MÉNES Attila - Mrs Gábrielís Illness
Gábrielné betegsége
 

Where does the mess come from? What is the source of all the household dust that covers the varnished table and the top of the cabinets? "I have to clean every other day or you'd be swamped by dirt", said Mrs. Joseph Gabriel to her husband, her mute mother-in-law who was confined to a wheelchair, and her son. Her complaints had cause. By Tuesday following the exhaustive weekend cleaning, piles of dirty laundry stood in the corner of the living room, unwashed dishes lay on the table, the window of the glassware cabinet fogged up, and a stench of unknown origin wafted through the apartment. Mrs. Gabriel felt her life was consumed by the hopeless struggle for cleanliness. It was useless to shut the window, the sliver of draught brought in dog hair, ash, and - according to Mrs. Gabriel - desert sand as well. The dirt entered the apartment from out there.
     Apart from Mrs. Gabriel, only 'Ol Brother mentioned the eternal disorder. 'Ol Brother, Gabriel's older brother, was mentally ill, and lived in the institution. He was granted leave once or twice a month, and then he would hurry to Mrs. Gabriel's apartment. He was only able to stay a few hours, during which he made himself thoroughly at home, uninhibitedly kicking off his hospital shoes, then his hospital coat, and criticizing Mrs. Gabriel for the extent of the mess. "Inside, where we are, they always wash the floors and put things in their place! Not like here. They take care about that sort of thing there."

 
       'Ol Brother didn't look mentally ill. He gave the impression of being a decidedly healthy person, and the contrary was only indicated by his never closing his mouth. Sometimes he even left his tongue out, and it would hang between his lips like a piece of dead meat. Mrs. Gabriel often confronted 'Ol Brother with this habit of his. She quizzed him as to whether he was perhaps "chewing a spike, or sucking on a ball bearing?, in any case what he was doing was very disgusting." But 'Ol Brother paid no attention to such nagging, he would pause for a few seconds, then purposefully relate that in the institute they washed their own linen, and didn't throw it all about at night, when they undressed. It was no wonder that after such visits, Joseph Gabriel had to listen to his wife's intriguing for hours, nay for days: "'Ol Brother only comes here out of self-interest, he takes the news back, spreads malicious gossip about the family; he only disgraces us in front of the neighbors, and he steals things too. We shouldn't let him in. He might be dangerously insane, and you can't tell when it will come to the surface. He'll even raise a hand against the family in the end." Gabriel, however, usually just waved off such accusations. It's true a silver spoon or two went missing sometimes, a pot would be lost without a trace, or a tie searched for in vain, but who cared? 'Ol Brother was his brother after all, let him take what he needed. They couldn't give him money. But sometimes 'Ol Brother could cause greater unpleasantness. Once, for example, he announced he had been released from the institution, cured, and could now stay with the Gabriels forever. As proof of his status, he brought a change of linen in a plastic shopping bag. He demanded they show him the bed he would be sleeping in, advance him a hundred forints and a pack of cigarettes. Mrs. Gabriel, of course, saw through the ruse right away, and squinted at Gabriel. Using making the bed as an alibi, she hurried to the room facing the street. She opened a window. Their neighbor, Mr. Ede was arriving home from work just then, fortuitously. Mrs. Gabriel leaned out at the waist, and whispered: "Run get an ambulance, Mr. Ede, there's big trouble."
     Their helpful neighbor didn't need much convincing, and in barely a quarter of an hour, the ambulance stopped in front of the Gabriels' gate with a squeal of brakes and sirens blaring. Three behemoths in white robes sprang forth, clattering wildly. Pushing aside Mrs. Gabriel, with her arm outstretched holding their tip, 'that's not why we're here, Ma'am', they burst into the kitchen. They threw themselves on 'Ol Brother, who up to this point had been chatting nonchalantly with the chalk-white, stuttering Gabriel. He had been showing off the chestnut dogs and horses he made at the institution. He explained: 'It's forbidden to beat these animals, and in any case they're tame, they don't hurt anyone. They don't eat much, need little living space, and don't make a mess.' The attack caught the patient completely unaware. To his credit, he didn't try to defend himself, though Gabriel couldn't have seen this, as he had backed into the room facing the street. 'Ol Brother tolerated being led out of the apartment obediently, without a word. He only started struggling when they pushed him toward the car. He called for Gabriel, asking his brother to protect him, not to let them take him away. For this he received a slap in the face, so he decided he was better off staying quiet. His legs seemed to have gone numb, and he surely would have collapsed had strong hands not supported him. They dragged him on the ground the last few meters, even giving him a kick or two, telling him 'behave for Pete's sake, or there'll be a lot of trouble about this little escapade.'
     After the ambulance finally drove off, sirens blaring, Mrs. Gabriel leaned out the window again and saw the narrow street had filled with neighbors. Mrs. Gabriel closed the window and even let down the blinds, though it was early afternoon and the sun was shining. She swore in a hoarse voice, slammed the ashtray to the ground, then shoved her husband - standing there stupidly - in the chest, 'I didn't deserve a scandal like this, what an horrible life', and threw herself on the couch, weeping.
     Following the shameful incident, 'Ol Brother didn't appear for a long time. The information was that his condition was deteriorating rapidly, he didn't eat, didn't speak, just lay there in his room at the institution. They stuffed him with anti-depressants, but it was no use. Then, after some time, he came around again, as though nothing had happened. When he knocked on the window, the mother locked the child into the back room. He had to play there, he still wasn't allowed to see 'Ol Brother, and only knew him from photographs. The pictures were taken before 'the big motorcycle accident', and showed a good-looking, thin young boy, who put his arm around Gabriel's shoulder. The two young men looked extraordinarily alike. Mrs. Gabriel, however, was unmoved by this resemblance. She decided she would put an end to the disagreeable visits. Her resolution was unexpectedly reinforced by the belligerent Mr. Ede. One day the neighbor was on his way home from the store when he noticed a figure peeping through the Gabriels' window. Mr. Ede didn't hesitate long, he grabbed 'Ol Brother's wrist, twisted it backwards and threw the patient to the ground. The window swung open after the wailing began. Mrs. Gabriel leaned out, an expression of derision on her face, and encouraged Mr. Ede: 'keep hitting the miserable wretch, while he's still warm'. Mr. Ede hadn't recognize the peeper, and had taken him for a thief preparing to break in. Following the incident, Mrs. Gabriel did everything she could to prevent 'Ol Brother from getting into their apartment. She arranged for the institution to send a telegram before they let the elder Gabriel out. She succeeded in convincing her husband to visit relatives on those days. If they stayed home, they should not open the door, no matter how hard 'that depraved maniac' banged on the window. She simultaneously commissioned Mr. Ede: 'If you know God, you should chase that trash away, he's the shame of the family; don't be merciful like the last time, 'Ol Brother got off easy then." The child, of course knew nothing of these developments. If 'Ol Brother came and knocked, he didn't have to go into the back room anymore, staying quiet sufficed. He didn't make noise, didn't move. He took these warnings seriously, even holding his breath until the thumping and shouting stopped. Outside the door at these times, Mr. Ede's voice could be heard regularly, along with some inarticulate lamentations. Then the row quieted, and there was silence. The child's heart beat loudly. The adults stayed quiet too. Gabriel was ashamed, the old lady simpered in terror in the wheelchair. Mrs. Gabriel began sweeping exultantly, then brought some pastry in for the family.
     Who could be the person that caused all of this? The child couldn't comprehend it. Then one fall weekend (a chilly All Souls Day) he found out. His parents and grandmother had gone to the cemetery, the child played on the floor in his room. There was a knocking at the door. Just three or four weak knocks, as if the person doing it was afraid of breaking the window. Maybe it wasn't even a knock, just the wind whipping a branch against the window pane. The child didn't move, he was genuinely paralyzed with terror. More knocks. Now it was certain someone was out there and wanted to come in. The child made himself as small as he could. Of course, he didn't believe he could escape. He was sure they could see him from outside. He couldn't hide, perhaps even the walls were transparent. Now the knocking was strong, and shouting could be heard too, embittered, but still hopeful shouting. It was 'Ol Brother, naturally. He demanded they let him in the house. 'I know you're home!' And he was almost screaming as he asked 'please forgive me if I've made a mistake, I can't help being sick', then switched to pleading 'don't be mad at me anymore, it doesn't matter that you beat me, just let me in!' What could the child do? He got out from behind his entrenchment and opened the window.
     He didn't have a key to the apartment, but even 'Ol Brother understood that, once he quieted down. A little conversation satisfied him. He said he couldn't stay long this time anyway, he had to get back by dark, and, 'It's late enough as it is, though it's true I don't have far to go, the institution is only two blocks away'. The patient called the child 'my little Joey' the whole time, and the child realized right away, that the stranger (who still very much resembled the child's father) could only be the feared 'Ol Brother. He also understood that 'Ol Brother mistook him for his father, and was surprised that 'Ol Brother was not frightening, not someone to be terrified of. He thought the way his tongue hung out of his mouth was a little strange but not really extraordinary. And it was almost natural for the patient to ask him for a pack of cigarettes on parting. 'Ol Brother made him promise to visit the institution if his schedule allowed. That's how they parted.
     The child didn't have to wait long for this visit. The carnival setting up on the square at the end of the street provided the opportunity. Gathering all his courage, he fibbed to his mother, saying he would like to see it, she should let him go, and he would come right back; he would just run over to 'that strange, miraculous world', as the billboards advertised, and run right back. Luckily, they let him go. He was unable to follow his plan through, however. He ran past the carnival shacks like a rabbit, only glancing at the glittering, revolving neon designs and the bustling crowd. He didn't even hear the screaming monkeys, the blasts of the BB guns, or the music. But as soon as he reached the institution's fence, his courage deserted him. He didn't dare ring. He wasn't sure how long he stood there, searching one particular barred window, without getting a glimpse of 'Ol Brother.
     Perhaps he had been away too long, or maybe his disingenuous look gave him away, in any case he got a big beating at home. 'I'll disown you, then you can go to the institution too' was how his mother greeted him. He was already in the small room, where he had been locked for punishment, when he heard his father rising to his defense. 'You belong there too, along with your cripple of a mother', shrieked Mrs. Gabriel. Fortunately, the child couldn't see his mother finally collapsing into the bed, her limbs beginning to move as if they had lives of their own, flailing about, her mouth covered with thick white foam. The child saw something completely different that night in the half-darkened room. He knelt in the corner, at the foot of a pile of dirty laundry taller than himself. He recognized his mother's bathrobe and his grandmother's blouses among the unwashed clothes.
     His father's shirt was there, along with his underwear and his gardening coat. His own winter suit towered above him, and he discovered one of his pyjama tops as well. At the top of the pile throned wrinkled bed linen, pillow cases, sheets and a small pillow the child saw as a human head without eyes or a mouth. A thick layer of dust covered the floor, he would have liked to draw something in it. Beside his knee, a big black bug dragged itself toward a muddy shoe. The eternal draught rolled fist-sized dustballs around, and under the bed, glinting, was a lost silver spoon.

Translated by REICH Péter

 
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