We stood up under the apple tree at long last. The walls had gone blank again and lights had got very dim, as if night had turned in. Recollections of stray pairs of people noiselessly sitting down at other tables and leaving again were huddled in my mind. The enlivened walls, the lights coming down in oblique yet piercing beams, the quiet change of scenes behind and around us was all making up now a weird match to the subject of our conversation, namely what is it out there, and what is there behind the scenes?
Andreas promised to email me the latest infographics on how poorly Romania was doing internationally in the Doing-Business rankings. Mona promised to be with me the next day for breakfast. I stared at her not quite able to figure out why she was talking about the next day’s breakfast. What about the British film festival tonight?
“The British film festival?” she opened her eyes wide. “But that was three weeks ago. It’s always in November. How did you think of it?”
Andreas closed the massive dark oak door with the greenish hued art glass panel and the wrought iron grid behind us. I stopped short. What Mona said was not the only thing that wasn’t right. The lights were unaccountably gone and we were standing there in a chilly night, a stray lamp post barely managing to supply some light of a dubious quality. The last time I’d been standing before this door it was late morning and the December sun was only just starting to shine.
Before I found the words and tactic to expose Mona’s childish trick about the film festival, my eyes got stuck to the wall by my left elbow. I sized it up and down, during which Mona was staring at me a bit offensively, as if I was a lunatic. Andreas was busy lighting himself a cigarette. I turned half way round to see where the flowerbed and the hydrangeas were lying, if this wall, which I couldn’t remember, was so close on us here, at the foot of the stairs. In fact it wasn’t just I couldn’t remember the wall standing there – it was simply implausible that a wall should be standing there at all, because to my left there had to be the bushes, I mean the hydrangeas, just a few steps away from the kerb of the path to the house. As I turned, though, I got a chill seeing that the wall on my left was meeting the façade of the house in a perfectly closed straight angle. A rain gutter was running down the joint.
“Lost something?” Mona asked tentatively.
Obviously yes. But I was inarticulate. Fassungslos is the word – worse than speechless; shapeless, grasp-less, frame-less. Lost the hydrangeas? Lost Quixote’s windmills? Was that it really?
I turned back and started towards the gate, as if things might click back into place if I was pretending to do the expectable. They followed me, but after two or three steps I stopped and looked back again.
“What is it, Peter, for god’s sake?” Mona asked again.
“Forget it”, I replied.
We went through the screeching gate and stopped on the pavement by the lamp post to say goodbye. I looked at my watch. It was short before midnight.
We exchanged the usual niceties and Andreas got in his car. He’d offered to give us a lift downtown, but Mona was going another way and I just wanted to keep moving my body. Andreas drove away and Mona turned to me.
“About tomorrow. Andrew just texted me that he’s made arrangements for us to travel to the north of Romania, so you can see something else than just Bucharest for a change.”
“Andrew texted YOU?” I wondered.
“Well, he must have texted you too, if you ask me”, Mona replied a bit condescendingly. The mother hen again.
I grabbed my mobile from the jacket pocket, where I’d left it the whole time and Andrew had texted me indeed:
“Episode three: Moldavia.”
“Why Moldavia?” I protested. Just had to let out some fraction of my perplexity.
“Well, Bucharest’s not really Romania, is it”, Mona replied motherly. “You’re going to love it, you’ll see.”
I looked up at her.
“What’s wrong with you Peter? Ever since we came out there’s something bothering you, isn’t there?” she asked with a slightly worried look.
I shook my head dismissing it but then I thought again.
“Let’s go, it’s getting cold here” and I started off without waiting for her answer. She followed.
“You’ll think I’m going nuts but what the hell.”
I told her what I found was wrong. The British film festival that she’d told me about. The hours that had unaccountably whirled away, while I was still dead sure we hadn’t even had lunch that day. The wall and the hydrangeas was the hardest part to tell. But she was a good listener when she wanted to. She heard me out with her eyes intently into the ground, giving no sound of approval or protest or whatever else.
It must have been a long account I gave, because when I felt it was all out I stopped walking and faced her and we were standing in a large square, brightly lit but unmatchingly quiet. It must have been well past midnight.
She peered into my eyes with a warm smile on her face.
“Poor Peter”, she whispered.
“OK, what else have you got to say about this?”
Her smile went broader.
“It’s my turn to tell you something. Let’s carry on walking.”
Now it was me who followed.
“There’s a short story in Romanian literature where the hero spends an afternoon in a house of gypsy women, fortune-tellers, that kind of thing. Well, he gets in there by chance on his way back from a piano lesson he just gave, on a muggy summer day, and when he comes out he finds that the coins in his pocket are no longer in use and his teenage piano student has long been married and left the country. Unaccountably the universe has changed completely without his being aware. One afternoon worth ten years of normal life. Maybe that’s just what happened to you today, who knows!”, and with these words she turned to me with a sunny smile, as if she had just supplied an explanation for my confusion – I mean, as if her short story could have really done as an explanation! All this figurative nonsense that was really beginning to get me!
“But I just can’t have invented the British film festival, I didn’t even know that anything like that ever took place in Bucharest!” I protested vehemently.
“And what about the hydrangeas? The flower-bed itself? The extra space to the side of the house? Why on earth would I invent something like that?”
Her mouth flashed a spasmodic smile.
“Well, these are questions, of course… but the guy in that story had his own unanswerable questions! How come he still had the piano scores in his briefcase, if it should have been ten years before that he gave that lesson to his young student? Why should he take the same tram as he always did if times had changed so much, and what were the old coins doing in his pocket, without his knowing that they were long out of use?
“I find this so exciting, you know, Peter? I mean, exciting that you should be going through anything like that, and that under my guidance too! So it makes me feel a bit great, you know, wow, I’m like some kind of small author or something, only I have to admit that doesn’t make me an awfully original one!” and she grinned on her last words.
I kept still, suddenly reluctant to go ahead with my protests. Had the apple tree been just my imagination too? Would she look aghast at me if I mentioned the Berlin moving pictures on the walls too? Better not ask. Better go on recalling all this as a memorable afternoon in Bucharest Romania. Not as a nightmare of losing my grip.