March fourth, 2005, my forty-sixth birthday. I am fighting with my ten-year old daughter for the right to go topless in a Budapest spa.
This place is absolutely not about the body beautiful. Breasts come in all shapes and sizes here, except the uniform. There is not the slightest whiff of the footballer’s wife or silicone babe in the ladies’ pools and massage booths of the once grand and glamorous Gellert Hotel. Today, in fact, is pensioners’ day, and the local grannies bob about like pickled walnuts in the cloudy, sulphurous water, naked except for the well-bleached linen modesty aprons that flap uselessly about above their grizzled pubes. No one is paying the smallest bit of attention to my own well-lived in body, I assure my furiously embarrassed little girl; but I wonder, all the same, as I slip down my straps and climb into the icy plunge if it is noticeable, this strange, slight puckering on my right breast above a strange hard lump I felt there about six weeks before Christmas. There is only room for two in the plunge, and the other incumbent, a naked Austrian woman, looks challengingly at me, to see if I can stick it out. I last about ten seconds.
Cara is waiting for me back in the thermal, not realising that it is her whom the Hungarian grannies are talking about, for skulking too long in the 38 Celsius bath. I swim up to her (another contravention of the rules) and, still defiantly topless, submerge what my new Austrian friend would call my heart and lungs chakra in the dense hot water, hoping that its curative properties will disperse this strange contusion that is keeping me awake. It is possible to reach a state of beatific torpor in these baths, judging from the expressions of some of the women: a transcendent state, where past and present converge in great white hopes for the future. Most of them have been in here for at least an hour, which is fifty minutes longer than the maximum time recommended at this temperature. Cara is rosy as a picture-book apple, and I hate to imagine what the hot spring water is doing for my own face, though it is doing wonders for the circulation in my legs. Watching the clock, fixed high on the wall of green and silverfish grey majolica tiles, I wait out another five minutes before a white-coated masseuse, a relic from Communist times from the look and sound of her, comes to the steps to shout out a number at me. She wants some other hapless tourist, I expect, who doesn’t understand Hungarian; and I briefly consider taking her place, but am frightened of the close scrutiny I might attract perched up on the couch, beneath the harsh bright lights and expert, pummelling hands. There is a hospital on the floor above the spa, purporting to treat cardio-vascular problems. We pass it, Cara and I, as we ride up in the antique lift of the grand old hotel, in which we are thankfully staying, because to go to the effort of drying and dressing and turning out onto the cold March streets after the enervating sensation of the baths must be punishing indeed. A couple of ‘patients’ in hotel dressing gowns get on at the hospital floor; but Cara and I do not get out. Cardio-vascular problems, I guess, are not my trouble.
It is still there, back up in our room, as I peel off my swimsuit again beneath the same sulphurous waters of the bathroom shower. In fact, there is possibly more of it, for besides the hard, tight lump and the puckering, there is now what looks like a slight patch of inflammation beneath my collar bone. The mirror is steaming up, and my image is starting to melt, like one of the damned in hell in Michaelangelo’s Sistine frescoes; but I can see it in my mind’s eye.
It is still there.
It is always there.
It isn’t going away.