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On Margaret Island

George Huntington

George is a 23 year old medical student who writes in his spare time. His work has appeared in Storgy, Penniless Press, North Wing and the British Journal of Psychiatry. You can find more here:

Last winter, my boyfriend and I were stuck in a rut. We were both six months into new jobs in a new city and finding the change a bit tough. So as soon as our first holiday rolled around, we agreed to fly out to Budapest to spend time with a mutual friend who lived there. He was still working during the day, so we filled the time strolling around the capital and admiring the Christmas markets. After a few days relaxing in the thermal baths and drinking hot wine suitably early in the day, we decided to wander a bit further afield.


“You should see the singing fountain on Margaret Island,” suggested Harry, whose sofa we were occupying “it's like Soviet Disneyland.” Well, that epithet had us sold. After steeling ourselves against the chill, Fergus and I headed to the Danube from Harry's place to march along the river. Due to it being the off-season we only had locals for company and I liked that; I enjoy the sensation of blending in. The weather was bitterly cold and I felt thankful we'd packed plenty of extra layers. There was a harsh quality to the city when it hit sub-zero that bestowed a brutal beauty. Fergus brought a camera and was trying to capture it for his photoblog. I was just happy to snap some shots of the street art and Hungarian graffiti.


Now, Margaret Island is a small body of land sat squarely in the Danube, right in the middle of the Hungarian capital. It is just shy of two miles in length, with a bridge at one end communicating with the mainland on the Buda side of the river. The island is mostly covered in woods and parks and in the summer is where you find underage drinkers and teenagers having barbecues. The grounds are dotted with various gardens and hotels which come complete with thermal baths. For us it was enough to justify spending an afternoon there to have a calm stroll and take a few pictures.


After wiling away the time in a fancy hot chocolate cafe by the riverside, we bit the bullet and crossed the bridge to the island. Our rich lunch warmed us as we began to pad our way around the islet. The singing fountain was right in front of us; a tall sculpture like a pinecone hewn from metal. It turned out that it wasn't switched on at this time of the year, so we wouldn't be able to hear it sing for a few months. Honestly the whole thing was underwhelming but seeing how we were already there, we decided to have a proper look around.


Margaret Island is ringed by a path akin to a running track. It seemed a good way to avoid the outreached arms of the homeless and Roma so we trudged it, flanked by joggers and cyclists. At our pace it took an hour to hike over to the other end of the island. By the time we got to the tip of the far end, a mist had risen up from the iron grey river. During our stay in the city we'd grown used to the concoction of smog and river mist which enthronged the city late in the day. As we trekked we both were taking photographs of the Danube and the city on the far bank. The streetlights switched on suddenly and bathed Buda in a halo orange glow.


From the red asphalt track we could peer into the dense woods growing up on this island in the middle of the river. Between the trees I caught glimpses of unused buildings and pathways. These would be the small hotels and cafes that we'd heard about which littered the island. Pointing them out to Fergus, I asked if we could go through the centre of the park instead of retracing our steps so that I might capture these buildings on film. I'm not sure why I wanted this but he didn't see why not, so we found a mud path through the bushes and left the river and its black railing behind.


The ground was hard with frost and our boots left deep prints in the solid mud and grass. Dark and bare trees opened up like umbrella frames and in places grew so thick that it was difficult to believe that we were in the middle of a city. The fog flooded in and a created an unreal atmosphere which both of us sought to photograph. Though when we stopped to adjust the camera settings, cold seeped through to our bones. My teeth chattered and I had to rub my hands together, even with my gloves. Fergus shrugged it off but I knew he felt it too.


Early on we came across a shut building, chipped paint with faded yellow pastel. The sign said 'casino' and we figured it for some tourist trap bar. The parasols were folded and damp from the mist. A musty smell came off the mildew which drowned out the otherwise pleasant pine from the rest of the island. We leant against grimy windows, but the inside was concealed and there only a few tables to be seen. This business looked long since abandoned; the soul of the casino lay dreaming of better times. From here onwards we managed to lose sight of the central water tower which Fergus had been using as a lighthouse for his navigations.


Following a particularly intense series of shots framing a solitary fallen leaf in a ring of mushrooms, I told him we should begin to work our way back. The sun had noticeably set and the weak amber light from what few streetlamps we encountered was not worth the effort of our cameras. By now I was freezing slowly and had lost feeling to my toes. I worried about them rattling around in my boot long after I removed my foot from it. So it was time to go. The narrow tarmac path wound round all over the place and I wasn't sure that it was the fastest way back to the bridge. I said so and, neither of us carrying a map in our bags, we took a straight route back the way we had come.


A circle of wooden benches sat in the next clearing. I'm not sure that we passed those originally but I didn't want to raise it. To even suggest that we were lost would be ridiculous; the riverbank and jogger's path were only a ten minutes’ walk that way. The tracks of a single person appeared in pairs across the green area. Since we'd left to go exploring there hadn't been another person in the vicinity. I might have seen someone a way off perhaps but other than that I was sure that we were alone. The chill embraced me and I gasped. My exclaimings floated in front me with the frost rising in the air.


We left the picnic tables and trees surrounded us again. The pair of us were certain that our initial direction had been the right one, but none of these scenes were familiar. The ivy and the ferns were untouched by us or anyone else. Now it was dark; night had truly fallen with no gentle streetlight in sight. The glimpses of park furniture and worn paths were cold comfort and uncanny. Neither of us wanted to say it and hear the word spoken aloud but we were lost. Lost on this tiny island in the heart of Budapest, it hardly seemed believable! In the distance the bells from the trams could be heard calling out to us and I longed to answer them, being able to rest my tired legs on the seat of public transport.


Soon we had let anything resembling a path slip through our fingers. With the moon rising came a redoubling of the cold. Even our constant walking wasn't even to keep its efforts at bay. Fergus would stop suddenly from time to time. The first time this happened I thought he was taking a picture but as we paused successively and his camera stayed in his pocket I forced myself to ask what was wrong. We hadn't spoken in nearly an hour. A soft tendril of milky fog tickled my ankle.


“Why do we keep stopping?”

“It's nothing.” Fergus said.

“Come on, what's the matter?”

“OK, I'm not trying to scare you, I promise, but I think someone is following us.”

“What do you mean?”

“A few times back there I thought I saw someone, a figure, just out of the corner of my eye. And now I keep hearing snatches of someone talking and whistling.”


And then I heard it too. Some tacit murmur or susurrus carried on the wind in which our frosty breaths drifted. Occasionally the crunch from a heavy boot on the frosty grass rang out from far away. We both stopped and tried to trace where it was coming from, though I am sure neither of us wanted to find the source. Perhaps it was only our background and that primal fear of being lost, but this idea of another person in our midst thrilled me. With our hearts struck with a great fear, we sped up in our efforts to locate the path.


There was nothing else for it, we broke into a run. Once more we crossed that green marked out with the ring of benches. It was certain then, that we were going around in circles. A brief dizziness rose within me and I had to quell it. Were we worried? Why did we panic? I had time to see that our two set of footprints were matched by a third. Were those our footfalls from earlier, accompanied by the champing of some unknown interloper?


Wherever we ran to, the quiet murmuring never changed and neither did the whistling. When I dared I peered through the trees to seize a glance of whoever was tracking us. Sometimes I saw a strange monument unlike the fountain which hadn't seen before. Other times it was a wrecked building, coated in spray paint signatures. The wind rose and bitterly blew into our faces. I screwed up my eyes and did my best to keep up the pace.


In one clearing, a wooden structure stood in front of us. It rose up and beckoned amiably to our cold souls. Friendly light streamed through its four windows. The music and noise of merriment was enough to drown out the sounds of our stalker. Truth be told it looked more like a shack than anything else, but its appearance was comforting so we made for it. As we did, we shrugged our worries off of our shoulders and they melted away.


Fergus pushed the carved door open and we entered the throng. The music suddenly got much louder; there were a small troupe with an upright bass crammed into the corner. And they really were wedged in there; this bar (for I had decided that this place must be some kind of drinking establishment by now) was rammed wall to wall with cheerful men and women. The aroma of gluhwein hung thick in the air. Winter was kept at bay by thick frosted windows like portholes. With nowhere to stand, everyone stood around rubbing shoulders in small groups huddled together. I am sure that I heard a fire crackle though I never saw any.


As we forced our way through to the bar, I had a better chance to look around. The floorplan split off to two raised platforms either side of the bar. These were filled with people quaffing around a round table. Next to the bar was a spiral wooden stair which led to the balcony circling the height of the room. Though the lighting was poor up there, we could see the dangling legs of other customers; it was incredibly busy for the off-season. Warmth; of both emotion and heat permeated the lodge and we felt welcomed and reassured.


Now, neither of us speaks any Hungarian in any real capacity. Once we found ourselves at the counter, Fergus gestured towards a dark cauldron where the hot wine was brewing and held up two fingers. The bartender was a typical Magyar specimen: large and dark with a waxed moustache. He dunked two cups into the vat and laid them at the bar. When Fergus pulled out his wallet, he put up his hand and shook his head vigorously. We did our best to thank him. Perhaps this was the arrangement; some sort of Hungarian hospitality.



Two glasses of steaming wine, which over the next minute or two restored the circulation to my ears and fingers. The frost fell off of our boots and we forgot what it was like to feel cold. Everything about this place was cosy and a warm shiver ran up my back. We tried to get comfortably together in the crowd and watch the band. Fergus focussed on music players and I took their picture. The whole thing was so charming, but I felt that there was something off. Not in a sinister fashion but the mood was a touch austere and I wondered at why that was.


Nobody spoke to us or looked at us. Even the barman when he served us did not make eye contact. If we shoved our way through the crowd then people would move out of our way, but that was the extent of our interactions. I put it down to us obviously not being local. Just one of those cultural things such as not clinking beer glasses when you toast. It did not feel as though we were intruding on anything but there was still something off about it. At the time we were too snug to notice, though looking back later it made more sense, in as far as any of this did.


When it felt like we had recovered fully, we placed our mugs back on the counter and made for the door. Going back out into the dark and the cold was an unpleasant shock. The music died suddenly, snapped off by the closing door. All those dreadful thoughts of being hunted returned to their seat at the front of my mind. My teeth chattered again and I stomped the ground to keep warm. I checked to see what was keeping Fergus. What I saw with a casual glance made be spin around in astonishment. Both of us stared agape at the spot where until a single second ago the cabin had stood.


It had disappeared completely. Only a patch of untrodden grass remained. Fergus put out his hands as though the structure had become invisible, but he was met only by empty air. The one shred of evidence I had, excluding memory, were the pictures I had taken whilst we were inside. I checked my digital camera, scrolling back and seeing only eerie photos of Margaret Island dusk. The photos had vanished just as the cabin had! We were without proof.


After that we somehow found the joggers' path again and were careful to stay by the riverside. We made our way home safely, sticking to the roads we knew. Back at our friend Harry's flat we knocked quietly on the door. He came to us and laughed, saying we both had a haunted expression and perhaps we'd seen a ghost? I rather think we might have done.


We did not find it again, what we came to call the haunted cabin. Of course, we found no record of it online or with anybody local who knew the area. Pretty soon both of us learnt to keep quiet about the whole thing. The remembrance I have of the cabin and its friendly occupants do not trouble me. It’s the odd lack of certainty, like being lost at sea. The sensation is akin to climbing the stairs in the dark on your way to bed. With the lights out, you miscount your steps and take an extra one at the top. Your foot passes through the blank space and in a moment there is that strange dissonance; your view of the world was not quite right. That feeling, I think, is going to trouble me for some time.

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