That Agatha Christie Handbag Scene
Tim leaves Jules contemplating the Anonymous statue and promises himself he will only read the wobbly lines in her journal.
He turns back to look at her. She is sitting on a narrow patch of grass with her arms and legs crossed. Her back is straight. She looks like a genie about to fly off on a magic carpet. She stares at the statue with her head tilted and Tim knows she will be bringing Anonymous to life, giving him a face and identity and history. He knows her routine. She will sit still for about ten minutes then spring to life, scrabbling in her bag for the journal. She will write for a while then start walking, holding the book open with her left hand and scribbling with her right. Only this time she won’t find it, because it is lying with a pile of souvenirs in Tim’s backpack.
Tim leaves the park and boards a bus, heading for the hostel. The bus drives off and he takes out the journal and holds it in his lap.
It feels light. This red book has followed him around Budapest for the past two weeks. Every time he turns around there it is, like some sort of warning signal. It has become an easy target. "You’ll get RPS if you’re not careful – Repetitive Purging Syndrome," says Helen. "So is this your acceptance speech?" asks Steve. Jules just pushes them away with a grin and a quick comeback – "No, it’s your obituary" – and keeps writing. Now Tim could read the whole thing but he is only going to skim until he finds one sentence.
He goes to open the book near the back, but can’t. His hand won’t move. The book feels fragile, as though he’ll break the spine if he opens it. He stares stupidly at the closed pages. He is suddenly reminded of the Holocaust memorial they saw in Vienna – rows and rows of concrete books, stacked together with the pages facing outwards, never to be opened or read. He goes to put the book away in his pack. Then changes his mind and puts it on his lap.
"The lions have no tongues," Jules murmurs in Tim’s ear. His stomach contracts. He leans against the bridge balustrade and looks at her.
It is Tim’s first time overseas. He has joined a three-hour walking tour. The tour starts at the Chain Bridge, overlooking the Danube. The bridge is guarded at both ends by two huge lions. Normally he dislikes organized sightseeing – tour guides’ spiels are as banal as shop assistants wishing you a nice day – but there is so much to see in this extraordinary city he doesn’t know where to start. They are facing Pest, the buildings’ domes and spires packed tightly together like jewels in a treasure chest. An abandoned puppet set called "Paprika Janesi" mimics the city with bold red and green cartoons. Stall-keepers are polite but do not smile. Tim is introduced briefly to the other four tourists then the guide leads them across the bridge, single-file.
Jules immediately takes out the journal. Tim is irritated. We look like a bloody conga-line, he thinks. And with Jules bringing up the rear scribbling we might as well have a neon-sign over our heads saying "westerners interpret exotic city". He wants to absorb the landscape quietly. In the distance the funicular railway creaks uphill, making Tim think of a crotchety film-noir spinster disappearing up a staircase in her motorized chair. He looks at Jules writing frantically and wonders how much she actually sees.
The tour guide stops them in the middle of the bridge. The Danube flows under their feet. The Americans are standing together – Steve holds a cigarette to his lips, Helen fiddles with her earrings and Ben adjusts his sunglasses – and for a second they look like a tableau of the three monkeys. Tim loves moments like this. He goes to take a photo, but Steve moves. The guide is telling them a legend about the bridge.
"The sculptor, Janos Marschalko, declared this bridge perfect. At the bridge’s grand opening a little boy pointed out a mistake. Marschalko was so mortified, he jumped into the Danube and drowned. As we walk, I want you to study the bridge and see if you can work out the mistake. We call it the bridge riddle."
"Bridge riddle?" Ben says. "I can’t even work out the instructions on a milk carton!"
The others laugh and Tim envies Ben’s ease, his instant popularity. In a second the guide has managed to spoil the tour. Tim studies the balustrade, trying to look casual. He hates riddles. The group knows he is an engineer, so everyone will expect him to know the answer. Up ahead Ben has his ear pressed against a pillar and is knocking on the stone. The others are laughing. Tim wants to join them but he needs to work out what’s wrong with this bridge. He starts to sweat. A familiar feeling of disgust creeps up from his stomach to his fingertips. So I’ve come halfway across the world and I’m getting stressed about a fucking bridge riddle. He stares hard at a cable, willing it to reveal its mistake. Jules comes up beside him and leans over.
"The lions have no tongues."
"I beg your pardon?" he asks primly.
"The riddle. The mistake is that the lions guarding the bridge have no tongues. The sculptor forgot them. I read it in Lonely Planet and wrote it down because I liked the sentence." She bursts out laughing at the bewildered look on Tim’s face. "I can tell you’ve been driving yourself crazy trying to work out the answer. You’re an engineer so you probably thought it was a mistake with the design, and you look like the sort of person who doesn’t like getting things wrong. I wanted to put you out of your misery. You’re missing the view."
He looks at her more closely. She is short and so thin that her hands, feet and head look oversized, like a marionette. When she isn’t talking she looks as though she is about to deliver the findings of a war crimes report. When she smiles she looks like a leprechaun about to tickle someone in the ribs. It is a bit unsettling.
She points at Castle Hill, the buildings scattered among trees like small kingdoms. "Just look at that. It’s like a Bruegel painting – the more you look at it, the more beautiful and disturbing it becomes." So she does notice things, after all.
He and Jules walk together for the next hour. They are both from Melbourne. Jules seems to know as much about Hungary as the guide. "Look – that’s a bullet hole," Jules says, pointing casually to a hole Tim hasn’t noticed. "That’s the flag of the revolution," she says further on. "See – it’s the Hungarian flag with the hammer and sickle cut out of the middle." The only time she becomes quiet is when they visit the House of Terror, the former secret police headquarters. When they leave the museum Jules flips through the journal. Tim asks what she’s looking for.
"It’s a quote from Kundera. Here it is: A concentration camp is the complete obliteration of privacy. It just makes me think - is that what our obsession with reality TV and celebrity is turning us into? One huge concentration camp? Or are we already a big concentration camp and just don’t know it?"
She is even more well-read than him. Her conversation is getting a bit too intense, so he walks with Helen and Steve for a while.
Halfway through the tour they stop for coffee. For once, Jules puts away the journal. It rests against her ankles, like a dog. Helen suggests that seeing as they all get on so well, they should spend the rest of their time in Budapest together. Her niceness is annoying – they’ve only known each other for about two hours - but Tim likes the idea of company. He is not enjoying his own as much as expected. Helen and Jules discover they are staying in the same hostel, so Tim agrees to join them.
They talk, inevitably, of communism and history. Tim doesn’t say much. He notices that whenever Jules talks everyone nods and murmurs affirmations, like a chorus. They start talking about what brought them to Budapest. It is the conversation Tim is dreading. One by one they reveal why they are here. Jules is researching for a novel, Helen is taking photos for an architecture study tour, Steve is choosing a film location, Ben simply has a passion for history and visits a different country each year. Helen is about to ask Tim why he’s here, but Ben interrupts with a joke – thank God for Ben – and eventually the conversation turns to their worst nightmares.
"Definitely the one where I’m naked in a public place," Ben says. "I mean, it’s a nightmare for everyone else in the dream."
"No, the one where you’re trying to run but you can’t move," Helen says. "That’s the worst."
So everyone reveals their worst nightmare, except Jules.
"What about you, Jules?" Helen asks. "Which one do you hate?"
Jules runs her hands slowly over her hair. Everyone leans forward.
"I don’t know. I can’t think."
"What about the falling one?" Helen asks. "I hate that one, too."
"No, I’ve fallen so many times mountain-biking, that one doesn’t bother me. I’ve fallen on just about everything – my ankle, my arse, my head even…"
"In love with me?" Ben asks.
"How could anybody not love you, Ben?"
The others hoot and Ben actually goes red.
"So which one is it?" Tim asks.
She speaks slowly. "It must be that dream in a dream where you wake up and the world looks the same, but everything has switched places. So things look normal but they’ve all changed."
"Which one?" Steve says.
"It’s like an Agatha Christie movie. It’s the one where a group is out to dinner and the wrong woman is poisoned. Do you know the one? Okay, this is the scene: They’re sitting at a round table, they all get up to dance, the victim drops her handbag, the murderer puts poison in her glass, a waiter puts the handbag back on the table, they sit back down and the wrong woman drinks the poison. Because the waiter accidentally put the handbag back next to a different glass. So they all sit down in the same formation, but they’ve all shifted one chair to the left. So the wrong woman dies."
The group stares at her. "Is that a red herring or are you just trying to confuse us?" Helen asks.
Jules laughs. "Okay, so maybe you have to see the movie for it to make sense. But doesn’t that creep you out? The idea that everything is familiar but it’s shifted slightly, so you can never know where you really are. You could be lost forever."
The others look at each other but Tim keeps staring at Jules. Where does she come up with things like that? Did she really think of it on the spot? Or does she write these things down in her journal and practice them?
Ben finally speaks. "Ah yes, the old handbag switcheroo dream." He nods solemnly. "Yes, I always wake up screaming."
So they all laugh and start talking about something else but Tim doesn’t quite get it, and knows he will have to imagine the scene a few times until he does. It’s intriguing but there has been a lot to take in today and he’s getting tired.
The tour ends on the outskirts of City Park, which contains the one piece of art Tim already knows about. The park is huge and the guide warns them it is easy to get lost, as all the paths look the same. She says goodbye and they all look awkwardly at each other.
"What should we do now?" Helen says.
Tim doesn’t like taking the leadership role, but this is one thing he really wants to see. "There’s a statue I wouldn’t mind having a look at," he says. "It’s called Anonymous."
"Oh yeah, the Ligeti statue," Jules says. "Apparently if you touch his pen it makes you a better writer. I don’t just want to see it, I need to see it."
Tim feels a twinge of resentment. He knows it’s silly, but he thought the statue was so obscure he’d be the only one to know about it. And as they try to find the statue they discover the guide was right. They take turns with the map but keep ending up at an empty swimming pool. None of them speak Hungarian. Few passersby speak English. "We’re like Chevy Chase trying to find Wally World!" Ben wails. "If I see that pool one more time I’m going to goulash someone."
"And what does goulashing entail, Ben?" Jules asks.
"I don’t know, but it’ll be nasty. Soup-er nasty."
Helen clicks her tongue and gives the map to Jules. "Here, you have a go – it must be your turn." It is a windy day and the paper flaps around in Jules’ hands. Tim thinks she looks frightened, as though the map is a fierce bird attacking her chest. She looks at it perfunctorily then shrugs. "It’s all Hungarian to me. Anyway, girls aren’t good with maps." She gives the map to Tim. "You must be good with diagrams. Lead us out of the woods."
Tim feels that twinge again. He hates the way girls can do that – demand independence then claim helplessness when it suits them. Jules pushed him away before when she dropped her pack and he tried to help her pick up the contents, but now she’s smiling that leprechaun smile. And if he can’t find the statue he’ll look like a failure. So he gives the map his full concentration and eventually they find Anonymous.
It is a monument to the first person to record the Magyar’s history. The historian was a courtier of King Bela, but nobody knew any other details. The statue’s sculptor, Ligeti, devised the elegant solution of sculpting the figure in monk’s robes, to disguise his face. Anonymous sits in faceless dignity, holding the pen he used to give the Magyars their history. There is a crowd of German tourists in front of the statue. Jules is so keen to touch the pen she keeps doing small jump-starts, while the other tourists push in front of her. She laughs at herself. "I know it’s ridiculous, but I need all the help I can get!" Tim eventually grabs her shoulders and marches her through the crowd to touch the pen.
Ben announces he needs a beer after all this culture, so they head towards a cafe. Jules and Tim lag behind. They walk in silence for a while. Jules tucks the journal under her arm then turns to Tim and runs her hands over her hair.
It is a strange gesture. Tim has seen it several times today. She puts her palms to her temples, holds them there for a second then slowly runs her hands over the back of her head and down her neck. Then she blinks rapidly, her eyelashes fluttering. Tim feels as though he has seen this gesture somewhere before. It is sensual, but somehow disturbing. It makes him think of a baby seal emerging from water, just before being shot. He wants to ask if she’s okay but she smiles.
"So why do you like Anonymous?"
It is as though she has read his mind. He is not sure what to say. The truth is he made the decision to come to Budapest one day when he was so bored at work he started typing random words into google. He had missed out on the whole working-holiday-in-Europe thing, and thought it was time he traveled overseas. There was nowhere in particular he wanted to go. Maybe he would just go to Thailand like everyone else. His boss made a snide comment and Tim sulkily typed "Anonymous" into google and chose a site on page 20. It was a traveller’s blog about Budapest. It had a picture of the Anonymous statue and other sites. Tim likes good design, and he appreciated Ligeti’s solution. He looked at the other pictures and thought Budapest looked like an interesting place. He liked the contrast of the two cities, hilly Buda and flat Pest, united as one. Nobody he knew had ever been there. And that had been it. Right then, I’ll go to Budapest.
At the time his decision seemed quirky and spontaneous, but now that he has met the others he realizes how empty it really is. He is not there because of a commitment to an artform like Jules and Steve or a profession like Helen or a thirst for knowledge like Ben, but because of a random google search on a boring day. The shame of it makes him feel queasy. But there is something so warm and sympathetic in Jules’ smile, he wants to tell her. Maybe it won’t sound so stupid when someone else hears it. And maybe Jules will say something reassuring – she seems good at that.
So he opens up to her. He tells her about why he is here, and his fear of what others will think, and that feeling of wanting to be passionate about something but never really finding that something. He doesn’t look at her while he speaks. Up ahead, the others have realized they are going the wrong way, and turn back. Ben is gesticulating. "Go right instead!" he yells. "Go right!" Bloody Ben. He wonders if life is always like this – just as you’re saying something important a Ben will interrupt you. They turn around and start walking the other way. Tim looks at the ground.
"So I guess I came here because of Anonymous." He looks sideways at her. "Pretty pathetic, hey?"
And instead of answering, she scribbles a sentence in the journal. She doesn’t even stop walking. When she has finished she looks up and frowns. "Why do you think it’s pathetic?" But he’s lost his momentum so he tells her it doesn’t matter and strides ahead to join Ben.
That sentence torments him for the rest of the trip.
He should be relaxing and enjoying his holiday but that sentence is with him when he wakes up and still there when he goes to sleep. He watches Jules closely. Everyone else seems to slow down – Helen takes out her camera less and less, Steve makes fewer phone calls, Ben stops reading every single inscription at museums – but the journal gets fuller and fuller. The teasing becomes more acerbic. On a 2-day trip to Vienna Steve grabs the journal and holds it out the train window as though he’s going to drop it, like a brother with his younger sister’s favourite toy. On the banks of the thermal springs, Helen takes Jules’ pen and throws it in the water. "You’re as pale as a ghost. Stuff the sonnets sweetie, you need some sun!" Only Ben remains silent. "I just wish my brain had so many interesting things in it," is all he will say. What a saint. Once or twice Tim is tempted to just ask Jules what she wrote, but he doesn’t have the guts.
They near the end of the trip and the goodbyes begin. Ben leaves for Poland, Steve leaves for Paris and Helen flies back to the States. Tim promises to email, and means it. Jules changes her flight so she and Tim can return to Melbourne together. Tim discovers that her passport expires on the day they fly out. It is so typical.
"Why do you leave everything until the last minute?" he grumbles, as they pack up together at the hostel.
"Why do you start everything two weeks before you have to?" she retorts.
Their plane leaves in the afternoon and they have to decide how to spend their last morning in Budapest. Tim forgot to take a photo of Anonymous, and Jules finds the statue fascinating, so they visit City Park again. They will take a taxi straight from the park to the airport. Jules writes postcards on the way. ("At least they’ll get them eventually, Tim.") They find Anonymous, but as Tim reaches for his camera he realizes he has left his passport at the hostel. Bloody Jules – he got so distracted about her passport he forgot to collect his own. And as he fumbles around to make sure it’s not there, he realizes something else.
He has the journal. They each packed their loose possessions in blue plastic bags, and he has packed Jules’ bag by mistake. She must have his. She hasn’t noticed because she has been busy writing postcards. He is about to give the journal back but Jules gives him a playful punch.
"Just think – if it hadn’t been for old no-name here, we might never have met." She checks her watch then does the strange hair gesture. "Do you feel better now about your decision to come here?"
He is watching her run her hands over her hair and thinking about how easy she is to talk to, when he remembers where he’s seen that gesture.
It’s in an Ingmar Bergman movie. He doesn’t know which one. He saw it one night when he was about twelve. A woman is trying to make another woman start talking and there is a shot where she performs the gesture – her eyes open wide and her hands running slowly over her head, as though she is shedding the skin of her face to reveal her true nature. That moment has always haunted Tim. It is mesmerizing but, for some reason, horrifying. Now he has a name for it. The Bergman. And he suddenly knows why Jules does it.
It’s a writer’s trick. It’s a trick to get another person to start talking and reveal themselves, so she can gather material for her writing. A form of hypnosis. Like a journalist gaining a subject’s trust, only subtler. It is that mixture of vulnerability and empathy, a gesture which seduces you and makes you want tell her everything. He thinks back over the past two weeks and has the horrifying thought that perhaps everything she does is calculated – all her smiles and questions and apparent interest have just been ploys to keep them all talking. And her smile isn’t sweet. It’s smug. And now he has all her material, all their trust and affection efficiently recorded in this tiny book. Fuck privacy. He thinks quickly.
"Jules, I’ve left my passport at the hostel. I’ll go back and get it, then I’ll meet you at the airport."
"I’ll come with you." She starts to get up.
"We don’t have to both go! Here," he takes out his camera, "could you take a few photos for me? Then we can meet up at the airport. If I’m running late you can tell them I’m on my way."
"I guess so."
He’s not stealing it – he will give it back at the airport. He shoves the camera at her and navigates his way out of the park.
He picks up the passport and asks the hostel receptionist to call him a taxi. He still hasn’t opened the journal. Perhaps he is more ethical than he thought. But of course that’s bullshit. It isn’t ethics at all, it’s just being gutless – that ingrained timidity that makes him polite to people and go to work obediently from nine to five and makes him a perfect target for stronger personalities. Just open the fucking book. He does.
Kileti station to hostel: Get out facing billboard with Manga cartoon. Turn right and walk to the end of platform. Take escalator on left. Turn right at top and take steps up to street. SHOULD BE A McDONALDS ON THE LEFT. Walk forward until you come to bus stop with ugly yellow church on left. 3RD STOP AFTER UGLY YELLOW CHURCH.
He turns a few pages forward.
Hostel to bank: Walk down underpass steps & turn 45 degrees. Walk past old woman selling flowers. Turn left and take steps up near necklace shop, NOT TOILETS.
He flips through the rest of the journal. There are quotes and observations and scraps of stories and the names of books and movies – READ OLIVER SACKS it says on one page, underlined – but there are also pages and pages of these written instructions, along with lists of hospitals and reminders of where she has kept her passport and other documents. She has ripped one page several times with her pen. At the top of the page is a quote about Ariadne’s thread, the thread given to her lover Theseus to guide him out of the labyrinth.
Tim checks his watch. They have forty-five minutes before their flight leaves. He tries to think which street is the easiest to find from City Park – Dosza Gyorgy Street with the train station, or Hermina Street where the taxis stop. He puts away the journal. And realizes he’s doing the Bergman as he plans the quickest route back to Anonymous.