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 csirke– chicken 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.