Mitteleurope by Liam Foley

We arrived in Budapest at night and caught the bus towards the centre. Through the dark glass we looked into its suburbs. They are austere and the wind is cold in the winter. At our accommodation, we sat and shared a beer. Laura went on her phone. After some time, she said that the invasion of Ukraine had begun.

We hadn’t eaten and decided to go out for some food. The streets were partially lit. Thick misty breath rose above the people as they paced through the frozen night. Some were alone, others were in groups.

On the tram platform there was shouting behind us. A young Romani woman was pacing to and fro. She was distressed. She kept looking across at the platform and then back. On the other side of the road, two men were walking away. They wore black thermal jackets and one of them had a rucksack. They didn’t turn. The woman crossed and shouted and then started back towards them. A car beeped and swerved to miss her. The men disappeared.

As the tram pulled up, the woman spotted someone on the platform. The doors opened. She was running up and down. We got on and pretended to ignore her. I wanted her to stay away. She jumped on as the doors closed.

She was close to us now, moving and breathing nervously. She was wearing jeans and a tight top and had a butterfly stitch above her left eye and white paste at the corners of her mouth.

She started towards someone. It was a man of around sixty. He looked calm. When she got near she screamed and punched him hard in the face and then kicked him in the shins. He backed up and grabbed her hands and attempted to lower her down onto the floor. She broke loose. Her face twisted as she regained her balance. She slapped him around the head. The tram was silent. He stared in her eyes. She paced away and then doubled back. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

As she reached him, she grabbed his grey hair from behind and wrenched him backwards and while he was on the floor she kicked him in the balls. He got up and stood there staring and holding the back of his head. He looked like a proud man. Poor woman, said Laura.

At the next station, the driver came out of his cab and walked down asking where they were. He was pigeon-footed and wore a special shoe. The woman had disappeared and the man was hiding amongst some other passengers. They pointed him out and the tram driver limped over dragging a leg and told him to get off. People were shaking their heads. Some were smirking.

As the driver was returning to the front of the tram, a man got on with two golden retrievers. He was unaware of what had happened. The dogs were not on leads and did exactly what he said. This lightened the mood. Two American women near us crouched and stroked them and commented on how well natured they were. I also felt relieved. The tram continued through the night in peace. The people seemed happy and calm. When we arrived back at our accommodation, I went on GoogleMaps and worked out how far from the Ukrainian border we were.

The following day, television screens across Budapest showed images of packed metro stations and plumes of black smoke rising above Kyiv. From the street, we watched through cafe windows as the populace tried to escape. In a bookshop, I asked the owner about Hungarian literature. It is dark and heavy, he said. He pointed out Kertèsz, though he didn’t like to read about such things as the holocaust.

We left Budapest by train. Through the glass we saw the suburbs pass and diminish to become brown leafless forests. These gave way to bare wintery fields. The frosty plains of Mitteleurope hide cabbages, Laura said, and deeper below, the horrors of the 20th century.

We passed towns that appeared out of the vastness. Above the moss-coloured roofs, smoke rose from the chimneys. The inhabitants were burning wood for warmth. We passed barrack-like buildings surrounded by razor wire. They could have housed thousands of souls. We saw a man and a woman wrapped up tight working the land with a shire horse.

After some time, we pulled into a train depot. It was 15 tracks wide and lined with stationary freight. Under the low clouds, there were piles of lumber stacked on wagons and in amongst them sat six armoured vehicles waiting for dispatch. Far behind was Budapest, slumping under its own history, unable to carry the weight. There is movement in Mitteleurope again, she said.

In Vienna, the buildings are grand and clean and expensive cars line the streets. It is clear to see which of the duel capitals prospered after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

We walked through Heldenplatz. Its palace is fat like a royal cake. Eighty four years ago almost to the day, Adolf Hitler had addressed crowds from one of its balconies. He announced the annexation of Austria. The people were ecstatic. They wanted to be part of the sweeping change.

On the south side of the huge square, there was a group of anti-vax protestors. Opposite, there was an anti-protest protest. They were spreading correct information to counter the incorrect information being peddled by their peers. Reggae was blaring. Between the two groups, a wide blue and yellow river of people flowed. They were holding signs saying things like “No War” and “Fuck Putin”. The three protests seemed to be ignoring each other.

That night we had beers with an anarchist. We drank lots of pilsner and talked about politics. He told us that he attended at least one protest a week and that in Austria nazis and policemen amounted to the same thing.

He said that the Jews of Vienna were scared to the leave their houses on the Sabbath for fear of violence. I suggested that he was exaggerating, but he assured me that it was true. Towards the end of the night, he started crying. He said that the news from Ukraine was too much. Laura consoled him. I told him that he needed to get his head straight if he was going to continue the fight.

Through the train window, Vienna’s suburbs passed and diminished and gave way to vast plains. They stretch from Austria to Hungary and beyond. Under the frosty fields of Mitteleurope are buried the horrors of the 20th century. And there is room for more, said Laura.

Liam Foley is a writer and editor from Somerset, England. He has been living in Barcelona for the past 10 years. He writes fiction, narrative nonfiction and journalism. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.

Instagram: @liam.foley7