Tiger, Dragon, Horse. For a while I could have picked any year; yet here I am, still floating. I have become the sentence suddenly cut in half, gone cold without its predicate. I mean, we're all quite familiar with an occasional abrupt change of plans ̶ but to completely elude what mortals call the 20th century not once but thrice in a row?
The first link in the chain almost sliced my heart in two (though bear in mind at the time I had no heart at all). I’d laid my non-existent eyes on a grandfather figure and, oh, what a man he was. Not an evil bone in his body. History missed him like humans miss the bus to the airport, and I will miss him deep in my soul, well into my next chapter inside a physical body.
The man who would never become my grandfather was an orphan before he could talk. His mother fell like a brick tower under the weight of the delivery, his father was taken by cholera a year later. The six little ones were raised by their well-to-do maternal grandparents. Which, all things considered, is the best an orphan can hope for. My dream of a grandfather goes on to attend a tough Catholic school. His progress is anything but stellar, although he is a real bookworm. Anything about furniture, textiles, internal design and decoration. He is ambidextrous and ambitious, he wants the whole cake, theory and practice. He is a gold digger who’s not in it for the gold, just the glory.
Finally, at eighteen he is entitled to his inheritance, and shoots off to discover Europe. After ten semesters in Vienna and Berlin and a spoonful or two of apprenticeship in Lyon and Birmingham, speaking five languages, having visited towns and regions his grandparents had never heard of, he returns home, to a town in the already crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire that goes by not two but three names: Abbazia-Sankt Jakobi-Opatija, the gem of the Adriatic. He sets up his first carpet workshop and store. He calls it The Three Monkeys. The hotels of the Quarner Bay, even the yacht club, soon have one thing in common: their well-heeled guests and members walk on rugs from the Three Monkeys.
My never-to-be grandfather’s flagship product, an emblematic, instantly recognisable statement piece, was called Spanish Carpet. No one quite knew at the time what the name implied. Was the wool from Madrid? Did the family have an estate in Córdoba? Was there a secret Iberian symbol hidden in the drawings?
Or was it perhaps because Clara, his tall, taciturn young wife, had been born on the Spanish-French border? In an Occitan village lining up pretty little white shacks under the edelweiss sky? Where the wind and the vast fields of lavender would not stop whispering secrets to each other, back and forth?
The answer to all of these questions was no. Pop just wanted people to make guesses and talk about his carpet. (See how one question pulled in another? See the urge to find the missing pieces?) In any event, the Spanish Carpet was quite a sight to see, and not cheap at all. The rugs flaunted eighteen to twenty-four colours, came without tassels, and often without symmetry. No two were the same. The image that stretched from one of the short sides to the other would tell a story, depict a portrait, represent a symbol. And there were thirteen animals in the outer border: the twelve creatures of the Chinese Zodiac, and one more. Whatever the valued customer wished for. Anything from small, furry pets to dignified, impressive beasts.
The whole continent still being in post-war shock, that kind of beauty – sober, still, modest – went straight to people’s hearts. Little by little my all-but-real grandfather built an empire. Within ten years he had shops in Rijeka, Linz, Trieste, Matulji, Milan, Livorno. He received several state awards. For a practicing Jew to become an official role model in a time when every day was more anti-Semitic than the last: if that’s not evidence of his cool, I don’t know what is.
Pig, Ox, Rabbit. Literally any given year.
Officially he was replaced in 1942, degraded from CEO to an advisor without a salary. They had to; you see, there were new laws in play. Yet everything was much the same: to the sixty-something workers of the original carpet factory, be it engineer or toilet cleaner, and to the hundred-and-three in the other shops he was still the bossest boss. His successor, one sorry little puppet parachuted into the top position, could bend backwards till daybreak: everyone recognised only Pops. The neglected, humiliated, antagonised, quiet little man who was already wearing the yellow star on the lapel of his far-from-brand-new coat.
They begged him. All the workers did. Please take the shot. Flee. Leave us. Forget us. Deny us. Rob us. Turn your back on us. Anything. Just go. Go! Get out of the country, please!
From where I contemplated the scene (the edge of a cloud, if you insist on the imagery) there is no such thing as shock. I am not appalled; I am not down in the dumps. But. But! But: were I only a few-hour-old human at the time, I would have been rattling my cradle, bellowing, shrieking, cracking every window in the neighbourhood with the raw force of my lungs: GOOOOOOOOOOOOO, Pop, run, run, run! Come to your senses, now! Comfort? Sleepers in the shadow of death wagons? Train fuss in the face of Train Armageddon? Eight-hundred-and-sixty-five thousand gassed on arrival?
He bid his adieus but a few days later walked straight back into the factory, mortifying everyone. Do you know what he told them?
“No, I can’t do it. I am simply not putting my dear Clara through such discomfort.”
He meant second class.
And so the murder machines caught up with Pops, my hero, and – Monkey, Dog, Rat – my chance to meet him was gone.
Our scripts are meticulously planned. Yours, mine, everyone’s. There is the anchor of hometown and family – there are friends, teachers, neighbours, favourite enemies – and there is the immense grey cloud of enablers, those who you bump into for the sole purpose of pushing each other in the right direction. Celestial logistics is not tailored to the human mind.
Souls usually gather up behind the sluice gate nice and easy. Yet if the deal is wiped out by a sudden change you’re given the chance to jump queue. It’s called sluice gate leave. Like in my case: after Pop was murdered, I was allowed to skip the wait, the customary hundred, hundred-and-sixty, two-hundred-and-fifty years. So I listened, I looked, I watched. I made a choice. The shadows began to dawn on me. That would be an oxymoron on the other side, wouldn’t it?
The couple I picked bore a startling difference to Almost-Pop and Almost-Nana. I glided into position and started to prepare myself for the approaching astonishment of pain, the sharpness of arrival, the solidifying confinement in time and space. Then, would you believe it, before I had the chance to say ‘rectangular above ground swimming pools’ I was returned to sender.
As soon as I was back in the light, I saw what had happened. And I saw it in human speak. Once upon a “summer” a “hippy” “couple” who were “not really a couple” (don’t ask me), “hooked up” (hooks are sharp) at a “festival”, “Woodstock” (if I remember the name correctly), “larger than life” (what?), “Man on the Moon” (tsk, you wish), “passion”, “too much”, “spur of the moment”, “not ready”. So, three “weeks” later “she” (oh my days, that’s right, I totally forgot about gender and all) “decided” to have an “abortion”.
Cry me a river, I didn’t. I must have made the same choice in a previous appearance, got rid of a foetus one time stationing on Earth clad in womanhood. True, incarnate the destruction looks secondary. How every time we intervene like that, a story, a novel, a family chronicle is thrust back to square one. The explosion messes up the threads, scratches the patterns, spits the nanoscopic particles into space. Souls are shot backwards, returned to their drifting, desperate for an extra opening. Humans call this planned parenting. Too young, too old, not enough space, solitude, too long, too early, comfort, discomfort – the same ragged tune all around the world. The hippy couple slammed the door in my face: I’m sure I got what I deserved.
The third fiasco in a span of less than a hundred years was me. Purely me. I had already missed out on two opportunities; yet I dreaded squeezing myself into a growing mass of cells. I wanted to go see the planet again, and I didn’t. All I could think of was the colours and patterns of a Spanish carpet, as though I would not settle for less; but that ship, to revert to Earth-speak, had sailed. So, I reluctantly chose a twenty-year-old girl living on the island that looks like a child clown in a funny hat sitting on the ground, leaning forward to reach an invisible toy. Mortals call it England, I think, but I am told that is not entirely accurate. I started to build moments in my soul: prepare to watch some white cliffs, smell basalt columns, listen to the River Dwyryd. I inspected the Giant’s Causeway, Stonehenge, Durdle Door. I imagined standing on Westminster Bridge; I tested what it would feel like to have a fag with my friends in a park in Brixton, near a house that used to be a library. Almost there. Oh, so close.
Still I pulled back.
Losing me before she had me barely gave my almost-mother a headache. If there is such a thing as one-night stands, surely one-tremor-pain should have its place in the dictionary. ‘Thirty percent of first pregnancies end up in a miscarriage’: she shook it off because she could not have been less prepared, not to mention the sleazy and negligent boyfriend in question. She was barely more than a child when they hooked up. He was infatuated, all loved up, she remained distant, actually grieving her first love, even though that one had been a bastard and this one was a panting knight. It took her two years to catch up with him; he had been cheating on her with the ballerina he’d later marry for at least half a year. The baby changed his mind is the explanation she finally went with. That was the label of my vague memory.
Now. This is not entirely kosher, not exactly the done thing, but years later, when not-mum actually became a mother, I dabbled a little in this particular after-not-life of mine. Only in banal situations, dime-a-dozen moments, of course. Not-mum would lean above the gorgeous little boy to change his diaper, she’d put him in the stroller, feed him, kiss him goodbye in front of the kindergarten. Look him in the eye and say something about food or clothes or toys or the weather. How she loved him. Every moment has a tiny secret opening, a crack where floating souls can seep in. This is the opportunity I used, quite often at that: even though weightless and transparent, I knew how to swim along with her emotions, give her heart a push so fierce that for a moment she’d forget to breathe. Yes, that miniature shock was me, every time.
Not that the tiny chap was, in the proper sense of the word, a cure for her suppressed grief, the pain she had ignored for years. If anything, the little boy dragged her distress to the surface. As soon as he was born, not-mum began to connect to my non-birthdays. Once a year, on or around the day I would have been born, she felt a slap in the soul: with a jerk as sudden as though someone had just pulled the emergency brake on the train she started to miss me. For a few days she was on a date with her invisible life: celestial Plan B.
This could not go on for more than a few years, of course. I could not afford to screw up a fourth time, I had to start focussing on my plans. But before that, goodbye to not-mum.
I carefully picked an ordinary evening. Not-mum and six of her co-workers – she wrote for some bizarre fashion magazine – decided to go and watch Guardians of the Galaxy together. Then and there, sitting in the cinema, unsuspecting, absorbed in the plot, as Groot uttered “Groot” for the twelfth time, I turned on the tap and launched a wave of melancholy in her heart.
Goodbye, not-mum; Ciao, hippies; God bless you, Non-Pop. I miss what we never had; I miss it dearly.
Once the closing credits were gone (why is there at least one Lee in every single Hollywood crew, never mind five?) the merry little company decided to finish off the evening in a pub. Walking out, not-mum’s silence did not go unnoticed: usually she was the bubbly one. This time she acted as though she was lost in a maze and didn’t want to ask for help.
Not-mum is the only woman in the group. The others, the six men, are attracted to other men and other men only, but as a rule not to each other, no way. Not independent of this their first topic – for someone had to break the ice – is Chris Pratt’s body. In an affectionate attempt to include not-mum the guys flip a joke: they say Pratt’s moves, eyes and voice are the only reason anyone would ever go see Guardians of the Galaxy. No reaction from not-mum. The men move on to Parks and Recreation (“Don’t you just looove Ice Town memories? The Dark Side of The Ben …”). Not-mum emanates the vibe of a chain-smoking 19th century Russian prose specialist travelling in a car filled with nicotine-hating vegan activists.
But those nice blokes just won’t give up. They bring out the big guns, or in other words The Great Office Controversy: should you watch the American version when you grow up watching the British version?
Nothing. Oh well, the co-workers tell each other by exchanging meaningful glances, we tried. They all wonder if it’s tears glistening in my not-mum’s eyes, but they soon leave it at that. After all, even though she is definitely fun, they are not terribly close. She is a grownup. They all are. She’ll join the conversation when she is ready.
Deep down where it matters not-mum is wading in grief. Real, dark, naked, cold. How to bid final adieus to an unborn daughter? A funeral without a service, a burial without a coffin. Short-lived like spotting a meteor and airy like a lace curtain.
Thus the distancing begins: I slowly start to spread, to dissipate the ethereal shadow we had settled for.
The pub is bursting with crude jokes, drunken innuendos, meaningless conversation, yelling and laughter. But not-mum can only hear the silence inside. There even comes a moment when she instinctively raises her chin to scan the room. As though to spot someone in the crowd. She is a person of words, but this is beyond the flexible and resilient wall of her verbal skills. She knows I am leaving her for good. No more almost-birthday-sadness, no more tormenting what-ifs, no more why-did-I-have-to-lose-my-first-child. This is where it ends.
Almost out, I look down on this young woman from above one more time. Soft sniffs, one or two, no one can hear them. Finally, she throws her head back and takes a look at her co-workers. It’s been a while, but now she’s back. “So here’s where you dicks brought me, ha?” her posture says. “Is this really the best you can do?”
“Next round on me,” she announces, and without even asking her companions, six men, what they fancy, she starts towards the bar. A few seconds later she stops in her tracks and turns around. “And just so you know,” she says, looking them in the eye one by one, “it’s the racoon. I came to see the talking racoon, motherfuckers.”
She walks on, smiling, flipping her wallet in the air: one miniature copy of a Spanish carpet. Tiger, Dragon, Horse, etcetera scattered around the edge – and a tiny furry head in the thirteenth circle.
Dora Esze is a Budapest-born writer living in Britain. Intersectional, cross-cultural, bilingual feminist, human dynamics junkie, mother of two teenage boys = a twin pair of diamonds (really) (I mean really), she lives to cover dreamy distances and often uses wings to make it happen. Most of the time she creates novels in Hungarian and short stories in English. That may be subject to a happy swap soon, back and forth in a loop. Gratitude through the details.