Elek allowed the low rumbling of the boat to ease him into a serene daze, savouring the gentle familiarity as it rocked. Not quite closing his eyes, he enjoyed the blurred patterns being painted into his vision by the shimmering fairy lights of the cabin.
‘Here they come’, a gruff voice grumbled in broad Hungarian.
Snapped out of his daydream by his father’s statement, Elek lifted his body to look out of the cabin window. Excitable tourists were flooding onto the boat and voices and accents from countries he hadn’t even heard of began to flood his ears. He turned excitedly to his father, who merely shook his head and looked back to the small television screen in front of him, more interested in the ongoing football match than yet another stream of what he would call ‘rowdy’ tourists.
But the young boy wasn’t interested in whatever match his father was watching tonight. As always, he stared out onto the deck of the boat as it filled up. There were boys and girls his age, tugging eagerly at their mother’s coats and pointing out down the river Danube. Lovers were wrapped in each other’s arms, swooning at Elek’s hometown, Budapest and seeing it in ways he couldn’t imagine.
As the last of the tourists filed on, the old boat’s engine began to pick up and its regular thump gathered speed. Elek’s father casually turned the wheel and eased the boat out onto the open waters of the wide river.
This was Elek’s favourite time of year. It was mid-august and the nights were warm, that was one reason, but what he really loved was that the circus was in town. Every year, the travelling circus would arrive and set up on Margaret Island, sandwiched between the city’s two banks of Buda and Pest. His father would clean down the old family boat and transport streams of tourists to and from the island. Elek had never actually been to the circus himself but he had always been promised a visit ‘one day.’
‘Apu, Apu, can I go stand with the people?’ Begged Elek, his face light with excitement.
‘Stay on the upper deck, though, so I can see you.’
His father’s reply was always the same and Elek was only too happy to obey – the top deck gave him the best view of the city after all.
Elek squeezed through the long legs of the crowd and worked his way to the railings. He loved looking at the reactions on all of the faces as they peered out in awe at the seemingly infinite number of landmarks the city had to offer. He followed their line of site to the great statue of the Citadella, towering over the city on Gelert Hill. He always thought the statue looked a bit like an angel at this time of night, watching over them all as they passed by on their little boat. Next was the Fisherman’s Bastion on the Castle hill. This was his favourite of all, and he imagined it as a palace in a fantasy land, where he was the king and every day was spent journeying to the circus with his father. But in his world, they were the guests.
Elek looked back into the cabin, wishing that his father would look up from that wheel or the television screen for just a moment. He had once told Elek that ‘only tourists get excited about this city’, but it just wasn’t true. Elek loved watching the passengers get excited by it all. They reminded him that everything was new and exciting if you only looked at it through the right eyes. He vowed never to forget the Angel at the Citedella or the fantasy castle of the Fisherman’s Bastion. He swore to himself, that when he got old like his father, he would always smile when he drove that boat up the river and see the world just like these happy tourists.
Suddenly, the boat gave one last big sputtering thud and a slight jolt. Everyone laughed as they tried to keep their balance. They had arrived at the island. Elek ran to the front of the boat, right in front of his father’s cabin. He could already hear the familiar music bounce around the island, and just make out the great red tent. It was strange to love something he had never seen, but this circus was his favourite thing in the world. Elek turned to his father, expectantly, and he smiled back at him, mouthing those familiar words.
‘One day, son. One day.’