Three homeless people sat watching TV in Budapest's Freedom Square.
As usual, police with machine guns stood on the corner by the American Embassy, blowing on plastic cups held up to their mouths and staring at the sky, God's sad, snowy screen. The phenomenon was first noted by Police Corporal Henrietta Kis at 9.30 when she had cause to take a look in the bomb-inspection mirror for reasons of a strictly personal nature. She was pleased to establish that her eye was on the mend after having walked into the precinct punch bag the previous evening. And why shouldn't it have been a punch bag? At least that's what she'd told her colleagues. She told them that she'd run into it as she ran to avail herself of the facilities at the hostel and why wouldn't it be true if she'd really had to go? And anyway, no one would have ever believed the truth.
She pinned her eyelid right up to inspect the blob of slightly bloody jelly and was relieved to see that the ugliness had gone down and what was left could have been daubed there herself before she went out on a Saturday night. But one made-up eye was always a little suspicious. The point being that the purpleness looked like little more than slightly sluttish makeup or at least more so than normal. She would have happily gazed at herself for a while longer but what she saw in the mirror was literally dwarfed by what she glimpsed beyond it.
The stocky, short-legged creature, rather than raise the alarm with her colleagues, turned on her heels and took out a cigarette that, thanks to her split lip, was only the fourth today. She shook the match out and sneakily pinched her arm but nothing changed. She took a couple deep breaths and whispered to her silent colleagues asking whether they couldn't see anything unusual. They just slurped at their cold coffee but their pale faces and open mouths said it all. Hey, bloody hell, to tell the truth, they could see it too but they had just thought that... well, they just thought that they must be seeing things, the bright, white snow and all that. Did this mean it wasn't a trick of the light and that something major was going on after all?
They clenched their machineguns and dropped down onto one knee like they'd done in drill.
"They might be those advert thingies," one of them said. "Like those balloons they blow up into big figures that drink Nescafe or something. Packet soup."
"But that would have required an application to be submitted for aerial activity," said the other. Their knees were getting cold and they looked completely ridiculous kneeling in falling snow in the middle of the afternoon. It was made all the more absurd by the fact that they were sitting as calmly as ever on the bench in front of the Soviet Monument.
A short time passed while they wrestled with the appropriate terminology. What exactly were they looking at and quite how were they going to be able to describe it in official language? Then the one who had spotted it received the order to radio in to central control.
"Homeless," she reported, "three homeless individuals."
"And, sweetheart," said an irate and slippery voice, "what about them?"
"It's just, the thing is, they are about as big as the American Embassy. Or the erm, the National Bank... At least that's when they're sitting down... Yes, sitting, and you will have to believe me when I say the bench is that big too because it's grown to scale with them..."
She would have gone on to explain but control interrupted saying that the duty sergeant wanted to talk to the man in charge, Lajos something.
"You've been letting her drink again!" the voice yelled into the pale policeman's ear.
"I can report that we didn't let her do anything and those things really are here," the officer said. "We're waiting for instructions or backup but it would best to send an armoured vehicle if it could get through the traffic."
A couple of expletives came spluttering out of the radio and then the handset went dead. The term "armoured vehicle" had such a soft, wintry ring to it like "roast chestnuts" or "colonic irrigation". Just like "jingle bells" really.
"They reckon we're all drunk back there," Lajos Something told his colleagues and then he got to his feet.
"But they didn't sodding well say what we should do, like ask them for an ID or something. They didn't even say who this fell under."
Intelligent-looking, attractive men could be seen at the windows of the embassy flashing flashes on minuscule digi-cams. Golden-coloured women sat brown, red and yellow kids on windowsills and then, as if on command, everything disappeared and the blinds all shot down at once.
Sometime later, sirens sounded in the side streets and although the three of them did look up, they didn't seem all that surprised. All they did was pull the bottle closer to their feet and one of them, the younger of the two men, started to point at the Parliament but it could have been at the police cars with their flashing lights. In the end, the three of them just sat there smoking in the snow. It looked as if they were discussing something but exactly what, no one could make out despite the fact that things were pretty quiet in Freedom Square. Silence and cigarette smoke.
The eyes of the civilised world all fell on Hungary that afternoon; TV crews camped out on rooftops and the Hungarian Home Secretary arrived on the scene with a large entourage. He received a full debriefing and was told that the unusual incident had gone pretty smoothly thus far although there had been a minor upset when one of the target individuals had inadvertently dropped his personal-identification documentation and being of considerable weight it had caused significant damage to a Mitsubishi Pajero parked in the vicinity. Thankfully it hadn't belonged to the embassy.
The Hungarian premier and President Clinton were unanimous in their decision that a dialogue had to be established and that the individuals concerned should be peacefully removed from this sensitive locale. The news had reached the former while he was boarding a train in Hajdúhadháza while the latter had been in Washington, and the level of their surprise was only surpassed by the magnitude of their clarity of vision and calculated response.
The snow could be heard falling flake by flake as the crane bucket rose slowly upwards.
"What the shit did you lot eat to make you grow this big?" asked the police psychologist, seeking to achieve maximum effect.
"Biscuits and Red-Cross sarnies."
"And? And what else?"
"Oh, and the wine we were given?" they responded with a group shrug.
"What do you mean by 'given'? Given by whom?" the negotiator barked.
They said that they couldn't exactly remember, but mentioned something about four blokes bringing it for them that morning. They were wearing shell-suits, smart bomber jackets and had white shoelaces but they didn't have a go at them, just gave them the wine, brother to brother like, free, just like that. It was cheap plonk and pink nearly all the way to the bottom but phenomenally sweet.
"You necked the wine and the genes did the rest, that right?" the policeman said in attempted irony. "Those bloody little things just started growing all on their own, hey?"
"Something like that," the homeless trio replied. They were no experts, they just kept taking slugs of this cheeky, little rosé and this is what happened. They grew. Either that or the whole country had shrunk. Hey, but who the hell cares? They were just pissed, it'd pass.
"Well, I for one would be bloody delighted if it did!" the policeman added. "Do you think you could stand up?"
"Hilda can," they said and, right enough, Hilda struggled to her feet in her ski suit. It was a tense moment and the skin tightened on the snipers' cheekbones perched at vantage points all around the square. It tensed and then slackened because the merry, middle-aged woman just hiccupped. She was about as big as the National Bank or perhaps a fraction taller. She took two steps to the left then a couple to the right and started to sing:
"Deck the halls with boughs of holly..."
She gave a couple of careful twirls, waved an imaginary hankie in the air and then fell flat on her backside. This made her laugh and her titters scampered through the treetops like inebriated squirrels. Her companions slapped her on the shoulder and planted clumsy kisses on her hat. The woman offered the wine around in return, took a drink herself, sniffed, then held the bottle in her lap and threw her arms around it. The condition had been that the bottle should stay otherwise negotiation was out of the question, not to mention staying calm.
It got to about 3 o'clock and one of the men announced that he had to answer a call and could a geneticist be brought in to put his genes right so he could nip behind the back of the TV and relieve himself?
"That's all we bloody needed!" the cabinet ministers snorted who were following events on the radio.
"Just as well he didn't do it on Parliament Square," one of them muttered and the mere thought of such a thing made him sweat.
The Prime Minister's helicopter touched down and, after a short and constructive discussion, he abandoned the agreed running order and, with the aid of the crane, a hard hat and with no regard for his own, personal safety, was elevated to shake hands with these very upright citizens. It was getting dark when the individual using the name "Hilda" informed the assistant undersecretary in charge of negotiations, that if Berci didn't get to relieve himself, she was going to grab the Soviet Memorial, break it in half and heaven forbid that she should throw it at someone or smash it into the TV. The choice was theirs.
The three of them were making decent progress on reducing the contents of the bottle and, despite the obvious risks, intervention was going to be required before the suspects got completely legless. American experts joined forces with the crisis team and there was a plan in place by the time the street lights came on.
"Does that Berci bloke really need to go?" the police psychologist bellowed into the megaphone and the response was a simple one: "Badly!"
"Brilliant!" the negotiator said, reassuringly. "Well then we'll manhandle him somehow and walk him just out of sight," he continued before patiently issuing the relevant orders in Hungarian and then English. After a fair bit of dithering, the giant trio reluctantly agreed to be coaxed, nice and slowly, with no hurry, to their designated destination at the People's Stadium.
"Then we'll take it from there, my friends."
A Home Office spokesman made a statement on the early evening news saying that after due consideration had been given to venue selection, it was decided that the People's Stadium and its associated infrastructure offered the most expansive and appropriate facilities in terms of both capacity and containment, the key qualifiers being, in no particular order, lighting, water cannon and plenty of hot tea. He was delighted to be able to inform the nation that everything had gone according to plan except for a minor incident when the female perpetrator had refused to go any further than the Eastern Station saying that she wanted to travel to Hajdúszoboszló but renewed negotiations had been successful in dissuading her.
Despite the rushed and ill-lit coverage of events, it became increasingly obvious that the trio at the centre of it all were more than a little taken aback by the media frenzy that had surrounded them. The three of them trudged their way through snow-filled streets that had been specifically cordoned off while a fire engine followed behind carrying their shopping bags and the all important bottle.
The night passed peacefully and some time around dawn, presumably while sleeping, they all shrank like socks in a hot wash. Either they had shrivelled or the country had expanded. Whatever the case, they woke up with massive hangovers and were more than a little bemused by the police guard that surrounded them. They have been sitting in the centre circle ever since and are now no larger than you or I.
Translated by Ralph Berkin.
Lajos Parti Nagy (1953)
He was born in Szekszárd, Hungary. He qualified as a teacher of literature and history from Pécs University before going on to edit the Pécs-based journal of contemporary, Hungarian literature, Jelenkor (The Present). He has been working as a freelance writer and translator in Budapest since 1986. He began his literary career as a poet and has been writing prose and drama since the early 1990s. He has written and adapted a number of works for the stage in recent decades as well as his own original pieces, these have included adaptations of works by Caragiale, Hauptmann, Kroetz, McDonagh and Moliere. He lived in Berlin in 2001-2002 on a DAAD scholarship and his works have also proven popular in German-language territories.
Lajos Parti Nagy is considered as having contributed to the reinvention of the Hungarian, literary language and his works always present something new and memorable. His recent works include Hősöm tere (My Hero's Square—published in German in 2000 as Meines Heldenplatz), Grafitnesz (Graffitness—poems, 2003) and A fagyott kutya lába (The Frozen Dog's Leg—short stories, 2006). He has also been presented with the Kossuth Prize and the Hungarian Literary Prize.