Miklos had been interviewing people for money for five years now and he’d become fed up with it. His interviewees made him feel insignificant and his life transient, because he usually captured them when they were only passing through Budapest. There was a tacit understanding that he was just an item on their conveyor belt and they would forget him as soon as they said ‘goodbye’ to each other. As if to balance their attitude and to work efficiently, he also reduced them to an item on his conveyor belt. There were, of course, exceptions, but they just illuminated the rule.
Now the time came to cross his conveyor belt with Zsofi’s, even though everybody told him to treat her with special care because she was once the greatest female pop star in Hungary and was still the favourite singer of the older generation, including his mother. He had to meet her because the following year she was to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of her career and his boss claimed that soon there would be a long queue of journalists wanting to publish ‘exclusive’ interviews with her. They needed to catch her before she ran out of ‘exclusive stories’ or, worse, published them herself. After all, the strategy of their magazine was to be trailblazers, not followers or imitators.
Miklos was given Zsofi’s telephone number with a warning that it might take him some time to get through to her, as she was a bit capricious and reclusive. Yet, she picked up the phone immediately and when he explained what he was calling about, she invited him to her home. They were to meet the day after tomorrow. Miklos used the available time to refresh his memory of Zsofi by watching old clips of her on YouTube and reading what had been written about her over the years. He had to admit that there was a certain cheesiness about her performance, but what music wasn’t cheesy after thirty or so years and especially that which had been broadcast on Hungarian television? There was also a certain cheesiness about her private life. According to gossip, in the 1980s she was a lover of the minister of culture and after communism collapsed, married the richest Hungarian, whom she quietly and profitably divorced after several years. Thanks to her professional and private successes, she was the wealthiest female star in Hungary, with properties scattered all over Europe. She was thus like a domestic version of Zsa Zsa Gabor, but probably with more real talent and less wit. Miklos still remembered his piece about Zsa Zsa Gabor which he had to pen when she died, trying to dissect her famous quotes: ‘I never hated a man enough to give him his diamonds back’ and ‘I always said marriage should be a fifty-fifty proposition. He should be at least fifty years old, and have at least fifty-million dollars.’ Maybe in private Zsofi was also saying stuff like that, but on stage she projected herself as romantic and sincere, as testified by her wide eyes and shy smile. Obviously a singer is different to an actress or a professional socialite, especially in a communist country, as Hungary was when she was in her prime. She must have known it, otherwise she wouldn’t have been so successful. Would he be able to make her reveal the secrets of her successes and her resilience?
It took Miklos well over an hour to get to Zsofi’s house, because she lived in a ‘millionaires’ village’, quite a distance away from Budapest’s centre and from the nearest bus station, as it was assumed that its inhabitants and visitors wouldn’t need to use public transport. All the houses on this estate were scattered somewhat chaotically and hidden behind pine and spruce trees. The roads joining these houses were so narrow and twisted that they felt like a path in a wood. Indeed, it was a wood or even a forest, before it was bought up by some property developer in the 1990s. As it was late October, the days were short and the sun was about to set. The wood was full of red, brown and yellow leaves, falling on juicy, green moss. The part of the sky which contained the sun showed all shades between yellow and purple and the sky further away was deep blue, more like sea than sky. It appeared that all the colours of the world chose this place for their rallying call. Miklos didn’t regard himself as particularly sensitive to nature, but he had to admit that the image alone was worth making the trip. In addition, there was a thick, mossy, mushroomy, almost psychedelic smell. He had to resist the temptation to fall face down to the ground and forget about his assignment, but of course he overcame it; he was not an idiot, after all.
He expected Zsofi to live behind a gate with CCTV cameras, have an intercom and barking dogs. But there was only an ordinary, old-fashioned doorbell which Miklos pressed, wondering whether she would open the gate herself or send an old butler to do it. She did it herself. She wore a fluffy white jumper and red trousers, which brought to Miklos’ mind something from a fairy tale: Red Riding Hood or Santa Claus. Her demeanour was also fairy-tale-like; there was a softness and gentleness about her movements, which intimidated Miklos. He felt as if he wouldn’t be able to ask her all the probing questions which he wanted to.
The house was large, yet rather simple and decorated in good taste. The most remarkable details were windows with ornamental balconies. Two windows, on the side of the house, were concave; three to the front were narrow and convex and circular at the top. The house was yellow-toned and had a blueish roof, probably made of slate, and had white stucco at the top, depicting swans and peacocks. All together it looked like a nineteenth-century mansion, rather than a nouveau riche palace from the 1990s. When he commented on this, Zsofi smiled and said: ‘In fact, it is a late nineteenth-century house. When we bought it, there were only two houses here, both of the same age, but within a decade we became surrounded by new houses. My ex-husband didn’t like them, but I didn’t mind. I was always on good terms with my neighbours.’
There was a large salon downstairs, and one of its walls was decorated with platinum records and awards Zsofi received at music festivals all over the world. It was not surprising there were so many given that during the communist period she was described as ‘the country’s hottest export’.
‘To be honest, I don’t like the stuff here,’ she said, pointing to this ‘wall of success’. ‘This was my ex-husband’s idea and it stayed like that, as I’m too lazy to change it. I probably would if I found a young painter whose work charmed me, but it is difficult to charm me these days.’
Zsofi didn’t leave Miklos in the salon, but took him to a small room adjoining the kitchen, asking if he’d had dinner. He hadn’t, so he accepted her offer to eat together. There was goulash soup, apple pie and wine and all the while they were eating she kept asking him questions: what music did he like, what films had he watched recently, what did his parents do for a living. There was a sparkle in her eyes when he praised her food and when he told her that he was single. The last statement wasn’t strictly true, but there was no point in going into detail to explain his personal situation.
In between answering Zsofi’s questions, Miklos scrutinised her appearance. He had to admit that she looked very well for her age, maybe even better than in her youth, because then there was something cheap, even vulgar about her; her face was too round, her nose too bulky and her hair too neat. Moreover, she was always jolly and eager to please the audience, like a scout girl fronting a band of do-goodies, unaware of anything tragic happening in the world. Now she had proper cheekbones, her hair had a life of its own, with grey and auburn strands fighting for visibility, and her smile was tinted with irony.
Eventually it was time for Miklos to ask questions. He asked Zsofi to describe the beginning of her career and Zsofi said that she started performing in front of the public when she was only fourteen. She was talent spotted by someone scouting for a teenage folk band: ‘You know, not a proper folk band, as nobody in Hungary was interested in proper folklore, but a pretend one. The guy knew friends of my parents who told him that they knew a girl who was pretty and liked singing and dancing. I was recruited on the spot and became the band’s leader, making all Hungarian mums fall in love with me. The next year I recorded my first record, which counts as the beginning of my official career.’
‘So you were lucky from an early age?’ asked Miklos rhetorically.
‘Yes, but the downside of becoming successful so early is that at all my anniversaries people take me for older than I really am.’
Miklos smiled. Indeed, she didn’t look like somebody who’d been in the same job for forty years.
‘My discoverer became my first impresario and lover. He was almost thirty years older than me and married, but as I was very young then and didn’t have long-term plans, it didn’t matter much. So the story of my adult life began,’ said Zsofi with her semi-demure, semi-ironic smile.
‘What do you mean by that?’ asked Miklos.
‘Once you become an adult, people start having high expectations of you and stop doing things for you out of the kindness of their heart. I became an adult very early. Suddenly everybody wanted something from me. I had no private life, and not only because people recognised me, but because there was no clear division between my private self and my public persona. My friends were those who benefited from my successes or vice versa. And there was so little time left for “real” life or friendship, that I decided not to cultivate those. I focused on the “friends” who kept coming to my concerts. I replied to their letters, writing something different each time and hoping they would write back, until there were too many letters to reply this way.’
‘What happened next?’
‘The next stage was launching my solo career. I ditched my old manager-cum-lover, who was, besides, a bully, and got a new manager. He also composed my songs, while I was learning how to write lyrics. This was like the perfect pizza – three pizzas for the price of one: a manager, a composer and a lover. The arrangement was so good that we got married. He was almost forty then, while I was twenty. I was his second wife but, again, I didn’t mind the age gap. I thought love is not about match-making, but filling the gaps.’
‘What you were writing about then?’ asked Miklos.
‘The usual stuff: falling in love, breaking-up, starting again. I wrote that the world is beautiful all year round, even in autumn. I always thought that the person whom I was about to meet would be wonderful, so was I preparing myself to meet this wonderful person.’
‘Like with me today?’ asked Miklos, smiling, trying to be ironic, but not completely succeeding.
‘Like with you,’ she replied, smiling back. ‘My optimism was also in tune with the times – goulash socialism. We were privileged living in Hungary, having security, equality, the highest standard of living and the best youth music in the Soviet bloc. There was much to be content about then.’
Miklos wondered if this was ever the case for everybody or only for people like Zsofi, pampered by the regime, but he didn’t want to interrupt her.
‘Several years later our son was born. For a while, it was a happy time, but then things started to change for the worse. The music Zsolt wrote for me became repetitive and I didn’t like the fact that he wanted to make all my decisions for me, forcing me to work 24/7, while I wanted to stay at home with our child. One day I woke up and realised that there was little love left between us. So we divorced just before my thirtieth birthday.’
From the rest of her story Miklos gathered that over the next twenty or so years the balance in her love life and her lyrics changed. The gap between her age and that of her lovers was getting smaller, till it got tipped in the other direction; Zsofi became older than her men. This was the case of her third husband, the ‘Hungarian king of the shopping malls’. It was with him that she bought this mansion; it happened when she was 43, and he 37. This marriage also didn’t last.
‘Were you too old for him?’ asked Miklos, aware that it wasn’t the most polite of questions, but he couldn’t resist not asking it.
‘I think that the age wasn’t an issue, but other things were,’ replied Zsofi, again with a sparkle in her eye and irony in her smile.
‘Like what?’ asked Miklos.
‘Like his arrogance. He felt entitled to do everything which pleased him, like eating the food that he liked rather than that which I liked, and having lovers. I could have lovers too, but then what’s the point of being married? At least he admitted the break-up was his fault and he didn’t quarrel about money. So I kept this house and another one we bought in Italy. Rich and successful men have this sense of entitlement. After him I avoided such men. But then there are also problems with men who are not successful. They see injustice everywhere and feel entitled to inflict their misery on their women. This is even worse than living with a successful bastard.’
Miklos got thinking that one’s old age begins when one starts to look at one’s life the way Zsofi did: seeing patterns in it rather than unique events, and looking at one’s youth from the perspective of what happened many years later. He read somewhere that this is how Hollywood biopics were constructed, by using the ‘future perfect’ tense. He also got the sense that Zsofi’s story was well rehearsed. This didn’t mean that she was lying to him, but she must have edited many events out and polished those which she left. It wouldn’t be easy to write a piece about her which included anything new. Unless he tried harder. But it was difficult. The food and wine had made him lethargic.
‘I guess the King of the Shopping Malls was your last husband?’ Miklos asked, although he knew the answer.
‘Yes, after being married to him, I lost faith in the institution of marriage. Not in love, but in marriage.’
Miklos decided that he wouldn’t ask her more questions because she wouldn’t reveal anything he could find out without having to ask her and his lame questions only made him ashamed of himself. But when he was about to tell her that they were done, she told him that she’d almost finished writing her autobiography.
‘I knew it would sell, but I wanted it to be a literary work. Would you be interested in going through it with me? I know you are a talented writer. I’ve read you before and I haven’t yet found anybody else writing as well as you or, at any rate, anybody of your generation, and the old good journalists are now either senile or dead.’
‘You mean you’d like me to be your ghost writer?’ asked Miklos.
‘I wouldn’t put it like that. Rather my assistant editor.’
‘I’m not sure. I have so much work at the magazine and I’m doing a PhD. I don’t think I can take on more work for the foreseeable future.’
‘Even if it is well paid?’
‘I don’t think I really can. But I can check with my friends. I’m sure I would be able to find somebody good for you.’
Miklos noticed again a hint of irony in her smile, but it was just to mask pain. She must have been used to people giving in to her demands, so every rejection was a surprise and an insult. But probably for this reason she didn’t put any more pressure on him. Instead she asked:
‘Do you want to see the rest of the house, before you go?’
Miklos wasn’t sure whether she asked this question because she wanted to keep him longer or to get rid of him, but there was no other option than to say ‘yes’.
And so she showed him a sauna, an indoor swimming pool, a room with a ping-pong table and another salon. Outside there was a tennis court and an outdoor pool, now empty as it was too cold to use it. There was also a garden with a small cemetery for her deceased dogs.
‘Why don’t you have a dog now?’ he asked.
‘If I was to have a dog, it would have to be from a shelter and when I go to the shelter, I don’t want to choose one or two, but all of them, so I must prepare myself for the visit. I will go next month.’
She also had three cars in her garage, including a very old Jaguar.
‘It was my first luxury car and I never parted with it, because it served me as a model - I wanted to age as well as my car. Did I?’ she asked coquettishly.
‘Of course,’ he replied. What else could he say? But truth be told, the more time he spent with her, the more he appreciated how well she looked.
‘Whenever they shoot a film set in the sixties and seventies, the producers approach me to lend it, as apparently it is the best kept old luxurious car in all of Hungary.
The other two cars were relatively new: a red Mini and a black Honda SUV.
‘Why do you need such a large car?’ asked Miklos, pointing to the Honda.
‘Well, sometimes I go with my friends to my house in Italy or to explore Europe. If you want to travel off the beaten track, you need a strong car.’
The idea that Zsofi went on off the beaten track trips with her friends didn’t fit well with the image Miklos had of the singer. But in fact after meeting her it was more difficult to build a coherent image of her.
In the end Zsofi took the Mini to give him a lift back to his home in Budapest. They hugged each other when saying goodbye and promised to be in touch.
The following day was Friday. Miklos spent the whole day working, so that he felt justified in having the weekend free. The plan was to meet his almost ex-girlfriend on Saturday and his girlfriend-to-be on Sunday. First came Eszter, with whom he was together for five years and kept splitting with regularly. This time, however, it was meant to be for good. He didn’t want to hurt her, but obviously it was impossible. Moreover, in order for her to let him go, he had to say things which would facilitate his departure. He said that he felt like she was never satisfied with him, that he always had debt towards her. Eszter looked at him with her big eyes, which grew even bigger, as he continued in this way.
‘You weren’t always a disappointment to me,’ she said in the end. ‘I just wanted for us to be happier, to move in together, but you always held back, as if you were not sure if I was worth your effort.’
This was true, but Miklos found it difficult to admit.
‘Well, when I tried the hardest, you showed little appreciation, being always in a bad mood,’ he said.
And so they continued, as always, accusing each other and defending themselves. In the end the split wasn’t conclusive, which frustrated Miklos, even more so, as he had some of his most precious possessions in Eszter’s apartment and he wanted to take them home. The following evening he had a date with Maya. It was their third meeting and Miklos hoped that things would now move faster with her. He always waited till the third date, to give the girl time to learn about his virtues and avoid the impression that he was burning with lust. Unfortunately, he had no chance to fulfill his plan because, as soon as he ordered drinks, Maya said that she was not completely truthful with him when she told him on the previous date that she split with her boyfriend, because actually she was back with him. It took Miklos only seconds to realise that she used him as leverage in her struggle with another man. She even admitted it and suggested that they shag as a way of compensating Miklos’s waste of time and taking advantage of Maya’s boyfriend being away for two days. Miklos felt angry, being so patronised and pitied, but in the end lust prevailed and he followed her to her apartment. To compound his humiliation, before leaving in the morning, he asked Maya to give him a call if things changed for worse between her and her boyfriend.
Returning home Miklos was thinking that the love life of his generation felt like a game of musical chairs: everybody was in transit, nobody had time to stop and properly fall in love. Perhaps this was because everybody tried to ‘optimise’ – making sure that their investment in somebody paid off. This was, of course, also his case. And this sense of lightness and transience pertained to everything he was doing. It must have even affected his unconscious, as in dreams he was haunted by hollow and fragile objects – egg shells, soap bubbles, mummies, some even wearing his face. Maybe other people saw it too, like Eszter, who for his birthday gave him a collection of poems by Eliot, asking him to pay special attention to ‘The Hollow Men’, but he wasn’t into poetry and had no time to read it. Yet maybe he should have.
But there were other things to take care of, such as writing up the interview with Zsofi. The rest of the day he spent writing the piece about her and sent it to her with an e-mail indicating that she should accept it the way he wrote it. She sent it back two days later with track changes, comments and thanks for his work. Looking at the document he felt ashamed, as she noticed various spelling mistakes and improved his style. Who would think that somebody who was looking for a ghost writer was so good as to being able to improve the work of her ghost-to-be? This must have been the result of his precarious love life, which diminished his writing ability. Miklos incorporated her changes and he sent the piece to his boss, who thanked him and invited him and others to a meeting the following week.
The meeting was about closing the magazine. The editor-in-chief said that this was because the financial backing was suddenly withdrawn. Although he didn’t say it openly, everybody knew that this was due to political pressure. The good news was they would be open till the end of the year, possibly even the end of January, which should help the staff to find new jobs.
There was the usual outrage, followed by discussions of where to go. There was, however, a recognition that there were fewer and fewer magazines. Miklos was positive that he would find something, but the very idea of looking made him nauseous. Maybe he should have become an accountant after all, as his mother advised him, because people seemed to be always in need of good accountants. Suddenly Zsofi’s offer came to his mind. As soon as he reached home, he phoned her and almost without introduction asked:
‘Are you still interested in a ghost-writer?’
‘Well, not really. After you turned my offer down, my friend suggested to get somebody from a creative writing course. I checked several candidates and have just found one, who seems to be very competent.’
‘A boy or a girl?’ asked Miklos.
‘Why does it matter?, asked Zsofi.
‘It doesn’t, I’m just curious,’ replied Miklos.
‘A boy,’ said Zsofi.
‘Have you lost your job?’ asked Zsofi, after a short silence.
‘How do you know?’
‘If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t have got back to me.’
‘As a matter of fact I did.’
‘I’m sorry to hear it. How do you feel?’
‘How can I feel? A loser. Actually, a multiple loser, as it happened to me for the third time in five years.’
He felt awful telling her all this because normally he wouldn’t admit such things to strangers, but he didn’t care. In fact, he wanted to immerse himself in his misery, as if the way to recovery was reaching rock bottom.
‘Don’t exaggerate. This is not the end of the world. If you were a singer, even a well-known one, you would keep losing all the time, as singing contests and record deals always go to one’s enemies. The higher you go, the more opportunities to lose. If you don’t want to be demoted, become a rubbish collector. But even this does not guarantee success.’
‘Thanks for your kind words,’ replied Miklos. He meant to be sarcastic, but actually Zsofi cheered him up a bit.
‘Would you like to come over?’ asked Zsofi.
‘I’m not sure. You live so far away,’ said Miklos. ‘Maybe you can give me a call when you come to Budapest.’
‘Okay, I will,’ she said.
Actually, when she hung up, he regretted that he rejected her invitation, as he yearned to leave Budapest. It would be best to go somewhere warm, as the days had became so short and cold that it felt like too much effort to chase the few hours of light. However, it would be unwise to go on holiday when he had no stable income and no proper girlfriend to go with. So, all in all, visiting Zsofi in her little palace would be a bit like holiday.
Luckily, two days later she phoned, telling him that she had an errand in the capital and could meet him and take him back to her house, for a chat, a meal and spa. Miklos thought that she must have read his thoughts and indeed she said as she asked:
‘Was I reading your thoughts?’
She picked him up in her red Mini at midday. This time she didn’t look like a female Santa Claus, but more like a business woman, wearing a dark-blue suit and a pencil skirt in the same colour. But there was a red scarf on the front seat, as if proof that she never gave in to a convention entirely. She explained to Miklos that she had met her old producer and manager who tried to persuade her to make a record with new material, followed by a tour in Hungary and some places in the old Eastern bloc, where she was still very popular. But Zsofi wasn’t sure if she wanted to do it.
‘I don’t need money, I don’t need fame,’ she said. ‘I had all of this and don’t need more’.
‘What about self-expression’, asked Miklos, although he deeply disliked this word – the favourite term of the pompous losers.
‘I don’t need to express myself through songs either. I prefer now to write in prose, as I told you.’
She took him to the kitchen and handed him a glass of wine, while making stir fry with rice, which was followed by homemade ice cream. Her food was again delicious and she served it and ate it with him in a matter-of-fact way. This was unlike his mother, who expected him to erect a virtual monument to her cuisine, even though her cooking hadn’t changed for twenty years.
When they finished, she took Miklos to her study and showed him the beginning of her book. Its title was ‘After the Ball’ and it started with a little poem:
After the ball was over Zsofi took out her glass eye / Put her false teeth in water / Corked up her bottle of dye / Put her false leg in the corner / Hung up her wig on the door / And all that is left goes to bye byes / After the ball.
‘Did you write it yourself?’ asked Miklos.
‘No, I only translated it into Hungarian. It is an old English song or a nursery rhyme. I discovered it many years ago and liked it, it is very funny in its masochism and the point of this song is not to lose your mind even if you lose everything else. And then, if you can keep something on top of your mind, keep your money. So this is what I want to say to young women who try to make a career in music and those who passed their prime. There is life after the ball; there is pleasure in taking off one’s glass eye and corking up the bottle of dye, metaphorically speaking, at least.’
Then she took him to the part of the house where there was a sauna and a swimming pool. She left him there, telling him that she must take off her glass eye and false teeth, before joining him. After half an hour she returned in a red and yellow swimming costume. Miklos was thinking that she didn’t look any worse than before; she had no spots or varicose veins, and was almost as slim as when she was at the peak of her fame. If he didn’t know, he would think she was in her early forties rather than mid-fifties.
There was also a certain boldness and romanticism about her when she stood at the edge of the pool, looking in front of her, reminding Miklos of a ‘wanderer above the sea of fog’ from the painting whose author he never memorised. For a moment he thought about approaching her from behind and touching her thigh, just to know how it felt, but she jumped into the water and swam away, before this thought fully formed in his head.
Then she approached him and they talked for a while about new music from Hungary. It appeared she followed several bands and helped a couple of them. Then she looked at her watch and told Miklos that it was time to go. Miklos didn’t plan to stay much longer, but he felt hurt by her deciding to cut his visit.
‘What else are you doing this evening?’ he asked when they got dressed.
‘I have a date,’ she replied with her mischievous smile.
‘Oh, I see,’ said Miklos.
‘Before you go, take this piece of paper. Here is an e-mail and a telephone number of my friend Klari. You must have heard about her – in her heyday she was almost as famous as me, which was about ten years before my debut. Klari is also working on her memoirs and I convinced her that she needs a ghostwriter, as her writing is horrible and she lies so ineptly that even a child wouldn’t believe her. Mind that it might take you some time to reach her, as she likes to play diva, especially now, but once you meet her, you will like her and she is also a very good cook.’
Then she hugged him and took him to the gate. On the bus to Budapest Miklos was counting all his recent humiliations, making sure that he didn’t miss anything. It was good to know that the old year would end soon, even though this did not guarantee that the new year would be any better.
Back at home Miklos found an e-mail from Zsofi, urging him to contact Klari, as she was about to leave Budapest for the Christmas break. He phoned her and the next day he went to her house. He pressed the doorbell and looked at the sky. It was again sunset and the sky was again very colourful. Maybe it was global warming which changed the sky in Hungary or God gave these aging stars special protection. Whatever, he decided that it was a good sign.
Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. She published over thirty of them in ‘The Longshot Island’, ‘The Adelaide Magazine’, ‘The Fiction Pool’, ‘Literally Stories’, ‘Ragazine’, ‘ ‘BlazeVox’, ‘Red Fez’, ‘Away’, ‘The Bangalore Review’, ‘Shark Reef’ and ‘Mystery Tribune’, among others. Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.