Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Street Theatre

It was a wild night at our place in Budapest. After days of intense sun and no wind or cloud at all, thunder came rumbling in and flashes of lightning split the darkness. My husband's playtrack shifted with appropriately lightning speed to 'Stormy Weather', which is more his usual style than Joni Mitchell. I sat on our corner balcony and watched events in the two streets that converge directly beneath us.

Around midnight there was an explosion of shouting from one of the flats at the bottom of the building. It was so loud that people came running out from a nearby restaurant and stood before the windows behind which, presumably, the accompanying fight was taking place. From their reactions, plus the roaring fury of the voices, things were looking pretty hairy in there. There was talk of calling the emergency services. However, the obvious strength of our neighbours' rage was so great that it was almost certain to be unsustainable. Sure enough, after ten minutes, the howls of anger diminished to whimpers. Some pretty vigorous door slamming followed and then quiet descended once again.

But not for long. A taxi driver came hurtling round the corner next, racing down the street at frantic speed. When he saw an earthmover rising up in front of him, blocking his way (the street is being dug up and cobbled so that it will soon be a semi-pedestrianised zone) he braked violently. Then he threw his vehicle into reverse and started backwards at equally high speed, ramming straight into a heap of as yet unlaid cobbles that, presumably, he hadn't noticed.

After a pause during which he tried unsuccessfully to move the car forward and free of the stones he'd got caught up in, he leapt out, revealing himself to be a middle-aged man with a dyed comb-over (very Death in Venice but only in this solitary respect, to be honest) and rapper clothing - bright white shoes and similarly dazzling white shorts, a large black nylon sleeveless basketballer's shirt and lots of medallions and crosses on chains. Having assessed the situation, he passed his hand through his meagre hair and spat. Then he reached back into the car for his mobile.

For about five minutes he sprang about, gesticulating and yelling into the telephone and, almost before you knew it. a whole fleet of fellow taxis were gathered about him. Amidst more shouting and leaping, the stranded taxi was liberated. The other taxis melted into the night almost as quickly as they had arrived, and our man was left kneeling at the rear of his car, trying fruitlessly to reattach a broken piece of chassis to the back bumper.

All the while - indeed, since late afternoon, outside one of the classier cafes on the adjoining street, a drunk had been the centre of a different kind of narrative. For some reason, around five he had come staggering along and, pausing, the idea had come to him that this would be a pleasant place to spend a few hours. Having settled himself just beside the doorway of a cafe-bar and opposite the outside tables of the corner restaurant, he produced a bottle and began to drink. In between swigs he made announcements to the street in general, trailing off from time to time into little moments of interior reflection - or possibly falling briefly asleep. Various members of the cafe-bar's staff came out to look at him as he made himself more and more at home. When he started to sing, three of them all appeared together. Luckily, his attention was soon caught again by his by now nearly empty bottle, and, by the time he'd drained it, the urge to sing seemed to have passed.

Even from the third floor, it was obvious that the drunk was filthy. He wore a grimy blue-plaid shirt, its buttons undone, black smeared trousers and matching boots. His skin was that rusty colour that drunks' skin often becomes. Perhaps because I was looking at him from above, seeing the top of his sweaty head - that very first part of the anatomy that most humans thrust into the world - I found I couldn't help thinking about how, despite the state he was in, he must once have had a family. To someone, at least for a while, he must have been a beloved son. Yet none of the passersby seemed to notice him - and those that did steered a wide berth.

At least they did until a young man - not an especially attractive or caring looking type, just a bloke in shorts, flash trainers and a polo shirt - emerged from under the awning of a restaurant table and went up to the drunk and offered him a cigarette. The drunk accepted the offer and, after lighting his own, the bloke knelt down in a way that was oddly moving and, cupping his hands around the drunk's, lit the cigarette he'd given him. Once he was sure it was going properly, the Good Samaritan (and ,despite recognising that smoking is bad for you et cetera, I think the bloke was a Good Samaritan), stood up and reached out his hand and shook the drunk's hand warmly. They exchanged a few words, the bloke shook the drunk's hand again, I think this time slipping him some money, and then he went on his way.

The drunk looked after him, possibly as astonished and admiring as I was. He smoked his fag and, when he'd had enough, he carefully stubbed out the flame and stowed what was left behind his ear. He turned and at first I thought he was going to crawl across the pavement for some reason, but then I realised he was merely making an ungainly attempt to stand up. Eventually he managed this, collected up his belongings and set off in the direction of his mentor.

A snatch of music from the little record shop further down the street must have caught his ear, for, instead of walking, the drunk began to waltz unsteadily with an unseen partner. All was going well. I was thinking increasingly sentimentally about seeing the best in all humankind and doing good unto others. Then the drunk spun his wobbly way into our street and, perhaps registering the fresh cleanliness of the cobbles, remembered there was something else he had to do. Squaring up groggily to the wall of the house opposite, he undid his fly and began to pee. I went inside.


  1. This is a beautiful story. I enjoyed your telling of it very much. But are you absolutely sure it's not Ainslie?

    1. Smoking? In Ainslie? Perish the thort.

  2. We have neighbours who shout. The first few times we thought of phoning the police in case someone was being hurt, but now we just sort of cock a curious ear in case they're arguing about something interesting this time, and keep doing whatever we were doing. Did that taxi driver manage to get his car away?

    1. The taxi driver eventually hurled the broken bits onto the back seat, slammed the door shut, got in, ground the gears as he executed a clumsy three-point turn and then yelled at everyone in his way as he lurched off back towards the big ring road.