Hungarian Love Letters 3

House of Spirits


Sweet summer sweat

Under the shady trees: out in the meadow.

Making the days last into a lifetime

Maybe she will never go home.

Easing her body down into the old ways

Remembering with an ache inside, still longing to forget.


IN THE DAYS that followed, she thought she would go crazy in the city heat. But instead she went to the countryside, to sit out her days by the old lake, and pick slowly at her wounds of loss. Come to Nagycsepely, Magda had said. You can catch the train from Déli Station in Budapest to Siófok, and I will collect you in the car. Where we live is a tiny village, at the end of a little road on the south east side of the Balaton. It’s peaceful here. You can rest and recover. So that’s what she did.

The train was stiflingly hot, even though it was still only June, even with all the windows open. An old couple sat opposite her and opened their lunch. Peasant food. Big chunks of bread and szalonna fat, with long red radishes and sweet green peppers. They grinned at her, and offered to share. But she had no appetite, and, smiling politely, she turned to look out of the window. She had never felt more English. The sweat trickled down her neck as the train gathered speed and headed out into the countryside. She was relieved to be leaving town. Budapest was a place of defeat for her now. He had told her he didn’t love her. Her contract at the theatre was finished. And so there was nothing to keep her in the capital. Escape was the only option – and she was grateful to Magda and Tamás for giving her somewhere to go.

There was no one in the little station when she arrived. Just a bored and overheated guard who barely glanced at her, as she walked slowly through the ticket barrier and headed for the exit. Five minutes later, with her usual last-minute flair, Magda came roaring into the dusty car park in a battered old Trabant, laughing and waving madly. Jan was pleased to see her friend. Being on her own in the Hungarian countryside still somehow made her nervous, and she always carried her passport and visa to prove she was allowed to be there. It was June 1989. Change was in the air. But the police could be awkward. And there was far more military around than she was used to. Only last week, on the 4th June, there had been that scare over Tiananmen Square. The lighting engineer had come running into the actors’ bar, shaking like a leaf. There’s been a massacre, he shouted. In China. The tanks have gone in. Who says it couldn’t happen here too? It had taken hours to talk him down. Even so, when she woke at dawn the next day, and heard the rumble of heavy machinery right outside her window, she had panicked, and ran to look what it was. She felt foolish when she saw – it was just the street cleaning van lumbering up the road, noisy and laborious as ever. But the edginess didn’t leave her. Things were opening up now, that was the word on the street. But there was always a chance it could go the other way. Moscow might change its mind.  And then, Kádár’s successors wouldstill obey their Soviet masters, whatever bloodshed they might sanction. This was just paranoia, Jan knew, fuelled in part by her frayed nerves –  and broken heart. She need the serenity of the Hungarian countryside, plenty of Magda’s good food and home brew: then everything would come right again.

They drove madly along the narrow village lanes, Magda chattering wildly all the while. Jan just listened, suddenly passive and exhausted from the emotions of the past weeks. When they got to Nagycsepely, the tarmac soon turned to dirt. The village was small, very quiet. They turned a corner and saw a group of men standing outside the kocsma, drinking beer in the hot June sunshine. The men stared at them, not entirely friendly. Not a nice bunch, said Magda, but she waved cheerily at them, just the same.  On they went. It seemed that the lanes were getting smaller, narrower. And then they were there. Outside Magda’s little house – one storey, painted pale yellow, wooden blinds and shutters at the window to shield against the summer heat –  all surrounded by colourful pots with leggy green plants spilling out of them. Magda was a potter. For a living, she and Tamás made tiny thumb pots for the tourist trade, with a kiln at the end of the garden. They hated doing it, but it was a living. The rest of the time, Magda worked on her own pots and Tamás pottered around in the garden, growing fruit and vegetables, which they used in their own – delicious – cooking. We live quietly, said Magda. We like it that way. Jan knew that both of them had been dissidents in a previous life, even spending a bit of time in detention. But they were tired of that now. Village life consumed and sedated them: we are born-again country bumpkins, said Magda, with a knowing smile.

Inside the house, there was an air of calm and contentment, and aromatic smells coming from the kitchen, where Magda had been busy preparing  paprikás csirkechicken paprika – in a creamy, yoghurty sauce. Jan’s mouth started to water. She hadn’t bothered much with food in her enervated state. But coming here, and suddenly smelling something so wholesome, woke her up. She was hungry. In more ways than one.

Magda sensed her need to eat, and sat her down at the table, where the three of them feasted on the chicken, followed by palacsinta– pancakes – stuffed with chestnut puree. I remember how much you love these, said Magda, as Jan tucked into seconds. And Jan was touched at her friend’s kindness. She felt her head swim a little at the strong red wine they had opened for the meal, and when they had finished eating she disappeared for an hour to lie down on the little bed in the shady spare room, at the other end of the house. For some reason, as she lay there, she started to cry, softly, silently. But the tears soon turned to sleep, and when she woke, in the early evening, listening to the sounds of the village cockerel cheerily singing outside her window, she felt unaccountably better. Everything would be alright, she thought. She could happily lose herself here – Hungary wrapping her up in its hot, sweet blanket of summer, making her flesh fit better, over her tired and anxious  bones.


When she heard the knock at the door, Jan’s first instinct was to ignore it. Magda and Tamás had taken a batch of pots into Siófok, ready for the tourist trade, and had left her alone in the house. Jan didn’t trust her Hungarian enough to deal with a stranger. But when the knock came again, louder, insistent, she knew she had to deal with it. When she opened the door, she knew immediately who it was. Miklós. Every village has a wild man – and Miklós was it. Magda had described him in lurid terms, none of which, Jan now saw, was an exaggeration.

He stood on the doorstep, a wide and ragged grin revealing several missing teeth, and one at the front that glittered gold. His hair, black as night, thick and wild, was plastered across his forehead in some sort of failed attempt to tame it. He had a silver loop in his left ear and when he looked at her, both eyes – as black as his hair –  went in opposite directions.  He wore jeans and a voluminous white shirt, with a black waistcoat, edged with embroidery.  His boots were old and scuffed, moulded, through the years, to the exact shape of his feet. He is a Romany, Magda had explained. Lives on the outskirts of the village, and travels everywhere in his horse and cart. Sure, he gets drunk pretty often, but he’s harmless enough, and we  look after him a bit, as the villagers are racist about the gipsies, and he gets it  rough from time to time. As Jan gazed at him now, not sure which eye to focus on, Miklós thrust out a grubby hand to shake hers, pumping it up and down in greeting, all the while smiling wildly. He raised his other hand high, to wave a bottle at her, filled to the brim with clear liquid. PÁLINKA! he shouted, and plunged the bottle in her hand, despite her protests. For Magda, he explained, and then shrugging at her bafflement,  he turned around and sloped off down the drive, to where his old horse was waiting patiently at the gate to take him home. Once up in the cart, Miklós turned once more towards Jan, cracked his whip with one hand and waved merrily at her with the other, before  bowling off down the track, the horse kicking up dust clouds as they went. Jan knew what pálinka was – the lethal homebrew brandy that Hungarians made, using all their native fruits to help pack an extra punch: cherry, apricot, plum, apples and pears. She knew, too, that Miklós presided over an illicit still at the far end of the village. All strictly illegal, but the local police turned a blind eye, in exchange for a few bottles of the latest batch. Jan put the bottle on the kitchen table and eyed it warily. She had spent a night in Budapest drinking more than her fair share of the stuff, not that long ago. The hangover from hell that followed had persuaded her not to repeat the experience in a hurry.

Magda laughed when Jan told her about the visit. Ah, she said. He has been dying to clap eyes on you.  He’s fascinated that you are English. A touch of the exotic! Wants to give you a ride in his pony and trap – a proper Romany experience. What do you reckon? Jan found the prospect a little alarming. But as the days went by, and she felt more and more relaxed in her sleepy Hungarian retreat, she could sense her nerve returning. In the meantime, Miklóshad visited a couple of more times, and she felt easier in his company. He made her laugh with his cheerful nonchalance, his reckless good humour. So, one Friday afternoon, she agreed to go with him, for a turn through the village and round the meadow and back. Not too fast, though! she insisted. Miklós just grinned with delight, and stretched out his hand to help her up onto the wooden bench inside the trap, waiting till she got herself comfortable, before setting off at a brisk trot through the main track to the village centre. Everyone turned to watch as they went by, amazed to see this quiet English girl up there beside the wild gipsy man they all despised. Miklós, meanwhile, was bursting with pride, and when they turned off the main route towards the meadow, he couldn’t help showing off a bit, setting his horse to a swifter trot and then a mild canter, with just a sly look sideways to see Jan’s reaction. She shook her head and smiled, held on to the wooden bar in front of her to keep her balance, and enjoyed the feel of the warm summer breeze whipping up through her hair and in her ears. For the first time in a long, long while, she felt alive.


The day after her jaunt in the horse and cart, Jan drove out with Magda to Balatonboglár to buy wine. The earth was rich all around Lake Balaton, and grapes grew lustily in the long hot summer months. The red wine was beautiful, smooth and velvet, yet deceptively strong. While Magda called in at the vintners, Jan walked on her own by the lake. It was a calm day, with barely a wrinkle on the placid water. She could see all the way to the north side of the lake, which rose in a mass of green trees and gentle hills.  A bird flew overhead. A familiar sense of  both strangeness and well being stole into her. This was the magic of Hungary – away from the tension and nerves of the capital. Away from him. She could feel herself becoming more robust, her constitution matching that of the quiet land beneath her, her mood as placid as the lake waters. But she wasn’t fooled. She knew that the lake was so big it had its own micro climate. A storm could brew and blow in a matter of minutes, and many a life had been lost by ignoring the warning signs. Jan could relate to that. She knew her new found peace was precarious, and she took care not to peer too deep under her own surface.

When they got back to Nagycsepely, the wanderlust was upon her, and Jan set off  to walk to the meadow at the far end of the village. She had been very taken by it when Miklós drove her there in the trap, and wanted to find it again. When she got to the edge of the green, she sat  under an old spreading cherry tree, and waited.  There was something about today. Every day since she had arrived, there had been some kind of breeze to rustle the leaves and offer respite from the rising heat. But today? Nothing. The world was utterly still. Slowly Jan could feel herself drop into a kind of trance. She sat as motionless as the grass itself and everything just fell away. She could have been here for a thousand years. What century was it? What country was this? And who was she? After all she had been through, she no longer had any idea.  It seemed there was only the thinnest of veils between this world and the next. The transparency of life –  soft as gossamer – took her breath away.


Later that summer, Jan’s idyllic haven by the Balaton became a place of militant change. Thousands of East Germans came to spend their holidays at the Lake, as they so often did. Hungary was a relatively relaxed member of the Eastern Bloc, and the Germans could enjoy a bit of freedom. That small step became a giant leap, when Hungary unexpectedly opened the border with Austria in August 1989. The East German visitors were invited to a “Pan European Picnic” at the border town of Sopron. Someone casually opened the border gate. The border guards turned their backs. The people started streaming over to the West, with nothing but the clothes they stood up in, never once stopping, or looking back.

In 1989, Jan, too, went back to the West. Her Hungarian love affair had failed miserably. There was nothing else to do but go home.  Years later, she took a trip down to Nagycsepely, to look for the little house she had stayed in – for the meadow, and for Miklós’ illicit still, down in the woods. For ages, the friend who was driving her, failed to find the right road. It’s only small, said Jan, not more than a track, really.  But she was wrong. They turned another corner and Nagycsepely suddenly appeared – in all its renovated, tacky, tarmacked glory. Gone the dirt road. Gone the tiny shambolic cottages – the wild wandering dogs and hens – the men outside the tiny pub, half-slewed with beer and pocheen. Instead  here was a well-kept roadway, big gates and long driveways, unrecognisable fancy gardens, lots of concrete for the big cars to park on: and the inhabitants were a post-communist elite, enjoying their Balaton summers in ugly  new builds, well-fortified against the outside world, and against the ghostly remains of the past. Miklós, she was sure,was long dead. And his house of spirits? No longer a little wooden shack, half hidden amidst the trees, but a fancy state Pálinka Ház – a commercial pálinka house, lit up in neon, and charging extortionate prices to the passing tourist trade, for little brightly-coloured brandy bottles to buy, on their way to their summer houses by Lake Balaton. The lake, meanwhile, was keeping its many secrets – and part of her heart too –  silent and safe, beneath the implacable surface of its waters.




Hungarian Love Letters 2

Falling Man


He loses his grip

headfirst the fall to freedom

a high price to pay

OCTOBER 1956. Elizabeth was born in the month of the  Hungarian Uprising. Not that it bothered her much in sleepy Essex, where no one protested about anything, really, except the rising price of milk. Hungary calling, this is Hungary calling. But the West wasn’t listening – or deliberately played deaf, more like. Some years later her father talked about the dashing young man he worked with back  then. A mountaineer. A communist, with dreams of revolution in his handsome, unworldly head. When the tanks rolled into Budapest, said her father, his friend lost all his ideals in one fell swoop. Burned his party card. Went climbing in the mountains. Never came home. What happened to him, she asked. Her father shrugged. Who knows? Accident or suicide? Either way, he fell from the top of the mountain he was climbing. The body was never found. And I  just can’t forget, said her father, the look on that boy’s face, the day the Russians destroyed his dreams of freedom.


 When she was sixty, they bought her a ticket to Budapest. Hungary had captured her imagination and she went there as often as she could. An accident of birth. It couldn’t have been any other way. 1956 was engraved on her English heart. It was a balmy autumn, the way it usually is in Central Europe. Icy winters. Baking hot summers. Spring and autumn – lullingly warm. The usual dreamy scents of cooking in the air – sour gulyás soups and sweet pastries, stuffed with creamy cheese. Nothing quite like it back home. Only in Hungary, these mouthwatering delights.

She spent her days wandering the streets of downtown Pest. Her friends were working – but she was free and aimless. It was the best gift of all, she realised, to have nowhere to go. Everywhere in town, the posters blazed down at her from the high grey buildings. This was the anniversary of 1956. Old pictures from their failed revolution: young men in torn jackets and battered bowlers, with kalashnikovs tucked under their too-young shoulders. The slogan slashed across each picture, bold and clear: Egy nép azt mondta: elég volt!From dissident writer Sándor Márai. A nation said: enough!

But no one except visitors and tourists gave the posters heed, and when she mentioned it in conversation, the Budapestis shrugged sarcastically  and said in sulky sotto voce: it’s just government propaganda. Even a revolution can be used, to bring its people back to heel. 1956 meant nothing now, to the people on the streets. But  when she gazed at those hollowed out faces – the figures of the young and dead, gazing back at her –she felt proud of them nonetheless.  And in their ghostly and majestic presence,  somehow small.

Her friend Miklós lived in District VIII, not too far from Keleti Station, famous for its pimps and prostitutes – and lately, an unfortunate influx of refugees from the Middle East, who were treated with suspicion and scant regard, by the population of Budapest – and with downright cruelty by their government. Hungary had been trampled on too many times by invading forces, to view outsiders with anything but distrust and fear. The district had been cleaned up lately, and there were bars and restaurants, where once there were dealers, car crime and a thriving underground business in fake passports and people smuggling. The district mayor boasted about the gentrification he had fought hard to bring about. But further afield, the city had its dark places.

One day she took the Number 6 tram to Ferencváros, District IX. Traditionally working class and tough, this place, too, was getting a makeover, bit by bit. But it still felt edgy, full of  dust and the noise of naked commerce: too much traffic, too little green.  A thriving sex industry was blatantly advertised on city hoardings.

There was an old art house cinema in Corvin Square, painted canary yellow, and somehow incongruous in its brightness, amidst the grey bustle of the hustlers and the crowds.  Elizabeth noticed the plaques and old photographs lining the outside walls. Memorials to 1956. The fiercest street fighting had happened here  – with many of the victims young kids, the Pesti srácok of city legend. One statue showed a boy, no more than eight or nine, wielding a gun almost as big as himself, a banner in Hungarian colours flung over one shoulder, a posy of fresh flowers at his feet. Just one more victim to an ill-fated revolution. Elizabeth ignored the happy tourists milling around her – who in turn were blissfully unaware of the statue. Of the blood and the suffering beneath the ground where it stood.

She was still for a very long time. Unaccountably moved by the humble offerings of flowers and tributes littering the cinema entrance. The noise from the city fell away, and she was taken back in time. Tanks rolling past. Gunfire. Shouts and screams of resistance. The thunder of running feet. Panic. Pride. The ragged flag of Hungary, hoisted high on makeshift flagpoles, the hammer and sickle torn from its centre – leaving a black hole of resistance in its place.

At first, she didn’t notice the old man staring at her from a bench at the side of the cinema. Obviously Hungarian –  he was dressed in old fashioned clothes, a dark green jacket and well pressed trousers; very smart, with a shiny wooden walking stick held between his legs, on which he leaned both his hands, and much of his weight. He looked tired. But inquisitive. Alert. Underneath his felt hat, his eyes were those of a bird, bright and shiny. Suddenly, he beckoned her over with a bony finger – the hint of a smile, and a challenge, on his face. She hesitated for a moment, wasn’t sure what he could want, then she made her way towards him, and sat down beside him. And he began to talk.

Her Hungarian was improving with each visit, and she could communicate a little, and understand a great deal more. The old man realised that she was a foreigner and spoke slowly, clearly, with an occasional English word, heavily accented, thrown in for good measure.  His story had her mesmerised, held fast in his spider’s web of memory, ice cold with the shock of it, in the heat of the autumn sun.


I saw you looking at the statue of the boy, he said. He had you moved. I am happy about that. No one cares about our revolution now. The government uses us as right wing propaganda. But I was there. I know what it meant. It was a moment of freedom. And we lost it . I shall never get over that moment.

He paused. Elizabeth looked at him, wide-eyed, willing him to continue. He closed his own eyes for a second or two, remembering, suffering, gathering his strength. After a painful pause, he continued. And there was no stopping him then.

I was only a child. Eleven years old. We lived in Miskolc, up near the border with the Ukraine. My father was a baker. My mother worked in a government office. We were ordinary people. Not trouble makers. Not political. But my parents knew, when  the uprising began, whose side they were on. And they longed for it to succeed. For the brave young men and women to prevail. For a week or so it looked hopeful. People out on the streets. Banners and slogans and spontaneous singing. Meetings and resolutions. No body went to work. The world was upside down. I hardly went to school. I stayed at home with my mother. And my father joined the street meetings, arguing deep into the night for a better future. Russians go home! They all shouted – and there was no sign of the Soviet occupiers. Nothing was standing in their way.

But suddenly everything changed. The night was dark. No stars. No moon. A cloud-filled sky – ominous black canopy covering the industrial town. Both my parents were at home that night, which probably saved their lives. We listened to the transistor radio. The students had taken over national broadcasts from Budapest. They were calling to the West for help. Send in support, they said. We fear the worst is about to happen. Save us from disaster. Help us in our fight for a free and open future. But no one came. Except the Russians themselves. Tanks, rolling in over the border, one after the other. In the dead of night. Inexorable advance across the Great Plains, into the villages and towns, sweeping everything before them. Remorseless. Out on the street in Miskolc, street fighting broke out. From our second floor flat,we could hear everything. My mother ran and crouched by the thick inner wall between living room and kitchen – the sturdiest place she could find – and held me close in her arms. My father stood beside us. Helpless protector. On and on went the fighting. In the woods on the far side of the city, there was a look out hut, manned by Soviet soldiers. Around midnight, it burst into flames. With a flash of revolutionary red, the hut, and its  hated occupants,  went up in smoke. In the early hours of the morning, the noise of the tanks joined with the shouts of the protestors – and we knew it was all over now. This was our freedom. Finished. For ever.

Now the old man paused again, dropping his head in tiredness, wiping his eyes with the back of his veiny hand. Elizabeth didn’t know what to do. So she just sat beside him and waited. Meanwhile, the tourists pushed past them, oblivious, noisy, inexorable. When he resumed his story, his voice was weak and defeated – as if he were a thousand years old, with the weight of the world and  its disastrous wrong turnings, hanging heavy on his shoulders.

The next day we ventured out onto the streets. We walked through the city. It was deserted. There were bodies, sprawled in doorways, down back streets. We saw one man, hanging from a lamp post – lynched by the Soviet soldiers, just for sport. Not far from our flat was the River Szinva. There was a heavy iron works in the city – and the river often flowed red with its rusty effluvia. It was hard to tell, on that cold, dark morning, where the river ran thick with rust – or with the blood of the many who had fallen, during the night’s fighting, into the water’s deep. Shot to pieces. Many of them teenagers. Impossibly young. This was our revolution… This was our freedom call.

Elizabeth had understood  only some of what the old man had told her. But the emotion of it hit her like a bullet from a gun. She sat, side by side, with her new companion, and neither of them spoke. Finally, she got up to go. She turned towards him and said, with all the dignity she could muster, thankyou so much –  nagyon szépen köszönöm. In turn, he inclined his head in a formal bow. Never forget us, he said. Never forget.


 The flat where she was staying was small and quiet. The living room was painted yellow – and kitchen, bathroom and bedroom all adjoined it. The rooms were tiny. But they fitted her perfectly, and she was very happy there. In the morning, when she woke, she pulled back the heavy red velvet curtain at the window by her bed. Bars curled out from it, both as decoration and security, and beyond them were steps leading steeply up to the castle district. The road was lined with old lime trees and filled with singing birds. When she stood outside her front door, she could see all the way down to the river. Batthyány Square, with its little cafes and giant supermarket. And across the river – Parliament, in its outsized grandeur, its lurking threat. Hard to imagine this was the twenty first century. Apart from the cars and the distant traffic, she could have travelled back two centuries. The ghosts of the past wrapped themselves around her. This was both a comfort – and a lingering rebuke. For her breakfast, she often walked down the steep steps to the Metro bakery and bought some delicious pastries to eat with her ink black coffee. Sometimes she sat at the little table in the kitchen, and wrote her diary. This was a habit she had acquired here. She never did it back home. But something about Hungary made her keep witness. It was an unspoken command.

Most of her journeys were in and out of the city centre, wandering the streets, diving into bars, visiting friends. But one day, near the end of her visit, she took a right turn out of her flat, instead of walking down the steps, and followed  Szabó Ilonka Street around the bend to see what she could find. As she approached the battlements of Castle Hill, she was stopped short by a white statue, standing out as bas-relief from the white wall surrounding it: a man hurtling, head first, hands thrown in front of him in terror, fending off his inevitable vertiginous fall. Hullócsillag. Shooting Star. In plain capitals underneath, his name: Péter Mansfeld. The twisted movement and the violence in the statue – plain white stone and brick, all colour bleached to pale– took her breath away. For a long time she stared at it, almost frightened to move. The dates were significant, too – born 1941, died 1959. The man caught in stone had been not much more than a boy, eighteen years old, when he lost his life.  Who was he?

Turning sharply now on her heels, Elizabeth made her way back to her flat. She pulled out her iphone and tapped in the words Falling Man. In a few seconds his history was there for her to read. She took a deep breath, and began. Péter was one of the thousands of young men – he was just sixteen – who got caught up in the romance and violence of the Hungarian Uprising. He was out on the streets with his friends from the minute the insurrection began. His blood was up. He stole things – weapons and ammunitions; hijacked a car, and kidnapped a police officer. He and his mates  were on the run then. Until one of his five companions took fright and told his parents. They promptly did as good communists do, and turned him into the authorities. All the boys were arrested and held in custody in the Rose Hill district of Buda. But Péter, clearly the firebrand of the bunch, was having none of it.He escaped – making a daring leap from a 13 foot high ledge, and broke his hand in the process. All in vain. He was found the next day, held in prison until he was eighteen – when the law said it was legal to hang him. And then hang him they did.

The hanging was botched, apparently. It took young Péter thirteen minutes to die. Agony and ecstasy. For he became an icon of the failed revolution. And now he is immortalised in stone, right under the bastions of power, up on the lofty hill in Buda, his sacrifice never to be forgotten, even if his gesture, in hindsight, seems both foolhardy and in vain.

Elizabeth was shaken by the statue she had seen. Its stark, almost violent, twisting form was so unlike the regal poses of admirals on horseback – and the lofty, serene statue of liberty, palm leaf of victory held aloft – that could be seen elsewhere in the city. Falling Man was the truth behind the pageantry, and now she had seen it, the image was etched indelibly on her mind. That night she dreamed of airplanes plummeting and bursting into flames; of shells exploding into innocent faces; of walls tumbling – debris flying – houses reduced to rubble. She wanted to go home to England now. These old streets of Buda suddenly seemed full of danger and betrayal.


On her last morning, she wandered once more down to the metro station for a túros rétes– soft doughy pastry, layered with sweet cheese and the fragrance of lemon. She sat by the banks of the Danube to eat it, and watched the big boats sail calmly by, full of their tourists and cargo, their commerce and their high class cabins. The sky was cobalt blue, no cloud in sight, and although it was still early, the sun was already bright and warm. It was a perfect October day. And she wondered to herself, what the weather was like on that mountain, all those years ago, when an idealistic Englishman took his life in his hands, and plummeted to his death: ultimate sacrifice to an ideal unmet, a dream betrayed. And was the sun shining on the other side of the world,  when a boy hurtled through a plate glass window, his trajectory  as brutal and determined as it was utterly pointless. Whatever happened in the days and decades to follow, thought  Elizabeth, at that crucial deciding moment – Hungary and England were somehow joined together. Brothers in arms. For the sake of humanity – and for freedom.  The most that she could do now, was – as the old man had asked her – just to bear witness and to mourn. Her cake was finished. She stood up and brushed away the crumbs, took one last look at the placid river water, and then slowly walked up the steep steps to the little yellow flat, to write her diary in remembrance, and to pack her bags for home.


Hungarian Love Letters 1


by Barney Bardsley


You tell me that my voice is rich and warm,

although we do not share a common tongue.

A longing, sweet and foreign, starts to form,

for dances we might dance – and songs unsung.

Your black eyes flash with promises not kept,

and rendezvous in restaurants never made.

Snowfall on village roads – my heart, unswept:

old, vivid scenes that slowly burn to fade.

When postcards from a far-off place arrive,

the years of absence worry at my mind.

I walk the tightrope back – what will survive?

A country boy – and country – still to find.

I try to block my senses, but in vain.

You touch my back – it all begins again.

JANUARY 1988. The cold hits Rosa between the eyes as she walks down the plane steps and onto the deserted tarmac. A bashed-up old bus takes them to the terminal. A single red star hangs above the entrance. It’s hushed inside – and gloomy. The footsteps of the soldiers – dressed in khaki, guns on open view – echo down the corridors. Suddenly hot, she sweats beneath the borrowed fake fur. Too many layers. And she’s anxious too. Contraband in her battered case.  More than twice the legal amount. Don’t worry, Magda had written, they never check. Walk straight through the green channel in customs. I’ll meet you at the other end.  You must bring whiskey with you. We can’t get it here and the actors love it.  At  passport control  the officer stares at her for a long time. He takes in her razor short hair. Her foreign face. Her English passport. Westerner.  He makes her wait. But he lets her pass eventually. Nothing to declare. Her battered case trundles along behind her: and then she is through.


She sits with Magda beside her, near the window, on the old green leather seat, gazing at the snow, as the train pulls out of Budapest and into the surrounding countryside. Icicles, gnarled and long, like witches’ fingers, hang from the trees. The freezing mist sinks ever lower. She blows on the window to get a better view. But there is little to see. Except a deep, deep winter white, casting its spell over  the flat, peasant landscape. Tiny cottages, half-submerged, reveal  a flash of Hungarian ochre here and there. Otherwise there is no one. And nothing. Already a spell is being cast and she feels drowsy, enchanted. Magda makes her pull one of the illicit whiskeys down  from her case and  they take it in turns to have long swigs, straight from the bottle.  Their only other companion in the small carriage – a young off-duty squaddie, hunched in the corner – tries hard not to look at the prized liquor, as it passes between the two women. When he stands up to leave, at a small village somewhere in the middle of nowhere, he flashes them a  glance. His eyes are hungry, full of reproach. Not a drop has been sent his way. Magda gloats. He’s never seen the like, she says. Rosa feels a vague sense of shame, but she buries it deep. By the time they arrive in Kaposvár, she is reeling with alcohol and fatigue. This is another world, she thinks. And she is lost to it now.


The actors’ club hides in the bowels of the building, below the stage door, down three flights of stone stairs. It is dark, hardly lit at all. And the room is arranged into intimate booths, each partitioned off to give an air of gossip and intrigue. A small bar is at the far end, where a weary woman, carrying the weight of the world on her capable shoulders, serves coffee, pálinka, red and white wine– and whatever snacks, hot and cold – the actors fancy, morning, noon and night. Smoke hangs heavy in the air. Young actors race in and out, excited and self important. The older ones slump over their drinks, cynical, disgusted. But this is a disguise. Everyone cleaves to their weird, dysfunctional theatre family. Hate it, love it: they belong to each other.

She saw him on the first day she came. And he saw her. Now, János sits at the table, and starts to talk. His elegant hands sweep through the air, as he makes some seditious point or other, about the dying regime. Eyes black as coals. Hair  black, too, gipsy curls around a long bony face. She has no idea what he is saying – she speaks no word of Hungarian – but it doesn’t matter. The words flow like a river, rhythmical, musical, deeply strange. Sometimes Magda translates. Often she doesn’t bother. They drink and smoke deep into the night. Occasionally he darts a look in her direction. His smile is knowing. But his secrets are hidden – even from himself.

The theatre is closing for renovation.  So the maverick players are temporarily homeless. In the deepest snow, they go on tour through the countryside, in a coach that belches black fumes and rattles at alarming speed down dangerous, icy, ill-lit, narrow roads. He sits next to Magda on the seat in front. Sometimes Magda turns to speak to Rosa in  English and Rosa replies. He gazes at her then, with a fascinated fury. Taps Magda’s shoulder and says something in hushed Hungarian.  She laughs. He says you have a voice like Laurie Anderson, she says. Rosa is amazed. How can this Hungarian boy, stuck behind the Iron Curtain, know about New York  – the avant garde? Then she blushes with shame. Of course he understands. It is she who knows nothing.

They end up in Budapest for the last shows of the tour. She stays in an actress’s flat in old Buda – beautiful fin-de-siecle furniture inside a  functional  grey apparatchik block. Every night she is at the theatre. The company is famous, brings down the house with standing ovations. But she is impatient for the curtain to fall, for the rhythmic, ritual clapping to stop. Because that’s when the party really starts.  Will he come? Will he find her, talk to her again? White rabbit, disappearing down yet another hole. She doesn’t know who she is anymore. Or where she stands. With the enigmatic boy – and this puzzle of a country. Little socialist barrack, where liberty is the language of the night – and everyone’s a poet, when the wine of the Balaton Boglár, velvet and purple, starts to flow. Lonely little English girl, held fast in a magyar embrace.  Gyere vissza, he whispers in her ear on the final night. Come back soon, as he clasps her hands and draws her closer.  But she knows that she won’t. He knows it too.


OCTOBER 2009. She steps off the plane and feels the sweet heat of the earth rise up to meet her. The smell of Budapest. And her stomach lurches. It was winter then, but the same  aroma lingers: thick black coffee, flaky pastry,  a faint memory of sweat and blood in the dusty soil. Every country has its aroma. This is Hungary’s –  and it feels like hers too. Her friend József, faithful down all the years, with christmas cards and steadfast greetings,  will meet her at the airport. But she worries she won’t know him after  such a long time away. No need. There he stands, bang on time.  A thrill of recognition: bald head and round glasses, big broad simian smile. Twenty one years have left him quite untouched.  She wishes the same were true for her.

When they climb into his sleek American car, she feels a shock. Gone, the tiny Trabant he used to roar around in.  For we are all westerners now. Down the soulless motorway from the airport they glide – advertising hoardings screaming from every building – into town. Traffic, people, noise. This is not the place she left, silent, in the deep winter cold. Sleeping Beauty has finally woken up.  He drives on, towards the river, over Liberty Bridge, and up to the Statue of Freedom. Night has fallen, and from the dark Buda hills, they gaze down at the neon, that flashes on all the bridges of Budapest and over the mighty river. She left a place of lies and secrets. She comes back to a city of lights. It is the anniversary of the 1956 Uprising. The fascists are likely to make trouble, says József, so we’ll stay out of the city centre tonight.Our revolution has been stolen from us. Like so much else. He sighs. Back in his flat they eat duck with cherry sauce. He toasts her return with pálinka and red wine. She has brought him whiskey – for old times’ sake.

They drive to Kaposvár the next morning. On roads wide and fast – through villages small, quaint. The yellow cottages close their eyes against the passing cars: flash of modernity, danger.  We are as we were, they murmur. All is just the same. But her eyes see difference, everywhere she goes. And she feels disorientated, unaccountably sad.

Kaposvár greets them, bigger and brighter than before. Though in her mind it is still an enticing misty grey. The old theatre stands tall, if a little dishevelled, in the small town park: an Edwardian wedding cake left out in the rain. They make their way to the actors’ bar. It’s lunchtime and sunny, but the striplights are already glaring in the subterannean cavern. Gone the private booths. The smoke. The layers of intrigue. We have no secrets now, the message goes. Though no one is fooled. Half remembered faces pass before her: older, wearier, lined with trouble. Some of them smile in recognition. Some have forgotten. And some, like Magda, are long since dead, spectral memories from a vanished past. The younger actors  who brush past her could scarcely have been born, when last she was here –  she feels their disdain, their frank disinterest. Stranger. Why have you come? She loses her nerve as she sits with József at the bar. Why has she come, indeed? She feels the panic rise, and forces herself to be still. Breathes in. Breathes out. Hand clammy against the stem of her glass.

At first, she mistakes it for another ghost – this shimmer and rustle at her back, the hint of a touch on her shoulder. Then she feels a hand, slipping into the pocket of her jacket  –  and something falls, cool and dark, to the bottom. A stone. Wordless totem.  Objects always more potent than the language they have never shared. He blows softly in her ear, chuckles a little. And then she turns – and János looks her straight in the eyes. Close up, uncomfortable. His own eyes: black coals turned to dust; hair coarse and greying, face lined, pouchy. Middle aged. A faint memory of fire in his gaze. And it is hard to keep the shock from her face, as she stumbles over a simple Hungarian greeting – her accent making him laugh.  Suddenly, two dark haired girls run into the bar, and  come straight to their father, giggling and chattery. Oh, she says, you are a family man now?  And he just shrugs and smiles and touches her hand, misinterpreting her regret, the way he always did. Those children could have been hers, she thinks, if the world had turned another way.  But she is glad that they are not. Glad also that he is not.  The stone feels too heavy in her pocket, as she takes her hand away from him and turns towards József, who has sensed her unease, and is ready to leave. The lights in the overheated bar are far  too bright for comfort. How she longs for snow, and the dimly remembered distant dark.  ENDS

This is the first of a proposed series of short stories and essays about Hungary, a place that long ago stole my heart, and which steadfastly refuses to give it back.








Elizabeth Sings



Elizabeth sings

Too long her voice was silent

Her throat swells open

The image here is of a Clematis Montana ‘Elizabeth’ in my May back garden in Leeds. It has taken a few years to establish, and its flowering was delayed by a long winter. But now, here she is! The haiku celebrates the May blossom. It also commemorates my beloved paternal grandmother, who had the most beautiful contralto voice. I am named after her. I, too, sing.    My grandmother and I, each in our very different ways, were silenced for long periods of time, by circumstance, sex or (in her case) class. Difficulties not withstanding,  both our voices have been heard. To all Elizabeths everywhere: sing on!!

Flights of Freedom

“I love trees. They are so solid. They give me strength and support. There they stand, surviving for years and years and years – roots going deep down, right to the centre of the earth… What kind of tree would I be, I wonder? I know. An oak tree. The strength of it. The power.”

(Rosa Peterson)

SIX MONTHS AGO, I sat down next to Rosa Peterson and we started to write a play together. A short piece – just fifteen minutes long – to be performed, alongside two others written in the same way – at West Yorkshire Playhouse’s ‘Every Third Minute’ Festival. The festival (brainchild of the formidable Nicky Taylor), was so-named, because every three minutes in the UK, somebody gets diagnosed with dementia, and was a groundbreaking theatrical investigation into, and celebration of, people’s lived experiences of dementia. More than that. Their creativity and resilience. Each person’s story: unique and special. Life after such a diagnosis. What can that be like?

Well, surprising and strange and different, reports Rosa, who spent three months sharing with me her own particular story. She has lived with dementia for the past three years. Her life – both prior to her diagnosis, and after – has thrown up many challenges. Indeed, they come on a daily basis. The lows can knock her down into a dark place. But what I didn’t expect, when I first began to write with her, was her wit, her strength of mind, her charm. And her wild and wonderful imagination.

Certainly we talked about the bad times: the hallucinations that come at night; the strange visual tricks her mind plays upon her – making the simple act of walking down the street, or crossing a threshold, sometimes difficult, even frightening; the disorientation and memory loss; the flashes of frustration and the real core of anger at her situation.

But, just as powerful, was the clear eyed wonder that Rosa takes, in the simple, natural joys of the world around her. She is someone who has never written a word in her life. Yet with a little gentle coaxing from me, the poetry soon began to flow. And she taught me to see with fresh eyes, just what beauty there is, in everyday life. How we must never take that for granted. Not for a second.

Images – of clouds, of trees, of waves, of horses – came unbidden to her mind. And very soon, a play began to emerge, shaped and moulded by me, but the words – entirely Rosa’s own.

We called it ‘A Horse Called Freedom’, and a woman called Ruth was its central narrator.

Often, it is the things that happen early in our lives – in childhood, or adolescence – that imprint themselves most strongly in our imagination. And if the memory is good, then we can return to it in our minds: catch it, like a talisman, to help us through the more complex pathways of adulthood.

So it was for Rosa. “When I was about fourteen,” she told me, “I used to go riding. I loved those horses. They said I was a natural. Sometimes we went bareback, too. No saddle, nothing. We just took them to the field and climbed on. What a lovely feeling it was. The freedom of it. Being out in the open, with the air on your face, the wind in your hair – just you and the horse beneath you, and nothing else mattered. Nothing.”

Rosa walks with a stick, after surviving a stroke fifteen years ago. These days, she has the vicissitudes of vascular dementia to deal with, too. So it’s not hard to see how magical this remembered feeling of freedom – the reality of the horses, with their power and animal vitality –  remains in her mind. Better than that – her favourite horse, Jet, “black and fierce and strong”, once set off like thunder, with her still on his back, clinging on for dear life. “It was so thrilling,” she remembers, “galloping away like that!”

In the final scene of the play, after Ruth has described the predicaments she faces in her ordinary daily life, the struggles, the barriers and the disappointments, it is – appropriately enough – Jet himself who takes centre stage. He carries  his rider Ruth off through the woods, faster and faster, till he sprouts wings, as wide and feathered and beautiful, as any mythical Pegasus, and flies high above the clouds, deep into the vault of the sky, into the wide blue yonder. To freedom.

And now, although the play is finished, and our weekly scribblings have come to a halt (like the runaway horse, back home in its field), I am still held in thrall to the power of Rosa’s imagination – her courage and her indomitable strength. She is an oak tree, indeed. And her wise words – and wicked laugh – resound loud in my mind and in my heart.

“It’s cool and clear

In the deepest night

There’s a handful of stars

Glittering – bright

Although they are really

So far away

If I reach, I can touch them

And here’s what they say.

It’s a message of hope

They are shining on me

‘Hang on’, they are saying

‘Soon  you’ll be free.’

‘A Horse Called Freedom’ was first performed at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Theatre, on March 9th, 2018, alongside ‘I See Land Ahead’ by Bob Fulcher and Dominic Gately, and ‘Hamaari Yaadain/Our Memories’ by Hamari Yaadain Memory Cafe and Ming Ho, as part of the THREE trilogy of plays in the ‘Every Third Minute Festival’, Festival Director Nicky Taylor.





Hungary calls her – this curious, displaced, skinny English girl

pulls her under its blanket of Cold War snow

draws her to its jealous magyar breast

and suffocates her.





Just before the wall comes down,

just before the end.


And always she is struggling here,

in the bone shattering winter – city statues wrapped against the crack of cold,

and the stifling heat of an East European summer.

Such melancholy in that fresh, bright, cherry blossom spring.


How she longs to be in England –

on those dirty London streets,

where people know her name

and say it in a language that is forever hers.


Clear the call to leave:

but her heart is split in two.






And when she does go home

in that hot, hot summer of 1989

when the borders are flung open – and the West says “Come!”-

and the people sing their long lost songs of liberty,

it is too late for her, too late.


And she is homesick once again,

for a place relinquished,

for a man who has refused her,

for a country – harsh and full of paradox –

its language a mystery and a music forever on her tongue,

where she will always be on the outside, looking in:

nose pressed to the sash window,

as the heavy wooden blind falls shut.

Frontier to a vanished freedom – no longer to be crossed, or found.


Barney Bardsley

This poem was inspired by a call for submissions to an international anthology on the theme of HEIMAT or HOMELAND, by a group of German writers in Dortmund, which is twinned with my home city of Leeds, UK . The project got me thinking, right away, about my long connection with Hungary, and how I feel pulled – both towards and away – from this home-that-is-not-my-home! After the intense experience of my youth, encapsulated above, I was absent from the country for the next 20 years. But when I returned, in 2009, the feeling for the place was just as strong, and now I study the language seriously, have a wonderful circle of friends there, and return every year. Nothing is quite so powerful in my mind and heart, however, as the memory of those first days, in 1988 and 1989: spent in a country locked behind the Iron Curtain, yet open, warm and loving, to a stranger in their midst. Magyarország, annyira szeretlek.äge-für-internationale-anthologie-gesucht



Winter in the City

31 October 2017

Number 49 bus to St James’s Hospital, Leeds. Fractured shoulder. Physiotherapy. This route is so familiar. Harehills Road running like an artery  from home into the city. Every nationality under the sun (or Northern rain) steps on and off, as we trundle along. My shoulder hurts. It’s hard to balance, as the driver lurches to a stop. Time to kill. Wandering around the gloom of Beckett Street Cemetery. Tumbling gravestones. Strange lurking characters.  A man, perched alone on someone’s tombstone,  secret with his thoughts. A lad on a bench, headphones tight clamped, jiggling to a silent tune. Red bouncy curls escaping his cap. Roll-up fag on his nervous lips. Coffee at his side. “Hiya” he calls, too bright and twitchy. A little high. A little provocative. I step away fast. Later, on the bus home, I see him again, at the front, near the driver. Still jiggling and bouncing and ready to run – or pounce. I hold on to my shoulder. Everything feels unsafe, when a bone gets broken, and the feet are swept away from under. Not able to run myself, these days, through the wet slippy streets. It would be hard to escape.  But he soon gets off. Grateful for the bus, and the tight swell of people. Happy to land at my own stop again. Easterly Road. And then just round the corner through the rain. Making it home – a little tentative – in the gathering gloom.


26th January 2018

“I’m pleased with you. Your shoulder is doing well. All credit” says the physio. “I’m signing you off.” I grin like a tiny child. Praise indeed. And out from the scaffolding of the scruffy old hospital, back onto Harehills Road again. The sun is shining. A rare benevolence. And I wait for the bus. But the bus doesn’t come. So I walk – with new confidence – take in the squalor and grime all around me. And look at it with a new appreciation.

Past the cemetery across the road. Round the corner, where the tiny businesses and mini markets jostle side by side, all the way downhill, in the sweep back to Roundhay. Wave after wave of immigration and re-settlement has made its mark here – working class English, then Asian, now East European. Krakow supermarket. Polski sklep. Peshawar Asian stores –  and here and there,  self-made shanties made of wood, packed to the gunnels with fruit and veg. An old Victorian church – no more prayers now – but a carpet warehouse instead.  Banstead Park on my left – a scrubby patch of green in the middle of tightly packed terraces, red and black, holding on tight to their Northern hillside. Then a tiny back- to – back, packed floor to ceiling with used and remodelled tyres.Would you  live here if you had a choice? With the noise, and the cars, and the  wary hustle of the people, all struggling to make a living, just surviving, cheek by jowl? But it’s extraordinary, too.  Energetic and fighting and always moving forward. Full of dirt. Full of attitude. Full of life.

A man lurches towards me, white, dreadlocked, pulling an ancient rottweiler on a lead, hat pulled down, dark glasses, distinctly lairy. I stiffen and speed up. We pass each other, he looks, and he grins, and the tension disappears. Just a man and his dog. I wander on. And its good to feel the cold winter sun on my face. Feel the ground coming back to me, safe under my feet. The shoulder strong and healing. The body on my side.

Then I am there, at the bottom of the road – East European Foods and the defunct Delaneys Bar nestling opposite me, side by side. Irish and Russian.  Another unexpected marriage. Everything surprising can happen in Harehills Road.

Turn up the hill, and a man in a Kurdish hat and elegant baggy trousers makes his way down towards me. He doesn’t meet my eyes. There will be no smile here. But back near my  home, an elderly Sikh man, turban immaculately coiled, bids me a courteous Good Morning, as he always does.  And it always lifts my spirits. So much life all around me. If I remember to open my eyes again, trust my feet. Just look. And walk.