A glass of barrack sat on the table before Harangozó Konrad. Beside it were his two previous glasses, emptied of their contents entirely. His table faced the window and the October rain slowly dripped down it without speed as to be satisfying. The bar he was in was not quiet but no conversation or drinks being poured penetrated his consciousness. To say he was hunched over his drink, nursing it, would be exactly correct.
The day had echoed with every other day he spent in Budapest. No matter how much the streets were wandered, they never grew more pleasant to him. He had been freed of the shackles of working by the murder of his mother, an executive in an industrial equipment firm, and the subsequent death of his father, who gave up on the struggle against disease and despair with the loss of his spouse. This freedom, however, did not afford him the benefits that many desired – it did not impress him that he could acquire any material good he wished, or spend the day however he liked, because he was bound to another demand of his time. He was certain that Budapest held something, an answer, a person, some intangible quality that would redeem both it and him, and he strolled (without the relaxed nature that word implies) the streets trying to find it. As each day he failed in his search, he moved into a bar and drank barrack, alone, trying to drown his frustration in a pool of apricot brandy, and at that task too he failed.
Robin Fernson was bent over his desk, intent in the light of his desk lamp on reading the papers he had before him. Only in diplomacy did anyone bother with paper anymore; just as every innovation in politics seemed to pass the bubble of diplomacy by − at least for the first few decades of its discovery, the digital age had still not caught up with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The executive department of the British Embassy in Budapest was empty, the lights off, the cleaner gone home. Soon, Fernson would go down to the bunkroom where the staff could sleep if they were 'on call' in case of diplomatic emergencies, but Fernson was too important to be 'on call'. He simply couldn't find a reason to go home. His apartment, a short distance towards Óbuda, was no more welcoming than the bunkroom. Even his home in England held no call for him, despite it being where his wife was. Guilt lethargically raised its head and then returned to sleep – he struggled to get on with his wife, but this is not the tale of a shocking affair – for that he would have to care about his lack of genuine interrelation with other people. He took one last look at the papers and put them down.
As he settled down for sleep in the uncomfortable bunk, the worries that perturbed him daily suffused his thoughts. Hungary was an important place in the eyes of the post-Parliamentary British Government, the Apex Council, as was every other Eastern European nation during these present crises. It was so easy for it to drift towards Russia or Europe, each effort or scandal buffeting it like winds on a balloon.
And he was there to do what exactly? His brief was not a lucid, and he was sure, given energy and more importantly motivation, he could defend the obfuscation – 'we want a Hungary that will give the right nods to Britain, whether in Europe, Russia or neither. Of course, without an overbearing influence, susceptibility to requests increases, and the view from the ground, as it were, Fernson, is essential. And if it has to go one way or the other, push for Europe, if that's what's best.' Typical mandarin. Always have that separation between the boys back home and the men on the ground, then one needn't be too concerned when things go wrong, nor bother considering details. (Fernson always thought in the male, and was inclined to actual misogyny, though he never intended it). The culmination of this vague mission was soon approaching – a dinner with the Hungarian Foreign Minister and the Ambassadors to Hungary of the European Union and the Russian Federation, at the embassy itself. Somehow, he had to input all of his influence at that one juncture.
What did he care? Fernson often wondered if he minded whether the interests of King and Country were fulfilled, in Hungary or anywhere else. He failed to locate the point. There was no disaster that could befall the country simply due to the choice of one backwater nation, surely? The isolation was getting to him. Whilst Hungary and the other undecided East European nations had not yet shown their hand, they were growing decidedly more nationalistic This did not bode well for Fernson, who, having been part of the generation of African-Caribbean young men who achieved educational success under a number of new ethnically-targeted programs, faced crass racism (as opposed, of course, to intellectual post-ironic racism) in the streets. It did nothing to endear him to Budapest. Then again, he didn't want to go home either, and so progressed with a frustrated ennui that nothing could avert.
Harangozó Konrad hated the silence that crowded him as he walked through the streets of Pest, the consequences of his drinking imperceptible to him, accustomed as he was to them. Whether on a busy or quiet street, one filled with the loading of the day's goods or the commuters hurrying to their offices, the shell he had built allowed nothing through, though he managed to react when those sounds warned him of the need to move or take stock. However, regardless of how hateful the silence was to him, he despised more someone temporarily perturbing, although never breaking, his shield and engaging him in conversation. He was storming down one of the falsely green avenues in the financial district when a youngish woman tapped him on the shoulder and smiled as she burbled:
He looked at her without venom, as he could not find the intention for such an act.
"Yes?" he replied wearily.
"I've been hoping to catch you. There's a diplomatic dinner at the British Embassy on Friday, and I'd love for you to come with me."
The dusty faculties of his brain flicked on and stuttered. She was an attractive woman, certainly more so than he, and if he had been even the slightest fragment concerned, he would be flattered. The incongruosity coerced a response, though one in which the answer was immaterial.
"Why are you asking me? I'm not influential, constructively rich or fulfilling the standard of good looks to be carried in on the arm."
"Well, dour is the new black. You're a fashion accessory." She looked at him, expecting him to laugh. He didn't. He did, however, feel that what she said was true. A cynic was a perfect foil for her flailing attempts at human existence. He sighed and even the momentary build-up of anger fled him. His quest, the hunger that defined him, told him to go to the dinner.
"Fine. The arrangements?"
"My driver will pick you up at six."
He told her to send her driver to the bar he ended up in each night. As she departed, having exuberantly made her farewell, he remembered that he did not know her name, and as for why she'd be at a diplomatic dinner only the faintest hunch – something to do with external private investment.
"So, what's it looking like today? Any sounds in the air?" Robin Fernson asked the gathered group of embassy staff in the meeting room. They were the group responsible for ascertaining the thoughts of the other parties, trading in favours, blackmail, their own flesh, cajoling, whatever was necessary to garner the scraps of information needed to give an advantage to their Ambassador. He never asked how they made their discoveries and he was content with that arrangement. Nonetheless, the occasional accident or cover-up had acquainted him with some of their methodologies.
"Russia are going for the hands-off approach. They'll be congenial, witty, but won't take part in any discussions, let alone any persuasion. It gives them the advantage if either we or Europe go begging," announced a man who Fernson knew had connections in the vice world of Budapest.
"Europe are sticking to subtlety too. They intend to talk about the success stories, belittling us if needs be, and not considering the Hungarian situation."
The Hungarian situation was very similar to the British situation, and something that should have raised joy in Robin Fernson's heart; instead, he felt a dull 'well at least something is working in my favour'. With the accession of Switzerland and Norway, the European Union had decided to become a state in itself, a federal republic similar to the German system – something many member countries agreed with strongly, but was put to referenda. Britain, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria had voted against joining the superstate and so became European Partner Nations, the remainder becoming the European Union as an actual superstate. Poland had already seceded, but the Russocentric dictatorial regime of Jupiter Kamień destroyed any chance of partnership. The main point, therefore, was that an appeal to anti-superstate feeling would tempt the Hungarians towards the British sphere. This flood of thoughts flowed through Fernson's brain and he realised he had missed the next point.
"I zoned out there, could you repeat that?" He did not apologise.
"Certainly. The Hungarians are divided, but the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister are guarded and their opinions secret. This dinner will be critical."
Really? Fernson held the words back, remembering his student days, where he would have said it, argued it out, the days when he would have had a standpoint, believed it and cared about it. He had been sublimated. The British Empire was not dead, it simply consumed people rather than nations. He nodded duly.
He had to get out of the embassy. Already the furnishers and the caterers were preparing the Ballroom for the dinner, and the bustle was too much for Robin to cope with. Carrying his laptop, he found his way to a small coffee shop, far away from anyone who could bother him.
"Coffee Darkest, please," he asked the Barista in Hungarian. The drink was coffee and singed ginger and was one of the few coffees he could drink – the others to him lacking taste, having consumed so many thousands of them over his career.
He checked his e-mails. They were all concerning minor points in preparation for the dinner, save for one. It was from Frankl Teréz, an attractive young advisor at a Hungarian think-tank concerned with foreign direct investment, a woman he'd met before on a couple of occasions. His instincts for people had detected that she was attracted to him, but the temptation of an affair was simply absent from him, despite the coldness between him and his wife. She was an engaging person, someone whose spirit had not been worn out by the grinding disappointment that accosted Fernson daily. She was not even useful from the pragmatic point-of-view his colleagues would have considered – her sphere of influence was insufficient to merit manipulation. He, conforming to British stereotypes as if they would be his salvation, had not told her this and did not intend to. The e-mail read:
I look forward to joining you at the dinner, and am sad that the most I can hope for is a passing pleasantry, considering how busy you'll be. Of course, there are always other nights…
He did not re-read the e-mail. It did not take him aback even if he had not expected such forthrightness. He felt as if she should be more lucid – he wanted to ask, 'other nights for what?', and was annoyed that he would have to think of a response. He did not mind what she felt. Let her talk about Hungary, about money, about any topic under the sun, but beyond that, to him she is a trifle, a momentary distraction that in the long run does nothing to alter the course of his disinterest, a conversation that sparkles amidst the droning of self-obsessed diplomats, but nothing in her could ever convince him that she was set apart from them. He briefly wondered what it would be like to be a person of consequence, someone like the new US President Julia Smythe, whose every decision must have repercussions that causes nations to shake and millions to talk and discuss. What is this world where one changes the world with ease but another struggles and fails to change himself?
Duna. The river cuts the city in two, reminds it that it is a marriage of two places brought together by their overbearing reach, their compulsive need to grow. Now it is the only determinant of the barrier. Konrad stands, leaning on one of the rails designed to keep people and objects from falling into the river without meaning to. The clouds flow through the sky at a similar speed to the river, and momentarily he does not want to leave. There is a sensation, no, that is too strong, a touch similar to the slightest brush past a shoulder, that says that Konrad is in a place beyond his comprehension, and a little bit of the vastness of it has leaked into him, making him question the purpose of the buildings and the structures, the artifices that humanity once built and are now subject to. We should not fear the machines, but the systems.
Eventually, he moves on. There is no deadline pulling him, no meeting place in which he needs to arrive by a specific time. He has encountered freedom. Strictures have abandoned him; demands are not made, but he is not free. The liaison was fleeting, the affair brief and quickly broken off by necessity. A cough wracked Konrad's body. He had been coughing often recently. It meant very little to him but he realised that if it were to incapacitate him before the diplomatic dinner the sense of hopeful foreboding would never come to fruition. He had to find a doctor.
Konrad had always wanted to be a hypochondriac, but could never muster the self-concern or medical knowledge. His opinion of illness was to let it suffuse him, make him feel, even if it meant to make him feel rotten, anything for a glimpse of what it meant to experience life. This time, however, he was mildly apprehensive. There were plenty of doctors in the rougher parts of the cities – a side-effect of the spread of disease in those places. Pestilence trod leisurely through the poor districts, greeting all it met. The doctors' surgery was crowded and the people there epitomised disease to Konrad. He was aware that his wealth certainly made him look down on the poor but he did not feel compunction because he was judging them. These were the sort of surgeries where you did not have to register or give a name and eventually, after having drifted into torpor, he was invited into the doctor's office.
The doctor looked weary, for she spent every day fighting an insurmountable tide, a veritable Canute, though she acted not to prove her humility, but to attempt to hold back the tiniest amount of the plague's sea.
"What's the problem?" she asked, the words as rote to her, the patients becoming ever more a blur.
"I have a wracking cough, but it is essential I attend a diplomatic dinner tomorrow."
"When did you last eat?"
Konrad pondered for a moment.
"I'm not sure. I don't really pay attention to such things,."
"Okay, I'm going to take a skin sample and throat swab."
She opened up the kit, took the samples and sealed them up ready to send to a pathology department. Her suspicions were raised and she could tell this was a man of money, if not of consequence. If she could help him – they had to be pragmatic, and putting a priority on the rich (whose generosity seems to suddenly appear after surviving an illness) was common practice. She stamped the package with a bright red 'urgent' and put it in the collection box.
"You may have a lung infection. It shouldn't be a problem. Come back on Saturday and I'll tell you the results."
Only a little satisfied, Konrad got up and left. As he departed, the doctor sighed:
"The White Plague pursues us all."
Robin Fernson was entrusted with the task of speaking personally to those who at the last minute, the day of the dinner itself, were not going to be able to attend, a tedious affair involving platitudes and excuses. One of the more memorable, though none would last beyond the remainder of the morning, went like this:
"Good morning," Fernson spoke out into the void of the telephone.
"Ah, Ambassador, you have hunted me down," came the reply, some German business dignitary whose name and position existed purely on the list of apologies before Fernson.
"Yes, I'm just confirming your apology in person."
"It is so, unfortunately. It is a delicate situation. Suffice to say a Hungarian woman should never meet a German woman."
Mistresses. Wives. Fernson scowled silently at the foolishness, without considering the problems of gender equality raised by the licentiousness businessman.
"I understand. Well, you must concern yourself with your own priorities. Do you have any message you would have conveyed to any of the four parties that you would have contributed at the dinner?"
The businessman crudely suggested something about the European Union and autosexuality.
"Tariffs and bureaucracy again?" Fernson replied.
"You got out when the going was good. Anyway, I must hurry," the businessman responded, and hung up.
"Mindless profiteer," Fernson told the silent phone bitterly.
As he left his office to find someone to take a message to the caterers (one group had just rang announcing their vegan status), a junior diplomat accosted him.
"Sir, can I have a word?"
"Is it important, or are you merely making conversation? After all, I could do with something to take my mind off this frightful dinner." The junior diplomat was not daunted by Fernson's sarcasm but replied quickly that it was important. They entered one of the small meeting rooms and sat down.
"Sir, an urgent message from London, for your ears only." Fernson could not decide whether it was the spies or just the overzealous paranoid nature of the out-of-touch FCO.
"Go ahead," he sighed.
"Sir, word has come in that the Hungarian Foreign Minister is siding with Russia."
"How did we find that out?"
"He had a diplomatic phone call with the Council members today and talked about the need to avoid bureaucracy but also to be strong."
"Why was he talking to the Council?"
"They wanted to give their assistance in this matter and discuss the Polish situation."
"They aren't here in Hungary! They shouldn't meddle – I know what they're like, prone to a foolish slip that they can get away with in apathetic Britain but in delicate situations like these causes untold damage. Don't tell me; they tried every trick in the book and their attempts at flattery were so obvious a child could have told they were lying?"
The diplomat looked at him sheepishly.
"Great. Well, I'd better make sure this dinner goes excellently to put this right. Let's get back to work."
He wondered once again why he served the British government with its compulsive need to make sure everything went its own way. It lied, usually foolishly, to try and keep other nations happy, and flipped from sycophancy to heartless avarice in moments when the matters like British oil companies became part of an issue. He almost didn't want to succeed but realised that he would be more frustrated if he lost his job and returned to Britain. He left the meeting room and re-entered the tumult.
To ensure he didn't miss the car, Konrad thought it would be a good idea to spend most of the afternoon in the bar. Drinking did not provide that much of a temptation to him, he simply sat alone at the window staring into the mounting crowds of people as their working week finished. Gaggles of co-workers looking forward to terminating their consciousnesses and drowning their banality followed a magnetic pull towards the bars and clubs. Konrad watched one such group, collectively noisy and obnoxious, enter the bar. Taking a table, they ordered quickly a host of strong drinks; when they arrived, they swallowed their contents as rapidly as their throats would allow and then a circular Mexican wave of patently forced laughter swirled around the group as they realised subconsciously that they enjoyed neither the drinking nor the company. Finally a dark-windowed black car pulled up outside the bar. Konrad knew his time had come. He got up, drained the last of his glass of barrack and walked out, his body language holding itself tight to him.
As he entered the car he nodded at the driver, who thankfully shared his silence. As they drove off, the rain that the clouds had threatened all afternoon began to pour. It did not take them long to reach the apartments where Frankl Teréz, the woman who had invited him to the dinner and hoped for an affair with Robin Fernson lived. He rang the doorbell steeling himself for her energy. She opened the door and swiftly kissed him on both cheeks, then dragged him into her flat. The details of the furnishings were invisible to Konrad, incapable of perceiving them. She started talking and Konrad did his best to concentrate, but all her discussions of the importance of the dinner and those involved simply failed to interest him, so he only responded when he felt she really wanted him to. She bustled around the flat as he stood awkwardly near the doorway and eventually announced that she was ready; they departed. The roads around British Embassy were closed, accessible only to those on the guest list. The driver gruffly showed a letter to the guards and they drove to the entrance.
"Go on," Teréz smiles, offering Konrad her arm. He takes it, seeing no point in trying to avoid it. They walk through the door and are guided by immaculately dressed orderlies to the Ballroom.
Fernson stands near the door of the Ballroom, greeting every person who enters. The serious talk is going to occur on the top table during and after dinner, but the formalities are always observed. Always. He does his best to look as if he's present and shakes hands with people with interchangeable faces.
The second-to-last guests hurry in, and Robin Fernson recognises the silhouette of Frankl Teréz with arms linked – the other figure, like spectre stepping out of fog, a sudden moment of blackest clarity amidst the brume, the visage of Harangozó Konrad, pale with consumption, his demons manifest even in his skin, attached hopelessly to Teréz. She approaches Robin, kissing him on both cheeks, just as she had Konrad, and showing a smile that gleams with promises, the gleam of cracked enamel erroneously polished to shining whiteness, 'there are no answers here.' Konrad, who does not try to feign excitement at his greeting by the Ambassador, seems the thistle of the truth among the thornless roses; Robin knows that he must speak with him further, must discover the source of the chloric fire within him, that the diplomacy meant nothing in comparison to this.
Twenty minutes before the dinner and the rest of the guests were mingling; in Robin's experience, no serious influence was exerted until the dinner, and appearing hands-off would make him seem both less desperate and more sincere to the Hungarians. He caught up with Konrad and whispered in his ear:
Konrad suddenly recalled her name and her job and the moment he had met her, then focused on escaping her clutches. He did not have to worry, for at that very second a potential conversation partner approached – Teréz leapt upon them and as she started to engage them Konrad faded as was his ability as the brooding, silent member of the pair. He spotted Robin striding towards a door at pace and slipped through the throngs of people, whose eyes held their politicking, even if their pleasantries failed to.
"Why do you wish to speak to me?" Konrad asked. He was still confused as to why he was there at the Embassy, working only on instinct.
"I can see something in you, a haunting that holds both answers and questions."
Konrad looked at him. Did he, Harangozó Konrad, have answers, or just a longing that could never be justified or fulfilled? He could tell, however, that he was to speak about who he was.
"I wander the streets each day, searching. Somewhere in Budapest, the answer lies, it must lie, because I can feel it calling me on the streets. But I have never found it, not in years of following the distant call. And yet I can detect its nature. It is a poem in a frozen book in a library cellar, full of the exquisite beauty of the never-to-be-read. It is a door that we will pass each day and never venture through. It is the sailors aboard Odysseus's boat that know they can never hear the Sirens' Song."
"It's killing you, isn't it?"
"I don't eat often, nor trouble myself to feel the cold. I have become so numbed by the numbness of the city and its denizens – look at Teréz – how can anything so dead seem so animated? For she is just that, given activity by the drawing of her movements by the grand artist and a voice spoken by a hidden other."
Robin could not say anything, and a quiet voice inside told him that he would succeed this night, and yet that this triumph would seem hollow to him, because he had not found the secret hidden in the city.
"I've been searching too… for something to make me feel."
They looked at each other. They understood, yet neither could summon the sympathy to console the other. The necessary words awakened in Konrad's mind, but a deeper consciousness hijacked the speech and what he intended and what he said diverged:
"There is a purpose for you. My quest is mine by the incidental blessings of death, but you have been granted a skill. I cannot tell you what it is, and I cannot give you the key to Budapest's chamber, wherein the mystery resides, and you will mourn its absence for all of your life, but there is a reason amidst the drifting souls whose paths fail to make you care. When you cry, you will know."
Harangozó Konrad had done what he came to do. He turned from Fernson, and walked as quickly as he could, brushing past a guard too polite to question his departure.
Németh Jácinta, the doctor who had assessed Konrad, had left the surgery after work and located his home. The results of his testing had come through, yet he had failed to come to the surgery as expected. The pressing need of the rich man had summoned Jácinta to his abode – her ringing of the bell made only sound resound within and no-one came to the door. In the end, she resorted to putting a note asking him to return to the surgery through his door. As she departed, she noticed a well-dressed man approaching the house.
Robin Fernson had tracked down the address of Harangozó Konrad, but did not go to the door, having observed the failure of Jácinta to gain ingress. The house was clearly empty. He turned and ran so he could ask her what she had been doing there.
The reason he had come was to tell Konrad that he had succeeded, such as it was. The Hungarians had been certain not to favour the Europeans, something the European delegation had understood, and had thus invested all political capital and persuasive power in a kamikaze effort to keep them from turning to the Russians. It had centred, somewhat unsurprisingly, on Poland. Even Fernson had found the speech memorable, though it did nothing to stir his passions. One section stuck out in his mind:
"We accept that the Hungarian way is not necessarily the European way. But the differences between us are not so great that either of us would support the sort of so-called democracy that is merely dictatorship by another name. Remember Putin. Remember Poland. Remember all the actions that the Russians have done to undermine freedom, a principle that we can both agree on, even if our methodology of governance varies. If we are to be cynical, and choose only for our own advantage, look at the benefits to Poland – you do not want to fall to such a fate. Abandon even Partnership with Europe, but think of your land, and remember the precipice on which you stand, a place from which you can turn away. Where then you go is immaterial, whether town or country, road or field. Simply, I beg you, step away from the cliff."
Hungary, therefore, had chosen to remain out of either of the states' influence, a victory for Britain, but not Fernson. He had requested a transfer, somewhere away from Hungary, and he feared he would become like Konrad, an eternal seeker.
It did not take him long to reach Jácinta, and he explained that he was the British Ambassador as well as a friend of Konrad. Patient confidentiality lost out to tired pragmatism.
"The lab results came through. He has tuberculosis – unless he's treated soon, he will die."
Somewhere in the streets, the misty mire of unknown fate, the seeker continues to search, and trusts that the next seeker will find their quarry.