Almost English

Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

Book: Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson Read Free Book Online
Authors: Charlotte Mendelson
Tags: Fiction, General
George Arthur, the unconvincingly British conductor – but also the greatest excitement of all: aristocrats. Although as a child it has always embarrassed her, now that she is a woman it makes sense. They don’t want her to grow up like their neighbours’ grandchildren, baking Hungarian biscuits and going to folk-dancing lessons on Saturday mornings, then joining their family’s business. They want her to be more than this.
    Dear Lord, she thinks, please let me be adequate. Let my baseness be concealed.
    ‘OK,’ she says. ‘Yes, OK.’
    It is like an English church fete, deformed. One may, indeed must, buy painted napkin rings and embroidered place mats; costume jewellery donated by Zsuzsi’s friend Gyorgy and discreetly folded flesh-coloured support tights from Femina; celluloid tourist dolls in Hungarian national costume; tapes of gypsy flute music; dried mushrooms, salami, garlic plaits. Someone’s well-meaning English husband is manning a second-hand book stall featuring a 1973 Austin Rover users’ manual, Dick Francis paperbacks, Baedeker guides to Swiss spas. The air is blue with cigarette smoke. There is a coffee stall, with porcelain cups and the brown sugar crystals they are all obsessed with and, naturally, food: stuffed paprikás and pancakes and chicken cooling under foil duvets, some of it in the white harvest-themed Pyrex of home. And, on an altar in the middle of the room, stands a cake stall presided over by Zsófia Dobos, Mrs Dobos to her friends: patron of the arts, owner of Femina and, in her day, proprietress of a famous delicatessen in Soho, although that day is past.
    The old women flutter round her, praising Mrs Dobos’s flower arrangement, her lace tablecloth and the creations of her elderly protégé Rudi, reputedly a former employee of the great Gerbeaud but now living in poverty in Holloway.
    ‘ Nez . Beautiful, nem ?’ says Rozsi. Obediently Laura nods. This is not enough; she must turn round to admire Rudi’s pistachio mignons , arranged like the overlapping scales of a mighty fish. She looks in the general direction of krinolinkies , Wasp’s Nests and Bear Paws; Cobbler’s Delight; Gâteau Princess Anne; a ‘ my- ladeesvims’ (‘Sorry? Oh, My Lady’s Whims. I see’); rum and hazelnut kisses; marzipan crescents; cakelets of plum, or chestnut, or sour cherry; ‘student food’; cheese medals; sweet cabbage dumplings and a monstrous praline and wafer Pischinger ; not to mention beigli galore, which have been shipped from a beiglimeister in Budapest.
    ‘I buy one of the necklets for Marina,’ says Ildi, looking crestfallen, hurrying towards a row of padded satin jewellery cards.
    How can Peter be back? Peter, who behaves as if it is reasonable to disappear and then be resurrected? Who has, since she last saw him, gone mad. His letter, crunching in Laura’s pocket, really says so: ‘The balance of my mind – dodgy at the best of times, as you know – was disturbed.’
    What does this mean? Marijuana? Women? It has an ominously legal sound: has he been in prison? Unlikely; he was too soft for crime. Could he have moved on from wine and strange dusty liqueurs and even the terrible Unicum, Hungary’s national drink, to something worse? Worse, even, than a thirteen-year hiatus, and a character change? Could the little maddening chips in his nature, the fanatical protectiveness about his mother and acceptance of his role as family god-head, have coagulated into that?
    Or could it not be him? The handwriting had been like his, she thinks, but not exactly. What would an impostor want from her in-laws? Attention? Money? To worm his way into their complicated but arguably warm embrace?
    Please, God, she thinks, going nicely with her in-laws to kiss a horrible powdery old woman called Borbála, let it be blackmail, extortion, anything but the return of the prodigal, entirely irresponsible yet still, apparently, perfect in the eyes of the Károlyis. And, if he is coming back, he will

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