Wednesday, January 12, 1994

VOLSENI JOURNAL: January 12, 1994
by Mr. Anthony Scott

I am seated somewhat precariously upon one of the hard unbalanced chairs inside the darkened interior of what seems to be known only as “Hunza’s pub,” having been directed to this gloomy establishment by a man named Tully Bascombe, an old associate of my father’s from the time of the Afghan Situation. My father has maintained only sporadic contact with Mr. Bascombe over the decades, just a handful of postcards really, yet he assured me that Mr. Bascombe would take me in hand and treat me as his own son. A single message sent by my father resulted in a prompt reply, a few terse yet not unfriendly words written in small neat block letters on a postcard which somehow found me in the fetid hostel I was temporarily occupying in Timisoara. The image on the card was of three young people, two women and a man, holding bushels or sheaves in their arms and looking skyward. The caption read ”Flax Pickers of the Autonomous Republic.” On the reverse side of the postcard was written merely “Noon. Hunza’s pub. Volseni. Do not let him serve you Malibu.” And was signed Tully Bascombe.” And so I roused myself from the swamp of a bed I’d been assigned, collected my few belongings into my trusty leather valise, the one given to me with much solemnity and a teary eye by my father, and made my way through the rank depressing cobblestoned alleys and squares to Timisoara’s ramshackle train station. Fortune seemed to be with me, as there was no line at the ticket counter. I ordered my passage to Volseni, a complicated itinerary which necessitated much referencing of dusty crumbling schedule books by the not-unattractive yet quite professional brunette woman agent. She had begun writing out my ticket when I realized that my supply of Rumanian lei had dwindled during soporific afternoons spent in rowdy smoke-filled worker’s pubs and I did not have enough for my fare. I excused myself saying that I must rush to the money-changer’s and that I would be back forthwith to conclude our transaction. Said expedition was handled quite expeditiously and I returned no more than six minutes later only to find that the woman had disappeared. In front of me on the counter lay my ticket, half-filled. There was still no one in line and there was another agent, a balding, pleasant-looking man, sitting just over a meter away reading a glossy magazine devoted to the celebrities of Rumanian television. I politely explained to him my situation even though he must have heard everything that transpired during my first appearance at the counter. He looked at me, looked at the half-filled ticket, and, returning his gaze to his magazine, explained that he could not finish filling out a ticket that another agent had begun, and that I would have to wait for my original agent to return from her lunch. Lunch in Timisoara being often a quite lengthy and leisurely preoccupation, I repaired to a hard wooden bench in the small main waiting area, rolled myself a cigarette with my diminishing supply of Old Jack Bull tobacco and passed an uncomfortable hour until Madame Agent returned, at which time we concluded our transaction and I managed narrowly to jump aboard my train just before it lurched out of the station. This creaking mechanical contraption chittered and whined its way through Arad and Curtici, crossing the border at Lökösháza, then spent a full day lumbering fitfully through the dreary towns humped like mushrooms across the sodden plains of Hungary: Békescsaba, Gyoma, Szolnok and their ilk. I detrained at the latter just after midnight and waited in the morning chill until sunrise, when I caught my connecting train. By this time my supplies of comestibles was eradicated and a great hunger grew in me, stoked in reverse as it were by the damp cold of my long wait, so I leaned precariously from my compartment’s window to purchase sickly-sweet pastries and a lukewarm cup of equally treacly čaj from a grimy vendor on the platform at Ùjszász, after which I finally managed a fretful nap. Disembarking once more at Hatvan, I caught the day’s main train, coming from Budapest. This conveyance made somewhat better time over the delapidated steel of the Hungarian railway. Unfortunately I had once again to carry off my bag & coat in Füzesabony, catch another ancient steam-spitting beast which groaned its way at a cow’s pace up into the sparsely wooded foothills which began just outside of Miskolc. We rose and fell in elevation as we continued through the hills and valleys surrounding Felsőzsolca and Hidasnémeti. By the time our wavering steam engine began to grapple in earnest with the Carpathian foothills, the mordant heat of the afternoon had waned and a chill descended upon us once again, as did hunger. By the time we arrived in Košice, around 23:00, I was ravenous, but I had no time to spare as I had immediately to dash across the rusted tracks of the Slovak railyard in order to leap at the last second aboard an even rustier conveyance which only the blind or polite might have termed a “train.” Slumping onto a hard wooden bench at the mercifully yet eerily otherwise-unpopulated car, I let my bag and coat slide wearily to the wooden! floor. In the harsh halogen light I could only barely make out the dreary shadows of Košican suburbs as we moaned and slid away from the station. Soon darkness, disinterest and fatigue sucked me into a fitful torpor which could only pass for sleep in the direst of circumstances. After some time I forced myself awake; I had no real notion of how long it was to be before we would arrive in Volseni. My sense of time and geography had worn thin and it seemed to me that I was travelling across the surface of a moon of Edgar Rice Burrough’s imagining. Tall twisted dark shapes scraped our rusted hull intermittently, spooking me out of my nightmares. Strange beasts howled in what must certainly be an antediluvian forest passing by. Our short stop in Přešov seemed like an episode in a dream, steam billowing around the cab and into the open windows, adding to the relentless humidty which had somehow followed me up out of the valleys and into what were, I could faintly see by the lights of this station, mountains. I leaned out the windows on either side and was reminded of something unusual which I had noticed only subliminally as I dashed for this train: there was but this single car, there was no engine. I sat alone in what was, I realized, more like a gondola, like the one that rises so majestically to the summit of the Zügspitz, though this was poor pitiful second cousin to that sleek Bavarian chariot. Everywhere rust and dust and mere flecks of paint so worn down into the grain of the wood that it no longer even peeled. And all covered with a thick coat of Slovak grease, oil and soot. I sat on a wooden bench which spread all across the rear of the vehicle, this gondola as it were, while the other end faced me with a steel wall punctuated with a few levers, pulls and wheels on each side of a shut steel door dead center in in the wall’s grim span. Surely the engineer sat or stood in some fetid cubicle on the other side of that door, probably drinking heavily and smoking Spartas, gnawing on a stale roll between bites of what passes of sausage in this region. As that thought entered my mind, so did another; I shuddered and said a silent prayer as a chill spread from the back of my neck down into my whole body. Better a human engineer, even an evil one, a neanderthal, than the devil which I suddenly thought surely must be driving me deep into his Carpathian stronghold…. How silly the human mind can get when wracked by fatigue and overwhelmed by huge doses of the unknown presented in iconic shapes of dark night, dark forest, deep impenetrable shadow! I laugh now to remember the rising sense of terror that I slid on like the icy surface of a lake in winter. Of course there was no devil, of course I was not torn everlastingly limb from limb by half-dog, half-woman vampires at the bottom of a dank well, unable to die and unable after the twelfth century to scream anymore. Hahahaha. I laugh to think of it. Of course what really happened was much more banal. In spite of my apprehension, not wanting to miss my stop, I succumbed to a deep sleep which I will admit I did not expect to awake from. But awake I did, and by coincidence only a half hour before our arrival at Volseni station. Of the exact duration of the trip I am not sure, not of what manner of countryside we had passed through before arriving in this narrow near-Alpine valley in which Volseni lay, a valley wooded mainly with conifers, beech, cedar and, somewhat incongruously, elms and oaks. As we descended into the valley I could make out random clusters of ash and acacia, then stands of birch, rowan and even jasmine. The station sat nondescriptly at one low corner of the town which rose up away from it towards the base of massive white granite cliffs wreathed at their summit by thick clouds or fog in spite of the midday sun which warmed my skin as I stood gawking like a tourist on the platform. Across the river, just behind me as I faced the town, thick stands of aspens fluttered like confetti in the light of bright day. Brilliant sunlight blinded me as I looked for a clock on the walls of the station. Finally a dusty ancient horloge on the end wall of the almost uninhabited station warned me it was almost noon. My hair and skin and clothing were all in frightful state, and I had hoped to find someplace, even the bathroom of the station perhaps, to freshen up before meeting with the mysterious Mr. Bascombe, but now there was really no opportunity. The terse syntax of Bascombe’s postcard had initiated the formation of a mental image of an equally brusque individual whom I would be loathe to start off on a bad foot with by being late for our initial meeting, so I began hurrying my steps toward - well I was at a loss there. I considered looking for a town map inside the station, but decided against taking the time, as in my experience such maps did not normally list the locations of pubs. I thought I would be better served by finding a Volsenian, Volsenite, Volsenard, Volsenist or any representative of genus Volsenvolk and ask directions. From the front entrance of the station a narrow street led somewhat steeply up several blocks to what looked to be a broader, sunlit avenue, while the train station plaza, as it spread out to my right, narrowed into a dusty street lined on one side with trees and leading to a low stone bridge which spanned the river. The latter seemed to me, somewhat counterintuitively, to lead more directly to the center of town, so I began to stagger off in that direction. No sooner had I started when I noticed in the distance the first human figure I’d seen since Košice, a figure on a bicycle, wobbling slowly in my direction. The dust and sun and the desperate dehydrated state of my eyeballs made it extremely difficult to make out anything clearly. Slowly the wavering figure resolved itself into the odd sight of a gaunt man with large straight nose and stringy unwashed hair pedalling slowly atop a heavy rusted black bicycle of the sort ridden by Swiss military police. His immensly large dark eyes stared at me knowingly and a smile played a tune across the thin, bowed shape of his lips, but he rode by me without stopping. Well, I thought as I continued trudging towards the stone bridge, this looks to be an odd place, and populated by odd inhabitants. After I’d made slow progress over another thirty or so meters of dusty intermittently-cobbled roadway, the man on the bicycle rode past me once again, looking me over with an amused appraising eye without, however, stopping. Was I that obviously a stranger? Yes I supposed that in a small place such as this any new traveller would stand out. The man wheeled round about twenty meters ahead and came back in my direction, passed by again, wheeled round and finally pulled up to keep pace beside me. “I suppose you are the man I have come to find,” he drawled in a slow resonant voice. His tone was odd somehow, as if he were stating a fact rather than asking for any confirmation. I did however manage a tired half-nod. “We have much to talk about, you and I. But now is not the time. You will find Hunza’s pub at the far end of this road. Walk past the bridge and past the park. The pub is on the left, at the corner of Misérèrstrasse. It will not look as if it is a pub, so you must look into the windows and you will see the type of arrangement of tables and chairs which is typical of any pub. It will be dark, so it will look as if it is closed, but if you keep looking until your eyes adjust to the darkness, you will see a man sitting in the middle of the pub, either reading a book in the dark or simply holding his head in his hands as if he is suffering great grief. That is Hunza, the owner of the pub. You must go inside the door and make your presence known to him, then he will rouse himself to serve you. Take yourself a beer, I recommend the local type, it is called PilsBerg. Or a wine, if you prefer, but be warned that the local wines are quite sweet, too sweet for my tongue. Sip your drink and wait quietly. Your friend will come along to meet you in good time.” With that, he wheeled away to his left and started riding up a wide plaza which surely must be the central point of this entire village, surrounded as it was by a variety of shops. A great stone tooth jutted up behind the large buildings at the top end of the plaza, a sharp granite shard 100 meters high yet dwarfed by the immense granite cliff immediately behind it. And at the top of that immense white-grey mountain perched what must be the Kohoutenberg itself: 8 or 9 stories of smooth white granite dotted with windows, crowned with peaked grey slate roofs and ennobled by a few towers of various shapes and styles. The sight of it tookwhat remained of my breath away. My mysterious bicyclist turned his head about halfway up the plaza and yelled back to me: “Under no circumstances let Hunza serve you Malibu!” (to be continued)