An excerpt from

The Passing Tribute

Simon Marshall

If it was not quite relief that Edward felt when Kashia opened the front door, told them that her friend would be having lunch with them, and then presented a swarthy, dishevelled young man in an ill-fitting Russian uniform and outsized overcoat to be this friend, it was rather a feeling of a near nervous exhaustion. But that was not the end, he knew: for as yet Kashia had told him nothing.

Kashia’s young friend was not Russian; he was Hungarian. His name was János. The clothes were the only ones she had been able to get for him from the welfare centre. There had been some old, discarded Austrian uniforms available, but he would never wear those. It would be far too dangerous to be seen in the streets dressed in them. It almost seemed to Edward too dangerous for him to be seen in the apartment either, let alone out on the streets; because, once presented, he immediately scuttled away into another room. The wooden floorboards creaking to the sound of his restless, scratching movements, a few moments later he re-appeared, poked his twitching nose into the gloomy, steaming kitchen, sniffed around with a suspicious eye, and then scuttled away again. Kashia explained that he understood a few words of English, and spoke only as many as he understood. He would not say anything anyway though, she said; not to a man in uniform: not as it was they who had destroyed his life.

Edward said nothing in response to this. He did not need to. Kashia had already picked one of the locks of his thoughts.

“He has no choice to wear that uniform,” she said. “It is that or he freezes to death. But that is not his uniform. He did not kill anyone on the orders of a king or an emperor because he was wearing that. Not like…”

“Yum, yum, tasty-tasty,” said Millie, sipping the wooden spoon she had ladled into the broth.

“It’s turnips and potatoes, Millie,” said Edward, unconvinced.

“Ah, but this is Millie’s ‘nips and spuds. And there’s the special ingredient. You’ll see.”

“Yes, you’ll see. You should be thankful,” said Kashia.

Edward had seen this ‘special ingredient’ unwrapped earlier only from a distance and had not enquired further. He could hardly censure the black market in the manner of Colonel Carrington when he knew that people were forced to turn to it out of the sheer desperation of hunger. The Colonel’s advice he had understood to be based more on political idealism than on reality.

Kashia moved over behind the kitchen table and tugged open the cupboard door, rattling the crockery within. She took out four bowls and plonked them on the table in front of Edward. She then resumed her conversation with Millie. No effort was made to involve Edward. The conversation conducted at a pitch not much greater than a whisper, Edward struggled to pick up a good deal of what they said: his hearing was still impaired by the effects of the shell-blast the previous year so that certain frequencies remained muffled as if by a wodge of cotton-wool. From what he did manage to glean it revolved mostly on the work they had done during the war.

The only daylight in the kitchen came from a small window above the stove which gave onto a narrow shaft in the tenement block. A paraffin lamp was set in the middle of the table, and its dim glow amid the clouds of steam and dripping condensation cast a pale, crepuscular shadow over the damp, yellowed walls.

János returned again. His head was bowed and his features concealed beneath a mass of greasy black hair. He took an anxious step forward, stepped back, put his hand to the doorframe, moved it next to the chair, tipped the chair on its legs, let go of it, put his hand in his pocket, fumbled around, removed it, scratched the back of his neck, then the top of his head, and turned to leave. He was stopped from doing do by Kashia. The instruction being in Hungarian, Edward only understood it by its result: he sat down opposite him. As a gesture of civility Edward unstacked the bowls and passed one to him. The bowl was snatched from his fingers and drawn possessively close. A single, dark eye glared at Edward with a sort of rabid, tortured despair. His head then dropping, the eye was once more concealed by his hair.

Having been inclined to find out whether the young man spoke German or not, this action dissuaded Edward from doing so. Trapped in an awkward, dinner-party silence, Edward therefore diverted himself by resting his open hand on the chair beside him. He turned it palm up and watched as he gently opened and closed his fingers; open and closed them, like the petals of a flower; or, as if a key were slipped into its lock and then held; and then released: held and released; held and released. He stopped. At the sudden image of Oriana’s key sitting beside him his breath became shallow. The muscles around his breast pulsed anew; the bottom of his shoulder-blade tightened like a piece of over-stretched elastic; and all the tendons prickled as if with a thousand pins. He stretched out his arm and tried to shake it loose. That failing, he pressed his thumb firmly into his armpit at the side of the breastbone to cut the bloody supply from its source.

“You said you – Kashia – wanted to talk to me,” he said, interrupting Millie. He shifted his weight on the chair.

“Yes, I do. But that can wait. It’s not so important to you I think.”

The curt, off-hand manner of Kashia’s reply only fed Edward’s discomfort. Sat down, waiting, excluded and impotent, he pressed his thumb deeper into the tissue and wrestled with his body. He was incapable of regulating the beats of his heart though. For heaven’s sake – he said to himself with a thrust of angry impatience – Out with it! What was the delay? She invited him! And there could only be two things possible that she wanted to tell him – So tell!

But no, he knew that wasn’t quite true; there were not just two things – there were any number. He had turned over that a hundred times in the previous two days too: tell, say, ask – who knew the difference in the words! Perhaps she had muddled her verbs. Perhaps she had meant to tell him that she wanted to ask for his help. Perhaps that’s what she wanted to say. After all, there were any number of things a British officer’s assistance might be needed for: food; medicine; help with papers; the finding of a lost someone; the disappearance of a found someone; the release of an imprisoned someone. Yes, when reason had prevailed over his swirling imagination it had explained that the coldness of Kashia’s tone was not for him alone, but was indicative of one who, clinging fiercely to her pride, had become clinical with her speech; one who operated of necessity; one who had dismissed the cosy bed-side manner and moved on to the ruthlessness of surgery. In a city bubbling with rumours, unrest, and romance, she had acquired a scalpel to slice her way to its heart – in order to survive. That was what she was after.

Still, understandable and logical as that all was, he couldn’t just sit there and wait. He couldn’t just do nothing. Not when she had wanted to tell something to him!

“So what are you…what are you doing now, Kashia?”

Now?”

“Yes. Not this afternoon, obviously, but…living?”

“Now we are not living. We are surviving.”

“There, bit of a silly question, Edward,” said Millie.

Edward’s jaw stiffened. It was a perfectly straightforward question, Millie.

“But how? I mean, how are you earning money?”

Kashia swung round to face him, her expression contemptuous.

 “That is the first thing you think about, to earn money. It’s very English, you know, to think like that as the first thing. I said we are surviving. To survive you do not earn money, you get it – however you can. And when you get, you have – and then you have not. It is very simple. Sometimes it does not seem like it is worth the labour you are putting in – but in the end you live. That’s all. There, it’s like that. Is that enough?” Edward gave a slow nod of comprehension. “Maybe,” she said, her lips curling; “maybe you think you know – but you don’t. You don’t know anything about this life. Nothing. Because when this is your life you are never thinking about earning money in the future. No, not that. You are only thinking about how you will live. How! That is the only future. It is not ‘with what’ – it is how. If we think only of with what – of the money, that is now worth nothing; and is worth more nothing every day here – then we are having all the same wars, again and again. And again and again. And we – ” she glanced at Millie “ – will be locked back up inside the house. Yes, changing the bed-sheets, emptying the chamber-pots, giving babies and smiling; always smiling as we tuck in the blankets and make the tea.”

“Yes, exactly,” said Millie.

“Do you know the government here in Vienna does not want us to work any more now? They forced us to work in the factories – to earn their money – so we can win their war for them. And now that they lose it – yes, they lose it – they tell us to go home. ‘Go home’, they say; ‘Go lie on your backs – Go queue for the food – Go make the food – Go carry the wood – Go scrub floors – Go and do all this…and say nothing!’”

“You see, I told you,” Millie said to Edward; “that’s what it’ll be like for me if I go back in England. I’m sure.”

“Of course. It is the same everywhere. But it’s too late. Everything’s changed. They can beat us as much as they like but it won’t make any difference. Not now.”

“Does that happen a lot – the beating?” Millie said with sudden alarm.

Kashia paused to adjust to Millie’s misconstruel of her intended meaning.

“Beatings – Oh yes. There is even more after the war than before. But it’s not so much seen. There is one young girl I know who was beaten by her father because he said the lentils she cooked him were too hard. Can you imagine – to beat someone for lentils! She says he only behaves like that because he was left for dead in the mountains and was found by a dog. She says that’s where he gets his rage from. She says that’s why he tries to kill himself. You see, there are always excuses. But the time for excuses is dead. It died with all the men in Galicia and the mountains.”

            “Ready, I think!” said Millie.   

But as a signal that Kashia was not yet ready to hold her tongue at the sound of the gong and submit quietly to the domesticity of the table, she took a series of fevered steps around the table. She then laid her hand firmly on the back of one of the chairs and, swaying on the frame, looked fixedly at Edward.

“Do you remember that day at the demonstration – in the square?”

“Yes, of course. How could I forget?” He turned to Millie and, with a desire to restore some measure of the past order, said with feeling: “Kashia was my nurse.”

For a moment the adjunct had the desired affect. Kashia rocked the chair back onto its four legs and pressed down on the frame. Her eyes darkening, they expanded like two drops of blotted ink on top of the ridge of her bony white cheeks.

“I was,” she said, her voice involuntarily softening to the memory of when she had placed her fingers lightly on his skin – which seemed, as she looked at him at that very moment in the dirty, orange-tinged light, to be only more beaten by the weather than to have been blemished by age or suffered further, deeper cuts – and dipped her eyes when she felt he was looking at her, and she wished she wasn’t. “Little Kashia – always the nurse,” she said. She turned to Millie and, retrieving her former hardness of her tone, added: “We all thought a lot of sentimental rubbish back then. That’s what happens when you’re under a spell. Maybe we needed the war to break it. Maybe it is good that the war happened, don’t you think?”

Millie did not care to think upon such things at such moments.

“Dum – de – dum, time for food in tum,” she said, twirling round to pick up the nearest bowl. She ladled the broth into it and set it back on the table. “There we go.” She extended a hand to János for his bowl. She was given it with a diffident glance and collected the two others. “First come, first served.”

The first bowl having been returned to the table equidistant between Edward and János, Edward gestured for the young man to take it.

“He won’t take it from you,” Kashia said scornfully.

Edward made as if to take the bowl for himself, then pushed it in front of Kashia.

“Then it should be yours,” he said.

There was a momentarily silence as they stared implacably at each other. A look that was broken by the delivery of the remaining bowls.

“Yes, you’re right. It should,” she said finally. Millie’s operation completed, the two women pulled out their chairs and sat down together. “Thank you, Millie.”

“It’s my pleasure.”

Edward and János mumbled their gratitude, and all then took to their tin spoons.

“It’s your uniform,” Kashia said, at length.

“Yes, I understood. You said earlier.” Edward looked down into his bowl and made an exploratory probe of the fatty mystery floating next to the potato. “You said they destroyed his life. I presume I can see that?”

“Yes.”

 “Surely he understands that I’m not an Imperial guardsman? Surely he understands that a uniform does not make the man?”

“It’s what I started to say a minute ago – about the demonstration. You remember?”

“Of course.”

“Good, then you remember also when the horses were beginning to charge and everybody was running away from them. János was there too. He got knocked over, just like you. But then a horse came by and, even though he was lying in the street and hurting no one, the soldier turns his horse so that the horse’s leg stamps on his face. He does it on purpose, because a young man is coming to listen to a speech; a young man who is only just coming to live in the city as an apprentice to a watch-maker. Not a revolutionary or an anarchist – a watch-maker’s apprentice! An ordinary young man who loses an eye and his whole life because he cannot stand still, and because he has pains in his head all the time. And this happens only because the men in the uniform cannot stand that we – the workers – might come to listen to a man who was not in uniform.” 

“That’s terrible,” said Millie. Her eyes fell with tenderness on János. She watched him shovel the broth into the right side of his mouth. He wore a patch over the sunken socket of his missing left eye. Below it his cheek was flat where the bone had been crushed by the horse’s hoof, and the movement on the left side of his lips and mouth was restricted by the nerves cut out in its reconstruction.

“Yes, it is,” said Kashia. She continued to Edward: “After you left we found out at the newspaper that there were lots of people who were injured during the demonstration – real injuries, not just a few little cuts and bruises like you were having – and I went to the hospital to see them. I found János lying there – this poor boy with his face smashed in – who could not speak a word to anyone – who had no one to…” she brought her spoon down violently into the bowl in presumption of the light shining in Edward’s eyes; “…Always the nurse, no? Yes, that was what I was, the nurse. While everyone else in the house is running making pictures and stupid dreams of… – Yes, I am the nurse! Of course, as soon as I told Friedrich about him and said that he was Hungarian, he didn’t care. He was not Austrian. He was not Viennese, he said. ‘Let the watch-makers from Budapest take care of him’ – that is what Friedrich…”

“Equal…” the young man suddenly growled in a fierce, food-spluttered drawl. His tongue pushed the masticated remnants in his mouth to the back of his throat and, with a half-choked gurgle, he swallowed hard. His cyclopean eye fixed on Edward – then flicked back to Kashia; “…and different.” He gulped the saliva in his mouth down to repeat the broken words: “Equal…and…different. Ha!” A wave of anger coursing through his body, he then spat out a froth of unintelligible Magyar. Kashia put her hand across his to calm him.

“For the Austrians, people like him have always been different first and equal second. Second and last. It is the same for all of us – always second and last. I am from Czech. Maybe I live my whole life here – but for some people I will always be from Czech. I will always be equal…second. You see, everything has changed; but nothing has changed too. The Habsburgs have not gone. They are still here, hiding away, waiting for the moment when they can charge back into Vienna with their banners and horses and stamp on the faces of the people again. And nothing will stop them unless we do it ourselves; unless we make certain there is change; unless we follow the revolution they are having in Germany and unite with them so that we become one powerful people – for the workers. Then we will join with the workers in Hungary, and then with Czech, and then with the other countries of the old Empire. Then there will be equality…”

At this clarion word the young man – his suppurating fury unabated – was roused again.

“Equality…Equality!” he spat. He wrestled his arm free and pounded the table like a furious demagogue. Kashia quickly put his flailing limb back under her control, and he once more fell into a morose, black silence. Kashia’s gaze rested for a moment on the point on the table that János had pounded. She then looked up at Edward, a faint smile sitting on her cracked, colourless lips.

“I can see it in your eyes,” she said.

“What?” said Millie.

“He wants to know. It is for sure – he is thinking only that he wants to know.”

“Know what?”

Kashia said nothing as she challenged Edward with her defiant, imperishable eyes. For no longer would his steady blue gaze shine through her. No. No longer would she be the one deceived first.

“Where he is.”

“Who?”

“Friedrich.”