The brakes hissed and the engine growled. Guy and Marcus shivered as the bus pulled away, leaving them on the side of a lonely stretch of road on the desolate western fringe of the city. They had spotted the gates to Statue Park through the fog too late and missed their stop. By the time Guy had convinced the driver to pull over, they were half a mile further along the road.
When the two friends arrived in Budapest days earlier a merciless cold and an oppressive fog had greeted them. Much of Hungary was gripped in an icy vise, although the ground remained unseasonably snowless. They felt like the only tourists in town, which was a welcome change to the relentless sweaty throngs they’d encountered in Prague the previous summer. ‘We’re almost forty,’ a weary Marcus had said then, ‘and I feel like we’ve gone into battle.’ The delicious payoff of winter in Budapest was that they had the run of all the museums, thermal baths and cobbled backstreets.
Guy had always been interested in post-war European history and was looking forward to visiting Statue Park, an outdoor repository of monumental statues from Hungary's communist days. They decided to go on their last full day in Budapest. Marcus would have preferred to spend the morning in the soothing thermal waters of the Rácz or the Gellért, especially after the amount of vodka they’d consumed the night before, but he knew how much a visit to Statue Park meant to his friend. Bleary-eyed, they jumped on the 150 bus and thirty minutes later, having missed their stop, were ejected onto the misty roadside.
As the din of the bus faded, Guy tightened the scarf around his neck. ‘It’s not that far back,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Anyway, a brisk walk will clear the cobwebs.’
Marcus felt in his pockets and cursed. ‘I’ve left my gloves on the bus.’ But Guy was already marching back up the road.
There was no footpath, just a narrow strip of grass that dipped steeply into a gully, along which was strewn an array of litter – cans, newspapers, plastic bags, even a washing machine. The taloned steel supports of a pylon came into view in an adjacent field and a low drone of electricity hummed from unseen wires overhead. They listened out for the sound of oncoming vehicles but only heard their own dull syncopated footfalls on the acned bitumen.
Something caught Marcus’s eye ahead in the ditch. At first glance it looked like an overturned wooden sawhorse, like the one his father had kept in the tool shed, but he averted his gaze abruptly when he realised it was a large dog, motionless, its legs rigid like boughs and its short coat of fur tinged light blue. He said nothing to Guy, who hadn’t noticed.
Towering effigies soon appeared through the fog like bruises on waxen skin, and the men found themselves standing in front of the closed gates to Statue Park. A large sign dangled from the chains: ZÁRVA.
‘Damn,’ said Guy. He looked over to the tall wire fence that encircled the park. ‘We can still get a look from the outside.’
‘I’m not sure –’
‘We’re the only ones here,’ he said eagerly. ‘Come on!’
The visitors were afforded a worthy view of select pieces close to the perimeter as they followed it round. They passed the charging soldiers of the Béla Kun Memorial, then came to the looming Republic of Councils Monument which depicted a striding virile worker, flag flying from one fist, the other poised to strike. Marcus regarded it warily, almost expecting the figure to lunge from its plinth. Guy focused on a point deeper into the park and thought he recognised the silhouettes of Lenin and Engels through the wintry shroud.
They came to a halt at a section of fence by the Martyrs’ Monument, a giant bronze cast of a man, head flung back, arms outstretched and knees buckled, appearing to fall. Guy bent down to grip a corner of fencing that had come loose from the post. He jerked it upwards, creating a small rent.
Marcus looked at him, puzzled. ‘What are you doing?’
Guy winked. ‘We can crawl through and get a closer - ’
Behind them, a menacing growl brewed from the fog. They turned around and stiffened their bearing. Another growl was now discernible, a little further back. Then two more, one on either side of the men. Caliginous smears began to emerge, becoming more cogent as they drew closer. Quadrupeds, low on their haunches, crept through the slab of fog. They resembled emaciated feral canines. Ribs and vertebrae punctured their thin smoky fur in places. Their eyes were cadaverous voids, as listless as the fog that had borne the breed. The creatures’ snarls intensified, and one of them curled up its lips to unsheathe a ghastly rictus of scything fangs that didn’t belong to any animal the men knew of.
The four beasts edged closer to their quarry. Guy and Marcus backed up against the fence. The creatures were only eight or nine feet away. The men had seconds to act. ‘On the count of three,’ said Guy, his voice a hoarse whisper, ‘climb the fence as fast as you can.’
Marcus was crying. One of the beasts snapped its jaws erratically at him and expelled a deathly reek from its gut that made him want to gag.
The pack surged in an ululating frenzy, felling their prey like woodcutters a rotten oak. Then they gorged. Only when sated did they retreat, wisps of fog almost herding them back under the icy veil.
Snowflakes began to fall on Statue Park, at first in playful sprinkles, then in an unrelenting barrage. The monuments stood defiantly in their wire compound, the martyr’s scream, the soldiers’ roar and the worker’s rage frozen in perpetual tumult.
© Timothy Collard 2011