It was Peter, the sax player, who, after their last gig of the summer, brought these two girls backstage: one blonde and the other dark-haired. Although Peter was the least attractive of the band members, he was the only one picking up girls after the gigs. Asked why he was so successful compared with the others, he replied that he was the only one making an effort. Indeed, for the others, the band was their ultimate comfort zone; they always gravitated towards each other and treated outsiders with suspicion. Laszlo compared them to a flock of sheep.
In his typical unsubtle style, Peter informed Laszlo that he had to content himself with the brunette, Stine, as the blonde girl, Maria, was for him. Laszlo did not mind as he was not sure he wanted female company at all — plus he did not like blonde women — they all looked the same to him. Stine looked infinitely superior: she wore no make-up, had loose hair, a hat and the general appearance of somebody who had no desire to impress. Laszlo wondered if she was like that or only pretended – truly blasé girls were more difficult to spot in Budapest than middlemist red. The only thing which worked against her was that she was wooed by Peter, but it was possible that she only followed her friend the way Laszlo followed his pal. Maybe the Holmeses of this world had to be paired with the Watsons to become Holmeses.
They invited the girls to their afterparty, where the rest of the band were drinking not so much for pleasure as to find a reason not to talk. And when they broke the silence, they would talk about the last gig and those ahead of them, over a month from now. Before then, Laszlo needed to finish his first solo project. The whole situation made them tense. They would try to guess what Laszlo’s record would be like and what direction he would take them afterwards, rather than discussing what they wanted to add to their style. The truth was that over the years all the more creative members of the band had left, as their personalities eventually clashed with Laszlo’s.
Before each of the boys homed in on their respective prey, Peter told Laszlo that the girls were from Gothenburg and were leaving Budapest in two days. Maria worked as a teacher. It made sense as she had an aura of a dog released from her leash, drinking enthusiastically and laughing loudly at Peter’s jokes, which Peter mistakenly took for an appreciation of his entertainment skills, rather than her following a routine. Or maybe he was right and she was genuinely impressed by him. At least over the last couple of years Peter had extended his repertoire of jokes to impress women and his knowledge of Budapest grew considerably in anticipation of a European tour when foreign journalists would ask them about their city. Laszlo could not follow his example, because it put him off to describe them as a Budapest band; they were from Budapest, but their music was not – it had more in common with cosmic or jungle sounds than those heard on Hungarian streets and Laszlo himself was only half-Hungarian. He also never prepared himself for a date, assuming that one day he would meet the love of his life, as his father did, and he would know it without even exchanging a word with this woman. But maybe it was a mistake to think this way as, whenever he met a girl and waited for her to take the lead, it never worked out. Girls found him lazy, weird or even presumed him closeted gay. Therefore, as a rule, there was no second date for him. Peter’s approach was the opposite – he used to say ‘love is for the lovers’ – you shag first and then see if there is more to it. If there wasn’t, at least his time hadn’t been wasted.
Stine did not ask him any questions, just stood with her glass of beer and looked around. For most people, and girls especially, such a situation would be awkward, but not for her as she seemed to be intrigued with what she was seeing.
After a while Laszlo asked her if she liked the concert. ‘I did, but probably not as much as you,’ she said with a wry smile.
Laszlo wondered if she was being ironic. The truth was, this time Laszlo did not enjoy performing as much as in the past and, after couple of songs, he wanted the gig to be over. This was to do with the fact that the last bass player had left the band and it was next to impossible to find a decent bass guitarist in Budapest, so Laszlo had to step in. He could play, but it was his least favourite instrument; it was heavy, demanded precision and made him feel tired as soon as the instrument was in his hands. If she noticed it others must have noticed it too and, if this happened more often, the band would lose faith in him and he would be doomed.
There was a silence and then he asked Stine what music she liked. ‘I don’t really know,’ she said. ‘I hope to figure it out soon, though.’
Laszlo felt like he was running out of questions which was all the more frustrating as, with every minute which passed, he found her more attractive.
There was one more question for him to ask: ‘What do you do for a living?’
‘I work in an art gallery,’ said Stine.
‘Cool,’ he replied. ‘What type of art?’
‘Contemporary,’ she replied.
‘Cool,’ he repeated. Now he felt like a complete idiot. ‘Cool,’ became the most uncool word in the world and repeating it magnified one’s parochialism.
Luckily, Stine’s glass was almost empty so Laszlo proposed to buy her another drink. Before he left he took a photo of her shadow. He often looked at people’s shadows and took photos of them. This was since his father told him that one could learn much about people from looking at their shadows because they showed their core. Apparently this was how Laszlo’s father fell in love with Laszlo’s mother – by falling in love with her perfect silhouette projected on a wall. Thirty years later his parents still loved each other; they’d obviously aged, but inside they remained the same. This was how the story went anyway. Laszlo also hoped that one day he would see this perfect shadow, but the last time this happened the shadow obscured rather than revealed the core.
There was a long queue for the bar but Peter was at the front and gave Laszlo a signal to join him. As Laszlo expected, Peter already had a plan for the night: he would go with Maria to her hotel and Laszlo would take Stine to his apartment. For Peter such a solution was logical, given that he was living with his parents and two siblings, while Laszlo was sharing an apartment with its owner, who was away most of the time. Laszlo, however, could not think about inviting Stine to his place after barely talking to her and he needed to go to bed soon, feeling tired and feverish; practically on the verge of collapsing. He realised that he had not eaten anything since the day before, not even breakfast. Luckily the next day he was meant to visit his grandmother, who would make him his favourite dishes. Indeed, if not for weekly visits to his grandma, perhaps by now he would have died of hunger without even noticing it. Peter would have to book another room for Maria and himself, but hotels cost money and Peter was stingy, apparently saving for a deposit to rent his own place. Suggesting it might also lead to touching on the subject of the band’s income and the way it was divided between the members. The bottom line was that they did not earn enough to make a living and Laszlo took half of the money.
‘Don’t rush things,’ said Laszlo, knowing that this would irritate Peter.
‘If we don’t hurry things, we might as well give up on them now,’ hissed Peter.
‘So, give up on them now,’ said Laszlo.
In the end the problem solved itself as when they returned Maria announced that they were tired and wanted to return to their hotel, but suggested that they spend the next day in the company of the boys. Before they left they took photographs of themselves: Peter and Maria embracing each other and Laszlo and Stine standing next to each other somewhat awkwardly, Stine with her hands in her pockets and Laszlo holding a cigarette in one hand and the other on his chest as if trying to fend off a possible attack. Laszlo also took a photo of their shadows. It did not reveal anything special, but at least erased the awkwardness which the real photo showed.
Although he felt very tired, Laszlo could not sleep and decided to take Nino, his dog, for a walk. Most dogs like to be walked but not Nino. When Laszlo put a leash on him, Nino even gave him a hurt look, to which Laszlo responded, ‘you are such a lazy boy. Move your ass. You know life is not a bed of roses.’
Once outside, Nino got more animated and, at one point, even started to run on his stubby legs. But, on the way, back he got breathless and Laszlo had to carry him up the stairs, as the dog had no strength to climb on his own. People asked him why he got himself such a dog, defying the adage that dogs should resemble their owners. Laszlo was tall, thin, dark-haired and with a long Grecian nose; Nino, being an English bulldog, was short, stout, flat-nosed and completely white. The obvious answer was that Laszlo found it amusing to have a dog completely unlike him. Besides which, Laszlo liked to confound expectations. But the real reason was that, despite all these apparent differences, they were similar. Like Nino, most of the time Laszlo felt that doing anything was too much effort – it was easier to go to bed with a packet of cigarettes and headphones and starve oneself to death. He needed somebody to put a leash on him. He needed Nino not to become a total abnegate.
The walk revived them. Nino played for a while with his toys and Laszlo played his guitar and then ate porridge with a banana sliced into it. Food made him nauseous, no doubt because he was so hungry and tired, but he managed not to throw up, and remembered to write a note about phoning his grandma in the morning. He set his alarm for ten, before finally retiring to bed at five o’clock in the morning.
When Laszlo went to meet Stine in her hotel, Maria had already left with Peter for the hot springs outside Budapest, as it was a great day for swimming. Laszlo was thinking that it would be nice to have a swim with Stine, so she could see how great a swimmer he was and impress her without the effort of him having to be charming or interesting, but he didn’t like to imitate Peter, lest bump into him. Instead he proposed that they go to the National Gallery, to see the new exhibition of Modigliani’s works. She agreed, although in her typical slightly detached way, as if checking what he had on offer, which made him self-conscious.
‘Do you like Modigliani?’ he asked.
‘I never met him,’ she replied with a smile.
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Yes, I know. It is difficult to say if one likes the classics, because they are everywhere and one is meant to believe they are great. If you study art, it is even worse. What about you?’
‘You are not born a classic. You have to earn this title. Plus classics are needed because most people have no time to discover new art,’ said Laszlo.
‘This is one reason why I don’t like them. Classics squeeze out newcomers. If there were no Beatles or Rolling Stones, more people would come to your gigs.’
‘I’m not sure this is true. Maybe there would be nobody as we wouldn’t know how to play.’
At the exhibition Stine continued: ‘If you are pronounced a classic, you can get away with many things. You could be a pornographer and nobody would criticise you.’
‘Modigliani wasn’t a pornographer,’ Laszlo protested.
He was about to say, ‘because he was a great artist,’ but this would only confirm Stine’s point.
‘Because he was interested in a form,’ he said.
‘So he was even worse than pornographers. Pornographers are at least interested in female flesh; for Modigliani it was merely a tool of self-discovery.’
Laszlo laughed. She seemed the cleverest, most original, girl he ever met and one of the most attractive, in her understated way. She was also one of the most elusive; he almost felt like there was a huge black hole behind her trying to pull her back, take her away from him. Maybe she had a boyfriend in Gothenburg, whom she wanted to punish by going on holiday without him. The thought shook Laszlo so much that he forgot to take photographs of them. But Stine remembered and she even took a photo of their shadows in front of the gallery. And they looked perfect – as if they were happily facing whatever was awaiting them.
After lunch Laszlo invited Stine to his place. She was impressed by it, complaining that she rents a one-bedroom flat in a noisy neighbourhood. The truth was that, if Laszlo had to pay himself for his accommodation, he could barely afford a studio apartment, but he had no reason to reveal this to Stine, especially as he was there for two months by himself, which made him feel as if he owned the place. And there was also Nino, who acted like he owned the place even more, welcoming some guests and showing disdain of others. Luckily he liked Stine, even though she did not try to show him affection as girls often do, usually as a route to impress Nino’s owner.
In the sitting room Stine asked Laszlo if she could try the piano. She started to play and played very well. Even Nino listened attentively, making an effort to raise his heavy head, which made them both laugh. Laszlo was wondering where the melody came from but could not pin it down and had to ask her.
‘I wrote it myself before leaving Sweden. I was in a band too. Actually, two bands. But in the end nothing worked out. We did not even release our first record and broke up couple of months ago.
‘Were you a singer?’ Laszlo asked.
‘No, I was mainly a bass player and song-writer.’
‘Bass makes the content, while the drums define the contours. The other instruments are just for ornament. Anyway, this is how I saw music. I always wanted to do my own stuff, be a puppeteer with my puppets in the limelight, not a singer whom everybody messes around.’
‘For you our band must have been hopelessly baroque,’ said Laszlo.
‘It wasn’t to my taste, I must admit, but it was interesting. It’s not often that one can see eight or nine players on stage. Like the Johann Strauss orchestra. You even look a bit like Strauss.’
‘I thought we were more like the Brian Jonestown Massacre, but being a new Johann Strauss is okay, given that we are from the Habsburg Empire.’
It was very hot in the apartment, not surprisingly, given that the temperature outside was almost thirty degrees. Laszlo suggested he make them some lemonade – nothing artificial, just lemons, sugar, mint, water and ice. When he returned from the kitchen, Stine was in his bed. ‘Do you mind if I have a nap here? It was so hot in our hotel and Maria was talking the whole night so I barely slept.’
‘Go on,’ said Laszlo, handing her a glass, from which she sipped a small amount before giving it back. Then she covered herself almost completely with the sheets and fell asleep. Laszlo finished his drink and joined her. Nino also climbed into bed, trying to squeeze himself between the couple. Normally Laszlo tried to put Nino off from sleeping in bed, as the dog covered it in saliva, but on this occasion he was glad he was there, as if to chaperone the humans and protect Laszlo from committing some crime. Eventually Laszlo also fell asleep and, when he woke up, Stine was sitting on a chair and drinking her lemonade, and Nino was lying next to her. It was almost dark; clearly winter was coming.
Laszlo suggested that they go together for supper, but Stine wanted to return to her hotel. She was flying to Barcelona the next day and had things to discuss with Maria. She explained that she stayed for so long because she did not want to leave him when he was still sleeping. Laszlo and Nino walked her to the metro. It was only at the metro station when they kissed. On the way home Laszlo was thinking how he blew it – for the first time he met a girl with whom he fell in love, who went to his bed without being asked, and yet he let her go, shadow and all. Peter was right – love is for the lovers. If there is no sex, there is no love and will never be. He got so frustrated that, with his entire force, he slapped his hand against the metro wall. As if this was not bad enough there was a rusty nail protruding, the last remnant of a long since removed notice board, which pierced deep into his flesh, almost reaching the other side. By the time he got home, his hand was bloody and swollen. By the morning the wound was angry and tender to the touch as Laszlo hastened to A&E, where the hand was X-rayed and properly dressed. Luckily nothing was broken, but the doctor told him that playing guitar was out of the question for at least two weeks – the very two weeks which he was meant to spend in the studio. He would have to cancel or hire a bass player. On top of this Nino had problems with his breathing; lying on the floor wheezing, with moist eyes that made him look like he was about to cry. Laszlo was also about to cry and in fact tears were falling on his cheeks as he took Nino to the taxi and hit his hand again. A patch of red emerged through the dressing as a wave of fragility and dizziness washed over him. Suddenly everything felt completely screwed up: he wasn’t able to take care either of his career, his dog or the girl he loved.
A female vet gave Nino an injection and soon the dog started to breathe normally, but she warned Laszlo that such fits might happen more often, especially during summer. After all, English bulldogs are cripples by default, so it is criminal to breed them and stupid to buy them. This was not the first time Laszlo was patronised with such an opinion, sometimes with an additional lecture to get a three-legged mongrel from a shelter, usually from some sanctimonious vegan. Anyway, he never cared what people said or thought about his dog. Now he did not care either; he was just happy that Nino was fine again. He pressed his long nose against Nino’s flat wet snout and let his tears fell on his cheeks. Only now he checked his mobile. Among the messages was one from Stine, who arrived in Barcelona on her own because Maria stayed in Budapest. She sent her regards and a picture of their shadows with Nino between them.
He replied that since she left he injured his hand and was now desperate to find a bass guitarist. Nino looked at him with a grudge.
‘I know I did not write much and I did not beg her to come back and play with me, although this really what I wished for. But maybe she will call me tomorrow. Or I will call her.’ Then he poured himself a beer, lit a cigarette and sat at the piano, trying to recreate the piece Stine played.
Ewa Mazierska is a historian of film and popular music, writing short stories in her spare time. She has had over thirty of them published 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 amongst others. Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories have been shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.