Crossing the Curtain

David X. Lewis

USA

Vienna, Sunday 6 March 1988, 20:26 hours Central European Time

Edward parked his car with care. The Hofburg palace loomed to his right against a gray and star-less sky. A stray dog lifted its leg at a lamp-post. He heard the trickle of urine. A puff of steam rose from the gutter. It was nearly freezing.

The streets were almost empty. To Edward’s surprise, most Viennese stayed at home on the eve of a new week. Things had been different in London.

For now he stayed in the car. It was not yet time. He fiddled with his crotch, as he had as a child when meeting strangers or joining a new class at school. Now he was planning to smuggle illegal equipment to dissidents in Hungary. He would be breaking not only the law but also the journalistic duty of independence. He was risking both his job and imprisonment.

Istvan had given him instructions in two brief calls from Budapest. “You must meet my friend Gabor,” he had said a week ago. Two days later Istvan phoned again to say that Gabor would be celebrating his birthday in Vienna at the Kaffee Hawelka on Sunday and hoped Edward would join the party at 8:30 p.m.

“He will be waiting for you.”

“How will I recognize him?”

“You won’t.”

“How will he recognize me, then?

“I told him to look out for a handsome Englishman who looks like James Bond.”

“Really?” Edward felt flattered. For a moment.

“No, not really, Edward. I was joking.”

“Thank you very much. What, then?”

“I told him to watch for a shy young man with brown hair, and that you would be wearing a white knitted scarf. The one you wore when we met last month.”

“Oh yes, the one my mother made me.”

“I don’t care who made it for you, Edward. Just wear it on Sunday.”

Edward had met Istvan four weeks ago, on his first reporting trip to Hungary for the International News Agency. They had been introduced by Jonathan, the outgoing junior correspondent of INA’s Vienna bureau. They were staying in the Forum Hotel, where all foreign correspondents stayed. “But we need to talk outside,” Istvan had said. “Well away from the microphones.”

“Microphones?”

“Yes, my dear Edward. In here we are being watched and recorded. A friend of mine has seen the tape machines in the basement. There are bugs in the artificial flowers here in reception and in the restaurant. Hasn’t Jonathan told you?”

Jonathan had left Edward and Istvan together. “I’m in de-mob mood, gentlemen,” he’d said with a happy smile. “I’ve paid my dues. I’m going to the market to buy some salami and Tokay to take home.”

Istvan and Edward had left the hotel and walked along the Danube embankment. Istvan had immediately taken Edward’s arm in his, and Edward into his confidence. “I’m sure you and I will get on. I will help you, and you will help me.”

Edward knew it was wrong for him to fraternise with Hungary’s dissident opposition. INA journalists were supposed to be neutral, to take no side but the truth. But Istvan would be an important source of news, both over the phone and in Budapest itself. Edward needed good sources if he were to compete with older hands working for Reuters and INA’s other main rivals, which included the Associated Press and the BBC. And, heh, Jonathan had been close to Istvan too. If Jonathan could, then so could he, Edward. Couldn’t he?

An intense slight man with a pale face, curly dark hair and heavy rings under his eyes, Istvan was at the centre of a dissident network which opposed Hungary’s governing communists through self-printed and unauthorized magazines, notably Beszelö (The Speaker). The dissidents had no access to photocopiers, so their samizdat publications were duplicated from purple stencils on roneo machines. And the Communist authorities had just raided a dissident’s apartment in Budapest and confiscated some vital publishing equipment.

“The raid was a disaster,” Istvan told Edward as they walked past the statue to Sandor Petöfi, Hungary’s national poet, on the flat Pest side of the Danube overlooked by the Mathias Church across the river in hilly Buda.  “But our friend Gabor in Vienna has just located a special machine you could bring for us on your next trip.”

“Why me? Why not one of the other correspondents? You must have known all of them for some time.”

Istvan dodged the question. “Why not you? I think INA is a good news agency. Very objective.”

“Exactly,” said Edward, seizing on a way to reject the request. “We’re not supposed to take sides. INA would sack me if they found out.”

Istvan reflected for a moment. “We don’t expect you to write for or against us. Just look on it as a favour for a friend.”

“But we’re not friends.”

“Not yet, perhaps. But I like the look of you. And this will make us friends. And if you help us with this, I promise to give you all the best stories from Hungary. Not Reuters or Associated Press.”

Edward hesitated. After all, the dissidents were good people, weren’t they? They were on the right side of history. They were better men than he. Would he have the guts to fight for democracy and freedom of speech in England? Probably not, but perhaps he should do what he could to help people with courage.

So he had acquiesced – to help “a friend” and gain privileged access to information and tips from Hungary’s dissident opposition.

A more personal reason why he had said yes was that he had been reminded of his late mother, who had taught English at a mixed grammar school. When he was a kid – not so long ago, he had to admit – his mum had given him extra pocket-money to prepare stencils to duplicate literary texts or English tests for her classes. To do this quickly, Edward had taught himself to touch-type. Ironically, considering her opposition to him becoming a foreign correspondent, Edward’s typing ability was one reason he’d decided to go into journalism.

But now, four weeks after that first trip to Budapest, Edward wished he hadn’t said yes to the dissidents. The promise was coming home to roost. He was on his way from Vienna again, this time all by himself, as Jonathan had ended his assignment. It would be a long drive, and he wouldn’t arrive until the early hours. First he had to pick up the secret equipment.

Edward looked at his watch. Exactly 8.30. He squeezed his penis again, got out of the car and looked around the square. Was he being watched? He had no reason to think he might be, he told himself. It was just nerves. Seeing nobody, he headed down the Dorotheergasse towards the Café Hawelka. He presumed there would be no microphones there.

A shabby establishment with walls and ceiling stained by decades of tobacco smoke, the Hawelka was a haunt of east European emigrés. It was a good place to sniff out stories from Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Poland – or so Jonathan had told Edward during his two-week handover. Even a few from Albania, where dictator Enver Hoxha ruled a country which still had only a handful of cars.

Jonathan and Edward had gone to the Hawelka once to have what the Austrians called “a big brown one” (Jonathan’s favourite version of coffee) and, in Edward’s case, a quarter litre of grüner Veltliner, a sharp white wine to which he had taken an excessive liking soon after arriving in Vienna just over a month ago. Unfortunately, no emigrés had been present at the time.

Tonight, light seeped foggily onto the damp pavements through the Hawelka’s curtained windows and thick panes of mottled glass. Dim electric bulbs illuminated the name sign and framed menu near the entrance. Edward pushed his way through the swing door of polished wood and brass handles, and then through the two hanging blankets, musty and damp, which served as draught excluders. There was no sign of any birthday party.

“Guten Abend, der Herr!” said an elderly waiter in white shirt and black waistcoat, grabbing a menu in one hand while steering Edward towards a table with the other. Would the gentleman like to eat, or just have a drink?

Edward realised he had not had supper. He ordered a goulash soup and a coffee. A strange combination, maybe, but he didn’t trust himself to drink alcohol before the long drive. He might fall asleep at the wheel and end up in the Neusiedl lake.

He hung up his coat and looked around, seeing if he could identify anyone who might be Gabor. The place was nearly empty. Two young lovers were gazing into each other’s eyes and enlacing their fingers, ignoring the schnitzel with potato salad and carafe of red wine which were sitting between them. A middle-aged man with a briefcase and rimless glasses was reading the weekly magazine Profil over a beer and a fried sausage. A 40-ish woman with dyed blond hair, a fake fur coat and too much make-up sat gloomily in a corner, picking at a wedge of apple strudel with whipped cream. Edward wondered if she herself was a tart, consoling herself with sweetness before a new week of pleasuring customers. Vienna’s red-light district was not far away.

Edward rose to take two newspapers hanging in wooden frames from a curly coat-rack near the Toiletten. After he had been leafing for some minutes through Die Presse and Kurier, the waiter delivered his soup and coffee. “Guten Appetit!” Then a scruffy-looking man with wispy hair and bad skin, perhaps 50 years old, appeared as if from nowhere.

“Herr Doktor Newman, I presume.”

Edward jumped.

“Just Mr Newman, actually. And you are …”

“Gabor – the friend of Istvan. I have a parcel for you.”

Edward realised that Gabor had probably been attempting a reference to Stanley and Livingstone. These Hungarians and their jokes. He wasn’t in a mood for witticisms tonight.

They shook hands.

“Pleased to meet you, Gabor. May I buy you a drink while I finish my soup?”

“Thank you. I’ll have a quarter of Bulls’ Blood.”

Edward called the waiter: “Herr Ober. Ein Viertel Egri Bikaver, bitte schön.” He was quite pleased with how his German was coming on.

The waiter said he was very sorry: they were out of that particular Hungarian wine, but he could bring an Austrian one.

Gabor grimaced – “Austrian reds are so weak” – but gave his assent. He sat down opposite Edward.

“So, as I said, Mr Newman, I have some parcels for you.” He attempted a wink.

“Where are they, then?”

“At my flat. They were too heavy for me to carry here. You’ll have to pick them up in your car.”

They agreed they would drive to Gabor’s when they had finished. It was on the way to the Budapest road.

While Edward slurped his soup – only a few pieces of gristly beef in a watery liquid with too much potato and paprika – Gabor told him how he had “walked across the border to Austria with nothing” after Russian tanks rolled into Hungary to put down the uprising in 1956. “They said what was happening was a counter-revolution. But in truth it was another revolution. Moscow couldn’t accept it.”

Gabor said he was lucky to have escaped before the border was closed, and to have found work in Vienna. Now he did what he could to help his friends still in Budapest. “What we want is a proper democracy, with real workers’ rights. Not like in Austria, where they buy people off with money and luxuries.”

Edward felt very stupid and uninformed. He must mug up on history if he wanted to report seriously on Hungary. His editors should have sent him on a course, or given him a reading list. Or perhaps he should have done his own research.

“So, Herr Newman …”.

“Please call me Edward.”

“So, Edward, do you know what you will be taking to Istvan?”

“Er, not exactly, no.”

“Well, it’s perhaps better that way. But I’ll tell you all the same. The first parcel is a very special typewriter with keys so small, which type so closely together, that we can get three times as many words on each page of our magazine than with a normal one.”

Edward was both impressed and surprised. But before he could ask what else he was expected to smuggle, Gabor continued.

“This means we need far less paper and duplicating paper to print Beszelö. If you manage to get this to Istvan, you’ll be making a great contribution to our cause. This is the only typewriter I have ever come across with Hungarian keys of this size. I was very lucky to find it, and now you have agreed to transport it. We are very grateful.”

“And what else? You said parcels. In the plural. I thought I was supposed to bring just one parcel.”

“Oh really, did Istvan say that? That was a mistake. He didn’t mention the duplicating machine too?”

“No, he didn’t.”

“Well, anyway. What is it you say in English: in for a penny, in for a pound?”

“That’s one way of saying it. You could say ‘might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb’.”

His own thought got him thinking. It wasn’t just the notion of being hanged. There surely was no risk of that, was there? He should simply insist that, as a journalist, he should not contribute to anyone’s cause. His duty was simply to report. But that would sound a bit pompous. Let it drop.

Jonathan had told Edward about Beszelö, whose key articles were translated and circulated, to the annoyance of Hungary’s communist authorities, in the weekly press reviews of the British Embassy in Budapest. Jonathan had also told Edward that he must read these carefully, as they could be the basis of, or tip-offs for, stories to be written for the INA wire. In truth, Edward had not yet found time to do this.

Gabor finished his red wine, Edward his unappetising goulash soup – “It will be much tastier in Budapest, dear Edward,” Gabor said. “They’ve forgotten how to cook it here. And get proper goulash, not just a soup.”

Edward paid the bill, requesting a written receipt so he could claim expenses, and they left Hawelka for his car. He was becoming more and more nervous at the prospect of smuggling equipment for an underground periodical into Hungary. On the corner, he noticed a sign to the Capuchin Crypt, where all the Habsburg rulers of Austria and Austria-Hungary were buried.

Gabor got in next to Edward in the second-hand VW Golf and directed him down to the Franz-Josef-Kai and across the Danube Canal from the 1st to the 2nd district of Vienna. They stopped in front of a nondescript post-war block. Gabor told him to wait while he retrieved the valuable machines. Minutes later he reappeared with a large heavy bundle wrapped in a blanket.

Edward opened the boot of the car and walked around nervously as Gabor went back to his flat for a second parcel. Edward walked around the car, his breath short and steaming. He wished he had gone to the toilet in the Hawelka.

Soon Gabor was back with a second large bundle and a plastic supermarket bag. He set both important bundles as far back as possible in the car boot, covering them with a blanket behind Edward’s small suitcase. He handed Edward the bag.

“Here are some bananas and a bottle of whisky. Hungarians never see either of them. If they’re difficult at the border, try showing them these and suggesting they forget about examining the contents of your boot.”

Edward was shocked. He had never bribed anyone in his life. What would his mother think? Not that it mattered any more: she was dead.

Gabor shook Edward by the hand and wished him good luck. Edward tried and failed to return Gabor’s strong grip, sat down again behind the wheel and took to the road. He had driven to Budapest from Vienna only once before, when Jonathan had accompanied him for the handover visit. That had been in daylight.

The road was very good as far as the airport at Schwechat. Thereafter the motorway petered out into a narrow, winding and pot-holed road through low-rise villages on the Austrian side of the shallow Neusiedl lake. According to the Austrian Green Party at a recent press conference, the lake was a rare example of some important natural phenomenon. Edward had been suffering from too much grüner Veltliner the previous evening, so hadn’t taken in the facts. The lake was also a place where three Hungarians had been shot a few months ago when they had tried to swim and wade across the border. Edward made a mental note to research both issues and write features about them one day. If he was not in a Hungarian jail, or sacked, or hanged for a sheep and a lamb.

There was little traffic on the road east that Sunday evening. Edward put on a cassette: Phil Collins – No Jacket Required. Then he realised the title was a little disquieting, so he switched it for Be Yourself Tonight by The Eurythmics. Edward wasn’t very up to date, but that was the way he was. Maybe he could change.

He felt very alone. He was on his way to report on a country with a very different political system. A country where some people felt strongly about politics. Where history was alive. Where the written word, what was censored and what could be read between the lines, had real power. He admired and envied them for that: he didn’t feel strongly enough about anything to be an activist. So what was he doing now?

The border was approaching. The landscape was flat, bleak and uninteresting. It would be no problem to leave Austria. The Austrian guards were interested only in people seeking to enter their the country. The problem would be getting into Hungary.

The entry procedure was intimidating, like the border itself. There really was an iron curtain, or at least several fences of barbed wire overlooked by tall watchtowers with floodlights, uniformed soldiers and fixed machine-guns. Other guards patrolled at ground level.

Jo estet kivanog, Guten Abend, good evening,” Edward said, attempting cheerfulness as he drew up at the first barrier, passport and visa in hand. No other vehicle was in sight.

Jo estet,” said the guard, unsmiling but tired and bored rather than hostile. He looked about his own age, Edward thought. That was to say: twenty-four and three quarters. He wore an ill-fitting uniform. His face was badly shaven and pitted by acne.

The guard took Edward’s documents into his hut to note down the details and check whether Edward was expected under a visa notification scheme. Foreign correspondents in Austria had to apply to the Hungarian consulate every time they wanted to travel to Budapest on a reporting trip.

Ten minutes later the guard returned – not with Edward’s papers but to push open a heavy swing gate on wheels into a disquieting large cage open to the sky. The guard beckoned him in. Edward drove the necessary 10 metres, and the gate rolled shut. Edward was left to sweat, observed from gantries and encircled by metal fencing and barbed wire.

The crossing into Hungary had been bad enough when he had come with Jonathan in daytime. Now Edward was alone and it was dark. Waiting to see if they would return his passport and allow him into Communist Eastern Europe, he shivered – and not just from the cold. The contraband in his car boot reached out to squeeze his heart and throat. He felt a desperate need to pee.

The sky had cleared, and the desolate landscape of the Iron Curtain was illuminated by a mix of gibbous moon and a cold grey-blue from the lamp-posts and watchtower spotlights. Shadows fell clear and harsh onto Edward’s undistinguished second-hand car. Edward did his best to keep calm, counting the seconds and lengthening minutes. He struggled to restrain his bladder.

Then another border guard appeared from the booth. This one was older and more typically Hungarian: short and dark. He had some papers in one hand and a heavy torch in the other.

“Get out.”

Edward’s heart thumped. What did he mean?

“Get out of the car. Aussteigen.”

Edward did as he was told.

“Open the Koffer.” The man meant the car boot.

Edward again obeyed, a few drops of urine escaping his cock. Oh God, don’t let me piss my pants any further. Though he was anything but religious, Edward also prayed to the non-existent deity that the guard would not be interested in looking too closely. It was a quarter to eleven. As the guard shone his torch into the boot, Edward fumbled for the Aldi bag with the bananas and whisky. He thrust it towards the guard for inspection. “Perhaps you would like to examine that in your office?”

The Hungarian threw him a glance. Edward raised his eyebrows and boomeranged it back. Quite slick, he told himself, in the circumstances. James Bond would be proud of him. The Hungarian withdrew to his booth, made a show of examining the bag’s contents, wrote something in a ledger, stamped Edward’s passport and visa, and returned with them to his car.

“I have to confiscate that bag,” he said, betraying nothing from a stony face. “I wish you a good stay in Hungary! Have a safe journey. Viszontlátásra!

Viszontlátásra!” Edward said, though he sincerely hoped he would not see the guard again soon. “Köszönöm szépen!” Thank-you very much. He hoped he would share the booty with his acned colleague. Perhaps that would make him smile.

The guard returned to the hut and pressed a button to open the exit barrier. Driving the car out of the border enclosure as the barbed gate swung slowly back, Edward clenched the steering wheel. He was free to drive on to Budapest, the dissidents’ special typewriter and duplicator stowed in his boot.

Crossing the Iron Curtain alone and at night had been a draining experience. The stress was getting to him. The dire need to pee was receding, but he was sweating and shaking. He pulled down his slightly damp trousers and positioned them close to the heater outlet for his feet. He turned up the heat and the fan.

The road in Hungary was wider than on the Austrian side. Soon the lamp-posts which had afforded pale illumination to the border area petered out. It was not yet eleven, but his was the only vehicle on the road until he was passed by a light truck carrying ill-tied sacks of vegetables.

On the outskirts of Györ, Edward drew up at the only petrol station and pulled up his trousers. The place was closed, but there was a public phone booth lit by a very low-wattage bulb. Edward had to let Istvan know that he had crossed successfully into Hungary. They had agreed not to mention “the parcel”, now doubled to parcels, but to chat only about a meeting arranged for “tomorrow”.

The phone booth was grubby, the floor damp. Edward’s smelt urine for the second time that day. Not a dog’s, this time. He felt a spasm of worry, but forced himself to shrug it off. It could have been anyone needing a pee. He was pleased that a fissure in the concrete floor had drained most of the offending liquid. He was reminded of his own bladder. Istvan would have to wait.

Edward couldn’t face adding to the stench in the phone booth, so made his way behind the dark station building to a yard where five bursting bins jostled with cardboard boxes full of empty beer bottles and old newspapers – Magyar Hirlap, Magyar Nemzet and the Communist daily Népszabadság among them. Unzipping, he pissed strongly onto a front page showing the new Hungarian leader, Karoly Grosz, in an apparently fervent embrace with Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist Soviet President. Edward thought he could discern a trace of paprika in the steam which rose from their drowned faces.

Happily relieved, Edward returned to the smelly phone booth. Setting his feet to the left and right of what remained of the puddle, he fumbled for the forints left over from his last trip. He picked up the orange plastic handset, slotted in two coins and dialled. Nothing. Just a buzzy farting. He put the phone down and pushed a button for his money to be returned. Only one coin came back. Shit. Nothing for it, though: he must try again and hope for the best. This time, after a noisy crackle on the line, he heard a ringing.

After three dring-drings, not unlike the sound of his father’s phone in England, someone picked up. “Igen?” He recognized the voice. “Oh hello Istvan. It’s Edward. I just wanted to confirm our meeting of tomorrow morning. It’s getting a bit late, so I thought I should phone before I get to the hotel. “OK Edward. Yes, tomorrow will be alright. I’ll meet you at the Forum at ten o’clock. Drive safely.”

There were more crackles on the line. Edward replaced the phone. Istvan had told him the secret police bugged all his calls. Someone would be observing their meeting at the hotel the next morning, if it actually took place, but that didn’t matter. This call had been a coded signal for Istvan to set off discreetly for Tatabanya, the decaying industrial town 40 miles outside Budapest, to rendez-vous with Edward at another petrol station further along the road.

Less than an hour later he was in Tatabanya, stretching his legs and wondering where Istvan was. The street lighting was very weak and, like the one in Györ, the station had switched off all its lights. Only a furred-up freezer selling ice lollies and cornets, presumably from the previous summer, exuded light through the grimy windows of the station’s hut. Edward’s right foot slipped on a thin slick of oil. He guessed it had leaked from a Trabant filling up at one of the rusty pumps. He checked his watch. Where was Istvan?

He paced around, suddenly feeling very tired. What if Istvan didn’t come? They had agreed it would not be safe for Edward to take the illegal equipment to the hotel. Apart from the microphones Istvan had told him about, Edward had learned from Jonathan that cameras watched not only the stairs from the hotel’s underground car-park, but also all the rooms on the seventh floor. Edward couldn’t risk carrying the machines into his hotel room, and he couldn’t risk leaving them in his car.

Edward felt a panic attack approaching. Why had he agreed to do this for Istvan? Indeed, why had he become a foreign correspondent instead of something safe and boring as his parents had wanted. Edward remembered how his father had arranged a series of vocational tests with the careers master at the school where he taught. The conclusion had been that Edward should become a lawyer, accountant or civil servant. Edward had been horrified. He wondered if his Dad had bribed his colleague to come up with the recommendations he wanted Edward to hear.

“On no account must you go into teaching,” his father had said. He had regretted becoming a teacher and watching school-friends earn more, and buy nicer houses, as lawyers, accountants and civil servants. “Don’t worry, Dad,” Edward had replied, having spent nine months failing to impart any English to unruly French teenagers while working as an assistant in a Paris lycée. “There’s no chance of that.”

True, the careers master did express puzzlement about one answer Edward gave in a test questionnaire. “I couldn’t understand why you said you would like to be a surgeon. That didn’t fit at all. You don’t really, do you?”

Actually, Edward wouldn’t have minded being a surgeon. Not so much to perform miracles with a scalpel to save people’s lives. Rather for more frivolous reasons. Firstly, he had a very steady hand. Not only had he managed to build an 11-storey card castle during one of those interminable afternoons he had been forced to endure in his grandparents’ living room every Sunday. He had also proved an excellent rifle shot in his school’s Combined Cadet Corps. And then there was the status and money associated with being a surgeon. And, just maybe, the thrilling idea of having the power of life or death in his hands?

Edward felt a tap on the shoulder. “Aargh!” He started in terror. “It’s only me,” said Istvan, laughing. “Nothing to be frightened about.” Edward felt ashamed of his reaction. Not quite the James Bond he had been at the border.

“I was wondering where you were.”

“Feri’s car took some time to start,” Istvan said in explanation. Ferenc was one of Istvan’s fellow dissidents, and one from whom some of the vital printing equipment had been raided. “Feri sends his greetings, by the way – and thanks.”

Edward didn’t understand. He had thought Istvan would take delivery of the parcels here, at the petrol station. But there was no sign of a car. Istvan saw his puzzlement.

“Feri dropped me at Biatorbagy, and I took the train from there.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter. The point is I’m here, and now you’re going to drive us to Mark Palmer’s house. They might follow and search Feri’s car, but not yours, because they’d get protests from the State Department.”

Oh bugger! Now he was being dragged further into trouble. Palmer was the outspoken new American ambassador. INA’s editors in London had firmly instructed Edward not to let himself be sucked into US interference in Hungarian politics.

“But Istvan …”

“It’s OK. Mark’s a good man. You’ll just drive us to the embassy compound, unload the parcels in his garage, we’ll have a late-night whisky with him – he always works into the early hours, to be in touch with Washington – and then you can drive us to your hotel. Or you can leave me there, if you like. Though he has very good whisky, you know. Proper Scotch. Single malt. Not American bourbon.”

“Well, I don’t know …”

“Edward! You said you wanted to get good stories from Hungary. I’ll help you. Mark Palmer will help you. He’s a great man, and a nice man, with lots of influence. By the way, do you play tennis? He’s got a court in his back garden.”

Edward liked whisky. And he liked playing tennis.




David X. Lewis is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.