Her fingers fluttered across the keyboard the way a hummingbird laps nectar, pausing only long enough to draw a honey-filled note before moving on. He closed his eyes and let the music warm his cold-numbed mind, aching for Australia, not wanting to leave Budapest. For 13 nights now he’d watched her. The next night would be his last.

And the only chance to tell her the words he’d memorised.

Every evening she’d arrive at his hotel in a swaddle of winter woollens with snowflakes scattered in her long chestnut hair. And every evening he’d be enchanted by the way the cold turned her skin porcelain, the way the freckles on her nose looked like tiny flakes of cinnamon. How her eyes sparkled like sapphires.

As she settled at the piano, he’d play at reading a report, a book – anything to prevent him from looking like yet another lonely businessman, like the hungry eyed men lining the bar.

Occasionally, one would draw up his courage and approach her, but Molnár, the lounge manager, shielded his star from guests’ advances with saccharine-coated determination. Deftly, he’d step in and steer them away, discreetly slipping a card into their hand while whispering where clean girls could be found at a reasonable price. They’d redden, protest they only wanted to talk, but Molnár would smile knowingly until their denials evaporated into humiliated silence.

So he’d remain at his table and watch and listen and dream until, at 10 o’clock, she’d softly close the piano lid. Then, re-layered in her woollens, she’d cast a brief, Mona Lisa smile into his corner before disappearing into the freezing night.

And each evening, he’d tuck his papers under his arm, and stroll nonchalantly out onto the street after her.

He justified following her with altruistic rationale. She was a young woman out on the streets alone. Who knew of strangers that lurked in dark doorways or the treachery of snowy paths. He was keeping an eye out, that’s all. Her secret guardian angel.

She’d walk purposefully, eager to reach her destination. Not once stopping to peer into the shop windows along Váci utca. And never did she look back. Although sometimes, when the wind hushed and their footsteps echoed loud in the deserted street, she’d tilt her head slightly and he’d see what his imagination told him was a hint of turned up mouth.

He’d halt then, his feet skidding on the icy path, fretting she’d seen him, hoping she had so he could use the words he’d learnt just for her.

But she’d always keep walking.

And his words remained unsaid.

Her route took her to the Vörösmarty tér metro station. He didn’t dare follow further. It was late, the station barely habited, and he already felt like a stalker. Instead, he’d whisper his goodnight into the wafting snow before tramping back to the hotel. And in his room, he’d slide headphones over his ears and lie on his bed and sail his dreams to Bartok, Liszt, and Kodály. Then, as sleep lapped its gentle waves, he’d fantasise of home and a glorious, passion filled life with his Hungarian beauty.

The morning would bring another soul-smothering day. He’d fix his mask and act like a man who cared about budgets and sales. But all the while his mind would be fastened on the evening to come.

And so it went.

Until finally, the fourteenth night arrived.

He trudged into the lounge, his heart already aching with loss. The bar was quieter than usual, the tables scattered with only a few brochure engrossed tourists, and he was grateful for the minutes he’d enjoy alone with her.

For the first time, he chose a table close to the piano. Molnár brought his glass of red wine over with a raised eyebrow and a business card secreted under the coaster. He shook his head. Molnár didn’t understand. He wasn’t like the others. He never would be.

Her brow furrowed when she entered and spied his empty corner. Then she caught his new position and smiled. Like a fool, he glanced behind, but the smile was for him.

His heart swelling, he watched her strip away her layers and emerge from her woollen chrysalis like a tropical butterfly. She was too exotic for this dull place. She needed cobalt skies and aquamarine seas, and a thousand more sun-kisses freckling her skin. Not snow-filled Budapest and this oppressive bar.

As she settled on her stool and arranged her music on the stand, Molnár came to the piano. He gestured toward the score, his mouth puckering, but she waved him off. Molnár’s face turned thunderous.

He half rose, worried for her, but she looked over her shoulder and very slightly shook her head. He cocked his in return, questioning, but her focus had already returned to the keys. He sat down. Molnár threw him a surly look before stalking behind the bar.

Notes drifted across the room like gossamer. Sweet sounds that clenched his heart and left him wondering how he would get through his days without her. Tomorrow, he would return to the cold drizzle of London and then, a few weeks afterward, he’d be home. Back in the land of pretty, freckle-faced girls with vibrant smiles.

But they wouldn’t be her.

No one could be her.

The serenade came to an end. He sighed and toyed with his drink coaster as she shuffled sheet music. The score in place, she turned fractionally and let a tiny smile flutter on her lips. He leaned forward, overcome with anticipation. Caressing the keys like a lover, she began to play.

At first he didn’t understand the music, so different was it to her usual repertoire, but then recognition blossomed and a quiet chuckle fell from his lips. He glanced toward Molnár. His face was swollen, his eyes bulging like a frog’s. Even his chest had inflated, as though at any moment it would erupt with a loud croak.

But his sun-kissed Hungarian beauty played on.

Her rendition of Billy Joel’s Piano Man finished, she reverted smoothly to back to Liszt but the classical interlude was short lived. With a flick of her score, she switched to Elton John. And for the remainder of the evening, that was how the recital continued. Bartok to Coldplay, Donhnányi to Lenin and McCartney. Enchantment to delight.

At the conclusion, he stood, his carefully memorised words jumbling in his mouth. A confusion of Hungarian he would never say right. He stepped forward, but she was already swaddled and strolling away, pushing into the cold and forever out of his life.

With a final glance at Molnár’s bloated face, he followed.

He found her sauntering toward a side street and not the bright reaches of Váci utca, her snow caught hair sparkling like a diamond-flecked sunset.

His footsteps faltered. Perhaps it was best to leave her alone. Perhaps it was wiser to keep his words unsaid, to return home and forget her. Abandon her to the secret recesses of his memory.

Under a streetlight’s golden glow, she paused and twisted a little and her enigmatic smile seized his heart. He knew then a memory would never be enough.

Budapest would never be enough.

A few streets on, she slid into the side door of a bar. He stood on the footpath, watching her through the window as she found a booth and stripped her layers.

He inhaled deeply, the cold air cutting into his lungs, and pushed open the door.

She looked up at him.

“Jó napot,” he said, hoping she’d think his flushed face was from the cold and not acute nerves.

With graceful fingers she waved at the seat opposite. He sat down, leaving his coat on, unsure how long he would be permitted to stay.

He breathed in through his nose and then said the words. “Ön szépen zongorázik.”

Face to face, they sounded inadequate. She would already know she played beautifully. He should have told her he didn’t care about the music, that it was her he thought beautiful. That she danced in his dreams like a speckled angel.

She nodded, smiling. “Köszönöm.”

He shifted in his seat. He had reached the limits of his Hungarian. He stared at the table wishing instead he’d leant how to say ‘I love you’. He could have blurted it and then left.

A warm hand touched his. “Beszél ön angolul?”

It was one of the few other phrases he knew. “Yes. I speak English.”

She smiled broadly. “You’re Australian?”

Her accent turned his insides to molten butter.

“From Sydney.”

Her eyes twinkled like the summer sea. “Then perhaps when I’ve finished at the conservatory here we’ll meet again.”

And for the first time since his arrival in Budapest, he forgot the cold, forgot his homesickness and desire for a different life, and relaxed.

There would be no perhaps. He and his chestnut haired beauty would meet again. Of that, he had no doubt.


© Cathryn Hein 2009