“I’ll be right back, kiddo…”
Father stood up. Using two fingers, he lightly propelled himself away from the edge of the table top. On the way out, he nodded at the waiter. He stopped at one of the tables to bend down and peer into someone’s newspaper. He greeted a chubby customer. Waved in the direction of a wrinkled, oversized vest. The girl selling cigars accompanied him with her tray as far as the revolving door. She must have said something, for Father smiled and nodded. Ever so casually, he plucked up a cigar and disappeared.
He’s off to see someone, the boy thought. Drop in somewhere. Check out some place.
The ruins of breakfast lay on the table. The full-course breakfast. Empty glasses on a tray, eggshells in the egg cup. Leftover bits of butter and jam.
The cigar girl passed by the table. She smiled at the boy. Sort of like at a package the father had left behind.
From the other tables they turned to stare at him. A greying matron gave him a rather disapproving glance. (No school today, sonny?) The old, hunchbacked newspaper vendor swept past.
“Would you like something to read?” The waiter looked down at the boy from somewhere on high. “A sports section, with the football write-ups? Or a theatre magazine with pictures of actresses? Not very interesting stuff. Wait, I’ve got something for you.”
The leather-bound little book looked like it might have contained the wine list. A wine list that not every guest gets to see.
“Our Visitor’s Book.” With a nonchalant gesture, the waiter flipped the cover open. “Oh, a few lines, or just an autograph. You know, the people who’ve been here. You’ll find some of the names familiar . . . Anyway, it’s worth a look!”
That was the first name. Vilma Bánky! She’s been here? Here, in this cafe? She’d walked down between this row of tables here. The waiters lined up for her. Waiters and customers. Then she sat down . . . perhaps at this very table. The waiter bowed and handed her this book. She was back home, visiting from America. By then her films were showing in all the cinemas. So she came home for a visit, and dropped in at this cafe. Next to her, another name. Rod La Rocque. Her husband. For she hadn’t come alone, she’d brought her husband with her. Vilma Bánky and Rod La Rocque marched into this cafe, arm in arm.
In one of his films, he played a doorman who’d been dismissed for some reason and now roamed the streets.
Names, names and names. Some were impossible to decipher. But Franz Lehár’s was clearly legible. The date underneath. The day he was here. Father had known him back in the days when Lehár was the conductor of a military band.
The boy looked up. He was surrounded by empty chairs. A newspaper tossed on a table. A jacket on the back of a chair. A rumpled jacket, sleeves dangling. The boy stood up and went over to it. A blackened cigarette holder in a breast pocket. He took it out and put it back. Tram tickets dropped out of the pocket, and all sorts of paper slips.
He wanted to explore the cafe.
He went past the billiard table. White and green balls rolled slowly into a pocket. Slowly and without a sound.
He returned to the Visitors’ Book, put it under his arm, and sat down at another table.
He looked for Vilma Bánky’s name without success. Yet it had been right there at the top of the first page. The very first name. Now it was replaced by all these illegible scrawls. As if in the meantime someone had defaced the book.
This was the name, clearly legible, on one of the pages. Of course, Franz Molnár. Good old Molnár! Father knew him, too. In the old days, they’d worked on the same newspaper. Back then, Molnár wrote little feuilletons, humorous snippets about kids.
“No one else could write about kids like that!”
Father, as if holding forth at some distant table. “He should’ve stayed with that kind of material. Those plays he wrote . . . potboilers!”
The boy sat down in a back booth.
But what about the others? The customers. Perhaps they were up in the galleries. Or took shelter in the card room. Yes, the cafe’s clientele might have decided to lie low in there.
He went upstairs. Small tables with chairs folded up. The carpet rolled up, as if waiting for the cleaners.
He slipped into a small side booth.
This is where the Editor used to sit. That awe-inspiring, austere Editor.
Snow-white hair, glasses, a huge pile of manuscripts in front of him. Nobody dared to approach. Only when he waved someone over.
“He never called out,” said Father. “He merely waved. But when he waved, you knew it, even if you had your back to him. Even if you sat in the opposite corner of the cafe with your back to him. No matter who you were, you stood up and marched over to the Editor’s table. And the whole cafe would watch you on your way to that table.”
Now the boy sat at that table. There was a good view of the ground floor from up here. You could see the area fronting the boulevard, and the other part, facing a long, narrow side street. You could see the solitary phone booths. The vast dining room sunk into the dark depths. A grand staircase led down to the dining room.
He leant forward and looked down into the deep. Raising a finger, he waved toward one of the tables. A shadow rose from that table and set out toward the gallery. Now the boy waved toward the various parts of the cafe. First in the direction of the boulevard, then toward the side street.
He felt that his table was surrounded. By writers young and old, world-famous professionals and unknown tyros.
He fled toward the lavatory.
He pulled a curtain aside and plunged into total darkness. His hand crept along the wall, groping for the switch. There was a futile click, but no light.
White spots loomed in the dark. The sink, the urinal, the wall tiles. Two booths with doors, like two jail cells.
Who could be huddled in there? It seemed as if someone was standing in front of the urinal as well. Night editors, cruising the streets like old tramcars. After work, they’d head straight for this cafe. They’d order ham and eggs. And while they waited for their orders, they’d clamber up here, half-asleep, with a cigar dangling from their mouth. He thought he heard the groans and wheezing of travelling salesmen.
And midnight vagabonds, who spouted such waterfalls! Or else the barest of trickles. So that the man would just stand there, staring at the wall.
The boy entered a booth and slid the bolt shut. He did not sit down. He stood and watched the greyish-blue light up above. There was a strange kind of light swirling up there. Light? Or was it smoke?
He was back at the lavatory sink.
Father would wash his hands without even looking. But there were others who went through a whole ritual, practically a bath. And yet others who didn’t even turn on the tap but merely stared at their faces in the mirror.
A den of peace and quiet.
Except at times someone would start to cough. Hoarse and choking hacks that brought up old deposits of phlegm, archaeological layers. Then others would start to cough, until the whole place was one big rattling uproar.
He continued exploring the galleries.
Another curtained booth. Tablecloths and napkins in a heap. They had collected the wrinkled, stained tablecloths to be carted away. All those stains! Brown spots left by sauces…red wine, black coffee. Smudged cigar ashes.
There might even be a customer lying wrapped up in that bundle. An arrogant slob who had contributed more than his share of stains. Who had spilt sauces on the tablecloth.
They’d tied up the saucy fellow in a bundle. A bundle of dirty laundry.
In the central part of the gallery, a mass of tables and chairs pushed together. As if the furniture had been shoved here in the wake of some catastrophe. Here they stood now, offended, left behind. Diminutive green-baize tables. Perhaps from the card room. And those slender, high-back chairs came from a club of some kind.
There was a club here once. The cinema-owners’ club.
A photograph, showing a moustached man with a stiff collar smoking a cigar. But somehow so full of worries. Probably the owner of some cinema. Those owners who never watch any of the films. They just dart through the lobby with their hat on. This one didn’t have a hat. Perhaps he’d lost his cinema. He lit up one last cigar, and after that…
But perhaps this was a card room. The players sat at the green baize-covered tables. Some had been here for a whole week. Originally meant to just pop in for a moment, then stayed here, stuck. At first he would still run downstairs to phone. “I’ll be home in an hour, maybe an hour and a half.” He ran down to phone a few more times, then became oblivious to everything.
The boy went down the stairway from the galleries. He tilted his head to the side and clasped his hands behind his back. As if he were part of a group. The rest of the company had left him lagging behind.
In the kitchen, gigantic kettles. Deep and dark bays with cooking ranges. Knives and ladles on tabletops. A cookbook and a white apron. Maybe it was taken off only a moment ago. Someone had made a remark to the chef. Some kind of complaint about the food. He said not a word in reply. Simply took off his hat, his apron, and walked out. But he did not go by himself. The other cooks, sous chefs and scullions all accompanied him. Only the kettles stayed behind.
The tables were laid in the dining room. White tablecloths, plates, silverware. A white-crested napkin plopped on the plate. Condiments in various jars. Salt shakers, pepper mills, ashtrays, toothpicks.
The restaurant was waiting for customers. It lay, as if covered with a grey net, nearly lost in that thick, impenetrable gloom beneath the marble stairway. Red carpeting on the stairway, red carpeting in the restaurant. But all of it lost in the grey twilight.
The boy strolled past rows of tables. He glanced up at the galleries. He thought he saw someone draped over the balcony handrail, as if waving in boredom toward the lower depths.
The dark cube of the aquarium. The lights turned off long ago, but the water still remained. Stale, turbid water. The rigid, watchful glare of a fish. Rigid glare in that netherworldly liquid.
He sat down at a table. On the edge of the seat, as if afraid of being taken to task. He moved over to another table, where he sat more comfortably. He waited a bit. Then he clinked a knife against the edge of the plate.
His voice rang out in the dining room. Then there was silence.
He stood up, as if to move to another table. He stood at the foot of the stairway, surveying the empty cafe. The phone booths, the card room.
Suddenly the stairs lit up, like a resplendent bridge.
The boy stepped back, and held on to a table’s edge.
Up at the head of the stairs, wearing a silver turban, came Vilma Bánky herself! Her head tilted back, she smiled as she advanced downstairs. By her side her husband, Rod La Rocque. Wearing a tail coat, Rod La Rocque raised his hand in languid greeting. The corpulent Emil Jannings hurried ahead, as if he did not care to meet them. But bespectacled Harold Lloyd moved up from behind to link arms with Vilma Bánky, and came down the stairs arm in arm with her.
Franz Lehár appeared in tails and white gloves. Lehár, whom Father had known in the days when he conducted military bands. Franz Molnár wore a monocle and thrust his hands into his pockets. He stood slightly to the side, by the banister. Perhaps he wanted to make way for the white-haired man with the spectacles who carried a briefcase under one arm.
The Editor! Authors were milling around him. Writers whom he had waved over to his side, and writers who would have liked to be waved over to his side. Writers whose names were known overseas, and writers whose names were unknown even in this cafe.
Newspapermen raced down the stairs. Awesome, two-fisted journalists who had entry everywhere, for whom no doors were closed. And scribblers of two-line items, and others who did not even get two lines. Gofers who were sent for beer and cigars. Hacks of the yellow press, slimy little blackmailers.
Reprinted with permission from Postcard from London: And Other Stories, by Iván Mándy, published by Seagull Books and distributed by the University of Chicago Press. © 2021. All rights reserved.