Passport to Freedom

18FE677C-3F24-438E-BC8F-DAF158E25AAFSzabadság Híd – Liberty Bridge – Budapest.

Snowfall on Budapest, 1988

THE SNOW was thick on the ground, and the airport terminus lay hidden in grey fog. There was no one around, except for the occasional soldier, gun bulging at his hip, an inscrutable expression on his face. She went through customs without being stopped. Just as well, because her suitcase was full of Irish whiskey, which the Hungarians loved, but couldn’t get their hands on, behind the Iron Curtain.

Budapest was empty too, except for faded yellow trams – and the jaded glow of a red star on top of the government buildings. When they got on the train to go south, perching in tiny carriages, on cold seats of green leather, she could see nothing out of the window, except for  fat icicles, hanging from trees, half submerged in the deepening mist. Already she loved this place. It felt strange. It felt like home.

Kaposvár Theatre

The actors were so friendly. None of them spoke English, and she spoke no Hungarian, but they got by with sign language. And the whiskey and pálinka soon loosened their tongues. The company had worked together for years. They lived in a tight knit community – the actors’ flats just across the road from the theatre – and they spent all their free time in the subterranean bar, playing cards, gossiping and drinking.

The work they did on stage was astonishing. Such courage. Such physical bravura. And in every play, a hidden subversion, reaching out to their audience to give a message of liberty, when open dissent was completely forbidden. Hungary: the happiest barracks in the Eastern Bloc. That’s what they said. But it wasn’t true. The sorrow was palpable. And ran deep.

Passport of privilege

“We aren’t allowed to travel abroad”, explained her friend, with the help of an interpreter. “Except every three years. And only to somewhere approved by the regime. Once we were invited to a theatre festival in France, but the apparatchiks said no, because the French actors were clearly Maoist insurgents, and would be a bad influence on us. If it’s so great over here, why don’t they let us go and tell the whole world about the joys of our communist state?” He laughed. But it was a laugh without humour. More of a sob, really. And a shrug of the shoulders in defeat.

As for her, she had such privilege. A British passport. She could travel where she liked, and knew she would always have the freedom to go back home. It gave her an air of authority and mystique, and people wanted to talk to her, wherever she went. As for her, Hungary felt like a secret garden, full of passion and delight.

Suitcase stuffed with whiskey and teabags

The company kept inviting her back, to teach the company movement skills and physical theatre. But the main appeal, she knew, was her Britishness. A fresh breeze blowing in from London from time to time – with a suitcase stuffed with whiskey and tea bags.

When she finally went home for good, after a three months stint, during which she got really sick, and longed to be in England, it was summer 1989. The Berlin Wall fell  four months later. The red stars were dragged from the roofs, and a new era began. And in the end, Hungary even joined the European Union. Her British passport and their Hungarian passports became united under a single blue flag with hopeful gold stars all across it.

Farewell to freedom

Now it’s her own passport that is changing. The UK is leaving the EU. The freedom of movement that her Hungarian friends so envied, and that she took so much for granted, is over. Oh, they can still travel where they like. But what about her? Will her government maybe let her out, every three years or so, to a country whose views are sufficiently in line with theirs?

She feels like a fraud now, and such a fool. She once believed she was free. She felt her status like a magic cloak, wrapped around her ignorant young shoulders, breezing through Eastern Europe with an air of entitlement and superiority. Now she knows the truth. That she is simply a prisoner of a tiny, spiteful island, slowly sinking under the weight of its own post-colonial delusions. And how she longs for that slow train out of Budapest now, with snow piling at the window, illegal contraband in her case, and a sense of something beautiful and foreign and free, just ahead of her, on the country railroad track.

This piece was written as a response to a question from theatre director Alan Lyddiard, whose company, the Performance Ensemble, I am a member of: “If anybody in the world was allowed to travel anywhere in the world, would this be a good thing?” The Ensemble’s current work in progress concerns itself deeply with freedom of movement, and you can read more about this on their website.

I have written extensively about my deep love affair with Hungary, and some of the links to articles and short stories available on this website can be found on my page entitled Blog and Features Archive.

Hungarian Love Letters 5

Queen of the Castle

Haiku

the oil lamp flickers

soon the shutters will come down

see the shadows fall

SHE SITS by the window and gazes at the street below. Nothing has really changed in this area, in all the years she has lived here. Certainly, there are more tourists. The world has opened up, the walls are down. And the old cobbles have been replaced with concrete. But otherwise, all is much as it was. After sunset, once the visitors have traipsed away, and the castle district returns to the people who live there – that is the time she loves best.  Then, the very air she breathes seems precious and still and old. The privileged few, like her, who have inherited one of these narrow stone and timber houses,  can perch, high above the city, like regal birds of prey – far away from the brutal politics of the modern city beneath. Serene and entitled.

The actress’s flat is a jumble of furniture and clothes. Old mahogany pieces, that belonged to her mother. A certain fin-de-siecle feel to the whole place. Always in shadow, even on the brightest summer day. A smell of dust and velvet in the air. Costumes – racks of them – hanging disconsolately in corners. Waiting for the character who once inhabited them to return and bring them back to life. On the wall – photographs of curtain calls and publicity shots – and on the sideboard – awards and prizes, gathered through her long and illustrious career. Csilla Nagy is at the top of her profession. Everyone in Hungary knows who she is, and admires her, even if they have never set foot in a theatre. For she is hardly off their television screens, starring in some film or other – or popping up on childrens’ television and in  adult soap operas. She is used to being stopped in the street for autographs, stared at in restaurants, fawned over by waiters and bartenders. She knows she is revered, just for being who she is. The queen of her profession.

But Csilla also knows that this is  worth very little, when it comes to the night. After the oil lamp that she keeps lit, for sentimental reasons, on her window ledge, is snuffed out, and Magda comes bustling in with her huge bunch of keys, and closes the shutters, locking her mistress in until the morning, safe against strangers and the dark,  Csilla feels the weight of loneliness press in on her. And each time she climbs the stairs, to the bed – which is elegantly covered in lace, and scented with lavender – that she has slept in, alone, for the past forty odd years, she feels her legs growing a little heavier, the pain in her heart a little more piercing. Csilla knows she is loved by many. But what is the use of that, when you really only need to be held by one?

Today, in particular, she is troubled. She has received an email that has stirred old memories, and she isn’t quite sure what to do about it. The message is from an English woman she knew, thirty years ago, when she worked  out in the countryside in one of Hungary’s renowned state theatres. Oh, what a time it had been. She was in her prime then, still young and vibrant, and already rising to the top of her profession. Then there was real love, at least the promise of it. Stolen moments – of intoxicating conversation, of insinuation and pleasure. Gillian’s little note – so unexpected and sudden – brings back a flood of sensation.  She feels the blood rising to her head, heat flushing through her body. Why this? Why now? When she was so sure she had put the past  firmly behind her.

She has a restless night, with lurid dreams, from which she wakes several times in a sweat, heart thumping wildly. In the end, she rises early and stumbles downstairs to make herself a tisane of chamomile and lemon to settle her frayed nerves. It is only 6.30 a.m. The birds outside in the little courtyard are fussing and chirruping in the old fig tree. It is spring and the sap is rising. Csilla’s head aches. Her joints feel stiff and sore. She checks in her desk diary. When is the personal trainer coming next? Tomorrow evening. Good. She needs his warm hands to keep her in working order. Such a handsome young man too… She smiles to herself. One of the perks of her wealth and fame, and why not? Sitting down with her tea, she scrolls idly through the messages on her phone, and re-reads the email sent yesterday by Gillian. What is she to make of this, and how should she respond?

*****

Gillian sent the email in a rush of nostalgia. She hardly expects a response, is not even sure that the address she dug out from some internet profile or other, is up-to-date or accurate. But she doesn’t regret it. Too many people have disappeared now from her life. She feels the circle turning. Feels, too, a sudden yearning to find lost souls. Csilla was never really her friend, but  Anna’s. But Gillian always liked her, with her soft voice, her gently regal manners, the self conscious way she held herself – ever the actress, always on show. Poor Anna. So long dead. A whole era gone with her. At least Csilla – who must be in her sixties now – is thriving. And by all accounts, is still in Budapest. How convenient, then, that this is where Gillian is travelling to, next. Who knows?  Maybe they might meet again.

*****

Before she has time to change her mind, Csilla presses “send”, and the deed is done. She has arranged for Gillian to come for afternoon coffee the following Saturday. Csilla  has an evening presentation to attend at the Opera House, but that still leaves them plenty of time. Besides, it might be a convenient excuse to get rid of her visitor, if the meeting proves awkward or too intense. Csilla sits for a long time at her messy kitchen table, after sending the message. The remains of coffee – Csilla likes it strong and sweet – sit in her small china cup, and there is a half-eaten kifli on the patterned plate beside it. Csilla doesn’t concern herself too much with food – she is tall and  thin, her long pepper-and-salt hair coiled high on her head, face long and bony, with its own kind of austere beauty – but Magda, her housekeeper, insists. Food is presented to her at regular intervals, and Csilla does her best to comply. Frankly, deep down, she doesn’t much care if she lives or dies. But other people do. So she keeps going, for her public, for the ever-devoted Magda, for the theatre, by which she lives and breathes. Ah yes, there is always her art to fall back on. Otherwise: the abyss.

*****

Gillian cannot believe she is back in Budapest. It was all so long ago. And the longer she left it, the harder it got to return. But she has seen her friends at home becoming older, settled, scared.  Gillian cannot let that happen to her. She is always booking last minute weekend flights to cities she has never seen. The countryside doesn’t really attract her. It is people, theatre – busy streets and late nights – that pull her in. Since she lives on her own, she can do what she likes – and she likes to travel. So now,  why not go back to somewhere she knows for a change? Risky, but thrilling.  She still has shrapnel in her heart from thirty years ago. But no matter. She has come back. And as she wanders through the Castle District, dodging the tourists and gazing at the old buildings, the shutters and the heavy wooden doors, she marvels at  the familiarity of it all. Nothing is quite as it was – yet everything feels just the same.

She arrives, a little early, at Csilla’s  front door, hesitates, heart beating, and rings the buzzer. A disembodied voice speaks through the intercom. Gillian announces herself, and with a heavy click the door opens, into a dark and shadowy corridor. Someone switches on the hall light – is standing at the top of the stairs. Gillian looks up. Csilla looks down. And then, with small cries of recognition, they advance towards each other. The years fall away, and they  take each other’s arm,  and retreat into the actress’s chaotic kitchen. The scent of perfume and coffee grounds hits Gillian’s nostrils like a tidal wave, and she suddenly feels that she might cry. But she laughs instead, sits down on the nearest empty chair and takes a breath.

Before she knows it, they are deep in conversation. Gillian’s Hungarian was always rudimentary, and has rusted over still further, by years of disuse. Yet when Csilla speaks, in her rapid, mellifluous tones, it is as if Gillian understands every word. And she can respond too. The spirit of St Jerome is in the room, translating everything for the two women, wiping away the years, re-setting the dials, making them young again.

“You haven’t changed a bit”, says Csilla, and she means it. Gillian was always elfin in her appearance, small and slight, running through the corridors of her life, whilst Csilla moved slowly, as if there were a full entourage behind her, holding her train.

“Nor you,” replies Gillian, but that is hardly the case. She sees someone careworn, though elegant, sitting in front of her now. A woman with the weight of age – and experience – deep in her bones. She had never understood what made Csilla tick, and she is a mystery to her still, surrounded by glamour, her whole life a performance, well rehearsed and beautifully executed. But with an emptiness at its heart, somehow. Sorrow.

Theirs is a labyrinth of shared memories. And the names of the people they both knew – all members of a mighty theatre company, now dispersed, or retired, or dead – come tripping from Csilla’s tongue in a torrent of affection and regret.

“What a time it was,” says Gillian, with pictures of the subterannean theatre bar now vivid in her mind’s eye: full of smoke, and noise, and animated drinkers, arguing deep into the night.

“Indeed,” replies Csilla. “The red star was over us then. Walls all around us,  to keep us locked in. Now our prime minister builds another wall – this time to keep everyone else out. We Hungarians never learn,” she sighs. It is her only mention of politics. It is enough.

On they go, through the gentle spring afternoon, chatting, remembering, laughing and questioning. And then Csilla suddenly says, “You never married, Gillian? No children?”  “No”, says Gillian. “You neither?” Csilla just shakes her head, presses her lips together. And Gillian continues. “I did love someone once –someone here in Hungary – and I would have stayed. If he had asked me, I would have done it. Defected. Come over the wall to join him. But he never asked. And then he met someone else. You’ll remember him, I’m sure.” The name is spoken. And the room grows cold.

Csilla feels her heart lurch, and she feels faint – might even fall – but recovers her equilibrium just in time. Of course she knows the name. It’s carved, like a curse, on her heart. And she remembers Gillian sitting with him, not long after she had arrived – and he had just come off stage: was glowing with sweat and careless charisma. Remembers the stab of jealousy she felt. How happy he was, to be seen with this English girl, share her whiskey, covet her Levis! Csilla, meanwhile, was already too familiar to him.  Already too old.

Slipping from her reach, before she had so much as touched his long fingers, kissed his lips. But there would be no one else. Not in her lifetime. Even then, she knew that. And now this stupid woman is saying the exact same thing. Stirring it all up. A knife in both their wounds. She sits bolt upright now, and draws her shoulders up by her ears, looking theatrically at the big clock on the wall, as if she has just noticed how late it has become.

“Oh!” she says, with fake surprise. “I had no idea it was that time already. I’m sorry, Gillian, I have an engagement this evening, and I simply must get ready for it now.”

She stands abruptly, and offers Gillian her hand. Gillian is flabbergasted. She has no idea what she has done, why the atmosphere in the room has suddenly changed, from summer sun to the deep frosts of winter – and she doesn’t get a chance to find out. Before she knows it, she feels the heavy wooden door in the downstairs corridor clang behind her – and she is back outside, on the street, on her own. The sun is already beginning to set, and it’s getting darker. There is no one around now. The tourists have all disappeared. Gillian crosses to the steep stone steps which will  lead her back down to the river. She pauses at the top, and turns to look up at Csilla’s window. For a moment, she sees the actress standing motionless, looking back down at her: with a gaze that is unflinching and unforgiving. Then Csilla bends slightly, and strikes a match, to light the oil lamp on the window sill, before retreating, slowly, into the deepening shadows of her room.

– ENDS –

This is the fifth short story in a series loosely entitled Hungarian Love Letters. This is fiction based on my experiences, memories of – and long standing love affair with – Hungary, since first visiting and working there in 1988. You can read the other four stories here on the website, by scrolling through the blogs. There are also some non-fiction blogs about this fascinating country, on this website  too.

 

 

 

Hungarian Love Letters 4

Don’t Talk To Her

FRAGMENT

She waits at the station

No one is there

Dread in her heart

Cold in the air

Already sickness

Insinuates

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.

ENDS

Hungarian Love Letters 3

House of Spirits

Acrostic

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.

ENDS

 

Hungarian Love Letters 2

Falling Man

Haiku

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.

ENDS

Hungarian Love Letters 1

NOTHING TO DECLARE

by Barney Bardsley

SONNET

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homesick

HUNGARY 1989

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.

Heimweh.

Honvágy.

Home?

 

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.

 

Homesick.

Heimweh.

Honvágy.

 

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. 

https://www.autorenwelt.de/verzeichnis/aufrufe/heimat-beiträge-für-internationale-anthologie-gesucht

 

 

Alone in the city

IT IS USEFUL to be alone in a city. Gazing in from the outside, pressing your stranger’s nose to shop windows, listening to the babble of other people’s conversations, in a delicious foreign tongue, and walking, walking, walking – over bridges, through deserted back streets, and into the middle of cacophonous and dissonant city squares: all mired in the colours, the dirt, the fabulous confusions of contemporary cosmopolitan life.

Budapest is a city I should know well. The first time I saw it, in January 1988, wrapped in its thick winter blanket of ice and snow, I fell in love with the place, instantly, irrevocably. And ever since, I have been in its thrall. For two potent years, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Budapest was my centrifugal force, as I travelled and worked in the theatre in Hungary – passing through the city frequently, and lingering there often, in some borrowed flat or other, on my way down to Kaposvár in the countrified South West, and Miskolc, in the industrial North East. And even though I lost touch with the place for nearly 20 years after that, as it underwent its painful transition from communism to a western capitalist economy, its powerful imprint never lifted from my heart. And when I finally did make it back, in 2009, the spell that had been cast on me – so long ago that it felt like another life entirely – had remained intact.

I go back every year now, visiting old friends – making new ones – enjoying the richness of the city’s theatre and literary life, exploring different territories, and circling the same familiar haunts, with increasing and ever-deepening delight. Even the language – that arcane rhythmical Finno Ugric puzzle – is finally finding its place, albeit haltingly, inside my mouth, beneath my tongue. And yet… Each time I go, this place eludes me more. It is a city packed full of a violent past – and an increasingly uncertain, even dangerous, present. Throughout its history, hardliners of left and right have taken turns to loosen their invective – if not their weaponry – on those bony old streets, and their weary, battered inhabitants. Too much blood has been spilled, too many times. But Budapest has tranquillity too. It is a place of exquisite charm and beauty and sophistication: and has a deep, ineffable sense of mystery, that stalks me constantly while I am there, and haunts me whenever I leave. “There’s something about this place, isn’t there? ”, said a fellow Englander once, each of us waiting for the Number 19 tram. “It just keeps on drawing you back.”

Yet I often hurtle in and out of this city too fast, with too little time and too many people to see. Usually I am a guest of one of the actors I first met, nearly 30 years ago. He is steadfast and comforting, always, in his welcome. All Hungarians, in my experience, are fiery and talkative and outspoken – and very, very loyal. Once a friend: a friend for life. Their hospitality is prodigious – their tables piled high with pálinka and delicious paprika dishes and pastries filled with cherry and sweet túró cheese. Whenever they wrap their arms around me – metaphorically and physically – they squeeze rather hard, and they don’t easily let go. Exhilarating. Exhausting, too.

It is time, maybe, to change the tempo and the rhythm: as a recent trip, at the start of this autumn season, made clear. The welcome was as effusive – the food, drink and conversation, as copious as ever. But I spent a lot more time on my own. I stayed in three different flats, in three different parts of the city. And it was a revelation. To be alone in a city is to meet it, properly – on your own terms, in your own time… Painting it in the colours of your individual imagination and understanding. Fitting it around your own awkward memories – the sadness and the grief and the passing of time – and bringing it, wriggling and bloody and alive, back into the present. Right here and now. Making it yours, really yours. At last.

It is not at all hard to find your way around Budapest. The city is fed by a bustling network of trams, trolleys, busses and tube trains, all of which run night and day, with no notion of curfew – and it is split conveniently down the middle, by the mighty swell of the Danube river: Buda to the west, Pest to the east. If ever I get lost, I just look for that river, and it always leads me back home. September, in Hungary, is still pretty damn hot from the lingering summer– the air sultry, dusty-sweet, somehow distinctly Hungarian. The smell of hot damp earth rises up from beneath the concrete, steamed by sudden downpours of tropical rain, and then baked by blistering sunshine all over again. This year was blessed with a late and lasting heatwave. Temperatures rose into the mid 30s, making it impossible to get anywhere fast, without melting under a miasma of breathlessness, a constant sheen of sweat. No matter. The slower I went, the better I liked it. I would slip out in the morning before it got too hot, and then again in late afternoon, to walk along the banks of the river, and over onto Margit Island – an oasis of dreamy green in the middle of the river, where the whole city seemed to promenade, and exalt in the evening air. Or I would sit on some tram – the Number 4 usually, which trundles relentlessly back and forth, in a huge semi circle around the city ring road, through the crowded squares of inner city Pest, and over the river into Buda; or the iconic Number 2, which tracks down the eastern side of the Danube, from Parliament to the new (and hideous) National Theatre, taking in breathtaking views of the Castle District and the far Buda Hills, the big boats and the wide water, and the high majestic bridges, all along the way.

And I moved, like a snail, with my bags on my back, between three points of a triangle: first, a luxury, light-flooded flat in the fancy Taban district of old Buda – near the faded grandeur of the Gellert Spa Hotel, and the green Prussian steel of the Liberty Bridge; then, to a small dark room – a huge fig tree pressed to the window, drowning all the light in luxurious green – in Donati Street, which spirals down, secretive and quiet, from the medieval heights of the Castle District; and finally to an empty apartment on the top floor of a big, blunt, grey block, in the V111th district of downtown Pest. Bustling, bar-strewn Jozsefvaros, part-gentrified, part-seedy and sad, depending on which side of the ring road you happen to tread: an area as beguiling as it is busy, and the most familiar and favourite of all to me, permanently scuffed at heel and sassy of mouth. Quintessential Budapest, with an expletive never far from its gorgeous dirty mouth.

But none of this really matters: the geography; the views; the buildings and their logistics. What matters in this city is the feeling. The senses, the sounds, the smells – and the echoing of memory, down every street, inside every curving doorway. I was young here once: on my last big adventure before marriage and motherhood clipped my aimless wings. Now I am growing old here, too. More tuned to the sadness that I see in people’s faces. And ripened by the humour and the stoicism, that I recognise as a tool of survival and strength.

Budapest is a tough old town, no question. With tough new politics to boot. An openly right wing government. Fences on the borders to keep out the refugees. (As one woman put it, “This wall they are building; it’s not just to keep people out, it’s to keep us in.”) An anti-immigration referendum (later to fail…but no matter, the xenophobic propaganda has already worked). A recent nail bomb – aimed at two policemen on the streets – fuelling paranoia and suspicion. There is an increasingly sour mood, that spills forth, whenever a conversation is cracked open, and the pálinka starts to flow. There seems no real appetite or opportunity for opposition. Dissent is driving itself underground. And even the iconic 1956 October Uprising – its sixtieth anniversary commemorated this autumn – has been reduced to a series of striking official images, plastered to public buildings – and signally ignored by the people on the streets below. Pictures of freedom fighters, like the one included above, are accompanied by the immortal words of dissident writer Sándor Márai…. “When a whole country said: enough!” The irony is hard to ignore. An old revolution: co opted into a new narrative of repression and control.

As elsewhere across Europe – and in post-Brexit England too – politics and posture are everywhere here, with an increasing tightening of the noose around the neck of pluralism and free thought, which makes it harder and harder to breathe. But in the end it is all about people and place. Hungary, and Budapest in particular, is a place I lost my heart to, a long time ago. Its people, likewise: with their cynical wit, and their particular talent for despair and celebration, all at the same time, in the same sentence, in the same raised glass, and with the same enduring bear hug of welcome and farewell. It took me a long time to find this curious place – and then a long time, to find my way back. Being alone in the city has only deepened my sense of connection to a troubled and beautiful and utterly soulful place. And always, I will keep on returning. Something has settled – both irritant and balm – deep beneath my skin, and there’s no getting rid of it now.

In a Cottage by the Lake

IT HAS been a difficult start to September – not at all what I had anticipated, when I longed for autumn’s fresh breezes, back in the dog days of August. Hungary – a place I love, and regard almost as a second home, or at least a place of the heart, full of rich friendships, experiences and potent memories – has been in the news headlines for all the wrong reasons. Orban’s hardline government continues to reject the stream of refugees now pouring into Europe from the war zones of the world – Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq – with razor wire fencing along the border with Serbia, and a terrible stand-off at Keleti Station in Budapest, where refugees were shut out of the station and refused entry to trains, before setting off in desperation, on foot, on a long route march to Austria, braving concrete motorways in the fierce heat of the day and the plummeting temperatures of night. And there is no sign that this crisis will let up in the near future. It is showing the division between longer-standing members of the European Union and the newer members like Hungary  – from the former Soviet bloc. Hungary is not a rich country, and has had more than its share of conflict and deprivation, with centuries of being overrun by one aggressive regime after another – the Turks, the Austrians, the German fascists and the Russian communists. As one Hungarian friend said to me recently, shaking her head at the politicians who have been in power since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, “We don’t know how to do democracy – nobody ever taught us.” One thing is clear though: building new walls to keep people out is never going to work, long term or short. Meanwhile, all the warm hearted Hungarians I know are doing what they can in the name of humanity: supplying water, food, clothing, temporary shelters, to people passing through their borders, who are in desperate need. Let’s hope we, in the UK, will step up and do more of the same.

Hungary – despite the recent woeful headlines – is a place of hidden depths and great beauty. I recently wrote a short story about my very first visit there, back in January 1988. The country was under thick layers of snow – icicles hanging from the trees, city statues wrapped up in cloth, to stop them cracking from the cold – and was still under the wintry grip of Soviet-style state socialism. I fell in love with the place immediately. Here’s a tiny extract from the story – about a stay in a little country cottage (much like the one in the photo above), in the depths of winter, by the snowy shores of Lake Balaton…

     But first: there is Fonyód. Although living conditions are cramped and communal, throughout the Soviet Bloc, many Hungarians have engineered a perfect get-away: the nyaraló – country cottage. Nearly every family boasts one of these tiny, yellow, single-floor self-builds, dotted all around the countryside, and clustered along the rich and fertile shores of Lake Balaton, Hungary’s massive and much-loved “inland sea”. These houses are welcome retreats during the hot summer months, when the towns and cities become stifling and airless. People grow fruit, peppers and vegetables in the little gardens. There are cherry trees, sweet and bitter. And inside – the thick stone walls offer sanctuary and shade. During the winter, when temperatures plummet, the cottages are locked up and left empty until the following season. Visits in the dead of winter are rare, for obvious reasons. But Kate is setting off in the snow, anyway. The prospect excites her.

     The night before she leaves, she sits in Eszter’s flat and watches as Eszter’s friend György painstakingly prepares nokedli – working a home-made dumpling mix through a cheese grater to create a pleasing, nobbly, bumpy pasta that floats, rich and creamy, on top of their chicken stew. It surprises her that this big brawn of a man – one of the theatre technicians, known for his strength and stamina – has such a delicacy of touch, exhibits such delight in making mountains of fresh food. (Eszter hardly cooks at all. She lets other people do it for her.) But György is proud of his efforts.

     “Lots of men cook here,” he explains, looking at Eszter to interpret his rapid-fire Hungarian. “We love our Magyar dishes.” With good cause. The food is delicious, belly-warming, full of dark, lovely flavours.

     “ Anyway, you need feeding up,” György adds, circling Kate’s thin wrist with his big stubby hand, “You’re too thin. And in Fonyód you’ll need all the blubber you can muster, to keep out the cold!”

The next morning, György drives Kate and Eszter out to the cottage, on the edges of the small town of Fonyód, close to the shores of the Balaton. Flakes of snow fall softly as they drive, melting and sliding down the windscreen, playful, insistent. As they get closer to the lake, the fog closes in. Soon they can barely see a few yards ahead of them. When they get to the cottage, György and Eszter stop just long enough to open up the house, unload some food, and set the small stove burning in the kitchen. They are keen to set off back, before the weather gets worse.

     “Don’t let the fire go out, whatever you do,” warns Eszter, “It’s your only source of heat. There’s a village shop just at the end of the lane if you need anything. We’ll come back to get you the day after tomorrow. Sit tight. Wrap up warm!” And with that, they are gone, in a cloud of exhaust fumes and with a complaining roar from the ancient, clapped-out car engine. Suddenly Kate – after living in people’s pockets for the past ten days and nights – finds herself completely alone.

     She sits and stares at the fire for a long time. Then, turns to look out of the window at the winter scenery – most of it obscured by fog, by the shadows of the falling snow. The fact of her solitude slowly sinks in. She gets up and walks into the tiny bedroom, where there are two narrow single beds, one of them piled with a lumpy duvet – brought from Kaposvár in the car this morning. There is nothing much else in the room, except for an old wooden chair and a small table. At the bedroom window are faded floral curtains and some wooden shutters. She pushes the shutters back and looks out at the back garden: the skeleton of a fruit tree, weighed down by the fresh snow, stares back at her. And underneath everything: the deep frozen earth. Central Europe seems like Snow White – fast asleep in her cold bed, for a hundred lonely years.

     She decides to venture outside before the snow falls too deep, and pulls on an extra jumper under her thick coat, before setting off, muffled and wary, towards the lake. Eszter was insistent that the water was close by – “Out the front door, straight across the road, and follow the path” – but Kate has no way of knowing, in the obscuring snow, what is near, and what is far. She stumbles blindly down the path – trees on either side of her, reaching out their white bony arms to brush at her face. She is startled to find herself, suddenly, there. At the edge of the water. Its surface, here in the shallows, is thickly crusted with ice, the sky above, grey and woolly and full of foreboding. The snow has stopped falling now. Everything is ghostly quiet. She stands still – and feels the whole world holding its breath.

     The lake yields none of its secrets today – its enormous expanse of joyous water, which draws so many to it, yachtsmen, swimmers, surfers and sunbathers, in the summer months, is sealed shut by the January freeze, the lid of its treasures is locked tight. But Kate doesn’t mind. It is a peaceful place, and her mind is a clean, blank page. After a few minutes of standing perfectly still, staring at nothing, she deliberately breaks the silence, by stamping on a thick chunk of ice that has broken free at the water’s edge, seeing it creak and crack, with silent satisfaction. She sighs deeply, and watches the warm vapour of her breath catch in the cold air in front of her face – hanging there, like a whisper, before it dissolves in the enveloping mist.

     She turns to go back. To her surprise, two people approach, walking towards her on the narrow path. For a while, by the water, she has believed she is the only person alive.

     “Jó napot” – “Hello” – she stammers, using one of her carefully-learned Hungarian greetings, as instructed by Eszter. (“If you say nothing when you meet people, you’ll look rude”.) But they do not reply, just stare at her and carry on walking. Kate drops her head, embarrassed, and picks up speed as she passes them, sliding on the slippery surfaces of the dirt path and the narrow tarmacked road. She shuts the front door behind her with relief. Then she unpeels her damp clothes, sits by the little fire, with some tea, a chunk of bread, salami and cheese, before climbing under the fat duvet on the little wooden bed, letting the sweet amnesia of sleep carry her away.

Poems and Pálinka

I NEVER really understood poetry until I lived for a short while in Hungary. The words would enter my mind but never really penetrated the heart. It took another country, a different culture entirely, to teach me poetry’s true power. In 1988-89, when I worked for a while as a movement coach in a big and renowned theatre in Kaposvár, South West Hungary, there was a distinguished actor in the company called Tamás Jordán. He had taken the poems of Attila József – Hungary’s national poet – and made them his own. He knew József’s lyrics forward and back, inside and out. He declaimed them in mesmerising, sell-out, one man shows, and let them loose in the theatre bar whenever the fancy took him: in short, he owned the poetry. Or maybe, it owned him. Whenever he spoke, I was transported.

But Tamás  took particular delight in shaming the ignorant young English woman  I then was (illiterate in the arcane complexities of the Hungarian language and culture), by spouting great chunks of the master poet’s work and then defying me to translate it, to understand a single, solitary, beautiful word. The smile on his face was understandably superior. Of course I couldn’t. Which was like someone coming to settle in England and not having the faintest idea who Shakespeare was. I was on the outside of the magic kingdom, with no clue, no key, no hope.

I don’t know why this got to me so badly, but it did. Hungarian is an extraordinarily musical language, its regular stress pattern and subtle syntax dovetailing perfectly with the compact rhythms of the poetic form. Attila József, already dead by 1937, at just 32 years old, is still revered as the supreme exponent of this strange and wonderful language. He is Dante, Byron, Blake. He is sublime. The tragedy is – he is almost impossible to translate. I have never read anything that comes close to the blood and might of the original.

Nonetheless, Tamás had laid down the gauntlet. And I took it up. During my last months living in Hungary, in spring 1989, I worked in another theatre in the North East, in the hard industrial city of Miskolc. It was not a happy time – I got very sick whilst I was there, and was lonely. The actors themselves seemed unhappy. But one colleague taught me this little jewel, and I have never forgotten it: ‘A semmi ágán ül szívem/kis teste hangtalan vacog,/köréje gyűlnek szelíden/s nézik, nézik a csillagok’ (‘On a branch of nothingness sits my heart/ its little body silently trembles/ gathering gently in a circle around me/and watching, watching are the stars.’ From Reménytelenül/Hopelessly by Attila József)

When I next travelled down to Kaposvár, I marched into the theatre bar one day, walked up to Tamás and spoke those precious few lyrics, so carefully learned. The astonishment and delight on his face was compelling. We made an instant connection. I learned in that moment, that real poetry doesn’t just come from a writer’s pen – it flows in people’s blood.

The dead poet – and his living exponent – did their job well, 25 years ago. For even though I was away from Hungary for over two decades, the effect it had had on me was indelible. In 2009, I finally returned: and it felt like coming home. The air was still sweet and dusty, the people still fierce and loving, the city – Budapest – still ruinous and shabby, still beautiful. I knew now that I had to learn the language properly: learn to read whole poems for myself, not just fragments learned parrot fashion from somebody else’s mouth. And in the past five years – armed with dictionary, imagination and a damned fine Hungarian teacher – I have. What’s more, I have made a working friendship with a contemporary poet, Péter Závada, whose caustic, tender, switched-on lyrics bring back to me the raw thrill I first felt when I heard Attila József being declaimed. Péter is helping me translate his own poems – a vertiginous and exhilarating process. For poetry really, really matters to Hungarians – perhaps because their language is so precious and rare. It seems to speak to their soul: and the Magyar soul is deep.

I go back to Hungary as often as I can these days. And each time two particular gifts are pressed on me by friends before I leave: some new collection of poems or other – and a bottle of home-brewed pálinka. Pálinka is Hungarian hooch – a colourless fruit brandy – and it ranges in strength and purity, depending where you get it from. (The stuff I bring home is usually home brew. Fire water. Taking no prisoners.) All the lovely fruits of the Carpathian Basin go into the mix for this potent brew, whether cherry, plum, pear, apple or apricot. All of it, take my word for it, will blow your head off.

When I taught morning movement classes in Kaposvár back in ’88-’89, we would often end up in the Green Room Bar after our exertions. Champagne (cheap Russian fizz) and red wine were a popular combination. But the pálinka chaser was never far away either. These days the drinking is rather more measured among my older and wiser (?) companions, but I notice that the young are as keen as ever on pálinka, such a slinky and potent national brew.

On a recent trip down Memory Lane, I got my friend István to take me for a drive into the countryside to find a tiny village called Nagycseppely, south of Lake Balaton in South West Hungary. Powerful in my memory is this gorgeous rural spot, where I stayed one summer in a small yellow cottage with friends – who introduced me to Miklós, the local Roma scallywag, with unmatched eyes and a wild way with his horse and trap. Miklós brewed pálinka – and there was a village distillery too, positively overflowing with the stuff. All illicit, undoubtedly. Burning the brains of the villagers – who spoiled me rotten with their hospitality, their wonderful food and proud customs. And who never took no for an answer when the glasses were being re-filled.

It’s all so different now: another country entirely (although the hospitality is undiminished), where the strangely familial control of communism has given way to a wolfish capitalism where everything can be bought (including freedom) at a higher and higher price. As I drove through Nagycseppely in 2013 with István, the village I knew from 1989 was unrecognisable to me – with barred gates, concrete drives and newly built mini-mansions, where there used to be one-floor cottages, dirt tracks and chickens. But the pálinka house is still there – no longer a naughty little shebeen, but now a fancy big business, complete with advertising placards, an official licence, and plenty of gaudy lights to attract the tourists. Whatever strange changes come to Hungary – and there have been so many in its turbulent and bloody history – it seems there are two things they just won’t do without. The poems. The pálinka. And thank goodness for that.

Péter Závada performs his poem ‘Concave’ here:

Tamás Jordán channels Attila József here: