On the final evening of the conference, Clara leaned against the railing of her fifth floor balcony and watched mist gather over the slow, brown river. A dirty sunset tinted scattered clouds and backlit the bare trees on the promenade. In the grounds of the hotel, a white plastic marquee had been erected and the first guests were making their way along lamp-lit paths for the conference’s closing party.
Within the sliding doors, her phone shuddered on a squat glass table. Tilly’s smile glowed on the screen, the only light in the dim room – Tom calling to see how her paper had gone and so she could kiss Tilly goodnight before heading down to the party. She flicked on the bedside lamp, slipped in her earbuds. Tilly was on Tom’s lap, facing the camera. In her hair, she wore a little mauve ribbon that he must have tied especially for the call. Look, Tilly, here’s mummy, he chirped, flapping a hand at the laptop camera, encouraging her to do the same. Tilly wasn’t waving though. She stared from the phone as if she had no idea who the strange woman smiling at her from the strange room was. Look, it’s mummy, here she is, say hi mummy, Tom urged, and winked his hand. She’s just tired, he said, she’s been constantly asking where’s mama. But by now, Tilly was completely absorbed with her own image in the upper corner of the screen, pulling faces, chatting away in a private language of saliva and surprise.
Even though it was only three nights, Clara had dreaded the idea of being apart from Tilly for the first time. She’d been set on declining the invitation, but Tom assured her it was a perfect opportunity for her to ease back into work. He’d be fine, as long as she left them enough tittie juice. She hated when he called it that, but laughed obligingly and expressed milk into a dozen labelled and dated plastic bags. Despite their efforts to wean her, Tilly was still breastfeeding at 15 months and Clara fretted over how they’d each handle the separation.
Waiting for the plane to taxi from the gate, she had snuck in a last FaceTime home before switching to Airplane Mode. Tilly opened and closed her little hand, waving mummy goodbye. Her smile gave Clara delicious heart palpitations. Tom wouldn’t admit it, but Clara knew he was looking forward to a few days of being a single dad. He’d been extra-absorbed in his work lately, staying late at the studio, and welcomed the opportunity to connect with their daughter. Anyway, he said, it’ll do you good to check in with yourself again, some you time.
On the nearly two hour ride from the airport, Clara was surprised to feel Tom and Tilly’s grip on her loosen. As if they were characters in a series she’d been binge watching, now put on hold. The driver barely grunted at her attempts at conversation. Clara couldn’t tell if he spoke little English or was fundamentally averse to speaking. She reclined her seat, let the hum of the tires and the unfamiliar landscape hypnotise her. The tender birch forests, the concrete plants with their pale silos. Slender women on billboards obscured by the rush of overtaking road-trains.
The conference was centred around a municipal theatre complex, its auditoriums designated for lectures, the rehearsal rooms for break-away seminars. After Clara picked up her registration pack, she wandered back to the hotel through the old town with its UNESCO heritage listed facades and crumbling fortifications. It all seemed unreal.
On the first evening, delegates were invited to a guest performance of The Bacchae. A notorious production by a Hungarian enfant terrible, staged in a toilet block – it had divided critics at its Avignon premiere last summer. Clara ordered room service, opting to sip average mini-bar Chablis and correct the text of her lecture over Dionysian fury and ritual dismemberment. Sprawled on the oversized bed, she relished the room’s dull anonymity, the endless tv channels, the sudden lack of demands on her attention.
She scrolled through photos of Tilly on her phone, looking to feel the sting of absence. Every other time she’d been apart from her – on those rare occasions when they left Tilly with Tom’s mother and went to see a play or to dinner with friends – she’d felt like her chest was collapsing, a ringing in her ears like a distant fire-bell. There was none of that now. At home, she was used to falling asleep with the purr of Tilly’s breath on the baby monitor, her gurgles and night sounds cutting through static. Weird to find herself preferring the inane chatter of talk show hosts making wisecracks in a language she didn’t understand to the rise and fall of her daughter’s breath. She closed her eyes.
The comfort of the laugh track, the jangle of the in-studio band.
Before breakfast, she went running while mist still hung in bright veils along the river. On her earbuds, she listened to Robert Schumann’s Variations in E-flat Major, the so-called Ghost Variations. She’d once heard Igor Levit, on a podcast, describe the piece as music which is always making tiny circles around itself. Those sparse, haunted spirals matched the emptied-out feeling of the barely woken city as she left the hotel grounds and cut through an undulating park where beech trees shed their last yellow leaves.
She picked up pace along the promenade, crossed the river over a two-lane steel bridge. The other bank was less populated and she quickly left the grey apartment blocks behind, following a wooded trail along the river. On her earbuds, the piano turned circles, scoring the cold fall of morning sun through the silver birches. She passed overflowing bins, plastic and rot in the dirt, emptied vodka bottles. In the dead leaves, she saw a mouldy skirt, a ribbed sweater, underthings. As if someone had been stripped there, clothes dumped. The woods suggested vanishing. She kept her eyes peeled.
There was another bridge upriver where she aimed to cross and loop back towards the hotel. As she approached, the path became choked with weeds and thistles. She negotiated her way across a stinking ravine towards a broken staircase. Graffiti covered the concrete supports, smashed glass littered the steps, the handrails were rusted through. The piano’s soft cascade scored her tentative climb.
She’d expected to find a road, but it turned out to be a railway bridge with only a narrow, galvanised steel gangway running parallel with the tracks. She wasn’t convinced it was legal or safe to cross, but couldn’t stand the idea of retracing her steps. The metal grating proved loose underfoot. Far below, the river ran. She slowed, concentrating on the ghostly refrains of the Schumann to calm her rising vertigo.
Halfway across, she encountered a missing section of walkway. Wide enough to spring over, but the drop gave her pause. She imagined tumbling like a sack of flour into the brown, receiving waters; the local municipality fetching her bloated, root-snagged body from beneath a canopy of weeping willows; Tom raising Tilly alone; the myths he’d invent to explain her absence. Paralysed, she heard the rumble of an oncoming freight-train. Wagons heaped with limestone overpowered the trembling piano, buffeting her with slatted wind as she groped the railing. When the train passed, the piano’s meandering circles again filled the silence. The spiralling themes dictated to Robert Schumann by angelic voices accompanied her quick leap and slow passage to the other side.
In the park opposite the hotel, she caught her breath and performed stretches. Down an incline, framed by shaggy junipers, stood a larger-than-life bronze statue of a stern man in military coat and cap. His firm gaze fell on the passersby in their puffy insulated jackets. A dozen or so bouquets of roses lay at his feet. Beside a clutch of poplars, a woman with bottle-blonde hair trained a telephoto lens on Clara flexing her calves. It was like she’d landed in some Cold War era espionage movie. The milky light. The swirling leaves. The bulky statue of the gazing patriot. The assembly of crows and their sudden flight. The passersby even resembled well-cast background actors. The clasped hands of a young couple swung too deliberately. A young woman took forever to adjust her leather skirt. A young father wheeled a stroller, fake smiling like a model in a homeware catalogue.
That evening when she told Tom about her morning run – the precarious bridge crossing, the blonde with the telephoto lens, the suspicious extras – he smiled and said sounds like you’re having real adventures, but was preoccupied with spooning mashed veggies into Tilly’s resistant mouth. It drove Clara crazy when he made those automatic listening noises, in that autopilot tone, as if she too were a child, being spoon fed affirmation.
At breakfast on the first day, she sat at a table overlooking the carpark down to the river. The hotel was filled with delegates. She identified speakers from author portraits on dust jackets or interviews online. She’d spotted the names of colleagues from previous symposiums on the delegate list. Emails had been exchanged anticipating catch ups, but she was relieved to encounter no-one she knew at the buffet, relishing the rare opportunity to breakfast alone. She enjoyed the hum of conversation in the glassy room, the quiet accord in which guests helped themselves to the various juices, or made their selections from the array of cheeses, meats and fruit segments.
On the second morning, while she stood arranging her plate with smoked trout and eggs with salmon roe, a man clutching a plate heaped with sliced meats introduced himself as a huge fan. He’d recognised her from a TED Talk she’d given when she was seven months pregnant, entitled ‘Grief Lessons: Why we still need the Greeks’. His name was Tamás and he would be honoured if she would join him for breakfast, indicating a table beside a huge indoor palm where several delegates chatted amiably.
When she finished making her selections, instead of returning to her spot by the window, Clara joined Tamás’s table where she was introduced to a severe Finnish woman and a pair of amiable Dutch guys. They were dissecting the performance of The Bacchae they’d all been at on the first evening while Clara was sipping Chablis on her king-sized bed. The Dutch guys dismissed the staging as highly derivative, whereas the Finnish woman found the carnality refreshingly subversive. The hot-shot director of The Bacchae and Tamás were both from Budapest so he’d followed the director’s work since he burst on the scene with a controversial Phedré set in a slaughterhouse. Tamás conceded this Bacchae wasn’t the ageing enfant terrible’s strongest work, but still he admired how provocation was used to uncover fresh layers of resonance. While the others continued to parse the performance, Clara told Tamás how much she’d enjoyed visiting Budapest back in the early 2000s, backpacking with a friend. She remembered the fabulous bathhouses, raves in decrepit factories.
You wouldn’t recognise it now, he said, different city.
When Tamás flashed a grin, Clara saw he wore ceramic braces on his teeth. He smiled wider as if modelling the corrective bands for a dental brochure. He explained it had been his wife’s idea to use part of an inheritance to align his crowded mouth. He used to be shy about his smile – all crooked and gappy – but he’d had these on for the better part of a year and they’d worked wonders, he was a new man. Clara found Tamás’s enthusiasm for his dental work weirdly endearing. His new smile was infectious, she was grateful to no longer be sitting alone by the window. They compared notes on the first day’s sessions and she promised to catch to his presentation that afternoon.
The Finnish woman was making a show of dabbing her mouth with a napkin, gesturing vaguely at Clara’s shirt. Shit. Breast milk had leaked an archipelago of stains across her blouse. Tamás had seen it too. A shadow like a cloud crossing the sun traversed his face and he busied himself trying to dislodge a sliver of bread roll from a ceramic band. When Clara excused herself to go attend to her leaky boobs, he barely looked up.
She had every intention of going to his paper that afternoon, but after the morning session – a symposium entitled Electra’s Scream – she was dizzy with hunger. The cobbled streets and squares of the Old Town were crowded with people of all ages wearing uniforms and national dress. She joined queues outside several restaurants, but each time she reached the hostess and raised an index finger to request a table for one, a seemingly identical blonde in an embroidered apron scowled, no.
Outside the cathedral, soldiers stood around like wax dolls beside exhibits of military hardware. Tanks and anti-aircraft guns basked in ashen light. Banners sagged between trees, petitions waited to be signed. On the steps of the town hall, a brass band played forlorn marches. Clara threaded her way through the crowds. In the dim cool of a colonnade, an ancient woman offered rough looking produce for sale. Scrawny beets, dirt crusted carrots, turnips. Her mineral eyes tracked Clara as she passed.
Eventually, she came across a pizzeria on a drab boulevard lined with peeling billboards and high-rise blocks. She drank a beer and ordered a pizza Margherita while Joe Cocker sang love lift us up where we belong on the tinny hi-fi. Tamás would be giving his paper now, flashing his porcelain smile. The pizza was salty and good. Feeling like a kid playing hooky, she ordered a second beer.
That evening when she saw Tamás at a cocktail soiree hosted by the comparative literature department of the local university, she found herself thanking him for his paper, ‘Ghostly Demarcations: The Spectre of Tragedy on Contemporary European Stages’. He shrugged and said he’d been disappointed not to see her in the auditorium or to receive her feedback afterwards. Instead of admitting she’d been drinking beer in a shabby pizzeria, Clara surprised herself by fibbing that she had, in fact, been there, up the back, he must’ve missed her. She complimented him on the audacity of the paper, and guessing he’d leaned heavily on Derrida’s reading of Marx, spun a few vague remarks about hauntology, Hamlet, eternal recurrence. It surprised her how easily the little white lies came. She felt like an actress trying on new gestures in front of a mirror. Twirling the stem of her wine glass between thumb and finger, she dared Tamás to contradict her, but he just smiled his newly straightened teeth and thanked her for having been there after all, it really meant a lot to him.
Her own paper was scheduled for the following afternoon, the last of the conference. After her morning run, she warmed down in the park opposite the hotel, drilling the text as she stretched. A man with Coke-bottle glasses whose beard looked stuck-on turned repeatedly like some wind up doll to ogle her. His whole appearance – parka, grey trousers, grey running shoes – seemed to be a tatty, ill-fitting disguise. As if in collusion with the badly costumed man, a painfully thin woman with streakily dyed hair walked by humming the same forlorn march that Clara had heard the day before in the town square. Wrapped in cellophane, a gingerbread house swung from her hand like a wrecking ball.
Clara watched a boy being ushered by his parents to the base of the statue of the patriot and arranged among the floral tributes. He wore a camouflage bomber jacket with gold zippers, hair gelled back. Dwarfed by the statue’s bronze bulk, he stood erect and scowling while his father aimed his phone. Beyond the frame, the boy’s mother worked frantically to get him to smile. But no matter what faces she pulled, he retained his sullen stare. Clara pictured him as a grown man, jaw still clenched, kneeling to lay a wreath, head bowed in supplication under the patriot’s stern gaze.
Since Tilly’s birth, Clara had repeatedly found herself caught up in what she thought of as temporal short circuits or double exposures, sensory loops that generated squalls of feedback in her brain. Just yesterday, she pictured the old woman who sold gnarled roots by the city gates as a teenage girl, sat in the exact same manner, wrapped in her shawl, offering her wares. She saw the youths of the brass band grown wrinkled, grey and bent as they honked out their repertoire on the marble steps. Rocking newborn Tilly in her crib, she encountered her own mother’s eyes looking up, and in turn, saw herself as her mother gazing down on Clara’s infant self, swaddled and needy, drinking in the world.
She called upon those sensations while writing her paper, ‘Close Your Little Eyes: Jocasta’s Gaze and Seeing Double in Seneca’s Oedipus’. Incorporating her recent experiences of looking into her newborn daughter’s eyes while breast-feeding, she described a chain of women giving suck, and pinpointed the simultaneous rupture and rapture in this circuitry, likening it to the flush of familiarity mingled with desire that Jocasta must have felt when she gazed upon the stranger-who-was-her-son and took him into her bed. The centrepiece of the paper was a forensic analysis of the self-blinding of Oedipus. Like an actor preparing the role, Clara forced herself to imagine the blinding in visceral, procedural detail: the hooking and the gouging, the collapse of the visible, the torn stalks, the eyes now jelly in the palm (per the Ted Hughes translation of Seneca she cited.) The blinding, she argued, was an act of dignity, of radical acceptance. Rather than erasing the shame of having looked upon his father’s broken body in the dust on the road to Delphi, of having feasted upon his mother’s nakedness, Oedipus had actually transformed his sightless skull into a darkened primal cinema where his crimes would perpetually flicker. In another startling passage, she described Jocasta, in the final scene of Seneca’s tragedy, staring into the fresh holes of her husband-son’s face – those wrecked sockets, that ragged gaze – and slowly, deliberately taking up the selfsame sword which killed her husband-son’s father and stabbing herself in the womb where everything began, the son, the husband. Noting that the blank gaze of Oedipus – his castrated sight – stood in for the masks of classical tragedy, those hollow eyes which stared back, she posited that only by gazing into her son’s ruined eyes, into that awful mask, had Jocasta been able to recognise the stranger within him. Ultimately, her self-immolation short-circuited the cycle of double-vision. Only then – blind, fatherless, motherless, wifeless, stateless – was Oedipus able to take his leave from the stage, taking with him the plague of infertility from Thebes, being himself both contagion and cure. Following the theories of Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet in their seminal Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, Clara drew parallels with the ritual of Thargelia in classical Athens, where the sacrificial victim, the pharmakos, was paraded through the streets, neck hung with a string of figs, genitals whipped with the bulbs of the scilla plant. This defilement was an act of purgation, an expatiating ceremony analogous to the rite of classical tragedy which cleansed its audience of spiritual plague by exposing them to the infection of the crippled hero and his double vision.
Mid paper, Clara looked up from the podium, through the glare of the stage lights, and sought out Tamás in the dark auditorium. He was several rows back, listening, rapt. She caught his eyes and was startled to find them glistening. A trick of the light? No, his face was a mask of sorrows. Diamantine tears trailed his cheeks. During her extended discussion of putrefaction in the Thargalia ritual, she heard muffled sobs coming from where Tamás sat. Her eyes flicked around the auditorium, wondering who else was disturbed by it. Tamás had pressed his hands over his mouth in an effort to suppress his cries, but for all his apparent anguish, he never once took his eyes off Clara.
He hung on her every word.
On FaceTime that evening with Tom while the mist assembled over the river and Tilly pulled faces on the display, Clara held back mention of Tamás’s tears and muffled sobs, instinctively protecting him from Tom’s ridicule, the inevitable wisecracks. She wanted to preserve the mysterious intimacy they’d shared under the glare of the podium lights, the way her voice seemed to stir the core of Tamás’s being. While Tom made vaguely supportive noises from the screen, she recounted the enthusiastic reactions she’d received from colleagues. She told him that people had especially responded to the way she’d woven in aspects of her own experience of motherhood into the paper. Great, that’s great, he mumbled.
Just then, Tilly, who’d been chatting away at her pixelated reflection, looked up at something beyond the frame. Tom’s eyes flicked up too. Clara was sure she heard a woman’s voice call her daughter’s name from offscreen. Tilly’s eyes lit up. She giggled and winked her little hand in the direction of the voice. Clara could have sworn Tilly said mama.
Is someone there?
What? No, of course not.
Someone said her name and you both looked up.
There’s no-one, babe. Just me and Tilly.
Look, he panned the laptop camera around the living room, no-one, you silly goose. Smiling warmly, he urged Clara to go down to the party, have a drink, let her hair down, she deserved it. He blew kisses, encouraged Tilly to do the same. Say night night Mummy, he prompted, but Tilly was still gazing off, winking her little hand in the grainy air.
Before heading down, Clara regarded herself in the bathroom’s too-bright mirror. Remembering Tamás’s eyes on her at the podium – his hands folded over his mouth as if stifling a scream, the glimmer of his tears – she ran her hands down her green, silk dress, felt the blades of her hips where they jutted. Tom had barely touched her since Tilly was born. She missed his heat, that way he could jump-start her body. She stepped out of the dress, ran her fingers over her belly. The caesarian scar like a jagged smile. She thought of Jocasta positioned over the blade, lowering herself as if mounting a lover. The whole ragged inheritance of that gesture. She broke a disposable hotel-issue razor from its plastic wrapping, lathered up a palmful of soap and shaved her legs, working the blade over the contours of her sex until it was bare.
When she slipped back into the dress, it clung to her thighs.
The party was in full swing. Teenage waiters in starched uniforms negotiated the throng with trays of bright cocktails. By the time she found Tamás, Clara had downed a few and was feeling buzzed. He was locked in conversation with a Danish guy, enthusing over some film they’d both seen about the widow of a Chinese gangster on the run from his rivals. Tamás flashed his porcelain smile and introduced her to the Dane who thanked her for her paper saying he’d found her incorporation of her own experiences incredibly raw, like in a good way. Tamás nodded in agreement, but didn’t mention the lecture or his own intense reaction to it.
The marquee was jam-packed, loud with music and chatter. Clara suggested they withdraw to the hotel bar where they might actually be able to hear one another. The Dane drifted off in search of a Swedish colleague and they threaded their way inside. Perched on stools, reflected in the smoky glass of the mirrored bar, Clara waited for Tamás to say something, anything, about why her paper had affected him so deeply. But he was going on about the visit he’d made that morning to a local museum, enthusing over the extensive collection of artefacts from the Crusades. Sipping a lurid daiquiri through a bendy straw, he described a fourteenth-century reliquary cross with a convex rock crystal at its centre reportedly housing a splinter of the True Cross. He went on and on about the scenes from the life of St Francis inlaid on the body of the crucifix like enamel storyboards from a lost or unmade film, the cross in its glass and velvet vitrine glimmering under a tiny heaven of LED bulbs. Wow, just imagine, he enthused, that cross was carried over deserts and over mountains, amongst all the butchery and conquest, men had venerated the poor fragment of wood housed in its elaborate casing. The sheer act of faith absolutely floored him.
Clara asked if he was religious and was surprised to learn that both he and his wife were devout Catholics, part of the Latin Mass community in Budapest. No, Tamás didn’t see any contradiction between his faith and his interest in myth and tragedy. In fact, he was fascinated by the way Greek drama prefigured Christ. Actually, that was why he’d been so moved by her paper, especially her dissection of the Thargalia ritual. It touched him to think of the victim fed dishes of exceptional purity in the weeks preceding the festival – fruits, cheeses, the sacred cakes of maza – before the transfiguration into an object of mockery. That revolting, defiled figure, paraded through streets, adorned with a necklace of figs, spat on and beaten, anticipated Christ in his passion. As if the species was rehearsing its salvation.
His porcelain smirk infuriated Clara. She’d been a fool to mistake his tears as evidence of some genuine connection when they were merely the byproduct of banal religious sentimentality. Slurping her cocktail, she proceeded to ferociously dismantle his reading, arguing that her paper was an entirely secular account of Oedipus, free from religious baggage and the props of conventional dogma. The booze was going to her head. Her vision was blurry, strobing. She saw double of Tamás, superimposed, out of synch. She raised her voice over the hum of the bar, I don’t give a shit about your theology or your divine mysteries, I don’t believe in your suffering God.
Tamás smiled, that’s ok, He loves you anyway.
She threw back her drink, got up from the table.
Hey, don’t go, he grinned, I’m only messing with you.
She steadied, sat back down, asked how a seemingly intelligent man could endorse a Church that held reactionary views against homosexuality, abortion, women’s rights, and what about the far-right leader of the Hungarian government using the rhetoric of so-called Christian Democracy to bolster his anti-immigration policies, repackaging racism and authoritarianism as Christian values, surely he couldn’t condone that.
Tamás whirled circles with his cocktail straw.
He acknowledged that, yes, the Church and Hungarian state were marching in unison, but assured her he wasn’t at all comfortable with the hardening of positions in either institution. Over the last few years, he’d been concerned to see posts on the Latin Mass Facebook grow increasingly hardline, often linking to articles on right-wing sites that made him uncomfortable. He tried to tune all that out, to focus instead on the feelings that had brought him back to the Church in his early thirties, after what he called his wilderness years. What feelings exactly, she asked, a little too hostile, as the wave of booziness eased and his extra free-floating face settled back into alignment.
He’d been raised in a devout Catholic household, attended Catholic schools, even served as an altar boy at the Cathedral, but had never known any genuine sense of belief. He’d simply gone along with it, learned the catechism, played the role expected of him. He wore the little purple robe with the lacy collar, carried the ornate candle stick in procession while the incense swirled and the thurible swung on its chain, but he always felt like a character in a play he didn’t understand or identify with.
When he stopped attending mass as a teenager, there was no real conflict with his family. He simply slipped the bonds. He cultivated new friendships away from the confines of school, family and Church. He started crashing at the squats and communal households of his new friends, spent Thursday to Sunday partying on the dance-floors of the underground rave scene that had sprung up in the cavernous warehouses and crumbling bathhouses of Budapest. (Come to think of it, he’d probably been at the same strobe-lit warehouse parties Clara had visited on her trip to his hometown all those years ago.) In the collective ecstasy of the dance-floor, lost in billowing clouds of smoke-machine fog, Tamás found of a greater sense of fervour and rapture than he’d ever experienced knelt on the cold stone floor of the cathedral with his eyes squeezed shut in prayer.
Throughout his twenties, while he earned his degree in comparative literature, Tamás considered his Catholic past as a strange country he’d left, never to return. He had zero nostalgia for his days as an altar boy and very little curiosity about the role the Church had played in forming him. If his lapsed Catholicism came up with friends or colleagues, he readily joined their denunciations of the Church as a mechanism of patriarchal control.
Toward the end of his post-graduate studies, Tamás took part in an exchange programme with the University of York. During those months, he largely kept to himself, cocooning on campus or in the flat provided by the university. Looking back, he was clearly in the grip of some crisis, but at the time, he blamed homesickness and the stress of finishing his doctorate. In York, he used the thesis as an excuse to avoid social gatherings, but inwardly, he questioned if he had the stamina or aptitude to complete it. He was stumbling around like he was lost in the disco-smoke filled rooms of one of those raves he used to attend, only now the dance-floors were empty and instead of finding communion or ecstatic release, he encountered only phantoms in the fog.
One morning, instead of staring at his laptop or refreshing the news-feed on his phone, he found himself aimlessly wandering the old centre of York. In the Museum Gardens, he came across the ruined walls of St Mary’s Abbey. Standing in the bare remains of the nave, he felt all the white-noise within him quieten. Pristine calm resonated in his exhausted body as if the lost bells of the vanished chapel tower were chiming through him.
He threaded his way out of the gardens, through the quaint side streets, past the gift shops and the McDonald’s, until he found himself edging open the doors of the York Oratory. Usually when he entered a church – in Italy, for instance, to look at paintings – he felt like an outsider and in no way beholden to the ritual gestures he’d practised as a boy. This time he surprised himself by genuflecting before the altar in passing.
He slipped into a worn pew, running a hand along the varnished wood. His heart was skipping like an excited schoolboy. Towards the rear of the chapel, the shuffling work of an old lady replacing flowers accented the silence. Otherwise, the church was empty. As Tamás fell to his knees, the thought came unbidden, I’m taking my place at the table.
Above the altar, housed in a miniature Gothic cupola, the crucified Christ hung in agony on a plain brown cross. Morning light flooded the nave, illuminating the waxy body. It might have been a devotional object sculpted out of soap by a prisoner on death row. For Tamás, it suddenly held the key to absolve his sorrows, the promise of salvation. For the first time in many years, he stopped feeling like he was aimlessly wandering a disco-smoke filled labyrinth. The cage of his loneliness swung open.
Upon his return to Budapest, he decided – without telling his parents, his devout sister, or any of his friends – to start attending mass again for the first time since he was seventeen. Knelt in the incense haze, in the cathedral’s dim cool, he no longer felt like an actor dumbly gesturing in a play he didn’t understand. This time, he was participating in the humming mystery, gazing into the very working of things.
The bar had gotten louder as boozy colleagues spilled from the marquee into the hotel foyer. Tamás and Clara drew their stools closer. She nabbed fresh drinks from a passing waiter and handed Tamás something pink and lethal looking.
I don’t usually do this, he said.
What? Chat up drunken atheists?
No, I mean, go on about myself. I’m sorry.
Don’t be, I like that you feel comfortable telling me, it’s refreshing. Oh and I spiked your drink, so you won’t remember a thing anyway.
He laughed. Their knees brushed. The silk of her dress against his dark jeans.
I’m envious, she said, of your faith, having that to hold onto.
His smile faded and once again Clara glimpsed the shadow that glanced his face at breakfast when breast milk dampened her blouse. Actually, he said, he was the one who envied her. Listening to her paper, he found himself craving the intimacy she described with her daughter. For several years now, he and his wife had been trying to start a family, but it wasn’t going their way. I’m sorry to hear that, she said, taken aback by the arrival of his wife in the conversation. Thank you, he smiled, it’s been a real roller-coaster.
Beyond the rim of his glass, his porcelain mouth gleamed.
Not long after his homecoming from York, Tamás said, he caught sight of his future wife for the first time at Latin Mass, draped in lace, shuffling through the incense to receive the Eucharist. Bowed before the altar, she raised the veil and presented her mouth to the Holy Chalice and gulped the Blood of Christ. Spellbound, Tamás watched the priest set the wafer on her outstretched tongue. Her closed eyes, her folded hands. Returning to her seat, she briefly, unexpectedly, looked his way and when mass came out, they spoke for the first time on the cathedral steps. The connection was immediate and undeniable. On the long walks they took along the Danube after mass or during the candle-lit dinners below the vaulted ceiling of their favourite restaurant, Tamás felt as if he too was lifting a veil to reveal his true face to another for the first time. Less than a year after he first saw her at communion, they stood together at the same altar and exchanged vows. For Tamás, the sacred was no longer an abstract assemblage of smoke, lace, stained glass and litany, it was the community of faith they now stood before to confirm their love and commitment.
Before meeting his wife, he’d barely given a thought to the idea of starting a family. During his twenties and thirties, he’d celebrated the births of friends’ children, watched them crawl, learn to talk, become teenagers. When he made someone’s kid laugh by pulling faces or playing peek-a-boo at a BBQ or family gathering, a cousin or friend’s wife would inevitably smile and tell him he’d make a great dad someday. But that someday kept getting deferred.
His wife was six years younger than him, in her mid-thirties, and did not want to delay starting a family. They dosed up on fertility vitamin supplements, tracked her fertility windows using a phone app and those digital ovulation tests which produce a little pixelated happy face in a grey display window when the woman’s LH levels are surging. In the anxious weeks after fertility window sex, they became detectives of her body. Was her urination more frequent, were her breasts tender, was she at all nauseous, bloated after eating, did she feel like she might be pregnant this time. When her period did arrive, they acknowledged the inevitable deflation, gave each other pep talks – they just needed to keep trying, stay positive, it would happen – but deep down, they each harboured fears that time was running out, that one or both of them was incapable of producing a child, that they’d end up as one of those couples forever babysitting other people’s kids without knowing their own. Given the Church’s view on reproductive technology, IVF was not an option. They felt time running out. The prospect of missing out on parenthood nagged at them and haunted their daily routines.
In the glorious late summer of the previous year, his wife’s fertility window coincided with a sojourn in Northern Italy. After they made love in the cramped bed of their pensione, in Bassano del Grappa, his wife clutched her knees to her chest and they listened to the branches of a cypress tree brush the window. Towards dawn, she woke with a tingling sensation in her womb. Later, she would describe a burst of light, a shift of gravity there, like something dropping into place. She lay with her hands cradling her belly and watched the streetlamp tint the pale walls.
At breakfast, when she told Tamás what had happened – the pulse of light in her belly, the alien sensation – he googled light egg conception and read that in 2016, using a new fluorescent sensor, scientists had for the first time captured images of the flash of light that sparks when a sperm cell makes contact with an egg, the millions of zinc atoms exploding a shower of tiny fireworks. Exactly as his wife had described.
Over the following fortnight, they attempted to keep a lid on their hopes in case the longed for confirmation failed to materialise. At home, in Budapest, his wife was sure her period was imminent. Any day, she predicted. She had all the familiar symptoms. Was bloated, heavy, listless. They wondered if the flash of internal incandescence in the pensione had merely been a dream.
Before Tamás left for a seminar in Lisbon, the test she took came up negative. He offered words of comfort and encouragement, but secretly hoped it was a false negative. On his second afternoon in Lisbon, when they FaceTimed between sessions, his wife surprised him by holding a pregnancy test up to the camera. Two grey lines hung like quotation marks in the tiny window on the beige stick. He wept tears of joy in the hotel room. Onscreen, his wife smiled back though her own ecstatic tears. The explosion of light in her belly had been real. That meant something. For the remainder of his stay in Lisbon, Tamás floated through the zig-zagging streets of that melancholy city, on the cusp of a whole new life.
When he returned home, his wife held his palm to her belly. Feel it, she said, it’s already firmer, I can’t even pull it in. Her smile was enormous. Her eyes shone. You’re glowing, he said. The world was suddenly charged with meaning. Basic words he’d used his whole life – father, mother, child, family – acquired fresh resonance. Walking home past a local kindergarten, he saw parents picking up their kids and thought soon we’ll be part of all that. He felt the future’s pull in every instant.
At what they had judged to be the seventh week, he accompanied his wife to her first check-up. She squeezed his hand, and followed the doctor behind the partition that divided the surgery. Tamás listened to the murmur of their voices and stared at the plastic 3D models of the female reproductive organs on the desk. The curving tubes, branches and hollows in enamelled medical colours appeared to hover in the bright air.
When his wife called, he went around to the other side of the partition where she lay with knees raised and legs spread. The doctor had inserted a wand-like camera inside her which she manipulated to display the microscopic life on a grainy monitor. The doctor pointed out the frail circle of the yolk sac and the foetal pole providing the embryo with nourishment. According to the doctor’s measurements, Tamás’s wife was around five weeks and three days pregnant, considerably less than their own calculations. The doctor reassured them such variance was always possible at this early stage. No need to worry. She searched around some more with her wand, but was unable to determine a heartbeat. Well, it’s early, she said, but they should expect to do so at their follow up appointment in two weeks.
Tamás barely heard a thing. He was floating against the ceiling, gazing down on his wife with her beatific smile, at the doctor in her blue smock manipulating her wand, at the snowstorm on the monitor, and the fragile circle where their future was taking shape.
By now, the bar was jam-packed. Tamás sipped his cocktail and glanced around to see if any colleagues were observing their conversation. Intentionally or otherwise, the gesture drew Clara deeper into a furtive intimacy. She watched him stare at the ice pooling in his glass, turning corridors in his mind, like a drunk trying to find their hotel room, lost in endless carpeted hallways.
After a while, he dragged his eyes up again and met hers. He’d never told anyone this, he said, not even his wife, but in the week before their return visit to the obstetrician, he started to read ill omens in the world. Seemingly random articles had popped up in his newsfeed promoting some upcoming International Miscarriage Awareness Day. Algorithm generated content, sure, but the idea nagged at him that unwanted augury was at work.
On the morning of their appointment, walking home from the bakery, he had to step around the remains of a squashed sparrow on the footpath. Its dried innards on the cobblestones were the same hue as the rowan berries which fell at that time of the year and got crushed underfoot. Tamás didn’t dare tell his wife out of fear of somehow cursing them, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that the dead bird was a premonition of loss.
He wished he could un-see it.
At the obstetricians, he stared vaguely at the inert models of reproductive organs and tried to remain calm. When his wife called him to join her on the other side of the partition, he immediately registered the terror in her eyes. Tracing the screen with her pencil, the doctor pointed out that the yolk sac was oversized while the embryo itself was measuring small. 5mm, same as last visit. This time, the doctor was able to locate a heartbeat, but it was faint when by now it should have been strong and clear. In a quiet voice, she informed them that the pregnancy was not viable.
Afterwards, they sat in the cabin of their car and wept. The world outside their hatchback was thin and unreal. They reassured one another, promised to hold onto hope – this was only a setback – but were numb with shock, devastated.
Tamás recalled his wife standing naked in front of the bedroom mirror admiring the curve of her belly, her fuller breasts, her glow. Just that morning she’d looked at him across the breakfast table and said you’re going to be a beautiful father. That was gone now. The origin myth they’d shared with their closest friends and family of the supernova bursting inside her belly in the pensione turned out to be a cruel trick.
Since there was a faint heartbeat, the doctor advised them to wait to see if Tamás’s wife would miscarriage naturally. If not, pills could be taken to help it along. For two long weeks, they waited while her body continued to produce hormones for a birth that would never happen. They were in limbo, grieving, yet knowing the actual loss was yet to come. Tamás held his wife while she sobbed in front of the picture window overlooking their small garden. Cold light streamed in, illuminating a white ‘moon moth’ – Actias luna selene – mounted in a frame on the window sill. The fixed wings, forever open, glowed phosphorescent white. Tamás interpreted its frozen flight as an emblem of their own suspended state.
Of a morning, he woke feeling hollow, watched his sleeping wife with her hand on her belly like a protective mother, her eyelids crusted with salt from the night’s tears. He hated to see her suffer and not be able to take the hurt away.
The next visit to the obstetrician confirmed that, as predicted, the yolk sac had begun to disintegrate. Like a faint distress signal from a vessel going under, the heartbeat was even less discernible. Since there had been no further embryo growth, the decision was made to proceed with the medication. In bed, on the evening before she inserted the pills, Tamás and his wife said their farewells to the life she had carried inside her. They thanked it for the love they’d shared, let it know it was most welcome to return. Tamás closed his eyes and pictured the frozen moon moth taking flight, released into the void.
When the cramps hit the next day, the painkillers his wife had been prescribed barely touched the edge of her pain. It came in waves. Like contractions. Like something solid trying to push out of her. The pain bent her double. She writhed around the bedroom like a performer in some atavistic dance piece. When it was done, she said, now she knew what it was like to feel empty.
He woke in the night to find her whimpering in her sleep. Incomprehensible phrases from the throes of nightmare. Normally, he’d comfort her, reassure her, whisper everything was going to be alright. That night, however, he decided to let her go through it, reasoning it was necessary, part of the healing. He fell back into his own tangled dreams. In a dream-within-a-dream, he woke to find the objects in their room all smashed. Glass pieces they’d bought in Morano on the recent Italian trip lay shattered on the floor. A photo of his wife as a girl had been torn from the frame, ripped into tiny squares. The vanity mirror was scored with furious scratches. The bed in which they slept was wrought iron like his parents’ bed when he was a boy but the sheets were all slashed and knotted. When he woke to find his wife beside him with her hand nestled on her belly, relief flooded him. He held her in her sleep, vowed to be strong for her, to do whatever he could to get her through.
As he nursed her to recovery, Tamás gradually nurtured the hope that when the time was right they might try again. That traumatic day when he watched her contort on the bedroom floor, bleeding out the loss, receded into the past. With time, he even allowed himself to believe that grief had brought them closer. But there were other hours when they drifted around the apartment like ghosts weaving lonely trails. Not wanting her to witness his distress, he locked himself in the bathroom and paced its confines. The worn face that looked back from the mirror was lined with sorrow like his.
One evening, as they lay on the sofa, binging a Swedish crime drama, his wife suggested they might use part of an inheritance she’d recently received, following the death of a dear aunt, to correct Tamás’s gappy teeth and overbite. She assured him that she loved his smile the way it was – this wasn’t about changing him – but she’d always had the feeling he was secretly shy about his crooked smile. What if straightening his teeth could restore his confidence and give him a new lease of life.
A few weeks later, more out of desire to comfort his wife than any genuine want to correct his bite, he found himself reclined in a dental chair with a blinding light aimed at his open mouth while an orthodontist glued a set of porcelain braces to his teeth and a dental technician sucked away his saliva through a thin plastic vacuum hose.
Et voila, said Tamás, grinning over the rim of his cocktail glass.
Clara realised she’d been making supportive, listening noises, not unlike the sounds Tom made when she told an involved story. She thought about Tom at home, watching a series on Netflix, an ear on the baby monitor. She’d never betrayed him, never sought the attention of other men, but looking into Tamás’s gentle eyes and listening to his earnest, halting English, she’d felt the same tug of desire that had prompted her to shave her legs earlier that evening in the hotel ensuite. When Tamás was describing his abiding love for his wife or going into detail about the trauma of miscarriage, she’d been imagining what it would be like to kiss his mouth, to feel the heat of his body pressing into her.
She thanked him for sharing his experience, for his vulnerability, applauded his candour. Even though something like one in four women experienced miscarriage, she said, it was still way too much of a taboo and she recognised the need for a wider discussion, greater openness. Several of her friends had gone through it, so she had a sense of just how devastating and truly isolating it could be. I’m sure everyone’s told you this already, she said, but the fact that you could conceive is meaningful, there’s still every chance your wife will be able to carry a full term pregnancy and have a healthy baby.
Tamás slurped his drink. As it happens, he said, just over a month ago, while he’d been getting used to his porcelain mouth, they learned they were pregnant again. Their enormous joy was tempered by their previous loss – once bitten, twice shy – and, this time, they decided to not tell family or friends until at least the twelfth week. It would be their secret, cupped in their palms like a sacred flame.
Their return visit to the obstetrician filled them with great trepidation. Crossing the carpark, they held hands and tried to remain optimistic. When his wife disappeared behind the partition, Tamás stared at the plastic models of the uterus on the desk. He bargained with God, promising to devote himself to His works if only He would grant them a healthy child. When his wife called, he went around the petition and from her gigantic smile he knew the prognosis was good. The scan showed a strong, clear heartbeat. The measurements of the embryo were on track for the weeks they’d calculated since conception. The doctor shared their relief and looked forward to seeing them again in a week.
Back home, they allowed themselves to imagine a future again, to savour the prospect of becoming a family. They knew there was a long way to go, but were buoyed by the positive results. They’d been unlucky before, this time would be different. Standing in front of the mirror, Tamás admired his wife’s fuller breasts, the visible swelling of her belly. He told her how beautiful she looked, she was glowing again.
They were less nervous when they crossed the carpark for the next check up. Things felt good, on track. So when the doctor, having searched around with her wand, told them how sorry she was but she could not locate a heartbeat and according to her measurements the embryo had stopped growing, it felt like an even crueller blow than the first time. It gutted him to have all that promise and joy abruptly withdrawn once more.
After that, everything happened on auto-pilot. Arrangements were made for his wife to go to hospital and have the miscarriage removed. Tamás filled the house with flowers when she came home and nursed her through those terrible days.
That was just two weeks ago, he sighed.
He had decided to withdraw from the conference, but his wife thought it might actually do them good if he went. In the days since the loss, they’d been incredibly tender with one another, but a sinkhole had opened under their life.
His wife sought solace in the Church, visiting the cathedral everyday to light devotional candles, draped in lace, knelt on the cold floor, the air smelling of incense and tallow. For his part, Tamás stopped going to mass entirely, couldn’t imagine ever setting foot in a church again. The faith that had been reborn during his time in York retreated as quickly as it had arrived. The lace and incense, the vaulted stone, the chanted prayers, the wafer dissolving on the tongue, all that seemed like tawdry, pathetic theatre now. It offered neither comfort, nor meaning, zero sense of belonging. At home, he tried to stay strong and be supportive for his wife. He saw how her faith was holding her together and was thankful for that. He didn’t dare confess his changed feelings about the Church, could barely admit them to himself.
Actually, he said, smiling sadly at Clara, this was the first time he was speaking them aloud and it was pretty fucking terrifying. His voice quavered and choked, and just as they had during her lecture, great sobs wracked his body.
Clara scanned the bar to see if anyone had noticed. The Finnish woman from breakfast had already clocked Tamás’s distress and was exchanging conspiratorial glances with a sour looking red head. Clara figured the tears would be interpreted as lovers’ turmoil, an affair gone wrong.
Guttural moans escaped his bent body.
She thought to comfort him, but found herself observing his anguish multiplied in the bar’s smoky mirrors. She was genuinely sorry that he was in such pain, but found it disconcerting that this man she barely knew was, for the second time that day, weeping openly in front of her. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, he mumbled and sucked up the dregs of his pink drink. He barely looked up when she announced she was going to the bar.
When she returned with vodka shots, his chair was empty. She scanned the bar, gone. Must’ve headed back to his room to be alone with his grief. Probably just as well, she thought, relieved to no longer be responsible for his suffering. She’d been sincere when she told him that she found his openness touching, it was exactly the kind of emotional transparency she craved from Tom, but as she drifted out to the marquee, she found herself resenting Tamás’s self-absorption. His confidences now struck her as a kind of emotional pornography. Yes, hadn’t he smuggled his grief and hollowness – whatever lack he tried to fill with Christ and fatherhood – into the lecture hall that afternoon and let it upstage her paper? And tonight, he’d used her as the dumping ground for his emotional waste, heaping her with his sorrows as if she was the parading pharmarkos, neck hung with bloated figs. It was too much.
In the marquee, a DJ was playing an upbeat assortment of 80s and 90s hits. Her usually reserved colleagues cut loose under the swirling lights, inhibitions lowered by the fluorescent cocktails. Clara joined a cluster of people she vaguely knew, leant close to exchange impressions of the town and the conference. After the intense encounter with Tamás, it was a relief to make small talk, but when the others urged her to join them slamming tequilas, she politely refused. Her good sense had returned – it was late and she had an early start, the ride to the airport, the flight home.
The DJ segued into ‘Need You Tonight’ by INXS, a song she’d loved as a teenager. She was tempted to throw back that shot after all and join the heaving throng when to her surprise she spotted Tamás under the coloured lights. He wore a huge fucking grin on his face and was contorting wildly. Watching him sashay and gyrate like a slithering worm, Clara located no trace of the grief that had gripped him in the bar. He looked ecstatic, footloose, fancy free. When Michael Hutchence purred, so slide over here, Tamás skidded across the floor towards a perky blonde, grabbed her waist and sung your moves are so raw into her face. The woman slung her arms around his neck and together they belted out, you’re one of my kind.
Clara was grateful for the quiet hum of the elevator. In the brushed aluminium walls, her reflection blurred and frayed at the edges. The idea that she might have slept with Tamás appalled her now. She imagined herself walking beside him along labyrinthine corridors back to his room, waiting while he fumbled in his wallet for his room key. His fingers suddenly all thumbs, his embarrassed smile.
The lift doors pinged.
Even though it was late – later at home – she FaceTimed Tom. Perched on the bed, she waited for him to rouse and pick up. She’d apologise for waking him, she just needed to hear his voice. What time is it there, he’d ask groggily, face grainy in the screen’s glow. If she was lucky, he might take the phone through to Tilly’s crib and film her sleeping. Her soft breath, her hair damp with night-sweats, her little murmurs.
When Tom’s phone rang out, she messaged him on Facebook: hey, you there. She checked his Instagram, saw he’d been liking posts less than an hour ago. She tried FaceTime repeatedly. Caller Unavailable. What the fuck. He never slept with his phone on silent when she was away. She remembered their call earlier. Tilly gazing offscreen, waving mama. The weird feeling that another woman was there with them. The thought that someone could slip in when she wasn’t looking and occupy her rooms sickened her. The hotel suite felt suddenly flimsy, a cheap theatre set.
She remembered crossing the railway bridge, remembered failing to safely leap the missing grating, remembered twisting a leg and tumbling through the brown air into the receiving waters, remembered her bloated body being hauled out by the local police, her skin, the colour of rotten figs.
But, none of that happened.
She leaned against the glass balcony in her green silk dress and listened to the muffled hammer of bass drift up from the dance-floor. She watched the coloured lights blink against the marquee like disturbed confetti in a kaleidoscope. On a neighbouring balcony, a man hunched against the rail, exhaling silver clouds. When he was done, he flicked the cigarette into the dark and it spun away like a tiny firework. He dragged the sliding door behind him and was gone. Clara took one last look at the fog banked over the river like a spent cigar.
Down in the park, a frenzy of moths battered a streetlamp.