Dezso Kosztolányi ~ A Holiday Swim

Lake Bled Slovenia

The sun shone white.

As if illuminated by flashlight for a night-time photo, the small holiday resort at Lake Balaton glowed and sparkled in the sun. Everything, from the whitewashed huts to the maize sheds, looked perfectly white within the framework of the sandy beach. Even the sky was white and the acacias’ dusty leaves were as white as writing paper.

It was about half past two.

Suhajda had had an early lunch. He came down the porch steps leading to the little peasant garden in the courtyard of the summer cottage.

“Where are you off to?” asked Mrs. Suhajda, crocheting amidst the small bright flowers.

“Bathing,” yawned Suhajda, holding a pair of cherry-coloured swimming-trunks in his hand.

“Come on, take him with you” pleaded the woman.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s naughty,” answered Suhajda. “Because he’s a good-for-nothing brat.” And after a pause he added: “Because he won’t study.”

“He does study,” protested his wife, shrugging her shoulders, “he has been studying the whole morning.”

In front of the kitchen a boy of about eleven sat on a bench pricking his ears. In his lap lay a closed book, his Latin grammar.

He was a skinny child, with a shaved head. He wore a red gym shirt and linen trousers, and had leather sandals on his bare feet. He blinked towards his father and mother.

“Well,” said Suhajda harshly and with a severe toss of his head, “how do you say: ‘They shall praise me?'”

“Lauderentur,” mumbled the child in confusion without thinking, but standing up before answering as if he were in school.

“Lauderentur,” nodded Suhajda ironically, “lauderentur indeed. You will fail in your second examination too.”

“No, no, he knows it,” interjected the mother trying to find excuses for the boy, “but he gets all tangled up. You frighten him.”

“I shall take him out of school, honest to God I will,” the father said, working himself into a rage. “I’ll make a locksmith out of him, or a cartwright.”

He had no idea why in his anger he had chosen these particular trades, which he knew nothing about.

“Come here, Johnny,” said the mother, “you will study, won’t you, Johnny darling?”

“He’ll be the end of me, this snivelling brat,” interrupted Suhajda, for anger was the spice of life to him. “The end of me,” he repeated sensing how his wrath was widening his arteries and chasing away the afternoon’s boredom.

“I’ll study,” stammered the boy in a whisper. And in his humiliated nonentity he glanced for support towards his mother. He could hardly bear to look at his father. He did not see him. He only felt him. Everywhere, always, hatefully.

“Don’t study,” said Suhajda with a deprecatory gesture. “Don’t bother about studying. It’s quite unnecessary!”

“But he does study,” repeated the mother, cuddling the boy’s head. “And surely you will forgive him. Johnny,” she added in the same breath, unexpectedly, “bring your bathing-trunks down at once. Your father will take you for a swim.”

Johnny did not quite understand what was happening. He did not even realize that his mother’s intervention had in some miraculous way settled the long drawn-out squabble between his father and himself. Anyway, he rushed up to the porch and into his little dark room. He searched wildly for his cherry coloured bathing-suit. It was exactly like his father’s, only smaller. Mrs. Suhajda had made them both.

The father seemed to hesitate. Without answering his wife’s request directly, he stopped at a gooseberry bush, as if waiting for his son to catch up with him. Then he appeared to change his mind and went out by the little garden-gate. He walked towards the lake somewhat more slowly than usual.

It took quite a few minutes for the boy to find his bathing trunks.

Johnny had failed in Latin at his exams in the second grade of secondary school. He was preparing to try again in the autumn, but was rather lax about it.

As a punishment his father had forbidden him to bathe for a whole week. He would have had two more days without bathing, so now he felt he had to make the most of this golden opportunity. He turned everything inside out. When he at last discovered his bathing-suit, he did not even bother to wrap it up, but just flourished it in his hand as he rushed down to the courtyard. There his mother was waiting for him. He stretched up to kiss the sweet face he so worshipped, and then hurried after his father.

His mother called after him that she would be coming down to the shore later on.

Suhajda was about twenty steps ahead of his son on the footpath. Johnny’s leather sandals sailed through the dust as he ran after him. He caught up with his father by the campion hedge. But he did not rush right up to him, just sidled up shyly like a dog which is not quite sure of its welcome.

The father did not say a word. His face, which the child watched with quick sidelong glances, was unapproachable and non-committal. He threw back his head, and stared into space. He paid no attention to the boy at his side, as if he were unaware of his existence.

Johnny, who had felt quite happy a few minutes ago, again became downcast and flustered. He felt thirsty, would have liked to drink, run behind a tree, or even turn back. But he was afraid that his father might shout at him again, and so he had to bear the situation he had created lest it should turn from bad to worse. He kept wondering what would happen to him next.

It took hardly more than four minutes to walk from the house to the beach. As resorts go, the place was pretty shabby. No electricity, no comfort. The beach was pebbly, the whole place sadly second-class. Poorly-paid clerks passed their summer vacation here with their families.

Under the mulberry-trees in the sweltering courtyards, men and women sat around barefooted and scantily clad, munching water-melons and corn on the cob.

Suhajda greeted his acquaintances in his normal friendly voice. During these blissful minutes of armistice the boy confidently concluded that his father was not as angry as he pretended to be.

Before long, however, his father’s forehead clouded over once more.

Crickets were chirping in the sunshine. A sweetly stale whiff from the lake reached their nostrils, as the decayed bath-house came into view. But Suhajda still kept silent.

The woman in charge, Mrs. Istenes – a dotted red scarf wound round her hair – opened their respective cabins. One for the father; the second, in which Mrs. Suhajda generally undressed, for the boy. There was no one else at the beach, aside from a young fellow who was occupied with repairing an old skiff. At the moment he was trying to straighten some crooked rusty nails with a hammer.

Johnny got undressed first.

He came out of his cabin, but did not quite know what to do. He did not dare to go into the water by himself, though he had yearned for it so long. Waiting for his father in confused embarrassment, he studied his feet with painful interest as if he saw them for the first time.

At last Suhajda stepped out of the cabin in his cherry-coloured bathing-trunks. Although tending to corpulence, he was a strongly-built man, and his chest was covered with black hair that aroused the child’s constant admiration.

Johnny looked up at him, trying to read in his eyes. But he could not see into them, the gold-framed spectacles shone too brightly.

Blushing with embarrassment he watched his father walk into the lake.

He did not follow him until Suhajda flung at him over his shoulders:

“Come on.”

Even then he did not plunge into the water or swim about like a frog as he generally did. He just stumbled timidly after his father, waiting for a word of encouragement. Suhajda noticed the boy’s behaviour.

“Afraid?” he asked sullenly over his shoulder.

“No.”

“Why do you act like an idiot then?”

They stood beside the pole where the water reached up to the chest of the child and a little below the father’s waist. They both crouched in the water up to their necks, luxuriating in its mild caress, its apple-green and milky-white shimmer.

A sense of well-being inspired Suhajda to playful teasing.

“You are a coward, my friend.”

“No.”

Suhajda grabbed his son with both arms, lifted him high and threw him into the water.

Johnny flew through the air and fell back with an enormous splash, landing on his bottom. The lake opened under him, and then closed in over his head tempestuously with a mysterious droning. It took him a few seconds to struggle back to the surface. Water bubbled from his mouth and nose. He rubbed his blinded eyes with both his fists.

“Nasty, what?” asked the father.

“No.”

“Then once more. One, two,” and he took the boy in both his arms.

At the word “three,” he flung the boy with a big swing in the same direction, but a little farther than before, beyond the next pole to which several ropes were tied. He, therefore, did not observe how his son after turning a somersault, fell into the water with head thrown back and arms stretched out. Suhajda turned away without misgiving.

In front of him lay the sunlit shore, and the water in between sparkled as if millions of butterflies were fluttering over its surface on diamond wings.

He waited a few seconds like the first time, and then asked in annoyance:

“What’s up?”

Then, as the silence continued, he raised his voice threateningly, hoarsely:

“Come on! Don’t play-act like that.”

Still no answer.

“Where are you?” he cried a little louder, looking all about him and peering near-sightedly even into the distance, for Johnny could swim under water and so might pop up almost anywhere.

Yet all the while Suhajda had the uncomfortable feeling that much more time had gone by than on the previous occasion.

He became thoroughly alarmed.

He sprang up and, pushing his way through the water as fast as he could, tried to reach the spot where his son had presumably disappeared, all the time shouting:

“Johnny, Johnny!”

He did not find him behind the pole. Now he began to dig around with both his arms, as if shoveling gravel. He churned up the water at random. He tried to peer down to the bottom but the muddy lake remained inscrutable, even when he put his hitherto dry head below the surface till his eyes protruded behind their lenses like fish eyes. Then he started to search under the water more systematically, lying flat on his belly in the mud, kneeling, crouching, leaning first on one elbow, then on the other, going round and round in circles, or moving sideways – but all in vain.

The boy was nowhere to be found. And all around him water, the terrifying uniformity of water.

He came up for a long breath, panting and sputtering.

While under water, he vaguely hoped that by the time he came up his son would be there too, laughing, standing beside the pole or even further out, perhaps he had already run to his cabin to dress. But when Suhajda came up, he realized that, although time had seemed endless down there, he had only been under water for a few seconds and that his son could not have left the lake meanwhile.

Above the surface there reigned a calm indifference such as he would have found it impossible to imagine previously.

“Hallo, hallo!” he shouted towards the shore in a voice he himself could not recognize, “I can’t find him anywhere!”

The lad who was tinkering with the boat, cupped his hand to his ear.

“What is it?”

“He is nowhere!” cried the father in despair.

“Who?”

“I can’t find him,” he yelled till his voice broke. “Help!”

The lad put his hammer on the seat of the skiff, kicked off his trousers – so as not to soak them – and waded into the lake. He hurried as fast as he could, but to the desperate man in the water it looked as if the other was just dawdling. Meanwhile Suhajda plunged again and again and, crawling along on his knees, searched in another direction. Then, shocked to see how far he had advanced, he each time returned to his point of departure, where he – as it were – stood on guard. He clung to the pole with both hands, so as not to succumb to the dizziness which befell him.

By the time the young man reached him, Suhajda was panting dizzily. He could not give any articulate answer to the lad’s questions.

Both of them were floundering about aimlessly.

On the shore, Mrs. Istenes was wringing her hands. Her screaming drew a crowd of twenty or thirty people to the shore. They brought boat-hooks and nets with them. Even a small boat set out for the scene of the accident – which was really quite superfluous as the water there was quite shallow.

The news spread quickly all over the village that somebody had drowned. Already as an established fact.

At that very moment amidst the flowers of the peasant garden Mrs. Suhajda was putting down her crocheting. She went up to the little dark room, where Johnny a little while ago had looked for his bathing-suit. She locked the room and started to walk towards the lake as she had promised him.

She walked slowly under her parasol, which protected her against the glaring rays of the sun, wondering whether to bathe or not, but finally deciding against it. As she reached the campion hedge, the thread of her thoughts broke off confusedly, and she shut her parasol and began to run. She kept on running all the way to the beach.

There she saw two gendarmes and a muttering crowd, mostly peasant women. Many of them were crying.

The mother understood at once what had happened. Wailing uncontrollably, she stumbled towards the beach, where a small group formed a close circle round her son who lay sprawling on the sand. They did not let her approach. They seated her on a chair. She was close to fainting as she asked, over and over again, whether he was still alive.

No, he was not. They had found him, after searching for fifteen minutes, right behind the pole where the father had knelt and plunged all the time. His heart had stopped beating. His pupils did not react to light any longer. The doctor had held him upside down, shaken the water out of him, propped up his chest, tried artificial breathing, applied gymnastics to the tiny dead arms for a long time, listened to the heart with his stethoscope – all in vain. Finally he had thrown his instruments into his bag and left.

This death, which had happened so suddenly, with such apparent capriciousness, was by now as everlastingly real, as firm and immovable as the mightiest of mountains.

The mother was carried home in a peasant cart. Suhajda was still sitting on the shore in his cherry-coloured bathing-trunks. His face and his spectacles were dripping with water and tears. He kept on sighing beside himself:

“Oh God, oh God, oh God.”

He was helped to his feet and led to his cabin to get dressed at last.

It wasn’t three o’clock yet.

DGG fur DMdJ

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