"The day the Berlin Wall came down, Jennifer returned to England, abandoning her week-old daughter, Szandi, to grow up on a Hungarian vineyard with 300 years of history. Now 18, Szandi is part of Budapest's cosmopolitan art scene, sharing a flat and a bohemian lifestyle with her lover and fellow sculptress, Yang. She has finally found her place in the world. Then a letter arrives that threatens everything, and forces her to choose once and for all: between the past and the present; between East and West; between her family and her lover.
Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is a coming of age story that inhabits anti-capitalist chatrooms and ancient wine cellars, seedy bars and dreaming spires; and takes us on a remarkable journey across Europe and cyberspace in the company of rock stars and dropouts, diaries that appear from nowhere, a telepathic fashion mogul, and the talking statue of a bull.
“You’ve gotta come see it, Szandi,” says Yang. I slam the phone down but it misses the base. I hit the clock instead, which flashes 03.00.
I put the handset on the pillow and turn over so I’m looking at it. The white plastic appears faintly red in the clock’s LCD glow. “Szandi?” I hear. The black dots of the speaker seem to wink in the dark as she talks.
“My sculpture. It’s finished. You’ve gotta come see!”
“I will. I’ll come over first thing in the morning.”
“It is first thing in the morning, you daft bitch.” I hear her laugh, but it’s distant. I bet she thinks she’s put her hand over the mouthpiece; but she’s too stoned to get it right.
“Are you gonna make me come get you, Szandi?”
“Pleeaase,” she says.
“OK.” I’m too tired to argue. I’ll be back in bed quicker if I just go.
I pull on a jumper, thick woollen leggings, and a pair of pumps, and head out of the flat into the cold city. The mist coming off the Danube wraps itself around me like the breath of a thousand ghosts.
I make my way through Víziváros. The streets get narrower with every turn until I reach a passage that’s little more than a crack, where one building has slipped down the hill with age and worked loose of its partner. There are no lights, but I know every chip and layer of orange and blue and green and brown paint on the door that opens onto a thin, concrete staircase. I climb to the top and ring the bell.
Yang opens her studio door a few centimetres, and looks me up and down as though she can’t figure out why I’m here. All I can see are her eyes. Her pupils are huge, like she’s sucked in two black moons. I was right. She’s stoned. She fumbles to free the safety chain, opens the door fully and reaches out a hand to drag me inside.
We stand on the paint-splattered floorboards just inside the door, our hands still locked together. She grins but her muscle control’s gone, and the smile teeters on her lips. She’s wearing the long T-shirt I printed for her that says **** slit a few centimetres above the hem. The black letters are spaced out and I can see enough between them to know the T-shirt’s all she’s wearing.
She steps to one side and pushes me forward. I’m standing in front of a glass tank about a metre high, the same deep and twice as long. Inside are loads of little red balloons. They’re just hovering in space, refusing to fall to earth or float off into the sky. Some of them are clustered together so it looks like they’re supporting each other, but I walk all the way around the tank and there’s clear air surrounding every one of them.
“Gelatine,” she says. “Cool, huh? Chemicals suspended in extract of cow!” She giggles, wobbles, and nearly topples through the glass.
“Like a negative of Damien Hirst,” I say, but it’s more beautiful than that; and more old fashioned, like the millefiori paperweights in Dad’s study. The concept’s modern and kind of cool, but there’s something in the execution – the smoothness of the red; the flat, crisp angles of the glass; the clarity of the gelatine – that belongs to another time.