When Bob dropped down dead as he was hoeing between the rows of leeks, the last thing on Ellen’s mind was the trip to Budapest. And yet here she was, sitting on the balcony of the Hotel Gellert with a cup of tea and looking down on the huge squat tourist boats gliding along the sparkling Danube below.
“Do you think Dad realised how noisy it would be when he booked this hotel?” Rebecca sipped her tea and sighed again as a long yellow tram squealed and creaked its way off the Freedom Bridge and on to the riverside rails. Rebecca had been doing a lot of sighing since she and her mother had arrived on Tuesday.
“I don’t know love—but it wouldn’t have bothered him anyway. You know how he loved to watch traffic. Just look—you can see trams, cars, buses, boats and bikes—and there’s even a metro entrance over there. He would have been in heaven.”
“Mum—that’s inappropriate” Rebecca chided, frowning. She’d also been doing a lot of frowning in the last few days.
“Sorry—just a turn of phrase.” Ellen did not want to get into a pointless argument about semantics with her daughter. There was enough tension in the air already. “Can I get you another cup of tea? And aren’t you glad I packed the travel kettle? Why is it they never have hospitality trays in the rooms?”
“No, thanks—the tea just doesn’t taste the same—I suppose it’s the water.”
Rebecca had always been hard to please, reflected Ellen. Even as a little girl. I don’t want that dress, I want this one. I don’t want gravy on my vegetables, just on the side. I don’t want to see a film, I want to go ice skating. Contrary by nature. Bob doted on her of course. Couldn’t do enough for her. And Rebecca had always known she could wind him around her little finger. Just a pout or a frown and she’d get her own way. Ellen had given up arguing with Bob about it after a while. Saw it was useless.
The sad thing was that Bob had always wanted to see Budapest. “One of the best public transport systems in Europe,” he’d said. And had then added in a tone of wonderment, “and eighty percent of the city was destroyed after the Second World War.”
The Hotel Gellert was his choice too. Naturally he wasn’t to know he would die from a sudden massive heart attack only two weeks before their departure date. Which was a blessing really. No one wants to dwell on their imminent mortality do they?
Ellen had initially thought that setting off only days after the funeral seemed a little hasty. Lacking in respect somehow, but Rebecca had persuaded her—“Dad would have hated the idea of wasting the flight and the hotel booking,” she said. And going together meant they could share memories of Dad, make it a sort of tribute to him. Ellen had her doubts on that score too but said nothing. But when she mentioned she was thinking of bringing some of Bob’s ashes with them, Rebecca reacted with horror.
“I thought you said he always wanted his ashes spread at Morecambe—on the sea?”
“Well yes he did—where his family spent their summer holidays. And I will—most of them. I just thought it would be a good idea to bring some with us, so that a small part of your dad will have made it to Budapest after all.” In actual fact Bob had never given any indication of where he wanted his ashes spread—he hadn’t quite reached that age where it seems sensible to consider such matters. Ellen had thought the little white lie might be helpful to Rebecca, give her a focus for her grief. She should have known better of course.
Ellen stuck to her guns this time but then Rebecca went and googled ‘travelling with ashes’ and discovered it was recommended to carry a copy of the death certificate as well as the cremation certificate, plus a statement from the crematorium confirming the ashes belonged only to the person named. As if you would mix them with someone else’s, Ellen thought. The advice went on to say it would also be a good idea to inform the airline and possibly even contact the embassy in your destination country. “So you can see it’s out of the question mother,” Rebecca concluded with a note of satisfaction.
“That’s ridiculous” Ellen had argued. “I’m only bringing a token amount, not the whole contents of the urn. Nobody will be any the wiser.” She was quite firm about it so there was nothing Rebecca could do—except sulk. Which she did and was still doing—on and off.
Ellen gazed across at Gellert Hill. She’d read that Saint Gerard had been thrown off from the top in a barrel in the eleventh century, poor man. And further down was the entrance to the caves that had been a chapel and then a field hospital for the Nazis. It seemed Budapest had been invaded by all and sundry over the centuries. So much misery and pain. No wonder a lot of the Hungarians looked glum. Not surprising after what they’d gone through.
Rebecca didn’t seem very interested in the history which was a shame. She seemed to have decided that her being there at all was an act of great sacrifice on her part and that she was only doing it for her father. Whereas Ellen suspected she hadn’t been able to resist the idea of a free holiday—especially after her split with Mark. Maybe I’m being uncharitable she thought—but I do wish she would stop finding fault with everything. Like the hotel for example—the exterior of the Gellert was unquestionably magnificent, rising in its Art Nouveau splendour above the banks of the Danube, but it couldn’t be denied that the rooms were very dated and on the edge of shabby.
“Just look at that bath, Mother,” Rebecca had declared, pointing at the brown water stain below the taps. “And that shower head isn’t fixed on the wall properly.” Within minutes of arriving she had started to make a list of all the defects: the chipped tiles around the toilet, the rough surface in the bath where the enamel had worn away, the threadbare areas of the carpet, the dreary curtains. “I’ll do a review on TripAdvisor when we get back,” she said with grim satisfaction.
“Faded grandeur,” Ellen attempted in the hotel’s defence. “I agree it could all do with an update but I like it.” She wandered around on her own on the first morning, taking in the marble pillars, the luminous stained glass on the stairs, the wrought iron work and wood panelling. It’s like stepping back in time, she thought.
For the first few days they did the tourist round—a tour of the city on an open-topped bus, a cruise on the Danube, a trip to Margaret Island in the river with its water fountains and parks and a funicular ride up to the Royal Palace and National Gallery. On each trip Rebecca would murmur, “Dad would have loved this” or “poor Dad, he’ll never see this now” with a sniff and a wistful look. But she refused to accompany her mother into the famous Gellert baths next to the hotel, saying it would be a breeding ground for bacteria, so Ellen found herself sitting alone in the hot outdoor pool watching the dappled sunlight dance on the water. Later on she padded down to the tiled splendour of the thermal pools. I feel like an ancient Roman, Ellen thought to herself as she stretched her legs luxuriously in the forty-degree water, smiling indulgently at the sly kissing cherubs above the tiled doorway.
On their fourth morning Ellen crept out of bed at six and dressed quickly and quietly in the bathroom. She thought about leaving a note for Rebecca but decided she’d be back before she was missed. She eased the door open carefully and walked softly down the wide corridor. There was nobody about. Rather than use the lift she tiptoed down the graceful staircase to the lobby where a sleepy receptionist nodded at her without curiosity. Outside Ellen paused for a moment, breathing in the fresh chill air with its hint of sulphur. A hazy mist floated over the metallic surface of the Danube. It was very quiet. Ellen crossed the road and started climbing the steep concrete steps that wound up Gellert Hill. After ten minutes she reached a spot where there was a view down over Freedom Bridge and right along the river towards the Chain Bridge and the Parliament buildings. Her heart was pounding with the effort of the climb but her mind was clear. Carefully she took out the little Tupperware box from her pocket and prised open the lid.
No one can ever know what goes on inside a relationship, Ellen thought, and she had no intention of trying to tell Rebecca now. She had her own image of her father and that was only right. Bob had not been a bad man but he had been a difficult man, a bully who lacked empathy and consideration, a man who had never made Ellen feel wanted or happy. Perhaps she had been wrong to stay with him all these years. She accepted she was partly to blame.
Ellen shook out the contents of the little box on to the grass that sloped down on the other side of the railings. The ashes descended in a powdery cascade and then lay in a silvery sheen on the dewy grass. “Goodbye Bob,” she murmured. Ever since the funeral Ellen had still half-expected to hear his car on the drive and his voice shouting, “I’m home.” But now she finally knew he was gone. The sense of relief was overwhelming. Ellen gently tapped out the last of the ashes—let the bad go with the good. And then, taking one last look at the view, she turned and made her way cautiously down the uneven steps back to the hotel.
“Where on earth have you been mother?” Rebecca’s voice was shrill. “I was worried sick. I was just on the point of phoning Reception to report you missing.”
“Don’t be silly, Rebecca. I wasn’t missing. I just thought I’d go and spread your father’s ashes quietly on my own. I didn’t think you’d mind—we can do the rest together at Morecambe when we get home.”
For once Rebecca seemed to have little to say. Sitting up in bed in her pyjamas she looked more vulnerable and much younger. “What were you thinking of mother?” she wailed.
Deliberately misunderstanding her daughter Ellen replied, “Well, actually I was thinking how nice it would be to do one of those river cruises. After we get home I might look into it for next year.”
Gwenda Major lives in the South Lakes area of the UK. Her passions are genealogy, gardening and graveyards. Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous publications. She has written four novels and two novellas; three have been either longlisted or shortlisted for national competitions. Email: gwendamajor[at]hotmail.com