PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
They headed west where, three streets further on, the red-light district
began. The sex shops and souvenir kiosks stayed open until well past
midnight. This was the tourist part where the police kept an eye on things.
In the chestnuts along the canal bank were strings of coloured bulbs and
spotlights, giving the water a reddish shimmer. The effect was very
picturesque. Old couples, coach parties, even school classes walked along
past the tarts. Advertising holograms for the blue-movie cinemas flooded the
streets with colour. Drug dealers announced themselves to passers-by with a
Psst! The slightest response and they trotted out their list of wares. Dope,
speed, coke? Nagy had the Lagavulin in his coat pocket. Cora was embarrassed
when he handed her the bottle and men in tartan caps shouted 'Cheers!' or
'Wheyhey!' He clicked his fingers, as he had done in the store, and a yellow
rosebud appeared in his hand. He didn't give it to Cora, but, click! the
rose was in the water.
'Maria's views on marriage were very conservative. She had no idea about
sex. Adultery was a mortal sin for her. When Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid
Bergman separated she crossed them both off her list of friends. Just
imagine when a woman like that finally sees the light. Wham! bam! her whole
world is overturned in one single night. She got a divorce and her
relationship with Onassis was made public. For a few months he loved her,
preening himself on his trophy. Then his cock started looking for new worlds
to conquer. I can't even say I blame him for it. But the fact that he lied
to Maria for years, promising to marry her and managing to put her off until
everything was ready for the conquest of Jackie Kennedy, that made me
furious. Maria's voice, on which she made great demands as it was, suffered
from the strain, began to wear out. Long before her time. At an age when
other singers are only just approaching the peak of their career.'
Nagy drunkenness had now reached the stage where it was obvious to the eye
in the way it affected his gait and gestures. He had emptied the bottle
almost unaided and slung it at a waste-paper basket. It missed.
'Onassis - he wanted to buy up the whole world - oh, the way he treated
Maria once he had her in his thrall! The way he humiliated her! "Who do you
think you are?" he would scream at her. "You're nothing. A nobody with a
worn-out pipe in your throat." To say I had mixed feelings when I heard him
say that is putting it mildly. I was the divided beast that never knew
whether to laugh or cry, to mourn or rejoice.'
'If you hated Onassis . . .?'
'Why didn't you . . .? I mean . . .?'
'But he was necessary! For the legend. And even if I did sometimes feel like
doing it, Maria loved him. That neutralised my power.'
'Like garlic with vampires?'
'I don't know any vampires. Do you?'
'Only from the cinema.'
'You can keep your stupid cinema. This wasn't a film. It was . . . it . . .
WAS! Still is! I won't let you make fun of it.'
'Maria was burning out before my very eyes! A goddess, flogging herself to
death, turning to ashes. She herself thought it was a temporary weakness.
She fought against it, dogged as ever, only this time all the exertion of
her will-power was in vain. Tutta finita sulla terra . . . that was the time
when the white poodle left us. Left the future to me like a pile of rubbish.
Didn't say goodbye to anyone.'
'Where are we heading for anyway?'
Nagy seemed to have some route in mind and was striding purposefully through
the maze of streets and alleyways. Not a stroll any more. Cora had
difficulty keeping up with him and was getting out of breath. When she
pointed out how quickly he was walking he scarcely showed any reaction.
'Why do some cats climb up trees from which they can't get down? And why do
others jump out of the third or fourth floor onto asphalt? Some want to be
free to roam. Others prefer to be saved by the fire brigade'
'What is it you're trying to say?'
'There are cats and cats.'
'Some disguise themselves as poodles, others as psychiatrists.'
'For a sick man you can be bloody supercilious!'
'I will assume a more modest mien.'
They must be close to the docks, in the seamy part of the red-light
district. Sailors' dives with girls' names, often only the size of a sitting
room, became frequent. Drunken marines in groups of four or five blocked
Cora's way, greeted her with heavy-breathing familiarity, invited her to
have a drink with them, surrounded her, making suggestive compliments. Nagy
did nothing about it. Pretended he wasn't with her. Even seemed to find it
A military police patrol came round the corner and the marines trotted off,
meek as little lambs. Cora was destined not to find out whether the
situation could have become awkward or not.
'What's all this about. What are we doing here?'
Nagy's chin dropped to his chest and bounced back up, as if his breastbone
was a trampoline. His eyelids flicked up and down in time.
'Madama, I'm pissed.'
'A statement of the obvious.'
'For a good reason. A very good reason. Guess.'
'You're desperate, a sick man.'
'Assertions of which the third is the most insulting. And yet, soon you won'
t be all that wrong . . .' He made an uncoordinated gesture, the meaning of
which was impossible to decipher.
'It was more fun when the white poodle was here. At the time I thought that
when he went he would leave the field to me and that would be great. But
without an opponent the game's not worth the candle. What's the point? I
have, Madama, reached a momentous decision. I have decided -' he took a deep
breath, 'to commit suicide.'
'No you won't.'
'Oh yes I will!' He snorted. 'I have an ulterior motive. To be dead.
'Isn't it? Dead and with Maria.' Nagy tried to shake the alcohol out of his
head, supporting himself against the wall of a building. 'The way of dying I
've chosen is a lengthy one. Would you like to know which?'
'I will become human and then I'll die in the way chance happens to have
reserved for me. Isn't that what you want, Signora?'
'How are you going to do it? "Become human", is it that simple?'
'On the contrary, it's extremely tedious. Probably. I've no idea, really.
But I'm attracted by the idea of being an old man sitting with other old men
and saying, "Lads, I used to be the devil himself!" And they'll all have a
laugh or a grin and only I'll know what really was. That and a beautiful
sunset. I'm sure that would make me happy . . . outrageously happy . . .'
'That's what you see as your future? Just dying?'
'Why ever not?' Nagy's speech was interspersed with hiccoughs. 'I'm
completely fed up with everything. Why do I keep hanging on here? What for?
Who for? Having to make do with a few kids who celebrate weird masses in my
name? Eh? Should I play the call boy with the ice-cold jism', his voice
grew loud, 'FOR A FEW FRIGID CATHOLIC CUNTS WHO GO SCREWY 'CAUSE THEY DON'T
'Shh! You're drunk.'
'Yes. Oh dear. What's it like being human? Hmm? I'm a bit afraid of it.
There are some dreadful examples that really put you off. Cora? May I call
you Cora? Let's call each other Cora . . . I probably wouldn't be a very
good person, would I?'
Nagy gave a crazy laugh, staggered. Cora grabbed his arm and supported him.
She could smell the alcohol on his breath.
Cora let go. Nagy's fingertips touched the pavement.
'You're ruining my patina. It's taken me centuries to get it right.'
'Your self-pity is insufferable.'
'Self-pity?' Nagy pulled himself together, stamping on the pavement, as if
to prove he could walk straight. Fast-moving clouds were swirling round the
'I'm here to help you.'
'Of course . . .'
He came up to her until he was only inches away, put his hands on the wall
over Cora's head and whispered something that sent her wild. 'Pull up your
She did what he demanded without thinking. There were many things going on
inside her head, but the desire to have Nagy grope her dominated everything.
He clicked his fingers.
'Just interested. To see how far gone you were . . .'
With that he disappeared round the corner, she could hear the clatter of his
footsteps on the cobbles. Cora's first thought was to dash after him, but
instead she screamed, hissed and snorted with white-hot fury and set off
running, for a few hundred yards, until it occurred to her that Nagy was
probably just looking for a dark corner where he could spew up his guts
unobserved. Of course. That was it.
He won't have abandoned me here? Here! He's not that type. Is he looking for
me? Why doesn't he call out? Why doesn't he shout my name? Skeletal houses,
empty of glass. Puddles with no light reflected in them. A wind-driven
dampness. And sailors, sailors everywhere. Without moving, Cora slid deeper
into the silence. Cowered in a garage entrance, freezing, until a chance
taxi took pity.