me, still wet, to bed and we make love for an hour, tongues and hands and skin blurring in moist heat. As our bodies move, the water slowly dries, and when we’re spent we lie on the bed, glinting with the sticky sheen of sweat and sex.
For a while, I watch her and listen to her breathe. Her eyes are shut but the rasps from her lips come too quickly for sleep. I want to tell her I love her. I put my arm around her shoulder and nuzzle the thick, black hair. I press my breast against hers, watch her lips open and sigh as my hard pink nipple brushes the soft brown of hers. The thin layers of sweat and skin that separate us melt together. I push down on her a little harder. I want the boundary to disappear altogether. I want my heart to leap out of my chest and start beating in hers. But it won’t. Not yet, not until the morning I wake up, feel a body next to me, and don’t think of Claire.
By mid afternoon slivers of silk surround me on the sofa. I pull pieces off at random and throw them on the floor together, trying to make the colours and shapes talk to each other. Instead they just flop down in heaps and look a mess.
“What the fuck?” asks Yang, standing in the door.
“I’m playing,” I lie.
“No you’re fucking not, you’re messing with your sculpture.”
“OK. I thought I could maybe do something with the lining, or put some coloured stitching in. It’s not right.”
“It’s finished,” she says. She starts picking the bits up from the floor. Then the ones on the sofa, till she stands in front of me brandishing a thick, multicoloured weapon. “It’s been finished for over a week.”
Now it’s night, and she’ll sleep through till I bring coffee, and shake her till she remembers she has to set up for the exhibition. I’m glad she’s asleep. Often I’ll wake, and over the nape of her neck I’ll see Yang’s face reflected in the glass of the clock, her eyes open. She’s not sleeping, but she’s not awake. Deep behind the black of her pupils there’s an intense concentration I can’t penetrate.
I go to the kitchen, pour a beer, and sit down with the letter I’ve been avoiding all day. I tap the edge against the wood for a minute or so. The postmark says Tokaj. I don’t recognise the ballpoint handwriting that’s pressing unevenly into the cheap envelope, but that doesn’t matter. I know it’s about Dad.
I push the beer across the table, slide my finger under the flap, tearing it clumsily like I’m gutting a fish with a blunt knife, and lay the sheet of shiny lined paper on the table.
Your father doesn’t know I’m writing. He’d just tell me not to interfere. But isn’t that what friends do, eh? I would’ve called but there was no way of getting your number without him suspecting, so it’s a letter. Sorry it’s not a very good one – you a student and all, but the only things I’m used to writing are invoices.
I know you’ll be here in a week anyway but it would mean the world if you came home early. Even if it’s only a day. To show your Dad you care. Sometimes when I go over he’s so grey and quiet I wonder just how ill he is. But he won’t see the doctor. Maybe you could make him.
One more thing, and you mustn’t let him know I said anything. You already know what would make him happy, even if it’s too late to make him well. Tell him you’ll look after the vineyard. Tell him you’ll take over Szant Gabor when he’s gone.
I know it’s all too much to ask but what am I supposed to do? Marko’s my oldest friend in the world.
I go to the bathroom and open the door of the big mirror-cabinet above the sink. There’s the cutthroat Dad gave me when I was ten, its blue enamel handle shining amongst the tampons and pill bottles. I open it out and watch as a droplet of moisture appears and glistens on it like dew on grass. I hold the blade up to my lips. The edge is so fine I only know I’ve cut myself from the red that’s swirling in the centre of my tear.
“Oh, Dad,” I whisper, wiping the carbon-steel on the letter, leaving a smudge of salt and blood and rust.
Half of me wants to run home and hold him for as long as he has left. And half of me wants to go back into the other room and lose myself forever in the warmth of Yang’s sleeping body. At this moment I have two lives in front of me, but I know the moment I choose one, the other will die.
It’s long past midnight and even though it’s winter the sun will come soon. The darkness outside is already loosening. It melts in front of me, and I realise it’s no longer the orange yellow dark of streetlamps and neon signs. It’s the sleazy light of a bar, the Grey Wolf in Bucharest. It’s New Year’s Eve. 2006 is about to become 2007. The future is full of possibility. I have a place come the autumn to study languages at the Sorbonne. I am about to sing in public for the first time. Somewhere, waiting for me, in the West, Claire is alive.