Somewhere East of Life [The Squire Quartet #4] [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Brian W. Aldiss
eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: Architectural historian Roy Burnell has been tasked with traveling the globe and listing architectural gems in danger of being destroyed. But when Burnell is in Budapest, ten years of his memory, mostly his architectural knowledge and sexual experiences, is stolen. In this near-future, thieves using EMV ("e-mnemonicvision") sell memories on the black market. In the wake of this event, Burnell tries to resume his life, while also searching for the "bullet" that will restore his memory.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, Published: 1994
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2012
Friends in Sly Places
It seemed right to take flowers. A gesture had to be made. A nurse accepted them from Burnell and stuck them in a glass vase. Burnell went and sat by his friend's bedside.
Peter Remenyi was still in a coma. He lay propped on pillows, looking the picture of health, his skin tanned, his jaw firm. So he had lain for two weeks, fed by drip, completely unaware of the outside world. Yesterday's flowers drooped on a side table.
Burnell had escaped from the car crash with nothing more than a bruised arm. He visited the hospital every day. He had taken to reading aloud to Remenyi, from Montaigne or the poets, hoping that something might penetrate that deep silence into which his friend had fallen.
He stayed for half an hour. Rising to leave, he patted the patient's cheek.
"You always were a mad bugger at the wheel, Peter," he said, with some tenderness. "Stay put, old pal. Never give up the struggle. I'll be back tomorrow. I have to go now. I have a date this evening with a beautiful lady, a star in the firmament of her sex."
It was the evening of all evenings. The sun went down in glory, the lights came up in competition. Budapest's Hilton Hotel, installed in the ruins of a sacred site, piled on extra floodlighting. A reception was being held by World Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, which several important functionaries from several important countries were attending.
Everything was on a lavish scale, slightly tatty only round the edges. Gipsy orchestras raced through their notes in every available space. Their violins swooped through czardas after czardas, just as drink poured down throat after throat. A Ukrainian dance group threw themselves about with abandon in the center of the main ballroom.
Undeterred by wars in the Caucasus, the East, the Far East, and several points West, the guests paraded in finest array, embracing or snubbing one another. Powdered shoulders, jewels, and luxuriant moustaches were on display. Many smiled, some meant it. Suave waiters, Hungarian and Vietnamese, moved among the crowds, delivering messages, pouring Crimean champagne into ever ready glasses. Conversations surged and popped like the bubbles in the champagne. Some who talked looked over the shoulders of their partners, in search of escape; others moved in closer. Loving, lingering glances were exchanged. Formality increasingly gave way to something more physical. The most recent jokes circulated, political or scabrous in content. Gossip chased itself among the international guests, the potted palms.
The air-conditioned atmosphere, as time wore on, became charged with alcoholic fumes, excitement, innuendo, enzymes, exaggeration, assignations, assassinations of character, and the most fragrant of sweats. Couples started to slip away. And Burnell looked deep into the green eyes of Blanche Bretesche, breathing faster while trying to keep his usual cool.
He, she, and some of her friends, left the reception and went together into the warm night. Music came faintly to them. They climbed into taxis, to be whisked downhill and across the great glittering city of Budapest. Streets, shops, restaurants sped by. The extravagant elephantine Danubian city prospered, fat on arms sales and many wickednesses, as befitted the over-ripe heart of Europe.
Burnell never quite learned the names of all his noisy new friends. His senses were alert to Blanche Bretesche, to her eyes, her lips, her breasts. Blanche was Director of the Spanish Section of WACH. One of her friends--the one in full evening dress--directed them to a restaurant he knew in Maijakovszki Street, near the opera house. Here were more crowds, more musics.
The restaurant was neo-baroque, ornate inside and out. Though it was late, the place was crowded with a confusion of people, laughing, eating, drinking. Two inner courtyards were filled with tables. Burnell's party found a free table in the second courtyard. Above them, along flower-draped balconies, a woman sang passionate Hungarian love songs. The man in evening dress, summoning a waiter, ordered wild game specialties, which were not available. Without argument, they settled for lecso all round, accompanied by mineral water and a red wine from Eger. Although the main point of the gathering was to enjoy each other's company, the food was also excellent. The warm evening held its breath in the courtyard.
Saying little as usual, Burnell allowed his gaze to alight on the flower of Blanche's face as she talked. The quick wit of her replies always pleased him. Her contributions to subjects under discussion were shrewd, often dismissive. He liked that. She was as much a citizen of the talk as any of the men, though they did not defer to her. While the conversation grew wild and ribald, it remained magically on course, contributing, like all friendly talk, to a general understanding.
When the question turned to a scientific paper of Blanche's, he saw her quick look, sheltered under long dark lashes, turning more frequently to him, as if questioning. A signal flashed unspoken between them. Round the convivial table, between spates of talk, they applauded every song the resin-voiced woman sang, calling up to the balcony in acclamation, though they had scarcely listened to a note. And at two-thirty in the morning, Burnell summoned a taxi. The taxi carried him back through the scurrying town, with his right arm about Blanche Bretesche, to his hotel.
Even before he woke next morning, he was conscious of her warmth. He found himself lying on his stomach. Her arm was across his back. Turning his head cautiously, he was able to watch her sleeping. Happiness flooded him.
He had always admired the look of her, from the alert walk--much like a stalk, he thought--to the well-shaped intellectual head. With those closed green eyes went a dark coloring particularly to his taste, though her hair was now cut fashionably shorter than when they had first met, some six years ago. She had been Stephanie's friend, and was about Stephanie's age, thirty-four or so. Now she was his friend--truly a friend, trusting and direct.
Raising himself gently, he surveyed her sprawling body. Nothing was one quarter as beautiful as the female body, no sky, no landscape.
Blanche was calm about her lovemaking, not stormy. The affirmatives she had uttered still sounded in his ears. There was another sound now, in their shared room. Not merely the distant hum of traffic as it crossed the bridge from Buda to Pest. A fly buzzed against one of the window panes.
Cautiously, Burnell maneuvered himself out from under that arm with its lashes of dark hair chasing themselves from midforearm to elbow. Padding over to the window, he opened it. The bluebottle, after raging against the pane a minute longer, was caught by the breeze and made its escape into the open air.
Perhaps it said to itself, "Ha, I figured my way out of that..." But flies had no hold on truth. For all their countless generations born since glass was invented, they had never comprehended its nature, and so remained continually trapped by it.
When he turned back into the room, Blanche's eyes were open.
"All the time I was asleep, one of that woman's songs was going through my brain. What do you think she was singing about? Did you understand a word of it?"
"It would be the usual things," he said, closing the window. "Love betrayed, a starry night, a white glove dropped in a garden..."
She smiled. "I wonder what Neanderthals sang about, if they sang at all."
"Oh, I'd guess love betrayed, a starry night, and a white mammoth tusk dumped in the cave. Why?"
"Some Catalan archaeologists have found an undisturbed cave in the mountains near Burgos, the home of early man. I'm interested in the way primates turned into men and women. When did speech develop, when did simple simian games of tag become elaborate human games with rules, and aggression codified. That kind of thing."
He went toward the bed. "Who sang the first love song. Who invented the wheel. Why did the English invent marmalade from Seville oranges."
She reached out and took his hand. "Talking of the English, Roy, come and screw me again, please, just a little, will you?"
"There's no breakfast for you until you let me."
The breakfast was good too. They ate in the room, talking mainly of their work. WACH both brought them together and generally kept them apart. Burnell had recently been in Milan, documenting the restoration of the Duomo. He was due to report to his superior in Frankfurt, where WACH had its headquarters, in two days. Blanche was now mostly at her desk in Madrid, able to get out on field work infrequently. She had to catch a flight back to Spain the following day.
"I speak German and Spanish--in fact, Castilian--more frequently than I do French. I don't regard myself as particularly French any more. I belong to the Community."
"You're an enlightened woman."
"Don't be silly. I know you speak half a dozen languages, you footloose creature. Why didn't you go back to England for your leave, instead of pottering about Europe? Do you like the German domination of the EU?"
"I don't mind it. It was inevitable. One reason I'm here and not in England is there's something I want to check in the anthropological museum. No, whenever I go back to England ... well, everything seems to come in quotes nowadays. It all seems old-fashioned. You know, things maintained for tourists, like 'The Changing of the Guard.' People still have, insist on, 'toast and marmalade' for breakfast. They 'drive down to the coast.' They go to 'the RA private view' and in 'the season' they attend what they still call 'Royal Ascot,' despite all that's happened to the royal family. My father still likes his 'cup of tea,' and talks of Europe as 'the Continent.' That kind of thing."
She laughed over her second croissant. "They only do that kind of thing in exalted Burnell circles. Oh, I remember you dislike those circles, but they're bred in you. That's why you're so self-contained. I like that, really. It's quaint..."
He put a hand over hers and laughed with her. "Quaint! Yes. The French also have their traditions, if I remember correctly.
Listen, my boss has a bungalow on Lake Balaton. I've got a hire-car. Let's drive down to Balaton for the day. We can swim and sail. You can tell me about your latest paper. Come on."
She smiled at him, with slight mockery. "You look a little more boyish than you did yesterday. And I feel a little more girlish. Is that a word? Girlish? There are several things I am supposed to do today. I could cancel them. Let me make a few phone calls..." Setting down her coffee cup, she gave a sudden exclamation. "Oh, Roy, come to Madrid and live with me. I'm sure we'd be so happy, truly."
He lowered his gaze. "You know I don't speak Spanish."
They drove through hectares of sunflowers to Lake Balaton. They had chosen a perfect day for the jaunt. At one point they passed a refugee camp, protected by razor wire. Hungarian and Croatian flags hung limply from flagpoles. They were past it immediately.
At a minor crossroads, Burnell slowed the car. This was where the crash had occurred which left Peter Remenyi in a coma. Both cars involved had been wrecked. No sign remained of the collision. He reminded Blanche that the previous summer, he, Remenyi, and another friend had gone horse-riding in the Alps, bivouacking most nights.
"What did you read him today, when you were sitting with him?"
"Oh, whatever's to hand--just in case it gets through to him, wherever he is, Shelley. 'Whence are we, and why are we? Of what scene The actors or spectators?'"
Blanche gave an appalled laugh. "Oh, that's awful. Isn't that a lament for someone dead?"
He speeded up again. "In this case, the nearly dead."
The bungalow was situated in the diplomatic strip, away from the crowds. It proved to be a mansion built in ornate mock-art-nouveau style. Its verandah overlooked the blue waters of Balaton. They admired the frightful taste of its decor, joked about the garish nude paintings, sailed, swam, sunned themselves, and made love on the reindeer rug in the living-room to the music of Smetana. Although the forests and rivers the composer had celebrated were destroyed by pollution, his music remained pristine. The hairs of the rug came off on their damp bodies.
Sometimes she looked up at the mock-Mucha ceiling, sometimes he did.
At sunset, they strolled arm in arm to the nearest restaurant. Foal was on the menu, so they ordered foal.
As if an earlier conversation was in Blanche's mind, she said, "Spain's the most successful part of the Community, except maybe Sweden. Outside of Germany, that is. It's a wonderful noble country. At least you might come and visit me, meet some of my friends. Drive down to Cordoba, meet the statue of Averroes."
"I hear Spain is rather autocratic, nowadays."
"Oh, that! They've banned this e-mnemonicvision craze, if that's what you mean. EMV is treated as if it was--were, do you say?--the subjunctive?--a drug. I am inclined to agree. Violent videos were bad enough, but to experience other people's actual memories--isn't it a kind of rape?--it's regarded as obscene in a Catholic state."
"You've never tried EMV? Properly used, it can be a good learning tool. I ran a bullet of Umberto Benjamin's memories of cathedral building. It's in the WACH library in Frankfurt. The insights were startling. It was as if for half an hour I really was Benjamin. EMV is mind talking to mind. There's nothing like it."
"I would have guessed e-mnemonicvision would be too invasive for you."
The waiter was pouring wine into their glasses, red and randy. As they toasted each other, Blanche said, "Mainly EMV is used for second-hand sex and misery and violence, not learning. I'm inclined to think it is demeaning to human nature." She laughed. "'If God had meant us to pry into other people's minds, He'd have given us telepathy'..."
"It may prove in the end to allow us better insights into others. God knows, we could use that. While you're experiencing the false memory, you do seem to be the other person. You know the old Indian saying, 'Don't criticize your neighbor till you've walked a mile in his moccasins.'"
"Well, I still prefer reading. Old-fashioned of me, I know. I also think it's an abuse that people--poor people--are forced to sell their memories. It's selling your past, a new form of prostitution, worse than selling a kidney ... Where's that hunk of foal? I'm hungry."
"But lovers, exchanging memories..."
"And becoming confused and neurotic. EMV is not a decade old and already it's causing all kinds of psychosis. But not in Spain, happily."
He saw it was time to change the subject. Besides, a violinist was sawing his way towards their table, eyes levelled at them along his instrument, a marksman aligning his sights on a target. A burst of "Elegaila" was due. "Tell me more about your work. I'm so ignorant, spending my time in decaying places of worship. I've lost touch with the modern world."
"Lucky Roy! Well, my work is more interesting to me than its description would be. Let's talk about you. I know you've got problems. We all have. You've heard about my mother's lawsuit before. It goes on ... It's your quality of remoteness I like, do you understand? Everyone is so bloody engagé these days. To take a position, a stance. You don't have a stance, do you?"
"I'm ruled by circumstance. Blanche, I don't know how you put up with me."
"I'm an idiot, that's the reason." They laughed.
As the waiters began to load their table with plates, she began to talk about Spain, its recent past, its distant past. The full-bodied wine, the tender foal steak, the cry of the violin, robbed what Blanche was saying of its nuances.
Next morning, he drove her to Ferihagy airport. As they embraced and kissed each other goodbye, she said, "I'll think of you--and remember we shall need more of one another very soon. Just bear my invitation in mind."
"Blanche--of course. Of course I will. It's just..."
"It's still Stephanie, isn't it?" Lines of a gathering frown appeared on her forehead. "I thought you might have stopped that foolishness."
He shook his head, not in denial but in impatience with his own nature. The green eyes were suddenly luminous with anger.
"Why don't you bloody well forget Stephanie? She's bloody well forgotten you."
Then she was off, raising her boarding card above her head as she swept past the official at the entrance to the departures lounge. Elegant, in full control, moderately famous, one of the modern ladies of a united Europe.
He made his way up to the observation deck. Tall tails of planes like sails of yachts moved their insignia past his vision: Malev, Lufthansa, KLM, United British, Community, Singapore Airlines, SAS, Aeroflot, EuroBerlin, Alitalia, Bulgair, and her airline, her flight, Iberia, about to carry her back through Europe's skies to the place where she lived and moved and spoke Castilian.
At last Burnell turned away. He jingled his keys abstractedly as he made his way to the short-term car park. Nothing for it now but the museum and old things, relics connected with death. His milieu.
He let self-hatred gnaw within him as he eased himself into the hired BMW.
Under genuine regret at Blanche's departure, he tried to stifle some relief. Supposing he went to live with her, what then? What would he do? Find to do? Shouldn't Castles in Spain--Châteaux en Asie, as the French called them--remain splendidly imaginary? What would it feel like to love, to have continuous intercourse with, another woman, while Stephanie remained as much part of his interior monologue as a separating language? He could ask himself the question even with Blanche's physical presence still aromatically close. As he drove to the museum, he attempted a macrocosmic analogy. How could England ever become genuinely part of the European Community while its language kept the USA ever in mind?
By such linguistic artifice, he tried to distract himself from that ignoble sense of relief at Blanche's departure. But self-knowledge is generally a traitor.
The dead were driving the living to the grave. The dead were represented by skeletons, frisky and grinning, unaware they were anatomically incorrect. The line of the living began with prelates in grand robes, the Pope in the lead. Following the prelates came a procession of merchants, hands on purses, then ordinary men and women, a soldier, then a prostitute in a low-cut, tight-laced dress; lastly, a crippled beggar bringing up the rear. Thus most ranks of medieval society were represented, together with inescapable gradations of decay.
This danse macabre had once formed an integral part of the stonework of the cathedral at Nogykanizsa. The slab on which it was carved had been saved when the cathedral was partially destroyed, to repose in the grandly named National Museum of Hungarian Anthropology and Religion.
"Sorry, to do photographs is strickly forbidden," said the guide, seeing Burnell unzip his camera bag. "Better give it me your camera."
She was a narrow bent woman in her fifties. A dewdrop pended at the end of her narrow nose. Her attitude suggested that nobody knew the trouble she'd seen, or that she was preparing to see in the near future. Her clothes--the nearest thing possible to a uniform--indicated that she neither shared nor approved the prosperity the new order of things had brought to her city.
She jangled her keys in best gaoler fashion. This part of the museum was officially closed for alterations, on the principle all museums adhere to, that some sections should always remain inaccessible. Only when Burnell had shown his World Antiquities and Cultural Heritage pass had he been reluctantly allowed entry.
He took a few measurements. In his black notebook he made notes and sketches. Could it conceivably be that the Pope was a representation of one of the sixteenth-century Clements whose portrait hung in the Uffizi in Florence? He made a more careful drawing of the papal figure. The frieze, severed and displayed on a bench, had suffered from weathering. Yet it was possible that the emblem carved on the Pope's pocket represented the Castle of St. Angelo, in which the pontiff Clement had been incarcerated. If so, Burnell had established an important connection hitherto overlooked.
Steering herself in her heavy shoes, the guide came to stare over Burnell's shoulder. "It's a disgust, der Todten Tantz. These skeleton, pah!" She gestured toward the stone with an open hand.
"Mortality--Christian stock-in-trade. But elegant rather than repulsive, to my mind."
"Repulsive, you say? Yes."
He admired the way the leading Death gestured with some gallantry towards the open grave, its skull bizarrely decked with flags. The gesture could have been copied from a painting of skeletons disrupting a rural scene in a painting in the Campo Santo in Pisa. The helpful guidebook to the museum, published in Hungarian and German, attributed to the sportive Death the saying, "In this doleful jeste of Life, I shew the state of Manne, and how he is called at uncertayne tymes by Me to forget all that he hath and lose All."
For a while, as Burnell measured and sketched, silence prevailed. The only sound was the footsteps of the guide, as she walked to the end of the gallery and back. She sighed in her progress, jangling her keys like a gaoler in a novel by Zola. The two were alone in the gallery, confined within the museum's stone walls. The woman paused to stare from a narrow window at the city below. Then she called to her visitor from a distance, her voice echoing in the empty space.
"Theme of Todten Tantz is much popular in Mittel Ages. In the stadt of Nogykanizsa, half of the population is wipe out by the Plague only one year after building of the cathedral. Only one year!" She gave a harsh laugh, her larynx rattling in her throat. "Now we know better than this, praise be."
Approaching Burnell step by step to punctuate her sentences, she launched into a discourse regarding the horrors of the Middle Ages. She concluded by saying, "Why you draw bad dead things? In those times was much misery here in Budapest. In these times now, everyone makes many money. Christianity and Communism, both is finish, forgotten. God and Marx--gone away! So the world is better place. People have more enlightenment than previous times." She sighed so that her breath reached Burnell. "I am old woman, of course--too late to benefit."
It is always unwise to argue with guides. Burnell rejected both her assumption and her breath. "Can you really suppose people have become more enlightened? On what grounds do you suppose that, madam? Have you forgotten all the fratricidal wars at present in progress on the fringes of Europe?"
The guide gave a wicked smile, pointing a large key at Burnell as if it were a gun. "We kill off all the Russians. Then the world is a better place. Forget about every bad things."
Burnell closed the black notebook with a snap. "It's the living who distress me, not the dead. Kindly let me out of here."
Burnell took a light lunch in his hotel room. He ordered a small honeycomb, which he ate with butter and brown bread rolls, and goat's cheese.
He could not but contrast the day with the happiness of the previous day with Blanche. Nevertheless, as he was never continuously happy--and did not expect to be--he was rarely continuously sad.
He enjoyed good health. Burnell in his mid-thirties was a muscular man of above average height who spent a good part of life outdoors. As a boy he had enjoyed riding, mainly on the family estate in Norfolk, while at school he had excelled at sport, cricket in particular. He had lost interest in such competitive activities after his mother's death.
His expression was generally set, but he smiled readily. When he did so, he became almost handsome. There were women, including Blanche, who waited on that smile, so honest, so conceding of the world's frailties. Burnell's view of himself was harsh; he saw himself as a wanderer, without vision. In that, he seemed a typical man of his time, "The Era of the Question Mark," as one political commentator had dubbed it. The dreadful inheritance of the twentieth century rumbled about everyone's heads.
A major interest in Burnell's life, perhaps strangely for such a passive nature, was travel. The sort of travel he engaged in on behalf of WACH hardly involved the idea of escape. His consignments involved him in the usual discomforts travelers experience, particularly those who travel alone: delay, disappointment, indifferent rooms, poor food, the insolence of petty officials, and sometimes even danger. Although Burnell gave no indication that he willingly embraced such discomforts, his friends observed how he volunteered for work in those parts of the world where such discomforts were most readily available. Italy, and Milan, had been for him, as he said, "an easy number."
He scarcely realized that to his English and foreign friends he was already something of a legend. They saw him as the cool Englishman of tradition. Those who knew him in the field discovered his preoccupation with trivia: airline timetables, various states of the prints of Piranesi's Careen, the alcoholic strengths of various Hungarian raki, the perfumes used by whores, details of brickwork, barrel vaulting and buttresses, and the flavor of a samsa eaten in an ex-Soviet republic.
He was cool under fire and in love. He was kind in a weak way, though certainly never intentionally cruel to women. Being well-born, he had a mistrust of others well-born.
He had no vision. He regretted his divorce. He was cynical. But he ate his honeycomb with slow pleasure. Sitting in the sun by his window, he drank coffee and read the newspaper.
The main headline of the paper ran: "STAVROPOL AIRPORT BATTLE. First Use of Tactical Nukes: Crimea 'Ablaze'." The accompanying photo consisted mainly of smoke and men running, like the cover of a lowbrow thriller.
There was as yet no admission by the EU that war had broken out in the Crimea. It was represented merely as a disagreement between Russia and the Ukraine. The disruptions would cease after various threats and admonitions from the EU Security Council. It was the form of words that that admonition would take which was currently being discussed in Brussels and Berlin.
He set the newspaper aside to gaze vacantly at the window. He admitted to himself he was feeling lonely. Blanche would be back in Madrid by now. Perhaps one of her many friends would have met her. She moved in cultivated circles. He looked at the photograph of his ex-wife on his bedside table, without seeing it. He just moved in circles.
In the afternoon, he visited Remenyi, still silent in his coma, and read to him as usual.
The grand steam baths under the Gellert Hotel were choked with bodies, male and female. Many of the bathers exhibited the bulk and the posture of wallowing hippopotami. Encompassing steam provided some kind of cloak for the torpid anatomies, while reinforcing a general impression of a bacchanalia or, more accurately, a post-bacchanalia.
The baths had been in use since Roman times; occupying Turks had enlarged them. Allowing himself his usual afternoon soak, Burnell reflected that little had changed since then. Everyone was taking it easy. The hairy stomachs surrounding him, the monumental buttocks, belonged to affluent members of Hungarian and European society. Next to him, Swedish was being languidly spoken. What with wars and trouble in the old Soviet Union republics, in the Caucasus and beyond the Caspian Sea, Swedes were prospering. Hungary was neutral, the Switzerland, the crooked casino, of Central Europe, It sold Swedish-made armaments to all sides with business-like impartiality.
Surveying hirsute figures wantonly reclining, Burnell thought, "That one could have made Pope; he has the nose for it. And there's Messalina, with the cruel and creamy thighs, and that one could be Theodora, her blue rinse beginning to run a little in the heat. The little rat is Iago to the life ... Blanche would be amused." It was Blake, it was Dore, it was also super-heating. He thought of Blanche's nakedness, and was embarrassed to find an erection developing. He climbed from the sulphurous waters, wrapping himself with English discretion in a white towelling bathrobe.
On the way back to his room, Burnell encountered a lean, bearded man clad only in a towel and hotel slippers. He was moving toward the baths, head forward in something between a slouch and a run, one eyebrow raised as if it were the proprioceptor by which he navigated. He and Burnell looked at each other. Burnell recognized the haggard lineaments, the eroded temples, the eyebrows. They belonged to a distant acquaintance from university days, Monty Butterworth.
Monty, eyebrow swivelling, locked on to Burnell at once.
"Roy, old chap! How jolly to see you."
"Hello, Monty." Burnell knotted the bathrobe more tightly. Monty had been sacked from his post at the University of East Anglia some while ago. There had been a small scandal. Finances had gone missing. Burnell, not caring about the matter, had forgotten the details. "What are you doing in Budapest?"
"Little private matter, old chum." He had a dated way of addressing people, smiling and nodding as he did so, as if agreeing with something off-stage. "Helping out a bit at what they call the 'Korszinhaz', the round theatre in the park. Scenery, you know. Well, scene-shifting. To tell the truth, only been here four days. Wandered round in a daze at first. Didn't know where I was..." He paused and then, seeing Burnell was about to speak, went on hastily, leaning a little nearer. "Between you and me, old boy, I'm here consulting a very clever chap, sort of a ... well ... a specialist. You see, something rather strange has happened to me. To say the least. I'd like to tell you about it, as an old friend. You still with WACH, I presume? Perhaps you'd care to buy us a drink? Fellow countryman and all that kind of stuff, compatriot ... Excuse the towel."
They went up to Burnell's room. After opening the mini-bar, Burnell slipped into a shell-suit. He handed Monty a sweater to wear.
"Fits me to a T," said his visitor. "You wouldn't mind if I hung on to it, would you? Bit short of clothing, to tell the truth--here in Budapest, I mean. Some crook nicked all my luggage at the airport. You know what it's like ... They're a dodgy lot."
Burnell poured two generous Smirnoffs on the rocks. They raised their glasses to each other.
"That's better." Monty Butterworth sighed. He licked his lips. "I'll come straight to the point, old pal. "Music when soft voices die Vibrates in the memory..." So says the poet. I expect you remember the quotation. But let's suppose there's no memory in which those soft voices can vibrate..."
Burnell stood by the window, saying nothing, contemplating Monty with distrust.
"I'm forty, or so I believe. Four days ago, I found myself in an unknown place. You'll never credit this. I found myself in an unknown place--not a clue how I got there. Absolutely at a loss, mind blank. Turned out that I was here, in Budapest. Budapest! Never been here before in my natural."
He was already contradicting himself, Burnell thought. If he were lost, how had he known his luggage was stolen at the airport?
"So now you're staying in the Gellert?" Burnell spoke challengingly, determined not to be touched for Monty's air fare to England. Knowing something of the man's background, he felt no particular inclination to help.
Monty leaned back in his chair so as to look as much the invalid as possible. "Terrible state poor old England's in. Read the papers. To what do you ascribe it, Roy?"
"Neglect of education, lack of statesmen. What's your problem?"
"Couldn't agree more. I suppose that's why someone like you has to scout round for a job abroad?"
"No doubt. What's your problem?"
"It's very serious. I know you're a sympathetic chap. I'm attending the Antonescu Clinic. Mircea Antonescu is a foremost specialist, right at the cutting edge of psycho-technology. Well, he's Romanian. They're a clever race..." He gave Burnell a sidelong glance under the eyebrow before hurrying on. "I'm not staying at the Gellert. Couldn't afford it. Too expensive for someone like me. I'm renting a cheap room in Pest--view of the gasworks, ha ha ... You see, Roy, old pal, this is the bottom line: I've lost ten years of my memory. Just lost them. Wiped clean. Can't remember a thing."
Burnell uttered a word of condolence. Monty looked slightly annoyed.
"Perhaps you don't understand. The last thing I can really remember is, I was thirty. Ten and a bit years have passed since then and I've absolutely no notion what I was doing all that time. No notion at all."
"How terrible." Burnell suspected a catch was coming, and was loath to commit himself.
"FOAM. That's Antonescu's term. FOAM--Free Of All Memory. He sees it as a kind of, well, liberty. There I beg to differ. You know what it feels like to lose your memory?"
Despite himself, Burnell was interested.
"It's like an ocean, old chum. A wide, wide ocean with a small island here and there. No continents. The continents have disappeared, sunk without trace. I suppose I couldn't have a top-up of vodka, could I?" He held out his glass.
As he poured, Burnell admitted he had seen Monty once or twice during the previous ten years, before his sacking; perhaps he could help to fill the gaps in his memory. Monty Butterworth made moderately grateful noises. There was no one else he could turn to in Budapest.
When asked if his memory-loss was caused by a virus, Monty professed ignorance. "No one knows--as yet at least. Could have been a car crash, causing amnesia. No bones broken if so. Lucky to be alive, I suppose you might say. But what's going to happen to me, I've no idea."
"Your wife isn't with you?"
Monty slapped his forehead with his free hand. A look of amazement crossed his face. "Oh my sainted aunt! Don't say I was married!"
He drank the vodka, he kept the sweater, he shook Burnell's hand. The next morning, Burnell went round to the Antonescu Clinic as he had promised. Monty wanted one of the specialists at the clinic to question Burnell, in order to construct a few points of identification. Monty suggested that this would help towards a restoration of his memory.
Burnell had agreed. He felt ashamed that he had so grudgingly given his old sweater to a friend in distress.