Great Aunt Hilda Von Washington was directed related to the Von Washingtons of Bavaria, who in turn were vaguely related the Washingtons of Virginia, and it was this claim to fame that had landed her the plum role of New York’s capo de matriarch. She exploded into the room with all the practised finesse of a Tanzanian wildebeest dive-bombing in Lake Victoria, sudden and dramatic, and pointed a finger that had seen more afternoon grilled foie gras at the Ritz than was polite in civilized society.
“You exist!” she said.
“Yes,” I stammered at this imposition of philosophy upon a seven year. “I expect I do.”
“This will never do,” she pointed at the door, “you’ll have to go – again.”
“But I just got returned,” I opined, having just returned from a three day sojourn with my Uncle Tobias in India.
She had sent me there to be rid of me, theorizing the best way to raise a seven-year-old child was chasing tigers and fighting off rabid monkeys in the subcontinental jungle.
This was to have been followed with eleven years at the Newton-Wold preparatory school in Connecticut, with its concomitant beating from ages five to seventeen. Its motto verum in vehemens pulsus – truth in violent beating, would explain why Great-aunt Hilda was nothing if not traditional. That I had not only survived the first test but had returned was a logical premise she refused to accept.
“You exist, but only in the metaphysical sense of being in the room,” she riposted “not in the justifiably valid sense of having the right to exist in the room.”
I shook the noise out of my head. “Uncle Tobias sends his love.”
“Is he still alive?”
“I would have thought that followed from his sending his love.”
“You have much to learn about relations,” she frowned severely, “and to further that education I’m sending you to your Uncle Erasmus in Quebec. Or is it Quito?”
“Quito in Ecuador?”
“Are there any others?”
Unfortunately there were others and it turned out Uncle Erasmus lived in Romania, inside a monument called Quito Square, famed as a dedication to Mircea Zorileanu, an aviator who crossed the Carpathian Mountains in an airplane in 1915 and died four years later of tuberculosis from the flight – many are the heroes in Romania.
Uncle Erasmus had been left behind after the fall of Iron Curtain and Nicolae Ceauşescu, like a doorstop after the building has been demolished. Previously he had acted as a sort of aide de camp to old Nicolae by funnelling prostitutes and whiskey over from Serbia, which had it even worse off than Romania when it came to tyrants. Uncle Erasmus was now lodged in a tent in the middle of a roundabout, beneath what could only be described as a statue of four brass vultures and an engraving of a naked Pocahontas. Knowing why Nicolae Ceauşescu had decided to have a picture of Pocahontas stuck in the middle of Bucharest would go a long way to explaining why he also referred to himself as ‘The Genius of the Carpathians’.
“Uncle Erasmus?” I knocked hesitantly with a cowbell he used for a ringer.
There was a muffled groan and a bearded head appeared that for all the world could be described as a myopic orangutan wearing a toupee.
“Whose that? The police? I’ve paid this month’s blood money already!”
“Not quite, Great-aunt Hilda sent me,” I presented a letter that had more double entendres than Mae West and a bottle of gin.
“Are yes, the great gorgon still resides in her New York eyrie I expect. Does she still devour young children?”
“I take that as a yes.”
Uncle Erasmus had spent his youth running guns for the White Russians to the Bolsheviks and back again, in an endless financial loop that was indirectly responsible for the Great Ukrainian Tractor Crash of 1925.
He was wanted in more countries for more crimes than Interpol had offices, and it was only an animal cunning rivalling Stalin exiling the entire Bolshoi ballet for missing practise, that kept Erasmus ahead of the law. A lifetime of marrying gypsies for their dowries and then fleeing on the first train, also meant he was fabulously wealth and had more death vendettas on him than he could reliably count.
“It’s time for morning tea,” he pronounced reliably.
“It’s five o’clock in the evening.”
“Here we work on Romanian time, when I get up, then we eat.”
We decamped to the local coffee house, which served only cured meats and a dyspeptic wine that removed the lead from the pewter mug it was in. I looked at it circumspectly and wondered about liver damage.
“Drink up,” he attacked a platter of odious meat and goblet of wine that could have been used as an industrial solvent.
“That means you’re older than the wine, never drink anything that’s older than you, you never know where it’s been.”
Hesitantly I raised the mug and found it singed my eyebrows. Wisely I pushed it to one side and lived another day. Remarkably the wine had no effect upon the constitution of my uncle; rather it seemed to disinfect the meat he was attacking, in much the same way as Norwegians used caustic soda to render lutefisk into edible rubber.
After late breakfast where he reminisced about his exploits, we returned to the statue he called home in the perversely named Paris Street.
“Our mission today is to woo the grand countess Romanova.”
“Is she one of the Romanovs?”
“No, she’s one of the Romanovas, different royal family but equally crack shots.”
“Shouldn’t I unpack first?”
“If there’s one thing I learned, always have a suitcase packed and waiting by the door. Since you have only the one and I lack a door, I suggest we leave the state of world affairs as they are.”
It turned out the grand countess Romanova was more of a building inspector who wanted to turf Uncle Erasmus out of his incontinently placed shanty. It also turned out she was partial to chocolates and flowers, and it was the avenue of romance my uncle hoped to follow.
The sun had set and the streets were filled with revellers driving their cattle home from market, or revellers finishing their factory shifts, or revellers emptying their trashcans. The truth was there was little to revel about in Bucharest so they made do with anything that justified a noise.
The grand countess Romanova lived on the fourth floor of an apartment block that could be euphemistically described as Stalinist-grey, a dark morbid affair framed with broken windows and dead cats. Under the new European building standards it would have been condemned and demolished as an assault on the senses. Uncle Erasmus pointed her out sitting in the window, reading a newspaper and occasionally taking pot shots with an air rifle at pigeons for her dinner. She was a solid woman; in much the same way Romanian cattle could be described as light-footed.
“Here’s where you come in my young Romeo.”
I disliked what I knew was coming so much I was three streets away before Uncle Erasmus was able to corner me in a tree.
“Come down,” he poked me with a broom. “You don’t know what the plan is yet.”
“I do know what the plan is,” I protested, “and it involves me climbing up four stories of rickety masonry and delivering your chocolates and flowers to the aforesaid baroness.”
“Why yes,” Uncle Erasmus cracked a smile, “have you done this before?”
“I played the Nurse in a school play of Romeo and Juliet,” I wailed, “they don’t call them a pair of star-cross'd lovers for nothing.”
“Nonsense that’s an exaggeration,” he insisted as he pulled me down with a shepherd’ crook he had appropriated and led me back to the building. “You merely need to give her these flowers and sweets, there’s really no danger at all.”
“Won’t it be more romantic if you do it?”
“War wound, bit nasty I’m afraid.”
“All of them, now up you go,” he launched me up a crumbing wall that had so many loose bricks it could have been used as a brick pile. “And read this to her,” he stuck a note in my pocket.
As I climbed I noticed the sound of pinging around me and wondered what it was, until there was sharp bite on my hand and I realized I was under fire from the countess and her air rifle.
“She’s shooting at me!” I wailed.
“Nonsense, she thinks you’re a cat. Just keep climbing.”
The firing continued and seemed to be coming more accurate until I reached the second floor, at which point her tactics changed and I came under a barrage of empty vodka bottles and rusty sardine tins.
“She’s brought out the heavy artillery!”
“She’s just emptying this weeks garbage,” Uncle Erasmus said encouragingly. “Remember the Alamo!”
“Why does no one remember we lost that one?”
At the third floor she ran out of munitions and resorted to swishing the air with a bundles of twigs attached to a log she probably considered a broom.
“She’s switched to bayonets!” I screamed.
“Lad!” came Uncle Erasmus’ rejoinder, “I seen butter knives that are sharper! Almost there!”
As the dervish of the fourth floor battered with me enough Romanian insults to curdle water, I breached the casement of her balcony, and from within my shirt I pulled out a box of Turkish delights and faded field daisies that a rangy goat would have refused and vainly offered them up.
“For me little one?” she spoke in insolvent English, suddenly a coquettish sixteen years old of a hundred and ninety pounds and a face that would have sent Genghis high tailing back to the steppes. “From mister Erasmus?”
“Yes, and a letter,” I hung on gamely with a view to survival.
“Aw,” she melted as she parsed the script, “tell mister Erasmus I thank him for his gift, and he may stay.”
With this, she closed the window on my fingers and I fell four stories into a convenient pile of manure that was as high as the horse that made it.
“What did she say?” Uncle Erasmus dragged me out.
“She says you can stay,” I almost swooned with the heady smell of fresh horse urine. “Are you sure she is a countess?”
“Over here every woman and her poodle counts as a countess.”
“Why on earth don’t you just stay at the Hilton?”
“Records dear boy, the one thing I can’t afford to leave is a trail of records.” He grinned a mouth that had so much heavy metal it made gold mines in South Africa seem financially insecure. “Otherwise the coppers would be on to me in a flash. Now first mission accomplished, next to the duchess.”
“There’s more?” I gasped, more out of the stench of the horse manure than annoyance.
“The high duchess Grimalda Hackenstacken has possession of my violin, and trust me my boy, if there’s one thing the ladies like it’s a Romeo with a fiddle.”
We set out across at the city as the Moon began to rise. Dogs barked at us, people barked at us as well, but at least they didn’t try to bite. Bucharest in spring is a beautiful city if one can see past all the defaced statues of Nicolae Ceauşescu, every three-legged horse, and more to the point every three-legged war veteran.
We entered the salon of the high duchess Grimalda Hackenstacken, who had had seen it all roll across her country. About the wall was a rogues' gallery of every dictator and minor tyrant Eastern Europe had seen in the twentieth century. First the Tsar had visited her boudoir before his all too unfortunate misalliance with the Bolsheviks. Then came moonlight dancing with Leon Trotsky before his industrial accident with an ice pick in Mexico. Herman Goering was laughably brave and dashing as the Soviets drove him and the Luftwaffe out of Romania. Stalin put in an appearance and astoundingly didn’t send her to a gulag or leave her with a bullet in the head. Pride of place turned out to be not surprisingly, the jaunty profile of Nicolae Ceauşescu, minor god of the Carpathians, and those that disagreed with him were soon unable.
“Come in darlings, come in,” said a woman that had more folds in her face than a Parisian boulangerie has in its croissants. “My what a handsome one, you are.”
Her hands cradled my face and I could have sworn parts of them sloughed off onto my epidermis. I shuddered compulsively. She made me sit beside her and I wondered if the smell was human or wild porcine.
“What brings you here, to visit me in my prime,” she lisped in the way that reminded you of grottos of bones and the high points of the Middle Ages. If this was her prime, her pupal stage must have been positively frightening.
“To visit the most beautiful madam in all Romania,” said my uncle, who was nothing if not suave - he should have considered a role in bomb disposal. “An evening with you is an eternity in paradise.”
I looked at her and wondered how severely my uncle suffered from cataracts.
“And you brought this lovely man with you,” she smiled with the face that sunk a thousand barges.
Again she had referred to me, and this was starting to worry me, it was starting to worry me in the sense - animals felt worried as they stood outside the abattoir worrying what all the mooing was about on the inside.
“I seem to remember I have something of yours,” at this point the high duchess Grimalda Hackenstacken picked up a violin case and held it for Uncle Erasmus. He leant across to retrieve it, but she held onto it and smiled the sort of toothy grin normally reserved for mako sharks. “Why not leave your young fellow with me.”
Uncle Erasmus winked at me, grabbed the violin case, gave his salutations and bolted for door like he was front-runner at the Belmont Stakes. I found myself left alone with a woman who had ridden more jockeys then the Charge of the Light Brigade and probably some of them as well.
“May I have something to drink?” I stammered as she tousled my hair and undid my tie.
“Never too young to discover whisky I say.”
She waltzed across the room with all the elegance her swollen ankles and loaves of flesh would allow. Seeing my chance, and realizing it would be my only one, I darted to the door and scuttled down the stairs, as a scream that would have done justice to all three of the Stygian witches when they discover young Perseus have scarped with the eye of seeing.
I joined Uncle Erasmus downstairs.
“Well done, I can see now why you graduated to one of my relatives.” He grinned as I tried to remember how to breathe. “Now we must to Lyubitshka, supreme princess of the gypsies, no less.”
Given the preceding Romanian royalty, I had the feeling it was time to elope.
“And what minor task is it this time?” I hesitated to ask.
“Marriage actually, but I’m hoping her relatives will forgive me for the previous engagements.”
“Were there many?”
“Does a pine forest have needles?”
“That depends on whether we are talking horticultural or surgical.”
It was now late evening and this being Romania, wolves and wereman stalked the streets in search of romance and a pint of blood. Twice we had to shelter in a convenient tavern as prowlers swept the streets, and they were actual street cleaners, imagine what real wolves would have been like. Eventually we made it to a large forbidding castle that had seen the better side of the Renaissance.
“I thought you said she was a gypsy?” I piped.
“And the castle?”
“Hollywood built it for a movie, actors and production costs are incredibly cheap over here. No genuine Romanian royalty would live here, which reminds me, whatever you do, don’t mention any other royalty.”
“Will bad things happen?”
“Do you enjoy eating borsht?”
Uncle Erasmus stood at the foot of the drawbridge, and started to play, and I have to say that as musicians go he could beat out a mean Khachaturian. Windows started flying out open, doors started slamming and the sounds of feet rattling down stairs could be heard in accompaniment. Within no time the drawbridge had fallen at our feet and we were dragged inside, if there was any doubt at my Uncle’s ability to woo, it was quickly displaced as he was carried in on the shoulders of enormous men to be presented to an enthroned princess of the gypsies. All the time Uncle Erasmus kept furiously fiddling like the devil on cocaine.
“Where did you learn to play like that?” I asked my uncle in amazement.
“It’s really the fiddle, I won it in a poker game from Yehudi Menuhin. Yehudi was a great violinist but a terrible drunk.”
I looked up and beheld a princess who surprisingly was my age. At this point a thin sliver of doubt crept into my mind, and I regarded my uncle with serious misgivings. Then it dawned on me I was the groom.
“No,” I said plainly and started moving to the exit.
“Go on, my boy,” he grabbed me by the collar and nudged me forward, “you’ve got to get hitched sooner or later, preferably sooner, that way you can spend the dowry before she comes of age.”
“I’m too young, she’s too young. I’m still learning algebra, she’s still learning algebra, but I do know that one plus one doesn’t always add up.”
“You don’t have to do anything,” he whispered in my ear, “just say yes, we have a party, get drunk and leave as soon as they hand over the money.”
“I can see how you made it to be one of my relatives.” Then in a moment of inspiration I blurted out a relative truth. “But what of the other princess?”
Immediately the room fell silent and a dozen wedding contracts were torn up.
“Fool! We’re undone!” Uncle Erasmus yelped as we escaped by a window and jumped in the moat. By one o’clock he had packed me on a Romanian air transport via JFK and shipped me back to Great Aunt Hilda with the expressed wish I never visit the expanded Europe ever again.
Great Aunt Hilda looked at me with some annoyance. “Visits are only permitted once every ten years.”
As a peace offering I held up the Stradivarius I had appropriated off Uncle Erasmus at the airport. Her eyes narrowed and she looked at me severity that destroys country clubs.
“I recognize that violin,” she said, “I seem to remember Yehudi Menuhin using it to get my dowry off me. We are not amused.”
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