Chapter 02 – The Beautiful Things

“Ok,” she agreed, and thought for a while, then began: “A few years ago, I had a summer job at the university campus inStirling. I don’t know about the quality of education there, but the campus is definitely a pretty place. It was early July, and one night, just as the sun was setting, I decided to take a walk. I came to the rugby field on the edge of the campus, and lay down into the soft grass. It was abouthalf past ten, which was incredibly late for a sunset, and the sky still bore shades of golden. I was listening to music, one of those slow melting songs with multiple voices that remind you of the viscosity of universe, there was a very thin crescent of the moon shining through the dark, heavy clouds hanging over my head… and I suddenly thought they were too low, the clouds, it felt like the sky was falling down on me… But it was like a soft blanket, nothing that would evoke fear in me. The sky was falling, and I was the only real person in the world. Nothing else mattered. No one else mattered. I was alone with the coming night and that was all that existed. Ever…”

“I didn’t know the universe was viscous,” he quietly smiled.

“It probably isn’t. It’s just an idea I sometimes get when I think of it. As a slowly moving matter.”

“Do you like loneliness?”

“I need it. To recharge, so to speak.”

“The space to breathe freely…”

She nodded.

“Give me another beautiful thing.”

She laughed shortly, soundlessly. “Ok; speaking of sunsets, that same summer I was also briefly working nearDundee. The village was called Broughty Ferry, and the place where I was staying was just across the road from the castle on the beach. And I liked to go to the beach every evening, because as much as I hate the smell of sea water, I love the waves. I’m drawn to the sea… and I would stand there, watch the magnificent rosy sunsets and the ink darkness chasing away the sun. ThenDundeewould light up like a terrestrial constellation, and I would watch it, enchanted, until the cold would remind me that it’s too late for me to dwell there. I did have to get up for work early in the morning.”

“I think I liked theStirlingexperience better.”

“Yeah, this one sounded a bit pathetic. Although, the first morning we arrived I looked out of my window and saw something which actually looked a lot like dolphins. That was pretty cool.”

“But you’re not sure what they were?”

“Well, the guys I was staying there with, my colleagues, said they were really dolphins, but… I don’t know. My employers seemed to think the waters were too cold for dolphins.”

“I guess you’ll have to go back there one day and find out for yourself, then.”

“I guess,” she nodded.

“And until then, you can feed me more beauty.”

She shook her head and got up. “I’m cold, I need to move.”

“Ok. We should find a… toilet anyway. Wouldn’t be tactical if we polluted this corner of the cave,” he pointed out and got up to follow her. “Besides, I’m not giving you the torch and you’d get lost without it.”

“There’s two of them.”

“I’m not giving you either of them. We’ll have light longer if we save the other one till the first one’s dead.”

“Ok,” she shrugged.

“It won’t help, you know. You’ll be cold in five minutes after you sit down again.”

“Then I won’t sit down.”

“Right. You’ll keep walking for two days. You sure look like you have the energy for such a stunt.”

“I might get to learn to sleep while I’m walking,” she shrugged, not really caring about the argument. She liked to cross bridges when she came to them, it tended to be less stressful.

“Either you’re going to prove you’re very good or that you’re an idiot.”

“I’m a very good idiot.”

“Why do you need proof of that, then?”

“I don’t. Right now I’m just moving not to be cold. When I’m cold the next time, I’ll think of something else. Or I won’t. Why do you care, anyway? It’s my screwed-up specific heat capacity, you’re obviously fine.”

“I’m worried you might want to do something stupid. Like asking for my contribution.”

“I just might,” she grinned evilly.

“And here I was, so sure you were more afraid of me than I’m of you…” he remarked.

“You’re afraid of me?”

“We’re stuck in a cave for God knows how long and you have some very unsettling qualities. That just reeks of disaster.”

“Should’ve thought of that before you buried me with you,” she suggested lightly.

“D’you have a death wish?”

“No, I just love pissing you off,” she smiled.

“Great.”

“What about down there?” she changed the topic, while the torchlight in his control followed her hand back to the recently scanned denting in the cave’s wall. “It’s below our potential water supply and it’s out of sight.”

“Sounds good,” he nodded at her choice. “Wanna make a stop while we’re here?”

“No, I’m fine.”

“Ok, do you want to go back now, or do you want to keep moving?”

“I want to run around this place till I sweat like a pig.”

“Not an option.”

“Fine, let’s go back then.”

She made way for him to pass her and then followed towards the mouth of the cave.

“What did you mean, ‘unsettling qualities’?” she asked after a short silence.

“You’re interesting, funny and not exactly bad looking, though I probably wouldn’t call you gorgeous, but you’re pretty enough.”

“Enough for what?”

“To be called pretty.”

“Ok,” she smiled. “I suggest you think of your wife when you share your warmth with me tonight.”

“Damn. If only I’d known I’d once find myself in this situation, I’d have made sure I married someone.”

“Too bad.”

“Can’t we do it some other way?” he asked, mocking a worried expression.

“We can pretend I’m fourteen,” she shrugged.

“That might work,” he grinned.

“Ok, that’s settled then.”

They went on in silence, until he spoke: “Wait. You mean I’ve just agreed to warm you up tonight?”

“I wasn’t asking you.”

“Good, cause I couldn’t remember you doing it.”

“You are going to do it, though.”

“Or what?”

“Or we’ll both be cold.”

“True.”

They reached the blocked mouth of the cave and he picked up her handbag. “Anything brittle in there?”

“A few things,” she shrugged.

“Take them out, we need to sit on something.”

She removed her camera and mobile phone from the bag and handed it back to him while she looked for a safe place to put the fragile objects so that they didn’t get stepped on later. Henry meanwhile adjusted her handbag on the ground, then sat down on it, and when she was near, he took hold of Dorianna and arranged her into his arms.

“Now talk to me,” he said, switching off the torch.

“What are you doing?”

“Saving the batteries for the toilet trips,” he explained. “Just relax and talk to me.”

“Ok…” she took a deep breath, and then remembered something. “One day, when I was six, my class went for a walk, a very long one. We followed an old road up the hill along the fields, and then we reached a deciduous forest. It was probably early November, and the trees were mostly yellow. The teacher suddenly said that one of the kids had a surprise for us, and the moment she said that, the wind picked up and the yellow leaves started falling in clouds like shiny golden rain. I never understood how that could’ve happened, because apparently this was the surprise. But how could a six-year-old kid have even predicted anything like that? It was like magic, it was amazing. I still don’t know what really happened.”

“Probably a lucky coincidence.”

“Maybe. But he must’ve known something…”

“Or he might have just guessed…”

“I suppose. It’s not like I want to know, though. Cause the magic would be gone.”

He smiled.

“Speaking of magic… I used to commute to school, and I was also taking piano lessons in that town. And after those lessons I had to wait for about an hour for the bus home, so the teacher let me stay in the school, especially in the winter. And I would play the piano, mostly things I’d learned from the previous lesson or ones I’d written myself, and outside it was dark and cold, and the snow was falling, and sometimes I would get up to look out from the window… it faced the town’s square, which was then decorated for Christmas. There were lights in the windows and around the square itself, and people were walking there among the snowflakes and everything was so peaceful…”

“And you were happy,” he concluded.

“Yes, I was,” she nodded.

“But when you had that magical moment inStirling, you weren’t really happy, were you?”

“Not really, no.”

“Tell me about another moment when you were happy…”

“I thought we were talking about beautiful things.”

“And since beautiful things make you happy, I thought we were still within the margins.”

“I suppose,” she shrugged. “In that case it will definitely have to beCopenhagen.”

“What were you doing inCopenhagen?”

“Visiting a friend. We were meeting there ‘cause it was more convenient for both of us, he’s not from there… I arrived a day earlier, so I had some time to walk around the city, and I fell in love with it immediately. It’s so pretty, and so stylish! There was a sign at the airport saying… God, I can’t remember anymore… it was something like ‘Welcome toDenmark, the country of passion and style’, I think. And I couldn’t quite picture it at the time, ‘cause it was the first time I ever set foot on Danish soil. But then I was amazed… I’d spent the summer working inNorway, and while I have nothing againstNorwayas such, it did seem the shopping opportunities were virtually non-existent, at least in the sense that you couldn’t get anything more interesting there than you can here. Oh, butDenmark… The shops were full of beautiful things! It’s not like I’m such a keen shopper or anything, I just value style, can’t really explain…”

“I think I know what you mean. But do go on…”

“Right. I suppose it was that the city made me feel like I was at home from the start. I mean sometimes you come to a place and you don’t really know your way around, and it’s just so… alien… butCopenhagenwas friendly from the beginning. Except when I arrived at the train station in the centre and I couldn’t find another way out of the station, which was like two floors underground, than a staircase. I had two suitcases and a handbag with me, and the only lift I could find was from the second floor below ground to the first floor below ground, but no lift up to the surface. So I took one of the suitcases, carried it up one flight of the stairs, then ran back for the other… and as I was standing there, panting like a dog, this homeless man came to me and probably wanted to offer me the Danish version of the Big Issue. So I told him I didn’t understand Danish, and he asked in English if I was all right. I mean a homeless guy speaking English. That just proves how little I know of these people… Anyway, I told him I just had to carry the suitcases up the stairs (meanwhile I’d discovered there was yet another flight of stairs), and that it had made me a bit breathless. And he said ‘Why don’t I take them up for you, then?’ And he did. It was incredible. There were hundreds of people around, and I get help from a homeless guy. He never even wanted anything for it. I still feel bad for it.”

“People don’t always need to get paid for helping others.”

“No, that’s not what I meant. Not really. I just don’t like taking without giving back… I went back later that day, because my friend hadn’t showed up and I had until next morning till he was going to arrive, and I wanted to find the homeless guy and invite him for a supper or at least coffee or something. Which would’ve probably been good for both of us. He’d get a decent meal and I wouldn’t have to be on my own. But I didn’t find him.”

“Shame. So you were coming home fromNorwayand stopped inCopenhagen, am I right?”

“Yeah.”

“To visit a friend who is a he…”

“I’m not going there, Henry.”

“Ok.”

“Good. Anyway, as I was saying, I loved the city. I went to the botanic garden one morning, and the gallery and the geological museum, which are all very close to each other. The botanic garden was beautiful, and I loved the geological museum, though it was very underfinanced and kind of shabby, but stones are stones, they’re still beautiful no matter where you put them, right? Unless it’s a really distasteful jewel. I bought a few opals there, for a ridiculously low price. But I suppose they weren’t the kind you can make into real gems if you know what I mean. Still, I love opals. And moldavites. But those are hellishly expensive.”

“I know,” he smiled. “There’s a beautiful collection of them in theNationalMuseuminPrague. Including some very interesting jewels made from them.”

“You seem to know a lot about gems…”

“I originally wanted to be a geologist. Well, a kind of. A volcanologist, to be more precise.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, I know. Could’ve had an exciting life.”

“No, I mean… I love volcanoes too.”

“Great. That’s something else we have in common.”

“What are the other things?”

“Well, being stuck here for one…” he suggested, and she laughed. “But you never told me how the gallery was.”

“I hated the gallery.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, absolutely. I swore I’d never go to a gallery again.”

“Why?”

“There was just so much violence in all the art. Dead animals, dead people, martyrs, blood, and suffering reeking from every inch of the walls, it was unbearable. And on one of walls, right, there was this little shelf, and on that shelf there was an electric kettle. And in that kettle there was a dead goldfish floating in formaldehyde.”

“My God!”

“I know! And they call that art! It’s like that shark in a tank thing all over again. Do you know Roger Scruton?”

“Rings a faint bell. Who is he?”

“A philosopher, and an aesthetician and probably something else, too. And he thinks all young people today just rebel against their parents and take drugs.”

“Nice.”

“Yeah, I generally hate his guts, but he’s right about some things. It seems that some branches of art, at least, seem to be based on shocking people. But the trouble with that is that you always have to go further and further with the shocking. First you have toilets arranged as art, then you get goldfish in formaldehyde in an electric kettle, and then you have to go even further and bring on the shark in the tank. And then some idiot would cross the line by tying a dog to a post, letting him gradually starve to death and calling it art as well.”

She was angry again, but not the same way she had been angry with him when they had been arguing about the ants earlier. This anger came hand in hand with strong, almost overwhelming passion.

“That does suck,” he agreed.

“Yeah. And then my friend took me to Luisiana. That’s a modern art museum nearCopenhagen.”

“I know that.”

“I didn’t,” she smiled. “When he said we were going to Luisiana, I was like ‘what?!’. But I loved that place. And they had this huge canvas by Anself Kiefer there, which was incredible. I’d been reading Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory for my bachelor thesis and there is a part about Anselm Kiefer, and a few reproductions of his paintings, and suddenly I had this huge canvas before me that stretched across a whole wall of the room! I was so excited!”

“Like you are now?”

She laughed. “Yeah, exactly like now. But that wasn’t the best part of the trip. In fact, the whole trip was a long streak of happiness. We went on to Helsingør and boarded a ferry to Sweden. I’d always wanted to go toSweden! And we climbed on the upper deck and he said ‘This castle is where Hamlet is supposed to take place’. I hadn’t realized. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean Helsingør and Elsinor… And the place where we landed was of course Helsinborg, and I’m told my favourite Swedish writer lives there now.”

“Who’s that?”

“Bertil Mårtensson.”

“Never heard of him.”

“I got one of his books from my mum when I was about nine. I loved it. Never could lay my hands on anything else by him, but since this was his first book, I’d say he must’ve improved.”

“Maybe. Did you meet him?”

“No. But it was enough that I was in the city. And then we went on to Malmö, and from there we went back toCopenhagen.“

„Across the bridge.“

„Across the bridge,“ she nodded. „It had been my childhood dream to cross that bridge. I’d been wondering what it would be like for ages. And then I saw it from the plane just before we landed at Kastrup, but it seemed so small I was almost disappointed. But we must’ve still been very high, because when we were driving across it, it was huge.“

„He must’ve been a great friend, taking you to all these fabulous places.“

„Yeah, I still have no idea why he did that.“

„I suppose he was your friend and wanted to make you happy?“

„Not that much of a friend.“

„What, then?“

„Sorry, Henry, I really don’t want to talk about him.“

„Ok, my bad. It’s just that he seemed to have given you something that you never got from anyone else. I mean so much happiness. How come you got it from him and didn’t get it from people closer to you?“

„But I did,“ she protested.

„Go on, then, convince me,“ he encouraged her.

„For example on my sixteenth birthday, my parents took me toBratislava, for some reason. But it was the loveliest birthday I’d had until then. The city has a nice atmosphere to it, it’s so cosy and warm and friendly. At least it was that summer. There was a laser show at the old town hall every night, and we would go there and sit at a café in the corner of the square. And there was this guy there, not really a waiter, though he sometimes helped, and he looked like Marti Pellow from Wet Wet Wet when he still had long hair.”

“Marti Pellow’s a great singer.”

“I know. I saw Wet Wet Wet live the other year, and I don’t think I ever heard a better singer than Marti.”

“How come the parents just took you? Don’t you have siblings?”

“My sister was in theUSat the time.”

“Oh, I see.”

“When I was eighteen, my parents took me toBudapest, and we didn’t take my sister with us either. Don’t know why, though. She was probably occupied elsewhere. She’s older than me, you know.”

“Ok. So how did you likeBudapest?”

“Loved it, actually. It’s so beautiful. You know what’s incredible?”

“No?”

“They actually gave theRoyalPalaceplastic windows.”

“No way.”

“Yes way.”

“Wow. I mean imagine theBuckinghamPalacewith plastic windows…”

“I know!”

“Ok, enough mocking the Hungarians. Where else did you go with your parents?”

“Croatia,Turkey,Crete. I took a voluntary trip toBelgium, theNetherlandsand Germanywith my school. Not my class, just kids assembled from all over the place.Croatiawas nice. We went south to the lakes, they’re beautiful. Of course that was shortly after the war had ended, and there was a lot of damage to be seen across the countryside. Houses speckled with bullet holes, ghost villages and things like that. But the lakes were really magnificent. And then there wasTurkey. I hatedTurkey. Mostly because my parents wouldn’t let us go anywhere by ourselves, and I just need to be alone from time to time.”

“I know, you said.”

“There you go. It’s important to me. I can’t be with people all the time, I just can’t. And then there was the food… and we took a trip to Kapadokkia, for two days. And in the morning I woke up and before long I started to feel really sick. I ended up vomiting for the better part of the morning. What I did like aboutTurkey, were the Ancient Greek places.Ephesus, Miletos, Pergamon and the others… We also went to Gallipoli, which was quite depressing. They have a museum full of bones and the soldiers’ last letters home and stuff. There was a boot with a piece of bone sticking out of it. And a skull with a bullet hole right between the eyes. They say that so many people died there that you can still find traces of them everywhere around the peninsula. Have you been to Henri-Chapelle?”

“Yes.”

“I suppose Gallipoli is practically the same. Only Henri-Chapelle is more organized. All of the bones there have names above them on the crosses.”

“Can we talk about something other than graves, please?”

“Course we can. We went to Istanbulafter Gallipoli and it was a bit of a disappointment, though I’m not really sure what I’d expected. Maybe nicer weather… Anyway, they took us to this cistern, and I was like ‘A cistern? You have got to be kidding me!’ But then I was there and I fell in love with it. Do you know it? The Yerebatan Sarnici?”

“No,” he shook his head.

“It was a place they used to store water. It’s like a huge cathedral underground, and there are more than three hundred columns supporting the structure; most of them have Corinthian capitals, some in the back don’t. There’s about four feet of water in there nowadays, and there are these elevated pavements you can walk on around the cistern. And the way the place is lit up, it’s just fantastic. One of my favourite places ever.”

“It’s really important to you, this magic, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, pretty much. It’s addictive,” she admitted without shame.

“But do you really believe in magic, Grey? In this time and age?” he asked, his tone making it very clear how he felt.

“Wait, I don’t think you really understand me. I don’t mean sorcery and spells and potions and stuff. I mean magic which is a feeling, an atmosphere created by the manifestation of beauty in certain circumstances. As in the mood you’re in, or how you’re tuned when you come across beauty. I suppose you could say this kind of magic is a byproduct of your perception of beautiful things, sort of… I’ve never really been good at describing feelings. The head of my department says this is wrong, that people only make excuses, saying that feelings are indescribable by words, because it’s been long ago proved that they can.”

“He’s probably right. And I think I can understand this particular obsession of yours with magic. I mean obviously you rely a lot on intuition.”

“I do, yes. And I suppose that’s wrong. It’s who I am, and I’m not going to change that. But I do believe that you need balance. Intuition is highly unstable, but neither do I want a world that’s reduced to plain facts; chemistry, cause and effect, logical explanations for absolutely everything…”

“…but there is…”

“…let me finish, please. Science and rationalism reduces everything into tiny elements. Takes everything really interesting and really important out of things. When beauty is just an objective quality of things that can be measured by specific traits like colour combinations, harmony, proportion, symmetry and the like, don’t you feel it’s stripped of its very essence? There’s more to a whole than just the sum of its parts, doesn’t that seem right to you?”

“I wouldn’t say it’s entirely wrong to take things apart like this.”

“No, not entirely wrong. Entirely wrong is when you only do that, and defend it as the only thing that is right to do. There’s also nothing wrong with logical explanations for everything, but why should that be desirable? To kill prejudice and superstition? I guess. But I don’t really have any of those, and I do want to have this freedom to keep mysteries and magic. I don’t impose my beliefs on anyone, seriously, even now I’m just defending my point of view so that in the end you might approve of me keeping it, but there’s nothing more to it than that. Keep your rationalism if you like; I’ll always think you’re robbing yourself of a lot of pleasure, but this is the only time I’m telling you all this. I will never try to convert you, or hint that I don’t agree with you. My attitude towards life on Earth is mine to keep, and yours is yours.”

He smiled. “You’re rationalising your intuitions. So interesting…”

“Don’t judge me.”

“I’m not.”

“Good.”

“’Cause I’m not doing anything wrong.”

“Never said you were.”

But she still looked somewhat defensive.

“Your heart’s racing,” he observed with a smile. “I can feel it beating violently, even though your chest’s not touching me.”

“Yeah, it does that.”

“Especially when you get into a heated argument.”

“Did that look like a heated argument to you? I thought I just got passionate. I guess that’s one of the things defining me, passion.”

“I see your point,” he nodded with a short laugh. “Seriously, you’re sweet.”

“Ok… I hope that was a compliment.”

“I wouldn’t count on it. I tend to be quite rude most of the time.”

“So you do,” she agreed. “But all that matters in the end is how I choose to take it.”

“You’re very good at this positive attitude thing if you want to be.”

“Of course I am. I need it to survive.”

“You’re supposed to say thanks.”

“Oh, by all means. I am grateful for every compliment I get. Thank you very much.”

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