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The Second Sense


ISSUE:  Spring 2007
Five senses: hearing, sight, smell, touch, taste.
American Heritage Dictionary

He has to make a living any way he can. He was a young D.Phil. from Budapest then—when they emigrated, for reasons nobody here is interested in, there have been so many waves of Europeans, whites moving in on the blacks’ country. Whether this time the instance was escape from Communist rule or the rule that succeeded it in Hungary, is neither here nor there. Soon the country of adoption went through an overturn of regime of its own; victory, and the different problems unvisioned that presents, preoccupied the population long programmed to see themselves only as black and white. As for professional opportunities an immigrant hopes for in a new land, what university could have been expected to appoint a professor who was fluent at academic level only in a remote language, with the ability to speak one other—German—well enough maybe to lecture (where this was on the curricula of European tongues) in a country that itself had a Tower of Babel? Eleven official languages after the change of regime. So, in the obligation of natal solidarity, someone of an older generation of immigrants, whose children were conceived and born in South Africa, arranged for the member of new immigration to be employed in the prosperous son’s supermarket. Stores Department. Ferenc became Fred.

It’s not a bad living. The pay modest; what one would expect for the working-class. He was a storeman, at first; Stores Manager now, with a team of young black assistants careening hugely loaded trolleys about with the power of splendid muscles raised on the soccer fields. Strangely—a well-educated man would be expected to have the advantage of facility in learning a new language he hears spoken to him every day—his English has never advanced beyond the simple colloquial vocabulary of supermarket exchanges. So moving up to some level of activity, even commercial if not intellectual, commensurate with any career he would have had back where he came from, faded as a promise, a possibility. She—Zsuzsana—who had no more than schooling in a small Hungarian town, picked up the language easily, perhaps perforce—because having been taught how to sew in accordance with the strict requirements of a female role imposed by her grandmother, she had turned resourcefully to dress-making as the way to contribute to getting ends to meet. She had become fluent in order to speak her clients’ language in flattery of their appearance. The child born to the couple in immigration (both felt, what better way to make claim to a new country?) went to school where the language of instruction and of his playmates was English. Peter. A name chosen—common to many countries, distinguishable only by differing pronunciation. The boy and his mother chattered away in English together, at home. Magyar, like Latin in churches, belonged in a special context, undertones spoken on the occasions of lovemaking.

For the first years, Ferenc had friends, still back there, send him news-papers. But reading, here, what was happening in Hungary, what crowds were demanding of whatever new government, what was being discussed in the endless forum of Budapest cafés became detached from the venue, abstract, without accompanying vision, awareness of familiar place. This was the reverse of looking at old photographs, recognizing the place in which they were taken and having no memory of who the people were. It was Fred, driving in his Korean car across the vast suspension bridge—named for this country’s great hero, Mandela—who was suddenly crossing from Buda to Pest over the gleaming breast of the Danube, and not over the confusion of railroad tracks the hero’s bridge actually spans. Budapest. The light of the water was in his eyes, the features of faces met him. He was there for the moments of the traverse, being recognized, claimed by the facades, the detailed prospects of streets rising from the river-of-rivers. He saw. As he did not see any other place.

His enterprising, hard-working wife had more women coming to be clothed by her than she could “take on” as she said in quick-witted acquisition of their turns of phrase, their vision of themselves, their scattering of the word “darling” as punctuation of what neckline, what brief scrap of skirt, there in the mirror, would “make the best of what I’ve got to show, darling.” They stayed for her coffee after a fitting. Unlike a man, a woman in her difference, her foreign image, is attractive to locals, doesn’t have to conform to some other norm. Her name was not translated into something less exotic. The abbreviation of Zsuzsana, “Szuzsi,” by which she’d been known since childhood, sounded like the familiar “Susie,” common in English. An evening dress, a pants suit made by Szuzsi caught a certain touch of European fashion flair that couldn’t be bought off the peg. She had a little assistant to iron the seams and tack the hems, a young black girl, as he had his black team of muscle to man the trolleys.

It was through her friendly relations with her clients that it came about.

As the women for whose image she sewed were inclined to take someone outside their social circle into confidences about their lives she was herself beguiled in turn to confess, with alert precaution of assuring she enjoyed the privilege of making beautiful clothes for the confidante present, that she was tired of working at home. It wasn’t what she was made for; she let it be imagined what that might be. Circumstances kept her shut away from the world. She had “had enough”—just as the women phrased it, for her unlikely ear alone, of their drug-addict daughter or the second husbnd who was more difficult than the first. The mother of that daughter was one who had no complaints about a husband, indeed proud of getting a man she believed her own qualities deserved. One of these was her willingness to help others, which her capable husband in the building industry indulged. Perhaps they were good Christians, or good Jews. His firm specialized in restoring grand neglected houses for new-rich people who aspired to the power and prestige of Old Money the image of such mansions recalled. It was easy enough for her; she had the kind idea that the personality, the appearance of Szuszi could go into the business of selling such houses—there was the obvious cachet of a European background, the palimpsest images of familiarity with cultured settings far above local standards. The husband introduced the charming Zsuzsi to an estate agent friend who agreed to give her a trial once reassured that her English was fluent, even advantageously distinguished from the usual spiel of estate agents by the occasional Continental flourish—as the accent wasn’t German perhaps it was French. She looked good. Well, keep your hands to yourself. She was assigned to a section of the Agency’s upmarket territory, to those old suburbs from the days of early gold-mining magnates the latest generation of wealthy whites hunted for tradition that wasn’t political, just aesthetic, not to be misinterpreted, in assertive frontage and form, as nostalgia for lost white racist supremacy. The Agency’s other upmarket activity was where the emergent black jet-set looked to take possession of fake Bauhaus and California haciendas that had been the taste of the final generation of whites in power, the deposed, many of whom had taken their money and gone to Australia or Canada where the Aborigines and the Red Indians had been effectively dealt with.

She worked hard indeed, it seemed to him, who left the Stores warehouse at the same time every weekday morning and returned at the same time every evening. Even longer hours than she had sat at the sewing machine, its whirrs, snipped-off stops and starts that had accompanied Sundays while he sat reading this country’s newspapers with its particular political obsessions resultant from its history he didn’t share, scenes he couldn’t visualize, and the boy entrancedly mimed American shrieks and howls of heroes and villains he was watching on TV. There are no regular hours in the business of selling houses. Prospective buyers and sellers expect the agent to be at their disposal in the evenings and over weekends, whenever it suits the one who is in the market, so to speak. She could hardly oppose with personal inconvenience: “My husband is waiting for me to cook dinner,” he proposed, laughing at presumption of an agent’s life being measured against the client’s. You don’t have to be a philosopher to know Immigration means accepting the conditions declared if you want to survive. He and Peter, helpful little lad, put together the meal, frying eggs or heating up the goulash she’d frozen after preparing early some morning—not often the chance for such tasks; some clients want to view houses before going to their offices, legal chambers or doctors’ consulting rooms. And it’s true that it’s a good time to take them viewing, have them come upon a fine house in the fresh light, as a face that may be destined to become familiar, owned. Late afternoon client viewing appointments would extend into the evening, particularly, she learned and related to him, if things were going well, she could sense that the client’s interest in a particular property was rising; advantage must be taken of this by continuing discussion relaxed over a drink in some elegant hotel bar. If she arrived back from these other houses only when the meal father and son had concocted was greasy-cold, it didn’t matter: she felt the deal was done. He heated up food for her. She would smile to him, almost nervously, for acknowledgment: commission on the sale of such a prime property was going to be higher than she, without qualifications for any profession, could ever have expected to gain, any way, any place.

The money she was bringing in eased some of the stringencies in their life. Peter had fine sports equipment he had yearned for, the old car was traded in for a later second-hand model and now was Fred’s exclusively—the Agency provided Zsuzsi with a car that would give clients confidence in her income status as high enough to be informed of the expectations of their own. But funds didn’t extend to provide for major changes in their life—she had to spend considerably on being well-dressed (no time for homemade outfits), groomed, visits to an expensive hairdressing salon, including manicure; people notice proletarian hands as a sign of limitations. Of course she had the luck to be good-looking, right basis for being produced by these methods as exceptionally so.

They made a handsome couple when it was assumed, on occasion, husbands, wives, or gay partners of the Agency personnel would get together for the obligatory Christmas party, or some cocktail hour to mark particular progress in the business. He did not know the personal incumbents of Zaza’s colleagues, beyond these encounters, well enough to discover what range of topics they might have in common to talk about; except sports event. In this country even women shared this lingua franca. Spectator passion for team sports is the only universal religion. Its faithful adherents are everywhere; he was a football center-forward as a student somewhere else but the litany held good; he followed the matches on fields locally and internationally and could give all the responses. There were the lunches among the agents only, with professional concerns to be discussed “in house”; anyway lunch break at the supermarket didn’t allow time for such leisurely customs. Fred ate in the canteen, or picked up something more to his taste in the deli section where there were hams and spiced sausage imported from Italy and other European countries. Szuzsi said, yes, good idea, when he once suggested, after mother and son had spent a happily riotous half-hour teasing one another in South African English slang, that they should speak to the boy a short time every day, even around a meal, in Magyar. So that he would have it. It turned out meals were not a suitable choice, the boy was tired after a day at school, play, homework. She didn’t have other spare time.

He began to speak their language to the boy without explanation while they were absorbed together in the things fathers are drawn into by young sons—construction with plastic building kits, articulating bodies of battery-operated outer-space monsters. The child spoke unawaringly the Magyar word for “leg,” “face,” used the verbs for “fly,” “shoot.” But he resented that the creativity he wanted to share with his father was turning into another kind of homework when his father tried to get him to put the words into a sentence, repeating this as it came from his father’s voice. He’d suddenly kick over the half-finished creation, scatter the weapons and cloak of the monster, laughing angrily.

Photographs that had been brought in the baggage of emigration and had sifted away somewhere in immigration: when they were shown to the boy so that he might make the words material, come to life in images—“That’s our house”—he was only half-attentive. “Our house isn’t like that.” “It’s my house, where I lived when I was like you. A little boy.” Of course, the turret and balustrade would seem to him a picture in a book of fairy tales—but this generation of kids don’t have Grimm read to them . . . he wouldn’t even have that vision, to match.

Murmured to in the real intimacy of a mother tongue in bed, Zsuzsi wasn’t aware she was responding softly in English. Well. She had been speaking in that essential other tongue all day, showing prospective clients the features of living-places that if grander, were like those in the familiar images the boy had; been born among.

Zsuzsi was more more and more successful. Perhaps this was “what she was made for” that she couldn’t define when she knew she had enough of being the ladies’ little dressmaker. This was the proof that if there is something in you which wasn’t recognized, the political situation and economic order had no place for, where you came from, it’s true that there are opportunities to realize your potential, build yourself a life with the kit of values of another society. She invested some of her high commissions in the stock market, on the expert advice of stockbrokers who felt they owed to her sensitivity and native shrewdness (these Eastern Europeans), her reading of their ambitions, calculated status, the finding of the material image, the statement of a home that would announce this, unmistakeable as a fox has its lair to distinguish it, an ordinary rich pig its sty. Fred could not take leave from the supermarket at Christmas, when Peter was on holiday from school and the estate agency more or less idle in the absence of clients—gone sailing or abroad to snow countries, skiing. So she took Ferenc and Peter to a Club Mediterranée on an Indian Ocean island at another time of year, when the availability of all three made this possible—one of the many treats she provided.

The Agency had become alert to the development opportunity of a change in currency law restrictions that now allowed nationals of the country to own property abroad, which had been illegal for decades. Zsuzsi went back; not to the countries the Danube had flowed through but to France, Spain, England, on a visit apparently with several colleagues from the Agency to make contact with famous ones like Christie’s and Sotheby’s for co-operation in finding properties for clients interested in pied-á-terre if not a castle in Spain. She came back with T-shirts for the son, picturing famous sights, Gaudi in Barcelona, Houses of Parliament in London, and CDs made by the latest rave bands. The boy didn’t ask about the identity of what he saw was going to be displayed across his chest. The CDs overjoyed him. He was older now and did his homework clamped between headphones accompanying him with the sounds of the different kinds of pop music—how could the child concentrate? But his mother said, amused, we can’t live in the past, they say even cows give more milk when music’s played to them.

But that’s Mozart. Ferenc coming up from incarceration in Fred, correcting an incomplete quotation.

His Zsuzsi had—what?—some kind of conscience over the unfairness though it was no fault of hers—the traditional social distortion of emigration had thrust a Doctor of Philosophy into a supermarket storeroom—that he had not got out of there, as when they moved to something better she found for them, she had left behind in the little house that was their first shelter in Africa, the sewing machine. Again through resource of client contacts, this time the Agency, at some stage in her success she broached to him that maybe there was some position—well, with his education—in what her clients called the advisory echelons of big business. Such firms were wanting to move into world enterprise. He could do some kind of the research they required?

He wasn’t an economist.

Somewhere in her was buried the small-town girl who saw the distinction attained by the Budapest graduate in the philosophy as a Tree of Knowledge fruitful along any branch. He was touched by this returned glimpse of her; vivid vision of how she looked, which was how she was—essential self, getting up to dance, belonging in the images of the musicians’ wild tossing hair, the twisting bodies, limbs rearticulated like Picasso’s arrangement of body parts, by a ceiling wheel of turning lights in a student night haunt he’d taken her to.

She did try a few other possibilities for him; nothing had come of them so far. It seemed the initiative for one was from a client not for whom Zsuzsi had found an ideal home but who was a seller of one, his with sauna as well as swimming pool, guest apartment and secure parking for three cars, for which she had found a buyer at top asking price which other agencies had told the seller was impossibly high. On triumphant first-name terms with his agent, he extended the assumption to the husband, inviting Zsuzsi and Fred to dinner in this successfully overvalued home before he vacated it. For what reason and for where next, if Zsuzsi knew, it was not Fred’s business to ask, and did not interest Ferenc. Zsuzsi showed him around. What he saw was that the house was, in fact, beautiful, an interior expressing what must have been someone’s sense of what his or hers—their?—containment was meant to be: the eyes met with a well-made object of use, and of visual pleasure—the vista opening from the doors as well as the drawings by European artists—Dufy and Braque, lithographs probably—confidently along with the three-dimensional assertion of African wooden sculptures. But the vision might have been the wife’s, Zsuzsi had sometime remarked that the man was divorced, or perhaps she said was in the process of divorce.

So this was the kind of scene, background to her life that she—his Zsuzsi—moved through every day. Property to property, kitchen gleamingly equipped as, maybe, a surgeon’s operating theater, deep rooms interleading, wide staircase, bar, patio. He’s never seen it before, but it was hers. Connection to the supermarket. The asparagus and scampi to follow, served at dinner by a black man in a white jacket, probably came from the cooling chamber for delicate vegetables and the freeze room, where other black men steered loads in wild trajectories and the storeman manager in his open booth surveyed the scene.

The man had room for a boat as well as three cars in his garage. He also had a young son, Zsuzsi said, and he thought it would be nice for Peter to go sailing, on a Sunday, with him and his boy. Peter was half-excited, half-dubious: I don’t know them. His mother went along to see him enjoying himself in a new activity. The boat was small; his father didn’t come, that time or other Sundays when the same party sailed a stretch of dam water, not a river, during the season. When Zsuzsi went, was obliged to go overseas several times—on one trip the largest German tourist company appointed her their representative in Southern Africa—Peter and he did things together; he thought up outings like a visit to the museum of the origin of mankind but the only success, in really diverting the boy, was the live spectacle of a football game. He couldn’t picture his father there, in one of the players, as he had pointed out to him on the field the very position his father had had, look, that player out there. The boy saw himself grown, in the bright shorts, the boots, the intense flushed face of that man, there.

A sculpted figure stood on a small table near the chair where he sat reading when he came from the supermarket evening while she was away. It was a dignitary whose decorated carved belly rested on crossing legs seated on a low altar of some sort, its protruding oval ledge empty of the offering it was meant for. Picked up, there was on the underside an inscription inked into the wood. King Lukengu Tribe Bakuba Province Kasai. If he glanced up from his book, he saw it; or it saw him. It was a gift from the client of the farewell dinner invitation. Its lidded gaze.

She must have sold many more houses before the result of that one came about. One night on her return from a trip or was it what she had announced as a weekend conference in some out-of-town center, she said, “Ferenc, we must talk.” She had picked up the colloquial jargon of the sales-world as she had adapted her way of expressing herself to the scattered “darlings” of ladies come for fittings. “We must talk” was the euphemism for crisis, something difficult to be said. Zsuzsi has decided upon a divorce. She’s tried some other—what did she say—solution, some way. But in the end. What. Well, they both had been so young, back there . . . didn’t know, really, how either would be . . . If they hadn’t had to leave—she stopped. He waited. If we hadn’t emigrated, maybe. He did not interject but it was as if he had. Yes? If we had still been there maybe we could have found ourselves going the same way together. A change of tone, accusing herself: Maybe we should have stayed. Who knows.

Maybe. The man she was with now, maybe it was the owner of the house he saw, maybe the buyer or seller of another. She viewed—that’s the word, clients are taken to view what’s on offer—walked through room after room, so many prospective places for herself, the ballroom-size bedroom with its vast draped bed, faintly giving the scent of perfume and semen from an image of how it will be to make love there. The bathroom’s sauna and the electric massage chair, ready to shudder. The kitchen with the face of the black cook placed among the shining equipment. Zsuzsana has found home.

He is in exile.

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