Kovacs

by Edward Mc Whinney

The Oslo Bar is down by the river, down the docks, you can hear the cranes, the winching, you can smell the dust and pick up a few kilos of bananas or a bag of coal from urchins. March is a rough month in these latitudes, when a damp blanket of fog descends for days to become one with the hollow, dull month of sin—Lent, they call it, for our sins, and for some reason I can’t explain, some anxiety or guilt, I succumb to the notion of divine punishment, everyone pays for the things they do.

The bar has a long counter with stools in a row, ship style tables, round and oblong, glass tops and timber tops, brown legs and chairs with leather covered seats, some creaked, others salvaged from a famous shipwreck have velvet covering and gold stud work.

There are two mirrors behind the bar, Jameson Whiskey and Bass Ale, and along the wall two more, Beamish XXX Stout vying with the strongest man in the world who could hold a horse above his head with one hand, J.J. Murphy and Co. Murphy’s Stout gives strength.

There are pictures of beautiful vessels in the harbour, steamers, tall ships under full sail and cruise liners.

Through the high front windows you could gaze up at the hills of Montenotte and imagine yourself anywhere on or off the planet, voluntary exile, say, on the Black Mountain, a great, old house with a step up to the door into a stone hallway and a patio the size of a small garden secluded from life but by some miracle of architecture, not the sun, a blaze of flowers and plants in dazzling colours around a lily pond where I found an old woman sweeping a maze of pathways. She greeted me with a smile but never said a word as I crossed into a kitchen with a high ceiling and blue and white tiles, with earthenware pots and brown ceramic floors, a hob upon which a pot of lentil soup with chunks of hairy bacon simmered, our lunch, washed down by red wine and caraquillos taken on another secluded patio which led through to further levels of rooms innumerable and a studio at the end of the corridor where the windows were open and the curtains pulled back and the strangest thing of all was that it looked down onto the street of a village. In fact at that moment a woman with her shopping bag glanced up and waved in a very familiar manner. I leaned out the window and inhaled the air, leaning out as far as I could, and for one vertiginous moment, thought about throwing myself onto the breeze.

This reverie was interrupted by the Hungarian, Kovacs, veteran war hero and ex-strong man in the circus, with a perforated ear drum, whose tale concerned a shell that almost blew his head off. He scratched his ear. It was that close.

A group of noisy university students gathered by the snug, the decibels rising as the pints went down; if Heraclitus came in here, one youth said, he would find the eternal flux of his stream transformed into the golden black flow of porter. Some theatre nurses from the Mercy Hospital arrived. I recognized them from the fourth floor where once I worked as an orderly. They looked funny even without their green scrubs or blue, plastic raincoats, carrying white basins, expecting blood, lots of blood.

I drank all afternoon with the Hungarian, his voice raised above the babble of the students and nurses. His stories about the battles he had been in and his days in the circus were gripping, but what struck me most of all was the account of his life after the war, in Stuggart, Berlin, Solothun and Wurzberg: I lived in rooming houses in utter loneliness until I decided to join the circus. I shook his hand, we are kindred spirits, I cried into his good ear.

My head was full of shells and acrobats, bombed out villages and feats of superhuman strength when I threw it down in the room of nightmares, claustrophobia and hallucinations. The Hungarian came in and began to strip. He took off a pair of brown, cotton slacks purchased in a haberdashery in Berlin and a plaid shirt and stood in chequered underpants showing knobbly knees and a middle-aged spread. His flesh was blue and there was more hair on his belly than on his head. The veins bulged, a sorry sight, this war hero, a dissipated old man who once held a horse above his head with one hand. No-man’s land, bunkers, interrogation cellars, bombs bursting in air, drove me in terror into the kitchen where I sat for a few hours sipping water and half dozing with my head on the table.

I avoided The Oslo for a few days. I felt like I’d mutated into Kovacs, deaf in one ear, scrambled mind, in a room without a floor or alone in the backyard among the rats, smoking black tobacco, sipping aquardiente, who may as well have a rat chewing his big toe, such is the mental paralysis into which he has fallen, sipping the water of life, wondering only how long it will take to kill him?

The clock in the parlour, its mechanics, pendulum, rods and weights, winding chains and pulleys, a moment’s suspense before the door opens and the cuckoo springs.

And slowly you dissolve, like a soluble tablet, deep into the bloodstream, no longer the will to question the mysteries, only resignation and long, slow, lingering hours of paralysis, staring into the vastness of sky.

Somehow I found the energy to put my coat on, slip down the stairs to the street and along to one of the many bars between my room and The Oslo. I took up the pint and slugged it all, downed it, almost in one draught.

What’s on your mind, I was asked?

I pretended I was deaf. All the fellows in that pub seemed to be mad. They had eyes that probed and minds that vilified, not how it was in the old days. I stared straight ahead, pretending I was not only deaf but dumb.

Above the shelves of hard liquor were filthy old posters for lap dancing clubs.

I don’t know why I entered that den, I can’t explain why I didn’t keep going to The Oslo where unfinished reveries awaited or perhaps it was where Kovacs awaited, that I stayed away. I don’t know.

I don’t know why I didn’t go to one of the fancy bars uptown, as in the old days, with theatre posters and film producers sipping Scotch. Once when I was in Istanbul I found the vista over the Bosphorus quite breathtaking, a famous actress said to me.

The kings are dead now, another said, we are left here with the tramps.

When I got home I stood for a long time gazing down through the cracks in the floor as if waiting for the head of Kovacs to pop up, nothing but dust and old rotting bits of insulation, and decades old air. I lay down, arms dangling between the cracks, dust pouring up my nostrils, hanging in suspense until it felt like I would never get up from there again.


Edward Mc Whinney, of Cork, Ireland, is a regular contributor to Contrary. Read his many works.