As a suitable accompaniment to our latest quarterly journal issue, Trafika Europe 9/10 – UK in Europe, we’re pleased here to bring you a story by British author John Saul, “The great unsettling.” This text was motivated in part by the sudden, large changes now facing the UK.
John Saul recently contributed to Best British Short Stories 2016 (Salt Publishing, UK), and had work shortlisted for the international 2015 Seán Ó Faoláin prize for fiction. Appearing widely in magazine form, his short fiction has been published in four collections (three at Salt). You can visit his website here.
The great unsettling
In an adoption procedure all my own I’ve taken on a collection of characters created by the great Hungarian author László Kurzeja. He has hypnotised me into believing in these people. I didn’t just lie there like a rabbit, saying shoot me full of characters, drug me László. I welcomed him. I wanted it, or something like it. The backstory is I sat at home making a shopping list, mostly food to get the next day, plus some odds and ends, a couple of GU10 halogen lamps, when I glimpsed the first butterfly of the year, of my year, out of the window. It made me think: some butterflies, and I fancied this was one, cannot be touched without a licence. The UK and the EU have worked together to protect them. I laid my head on the table and wept: we were about leave the European Union, to float away, after all the work, the decades, not to mention the centuries of history.
As my thoughts turned from GU10 lamps, to butterfly licences, to Europe, its whole disturbing business, I wanted desperately to connect to the countries of our great continent. So it was that I singled out Hungary. Hungary, as being on the furthest edge of the European Union, with which I have nothing but solidarity. Next I considered several prominent Hungarians—Houdini, Puskás, the footballer who scored more goals than anyone has, even Eva Gabor, and because may this fine artist never be forgotten, another László, László Moholy-Nagy—but by then I had fallen under the spell of Kurzeja.
And so, pushing all else from my mind, as you do when solidarity calls, I’ve taken in these characters. I know each by name. I’ve let them help themselves from drawers and cupboards, left out towels and even new toothbrushes in the bathroom. Last night they enjoyed several soaps on television, one saga after the next, hospitals and northern life and then an ancient rerun of the sitcom The Dukes of Hazzard, where the men especially liked the girls in shorts and cars skidding in the dust. I wasn’t to lose all sense of reality, however, and allow them to take over completely: being moderately house-proud I went around removing their cigarettes, taking them out of their mouths, until they had none left. The whole time they barely moved from their places on the floor, murmuring only at the adverts, since when they slept and slept. This morning they searched their pockets and my drawers for more cigarettes before accompanying me to Sainsbury’s, where without a sideways glance two immediately disappeared through some back doors, looking for jobs. The others shivered at the Arctic cold between the aisles.
While they huddled, blocking the way to the carrots and root vegetables, another wearing shorts—Gyula is his name—tagged along brightly, poking flour packets and fingering the different loaves of bread. I lost him too, despite his white socks and distinctive T-shirt depicting a hydroelectric dam. I suspect he was embroiled in calculations of some price per unit of weight, or paralysed by the sight of the string of chocolate and sweet confections, or by, so I heard him say, the army of yoghurts—or, as again I heard him say: the cascade of salmon, now frozen and wrapped mid-waterfall—until he rejoined me at the checkout. This was the man László had given free rein for page after page, when in a shack as far from here as can be imagined he deliberated how best to hit a nail into a piece of wood; how to hold the hammer, what arc to make it travel through, what in physics would explain the optimal trajectory. He had his motives—enemies, or at least fears. He had to board up his place, fast, and properly. I forget exactly why.
This Gyula entrenched himself at the checkout, watching for a particular section of the conveyor belt to reappear. It re-emerged, and re-emerged, always with the same wilted leaf of rocket. He lay down under it. I smiled at the cashier. On getting to his feet, he spied the next booth was unmanned and vaulted into it, aping the young American in that late-night episode as he took to the wheel of a convertible without opening the door, and presumabl—no one could see him—crouched out of sight. I smiled more at the cashier.
—It’s all right, I told her, it’s not a robbery.
—That’s a matter of opinion, she said looking up from a holiday brochure. It depends which side of the capitalist divide you’re on.
She zapped the barcode on the spelt-and-sunflower loaf and the grapes from India.
—Now stick ’em up, she said, that’s £27.22.
—American is my guess, he said. Possibly Swedish—
—with these modern composites, he mumbled, it’s hard to tell.
The cashier returned to her brochure.
—Everything is international these days, she said. Have a good day.
László, László Kurzeja. I shouldn’t have opened those books. It seems every move I make is under his shadow, breathing its dusty air, in a light which has only known nature and wood smoke and, on account of that dust and smoke, is so characteristic of the man it might be best termed Kurzeja dusk. Move? Did I say move? He has me trapped on his flypaper. Lured, mesmerised by those sentences I stop, I squirm, I sink on my knees, captivated. His pictures are how I see, his thoughts are my thoughts. When for example he says our sadnesses rise in billows to the sky I know he’s on to something. I go to the window where I saw the butterfly and look. They’re up there, waiting to rain back down.
Over time the influence of this consummate author may wane, but I doubt it, despite his pessimistic airs. Did I say despite? It may be because of. Laszlo has positioned his figures—us all—as crushed by buildings, trapped in fires, dying, poisoned, floundering from a shipwreck, gasping in chilling, heaving seas, desperate for spars as likely to thwack the back of our heads as bob before our eyes.
So it is that the troupe reassembles. What to do? They may hang around for weeks. Shopping bags weighing down both arms, I listen.
—Well, János, how did it go? Did you make an impact?
—Round the back? Well Gyula, same old story. Work but no jobs, if you know what I mean. Did you?
—I made an impact. I created a queue. Interacted with the checkout. The cashier was contemplating flying to Croatia. Of course I studied the parts. The materials. The mechanism.
—The same old Gyula. Our answer to Leonardo da Vinci.
—If you say so.
—More Leonardo than Michelangelo. That’s why you never make it with Lara. She wants a big man, a big big man. Don’t you, Lara?
—I speak for myself.
The situation has its upsides. On the broad pavement of the high road I’m getting a gang feeling. I’m with my boys (and Lara, and aunt Piri, I’ll come to her too), my troops.
Including Tomasz. He really is big, now lurching from the bed of the roadway to the shop windows and back, a typical Kurzeja personage. The black curls, the twitching hands. He stumbles past tables of heavy-looking books, crosses the threshold of a discount bookshop. None of the gang goes round the back. Tomasz flicks back his curls.
—Vita. Is that a new word?
—No it’s a very old word, says the bookseller just as a bright ring-tone has him turning to the phone, delighted by another query. On the pavement outside Gyula is inspecting the engineering of the table legs, undeterred by Tomasz, head lolling, crashing past, heading dangerously for the roadway before veering straight for the doors of a houseware retailers. As one, the gang scurry to the back rooms, brushing past me.
The fact Gyula burned to death in his own house, that shack, hasn’t stopped him tagging along with me. First he boarded up his windows, having improved his hammering technique so as not to further bash his fingers. Weeks later, locked in by his enemies, torched and shackbound, the boarding up proved his downfall. His choice of planks, his hammering, the doubling up of nails, rebounded on him, another of those sadnesses reflected by the sky. He choked, he gasped, he lost consciousness and dropped down dead. But all this only in the pages of the book by László Kurzeja (born Békéscsaba, 1955, twice married, three children). Gyula’s even smiling now. He thinks the Dyson air purifier he’s discovered is a modern miracle.
I wonder if he even knows about hammering in those nails, or about his shack, his enemies, his death. His aunt, aunt Piri (Gyula has pulled out the purifier from its box) is beside me this minute, checking the blenders. Piri and Gyula’s mother were sisters. I decided I would question her, or one of them, why not Piri, her arms thin as bones.
I confess: this is getting too much. The philosophical complexities and implications of the adoption are, frankly, overwhelming. The best course may be to make a dash for it, leave them to themselves. If only a large security guard on the main doors was not staring our way. (Gyula has the instruction booklet; doubtless in a range of languages.) But, shooed out of the back rooms the gang is looking about disgruntledly. Lara is running a hand along the rat poisons. János has taken a liking to a lawnmower in the corner.
—I’m dying, says Piri. I should be at home. At least in Budapest.
Gyula (has propped the booklet on a shelf, open at Italian) I can only presume is now in two minds—one dead in his shack, one, resurrected, on the household goods, on this high road with his aunt.
—Aunt Piri, he says. Have no fear, you can’t experience your own death. (He has found an electric socket. The staff are all too busy to intervene.) You only know the deaths of others. And you aren’t dying.
—Oh but I’m going. I tasted it on my tongue.
Enough. I had to rid myself of them. Why was I here? The reason
—Death. A sudden sour taste
I try harder not to sink back into the flypaper the reason
Her voice delirious
—Aunt Piri are you sure you aren’t playing tricks with yourself?
—So what what if I am it may still work even if I have to trick myself several times before succeeding before hitting the jackpot I’m old but I might swing this last thing myself
—E.g. by stopping eating and drinking?
—E.g. e.g.? what is this? who is that?
The reality, the reason I’d come in here was to buy the GU10 lamps. I had a packet. I headed for the counter. I’d stopped listening to László’s people but they refused to go. So it was that I decided to combine my aims with theirs. Try to. Through the sadnesses descending, a ray of public-spiritedness shone. I unplugged the Dyson purifier. I placated the member of staff who would have rather I didn’t replace the purifier in its carton. I kept an eye on Gyula, who after troubles starting up a hedge trimmer had gone back to the purifier; and on Tomasz, who was still roaming dangerously, too large for the spaces between the drills and hoovers. I blocked his way. Now, I said, I’m going to ask some questions. OK, he said, but watch this.
He was testing how many dinner plates he could lift and balance in one
—First, Tomasz, do you know a great man—
—Great man? Bill Clinton? Herr Freud who said a part of us would never settle—
—let me finish. A great man by the name of Kurzeja?
—Kurzeja, hm Kurzeja, Kurzeja Polish in origin occasionally Hungarian (Gyula demonstrates how to reseal an open packet; seals it; opens it again) K-u-r-j-e-z-a? let’s see, the letter K is both intuitive and creative. It implies the capacity to have hunches. A hunch must be handled with great care, especially if voiced in public. The letter U is part of the oscillating letters, ranking high in the register of the feelings. R is emotional and creative. The Z, the Z is likewise creative and emotional. The E is physical and inventive. This letter is part of the register of senses and has been called an earth
I’d bought far too much food. I checked the shopping list. Were those cigarettes between the tangerines?
element. Bearers of the E have rapid bodily impulses, often linked to sexuality and desires it is very difficult to know from their work the desires of an author even one forthcoming. The letter J is part of the brain and oscillating letters. This letter speaks of cogitative powers, powers which aid its bearer to advance further. But are sure you have the right László, you don’t want Moholy-Nagy? or his brother, the great rambler? talking and talking until he hit on something something pithy and so it was that he saidart was unsettling but if you ask me what is really unsettling is this parting from the European Union I mean, why are we standing her talking if that isn’t what’s behind it all parting it could happen to us and we only just joined, more or less then everyone for themselves, like in a shipwreck that’s the great unsettling a big cloud overhead from now on it’s all cloud Hey Gyula! switch that thing off, I’m having a proper conversation here.
—I can’t, it’s on auto. (Checks the manual. Tomasz pulls at clumps of hair.)
What makes it so loud?
—I’ll get János. János, come here, make an impact.
A man in a suit appeared: the manager.
—What are doing? Do I know you?
—If you have read the works of László Kurzeja, perhaps.
—He doesn’t look like he has, Gulya. If it won’t turn off just kick it.
—It’s an idea.
—Do not kick it.
—János! Perhaps, with your obvious interest in the many goods here … I may not look like it but I’m an engineer. I wonder … do you know of Hyacynthe Marcel Bocchetti? He designed the longest conveyor belt in the world—at the time. Almost ten miles of it. Now the longest stretches sixty miles, across the Sahara.
—Put those plates back exactly where you found them. Who are you people?
Tomasz reached tremblingly towards the shelves.
—This is János and that’s Lara.
—I speak for myself.
—Quite. Over by the hacksaws is Piri my aunt. I’m Gyula. This gadget is really something. I imagine it has quite an impact. If only you had jobs. Give us jobs, we could demonstrate it to your customers.
The smash as the plates hit the floor made an explosion of a kind, as breakages do. The smash turned the dust of the air to finer dust, more dust but finer, more particles, invisible, is atomised the word, possibly, but the dust vanished as a result of the smash, bang, vanished, in a poof of nothing,
—Jobs, said Gyula. Even a cigarette. One cigarette.
—If only, said the voice of János, if only.
and so it was, as regards the air, there was nothing visible, nothing nameable, it was the end, the last chord of the piano, the final splay of the fingers, plate slamming down on plate, as the material world joined the world beneath that shadow, the air thinning to nothing as I strode at the door, give me air, rid me of these people, I said to the man on the door, we’re all on our own now, I said, even you, it’s a mess, it’s a wreck, it’s the great unsettling, we were all on our own and I had to get air.
Trafika Europe showcases new fiction and poetry in English translation from across the 47 countries of Council of Europe.
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