Don’t Talk To Her
She waits at the station
No one is there
Dread in her heart
Cold in the air
Sharp as a knife
The surgeon awaits
SHE CAUGHT the train very early at Budapest’s Keleti Station. The arrivals and departures board was incomprehensible. She hoped she had the right ticket, the right platform. She bought herself a sütemény from the coffee booth, as consolation. Soft melting pastry, stroking her throat, soothing her anxiety. A beggar followed her for money. Her English denials only encouraged him further. In the end she shook him off by plunging into the women’s toilets. Further complication, as she ferreted for enough change to put in the attendant’s saucer, before the nod came, and she could walk through. So many different rituals, none of which came naturally to her, none of which had been explained. She was relieved when the train arrived, and she could clamber on board. Miskolc? She asked, cluelessly, to everyone she met. There were enough nodding heads to convince her that this was the right place, and she found herself a seat by the window, parked her case, and sat down heavily: already exhausted, before the journey had even begun.
The train took three and a half hours, but it felt like forever. It was cold in her carriage. Spring had not yet warmed up the hard bones of the East European soil, after a bitter winter, and the chill climbed into her body, as if from the centre of the earth. Julia spent most of the time staring mournfully out of the window. She hadn’t really wanted to come up north. But the contract was signed and the theatre was waiting for her. Except for one person. The woman who had suggested her name in the first place. Eszter. They had met in London, and become friends, of sorts – linked mainly by Julia’s love of Hungary and Eszter’s desire to defect. The latter had been a vain hope, and Eszter had returned to her work as an actress in the Miskolc company. The invitation to come and choreograph for the company had come through her. But honestly, Julia did not have a good feeling about it. Eszter was moody. Charming and charismatic one minute, snappish and vindictive the next. She was not, as Julia’s London friends would have it, a sister. So Julia wasn’t even sure that Eszter would be there to meet her at the station. And god knows what she would do then.
She was right. Miskolc train station was bleak and threatening. Groups of men lingered by the main entrance, taking shelter from the wind – which seemed to be blowing straight off the Siberian plains – and doing deals, grubby notes changing hands. They eyed her up, as she trundled past with her luggage, scenting her as foreign prey, from the cut of her hair, the quality of her denim. Julia put her head down and ignored them. She stood by the taxi rank and waited. But no one came. The minutes ticked by. The wound in her foot – cut open in a dirty studio used for dance practise the week before – throbbed and pulsated. Her head, too, felt like it would burst with tension. Now what? Alone in a strange city, miles from the people she knew. Eszter, nowhere in sight. No other name to ask for, should she make it, somehow, to the theatre door. She felt foolish for having come, and was almost poised to catch the next train back to Budapest. But pride and loyalty stood in her way. She had promised. Signed a contract. One month in Miskolc. And one month in Miskolc, it would be.
Finally, she took a taxi, stuttered the name of the theatre to the hatchet faced driver, and headed into town. How different it all looked. She was used to cosmopolitan Budapest – and the gentle countryside around Lake Balaton. This was brutal in comparison. Narrow, high sided streets. Tram lines criss-crossing the road. Busy traffic. Horns blaring. Lorries and dustcarts piled high with crates and rubbish. And on the people’s faces – lines of worry and distrust. This was an industrial city, and it bore all the hallmarks of hard labour: as if the buildings themselves were sweating with the effort of survival. She noticed several drunks, slumped in doorways, empty bottles of hooch abandoned at their sides. And as they turned a corner into the main street, where the theatre was, two men had just tumbled off a tram and were shouting at each other, vicious and loud: one of them – a deep cut already swollen above his right eye, a slow trickle of blood seeping down – had his fists balled up, elbows bent, ready to strike back, whilst the other one – red in the face – bellowed at him to stop. The taxi driver blared his horn, shouted something obscene out of the window and then laughed. But not with pleasure, with bitterness.
The theatre building was plain, grey, functional. It had national status, although its star had fallen in recent years. The repertoire was regime-friendly. Lots of light operettas and classical Hungarian literature. Julia had no idea where to go, so she just headed for the main reception – and waited. In the end someone came and took her to the artistic director’s office, where she was formally welcomed, and asked to sign several incomprehensible forms by a woman who looked more like a civil servant than an artist. Someone who would, Julia had no doubt, report you for the slightest misdemeanour. Welcome to communist Hungary in the 1980s, she thought. Outside of the Budapest bubble: this was the reality.
Ibolya, the stage manager, was a kind and gentle woman. Julia was entrusted to her care, in the absence of Eszter. No one seemed to know where on earth Eszter was, but neither were they surprised, or concerned, that she had left Julia in the lurch. She is, explained Ibolya, who could manage enough English to make herself understood, a difficult woman. Julia nodded. Oh yes. She knew. The problem was – there was nowhere for Julia to stay. Eszter had promised that she could sleep at hers for a few nights – but no one had the key to her flat, so that was that. After long consultations with the actors, who were slowly winding in through the stage door for that night’s performance, they came up with a plan. Zsuzsanna’s place. They apologised to Julia – Zsuzsanna lived on the outskirts of town, in a high rise block that wasn’t very pleasant, but it was the only option right now. And they knew for certain that Zsuzsanna was out of the country. Moving closer to Julia and whispering in her ear, Ibolya made it clear that Julia would be best off steering clear of Zsuzsanna, as much as she could, should she arrive home any time soon. She is a party member, explained Ibolya. That’s why she gets to travel so much. Comes back with all sorts of black market stuff, books, alcohol, cosmetics. But she’s friends with management here at the theatre, so they keep her on the payroll, even though she does nothing except understudy – and prop up the bar! She probably won’t be back all the time you’re here, Ibolya added. But in any case, whatever you do, don’t talk to her. Julia nodded. The pain in her foot throbbed. She felt vaguely sick. What had she got herself into?
Ibolya drove her to Zsuzsanna’s flat in her bashed up little Trabant. Dusk was falling. It was cloudy and cool. The atmosphere, as they left the city centre, became even more oppressive. There was scarcely any traffic on the outer ringroad – and everywhere Julia looked there were housing estates, functional concrete blocks thrown up in the sixties, to house the cohorts of industrial workers brought in to service the iron and glass works. This was a worn out kind of place, thought Julia, and she felt worn out too, just looking at it all. Ibolya came up to the flat with her, using the spare key left at the stage door by Zsuzsanna, during her long absences. They were quite high up – on the seventh floor – and there was a view right across the city into the surrounding hills. The city isn’t pretty, said Ibolya, but the countryside is spectacular. I’ll drive you out there one day. Julia could have hugged her for her kindness. Once Ibolya was gone, she sat on the floor next to her case and stared out of the window. Then she unpacked her clothes in the small spare bedroom, climbed into bed unfeasibly early, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The days passed. Julia learned, with her pigeon Hungarian, which bus to catch, and where to buy the best food on her limited budget. She made a couple of friends at the theatre, who were young and jolly. And she taught some dance classes which seemed to go well. Still, there was no sign of Eszter. But she’ll have to be back by the end of the week, said Ibolya, because rehearsals for the new show start on Monday, and she’s in it. Frankly, Julia didn’t care whether she showed up or not. She didn’t expect much from her, even when she did re-appear. Her suspicions, formed back in London, and confirmed by her friends, were proving to be more than accurate. Not a sister. Not at all.
One evening she was lying on the couch in the lead actor’s dressing room. Zsolt had noticed that she was starting to limp slightly – her foot was still painful, and was slow to heal – and in class, she could hardly demonstrate some of the more complicated moves. So he let her lie down after class in his room. They had formed an awkward alliance, even though his English was non-existent. Sign language seemed to see them through. And Zsolt was rather pleased to have gained some kudos by befriending a girl from the West. He had just gone on stage for the evening performance, and Julia was alone. She felt herself drifting off to sleep, comfortable, woozy. Then she heard the door pulled open, and into the room burst Eszter.
So, this is where you are, is it? she said, her voice sharp, accusing. Julia said nothing for a while, then replied. Thanks for coming to the station to meet me, Eszter, very kind. And that was it. The floodgates opened. Eszter stepped close to the couch and bent down to pour a stream of invective into Julia’s ear. Julia just listened. Remained silent. Felt something in her heart turn icy towards Eszter. Felt her foot throb and her stomach turn with anxiety. Felt what it was like to feel a friend’s betrayal in a foreign place. Felt very alone and small. She never found out exactly what had made Eszter so angry with her. It was no specific incident, as far as she could tell. She seemed to resent the very thing about Julia that Eszter so coveted: her Englishness. The ease with which Julia, British passport in hand, could travel where she wanted, whilst Eszter, alone and bitter, was stuck in a city and a country she hated and despised. What became clear as the days went by, was that they brought out the worst in each other. The more furious and argumentative Eszter became, the colder Julia turned, mute and sullen in the face of Eszter’s attacks. As she made her weary way back to her Stalinist barracks every evening, Julia realised that, despite the overtures of friendship made to her by Zsolt and some of the younger actors in the company, she had never felt such an outsider. The world around her seemed grey, uninviting. The days stretched long before her. Miskolc had seemed like a necessary adventure before she came here. Now it was, she was sure, a colossal, and wounding, mistake.
One night Julia woke in the middle of a nightmare. In the dream, people were shouting at her, rushing her from place to place, pushing, jostling, and aggressive. When she woke, her heart was thumping, her head – and whole body – was bathed in sweat. She felt the usual throb from the wound in her foot, but there was more. Her right ear was bursting, her head felt tight and sore: her temperature was soaring. She turned on the light and saw the room swimming in front of her eyes. She looked at the clock. It was three in the morning. A long time till dawn. Longer still until she could go into the theatre and get help. Because it was clear that she was sick. Very sick. She tossed back the covers, which had become unbearably heavy and hot, lay on her back – arms thrown above her head, legs twitching relentlessly, her foot and head throbbing – and sweated her way through till morning. Somehow she got herself to the Stage Door. Whereupon she collapsed in a heap and brought a small crowd of anxious actors – who had arrived for her morning class – quickly to her aid. They helped her to Zsolt’s room, and onto his trusty couch. Someone brought water. She could hardly speak, she was so hot, so damnably hot. Her whole body was bathed in sweat. And the pain in her ear was getting worse. Eszter was summoned. Impatient, but concerned, she arranged for a taxi. They would have to go to the hospital. Now.
The clinic was grey and empty when they arrived. Eszter and Julia sat in the corridor for what seemed like a lifetime. Nothing happened. No one went past. No noise. No sign of life. Eventually, a weary-looking nurse poked her head out of a doorway and summoned them in. Eszter knew the doctor. I’ll pay him to see you, she said to Julia. That’s how it works over here. It’s supposed to be free, but if you want proper treatment, money will have to change hands. The doctor was kindly, in a detached way, and took some time to examine her throat and ear, before turning to Eszter to explain. It’s a major ear and throat infection, she told Julia – with the danger of some kind of sepsis. He isn’t sure if they’ll need to operate, but first he’s going to give you some strong antibiotics, and hopefully that will sort things out. Julia nodded weakly, unable to react in any meaningful way. She had never felt more homesick. A fevered thought ran through her brain: please don’t let me die here. Anything but that.
The next two weeks were a blur of fever and pain. The days and nights bled, one into the other. The high fever brought hallucinations: in some of which Julia was interrogated, in rapid-fire Hungarian, by a man in vaguely military uniform; in others, she was back home, in her childhood bedroom. When she woke from the latter, she wept with weakness and with loss. But gradually, her temperature came down. She still had no appetite, but managed to swallow some fruit juice and kefir. Her headache cleared as she became less dehydrated, and the pain in her ear gradually softened. When she blew her nose, green snot poured out. Her ear leaked something smelly and disgusting. She lost a lot of weight, and looked pale and ghostly. But she really didn’t care. The doctor had decided she would not have to go under the surgeon’s knife after all, and for that, she was grateful and relieved.
One day, Julia heard a key turn in the door. She hadn’t left the flat in two weeks, and, apart from an occasional desultory visit from Eszter, no one had been to see her. She had no idea who this might be, and, like a coward, and still in a weak and debilitated state, she hid in her little room, and waited to see what happened. There were voices – one male, one female – and the sound of boxes being lifted and dropped, one by one, in the living room. As she lay there, listening, hiding, it dawned on Julia that this must be Zsuzsanna and her boyfriend, back from foreign parts. Bringing their black market booty with them.
This was her first encounter with them, and although she knew that Zsuzsanna had been tipped off about her presence, she felt awkward and intrusive. Still, there was nothing else for it, she would have to introduce herself – and, straightening herself up, she walked through to the living room door, which they had closed firmly behind them, and knocked timidly. Tessék? Zsuzsanna’s voice sounded wary, surprised. And when Julia put her head round the door, she could see why. On the floor sat Zsuzsanna and her boyfriend, surrounded by boxes – and piles and piles of books, packages and bottles. This was a rich haul indeed. And not something Julia had seen anywhere else, since she had been in Hungary. Everyone she knew lived hand to mouth: the bare essentials of food and drink and clothing covering their day to day needs. This was nothing short of contraband. No wonder Zsuzsanna looked shifty, as she gazed up at Eszter, a guilty flush passing across her face. They exchanged a few awkward words of greeting, and then Julia turned and left the room. The next morning, Zsuzsanna was gone. The boxes she had so carefully lifted home, were gone too.
In the last week of Julia’s ill-fated month in Miskolc, she was able to take a few classes again. People in the theatre – with the exception of Eszter, who continued to treat her like an annoying younger sister – were kind to her, and sorry for the ordeal she had been through. Later, when she looked at photographs taken during that time, Julia was amazed she could still stand, she was so gaunt, so thin, so horribly pale. But her willpower saw her through, and she saw her contract through to the end, as agreed. On her last night in Miskolc, a few of the actors had invited her to the theatre bar for a farewell drink. Before leaving, Eszter summoned her to her flat, on the pretext of treating her to a special meal before she left. The meal turned out to be noodles and chicken, unusually tasteless for a Hungarian dish. But then, Eszter was not exactly famous for her domestic skills. As they sat down together, Eszter began to talk. Or rather, to list the numerous ways in which Julia had let her down, during her month in Miskolc. She even contrived to make Julia’s illness seem like her own fault. The minutes ticked by. As usual, Julia offered nothing in her own defence. She was aware how late it was getting, but didn’t feel able to rise from her seat and leave before Eszter had had her say. Soon it was 10.30 pm. Julia’s train was early the next morning. It was too late to go and meet her friends – all of whom had gathered in the bar, as promised, and were puzzled that she never showed up. In the end, Julia caught the bus back to the suburbs, took the piss-stained lift up to the seventh floor, and spent one more night in Zsuzsanna’s empty, eery flat. The next day, she caught the train back to Budapest. If she never went back to Miskolc again in her life, it would be, she realised – with a heart of stone – too soon.
At the end of the summer Julia flew back to London. Thin, gaunt, pale, her friends hardly recognised her. As she passed through passport control at Budapest Airport, she felt as if she were walking through an invisible wall, or that she, herself, had become invisible. She never managed to convey the bleakness of her experience in Miskolc to those back home. And the days of feverish sickness were like a black hole down which she had disappeared, never knowing when, or whether, she would emerge. She despised the Western propaganda about a country she had grown to love and respect. And she knew full well the image of the Iron Curtain was corrosive, unjust: but still, for a short time, she had felt the taste of it, bloody and ferrous, on her tongue. The memory of it stayed with her for the rest of her life. And the loneliness – of being a stranger in a strange place, unlovely and unloved – never quite left her again.