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Atomic Heart
Short story

The plane trailing the coffin which advertises the Eternal Youth Funeral Parlour has been circling above the city for years, like a magic black mirror casting light onto the roofs, into obscure corners of landings through the stained-glass windows of stairways, onto the faces of people, upon the plate-glass of shop-fronts.

At night the lights on the plane's tail are turned on and the coffin flies above brilliantly illuminated. The strong lamps shine through the special material it is made of, enveloping Julia, the exquisite model lying in it, in a golden halo of light. A small black hat is perched on her head, the veil emphasizing rather than hiding her beautiful features. Tiny black pearls gleam in her waist-length, bright gold hair, and we can marvel at her from the front, from behind and from both sides, all at once. She is wearing a three-quarter length black woollen jacket and her high-necked black silk shantung dress is cut ten centimetres above the knees, so that the singularly elegant outfit does not conceal her superb calves. Underneath the sexy combidress the black panties are but a wisp, an exotic leaf, and the ultra-absorbent superthin figure-hugging sanitary towel with wings is perfectly safe and so comfortable that you can barely notice it. Sheer stockings sheathe her long legs like the faint shadow cast by a smoked glass partition. Her pure silk scarf flutters to reveal a golden medallion with shimmering diamonds, and her snakeskin bag holds bank and credit cards from the most trustworthy banks and well-established stores as well as some cash, a solar calculator, a slim silver-fronted notebook with the direct telephone numbers of the foreign exchange department, the stock brokers, the investment consultancy, the special room, the real estate agency, Europe, the body care centre, the hairdressing and manicure salon, the airport information desk, and the car showroom; beside a scented batiste handkerchief lies a packet of condoms, a lip salve, a powder compact, a gas spray, perfume, a revolver, a nunchaku, mouthspray, lipstick, nail scissors. The publicity coffin glides dazzlingly across the night sky, fireworks sparkle, and among the stars glittering rainbow letters spell out : JULIA.

The cellular phone is always at hand, its visual display forever flashing, the calls are non-stop, the portable sauna and solarium are slung over her shoulder in a bag sewn of the same leather as her handbag and high-heeled shoes. A zip and a click and you can steam-bathe and sun-lamp yourself in a bank, at the opening of an art exhibition, in a church service, on the main staircase of the opera-house, at a human rights rally, in the interval between conferences, during parliamentary sessions, stuck in a traffic jam, anytime, anywhere.

The pilot, Dr R., flies the plane in a double-breasted suit, casually, like someone who has just tossed off a double vitamin shake at his desk so as to be brisk and fit while he runs through his promising accounts. He appears on television every hour, promoting the latest coffins for teenagers, pink for girls, blue for boys, turned out by the same wind-machine that also ensures the streaming of hair during the entire decomposing period. Both types are available in stereo and, during the funeral, favourite numbers blare from the coffins edged with neon lights, dry ice pours out, lights flash, changing colour, and laser figures sweep over the audience; the apex of the cross spins, flashing beams of light in a staccato rhythm, revolving spherical mirrors scattering a lavish profusion of light.

The five-star deep-freeze coffin is available in all colours, not only standard models, but special models as well, in a metallic finish, cold light, and a built-in camera with the aid of which, at the press of a button, the departed can be made to appear in a cosmetics advert or even cheek by jowl with the stars of a feature film. It is a common custom to have one television set, the living-room one for example, perpetually tuned in on it, with entertaining supplements such as agreeable sound effects, go-go girls, a Japanese garden in bloom in the spring, or a pair of swallows building their nest.

Trick-coffins based on the five-star deep-freeze and colour camera system can be bought on the instalments plan, but here computer control brings the relayed image into motion: the departed will smile, wink, wave, raise his hat to the person sitting in front of the screen, and at little extra cost father, mother, spouse or child, old flame, never-to-be-forgotten teacher, brother-in-arms or life-long friend will speak, can be conversed with or made to supply background music: hum, sing, or whistle, with a selection of the week's top twenty.

They can also be programmed to provide a kind of early morning call-service, set by the day to function as alarms; rousing the family with "Good morning!" or "Time to get up, darling!" or even "Reveille!", more military-fashion, at six-fifteen on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, six-thirty on Tuesdays and Thursdays, allowing them a lie-in on Saturdays and Sundays, waiting until nine, half-past or even later before switching on the percolator and the toaster.

Those buried with a transmitter of their own are not house-bound like those hitched to the cable network. The headstone, the cross, the wooden headboard are all miniature transmitters, the churchyard management tower transmits their waves to a satellite, and thus, thanks to Eternal Youth, you can tune into a grave from all corners of the earth, from a car or a speed-boat, anywhere.

Julia is fifteen when she wins the Eternal Youth Funeral Parlour beauty contest. She has not aged a minute since then and no one would believe she is a hundred and six when she dies. And hers is still an unbroken success. Long live the queen!

Only natural blondes can enter the contest, and Julia was born black-haired. But as early as the age of seven she sets herself a great aim: to be Queen of the Eternal Youth beauty contest. Encouraged by her parents, she begins to exercise her hair; in her case too constant effort founded on ability, employed in an orderly way and with the proper sense of vocation, bears fruit. By the time she turns fourteen, Julia has developed herself into a natural blonde.

With the crown she wins a full, lifetime contract and, as soon as she comes of age, Eternal Youth purchases her death. From this moment on a host of doctors, plastic surgeons, beauticians, masseurs, wrinkle-trainers, skin and teeth gymn-ast stars, the masters of hair-building and development, bio-doctors and green chefs accompany her all over the world. The days begin, continue and end with beauty and body care. When a wrinkle appears, it is immediately smoothed out, sewn up, fatty tissue is suctioned off, hair made to stay young with root-dyeing; it is not the hair but the bulbs that are dyed, using only all-natural materials, because bio-hair alone is truly beautiful, colour and light growing into the hair, preventing its greying in a natural way.

After Julia, the glittering crown of beauty and health is placed on the heads of ninety-one Julias in succession. Competition is fair and honest but keen and many of them have got where Julia is today.

Julia laughs from between the panes of the World Bank's glass frontage, her clear-ringing voice and sweet breath rousing pleasant sensations in its clients, it is Julia who welcomes guests in the lobby of the radio and television centre, giving autographs and advice, she knows everyone, listens to requests, gives introductions; waving from the balcony of the presidential palace, she draws tourists by the thousand day after day, her long dress is blue, the colour of the sky and of peace, she presents an enchanting sight as the wind teases her skirt and whips her blonde hair into her face, she radiates freedom, and the promise that with hard work and perseverance anyone might become a Julia; Julia, director general for life of the beauty industry's trust, receives her partners continually, her office is a forest of flowers, a Julia-statuette on her desk, ultra- violet Julia-posters on her walls and Julia pins on the Julias, from which Julia gazes serene-faced and bright-eyed at those invoking her, gilt inscriptions on the marble plaques, letters, millions of video-and-audio messages thanking her for having found the dog that strayed, the car that was stolen, the miraculous cure, the love potion, the bride, the groom, the lottery numbers that won the prize, the shopping vouchers, the sea cruise, the tennis subscription, the dinner for two at the Hilton, the music sounds, Julia's hand is raised in perpetual blessing, she is smiling, awaiting customers who often come to place orders on behalf of international stars, and who can satisfy themselves of the excellence of the products, the permanence of the results achieved at Julia's receptions.

Some Julias are simply inaccessible, endlessly on safari, but others ride or jog in the park mornings, answering letters in their study in the afternoons, and no one could tell that there is a sixty year difference in age between them.

Today, thanks to the high technology of our times, it is not the deceased who is put in the coffin, but the coffin that is put in the deceased: a virtually everlasting, wear-and-tear-proof atomic heart is transplanted into the body to cool and circulate the artificial blood, carrying it even to the lymphatic system and en-suring thus a fresh, youthful complexion. In addition, the newest type of artificial blood tans the skin with no side effects, makes the body supple and lithe and keeps lips so cherry-red that they could rightly be the envy of any sixteen-year-old.

The transplant patient should take up position in the central part of the house, in the living room, for example, where the members of the family can find him at any time, so that he can be part of the life of the family from morning to night. If the transplant patient is one of a married couple, he will often be found sitting in his familiar, favourite arm-chair with a helping of grilled chicken in his lap, which can also, upon request, be supplied with artificial blood using a simple arterial implant, thereby keeping the meat forever fresh. Another classy solution is to have a plate of low-calorie tea-cakes at hand on one of the modish little tables, or else the transplantee puts a peanut in his mouth, but this we would sooner advise against, as peanuts, like walnuts, are much too rich.

If the transplantees are husband and wife, they will spend their days in cosy, close proximity, symbols of eternal devotion and fidelity. The television set will switch on automatically as their favourite programmes begin, and when it's time for aerobics the couch will be set in motion and they will do every exercise together, move every muscle, stretch every vein. Look lively, keep fit! In the evening the headrests will tilt back into place so they can take a rest after a long hard day. All is silent, only the clacking of the drive can be heard. In the mornings the curtains will draw open and the sun will shine in.

Translated by Eszter Molnár

The Hungarian Quarterly , Volume XXXVII No. 143 Autumn 1996 - Some Highlights


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