'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 3, Part 12.

  • 22 Feb 2023 6:06 PM
'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 3, Part 12.
Marion Merrick’s books are the only first-hand account written by a westerner of what it was like to live and work in communist Hungary, and then in the aftermath of the 1989 change of regime.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t and House of Cards have been included as part of the Open Society Archive dedicated to this period in the CEU. You can read a serialisation of them here on Xpatloop. You can also buy the dual-volume book on Kindle as well as in Stanfords London.

Chapter three:  Market and May Day: Garay tér

Part 12 – 1978 flashback: A narrow escape

Mrs H. was delighted with the presents, and the clothes fitted. My two weeks with Paul passed in visiting museums, going to concerts, and a memorable trip to the cathedral in Esztergom, the day when winter's snows melted in an upsurge of sixteen degrees of spring sunshine.

Once or twice we met Miklós and went out for a meal. We were both amazed at the cheapness and quality both of restaurants and supermarket food. We bought large numbers of classical records, books and sheet music and had practically no money left the day before we were to leave.

That morning, a Friday, we awoke with no other plan than going to Miklós's and Rézi's house for a meal in the evening. Mrs H. had already left for work at seven o'clock as usual, but had left a note in the kitchen beside our breakfast.

It looked like a bill: itemised were eight weeks' food for Paul and two weeks' for myself. The total far exceeded any realistic calculation of what two weeks' food could have cost, even if we had eaten in restaurants for the entire duration.

Nowhere were the purchases from England mentioned. A further large sum had been added for telephone calls we had simply not made. We rang Miklós who soon came round and rang Mrs H. at work. He began trying to explain the absurdity of her demands, but she hung up. It was then we learnt that their antipathy to one another was mutual. Miklós told us not to worry, but to bring the 'bill' with us that evening.

The couple lived with her parents in a leafy area of Buda. Rézi had cooked a wonderful meal and they gave us a beautifully illustrated book on the history of Hungary as a parting present. Finally, Miklós wrote a note for us by way of reply to what Mrs H. had left us, telling her she should be more than satisfied with the things I had brought since, even if she had been able to buy them in Hungary, they would have cost several times the amount on her bill.

Mrs H. was asleep when we returned, so we left the note in the kitchen and went to bed. At six o'clock the following morning our door was flung open and Mrs H. stormed into the room. She was screaming and brandishing the note above her head.

In the heat of the moment, she abandoned all but her native Hungarian, but the cause of her hysteria was not difficult to guess. Two doors led into our bedroom and she continued to run in through one and out of the other, screaming all the time.

Then suddenly, something caught her eye and she made a lunge for the table in our room. It was my keys. She obviously had thoughts of locking us in the flat. I jumped out of bed and snatched the keys before she could reach them. She ran from our room and began to make a telephone call.

We got dressed quickly and packed the last of our belongings but had no idea what to do next. I looked carefully through the open door into the sitting room. She was not there. We decided to risk a call to Miklós. ‘Miklós? Thank God. She's gone mad about your note. She tried to take away our keys. Can't you try and talk to her?’

‘I'll try, but I'm not optimistic,’ came the reply.

Mrs H. reappeared. I handed the receiver to her. She said a few words and then handed the phone back. ‘It's no good,’ Miklós told us, ‘she won't discuss it at all. I'll go to the office that rented the room for you and try to sort things out. Will you be alright?’

‘We'll manage,’ I replied. ‘Our plane leaves at three. Maybe we'll see you before then. Anyway, thanks for your help. Bye.’

Mrs H. approached us again with a copy of the bill she had given us, pointing to the total sum of money she wanted us to pay her. I asked in German, ‘And what about what I brought you?’ She walked off back to the phone, and we adjourned to the kitchen for some breakfast.

Some time and many phone calls later, she came to the kitchen with her bill and started shouting again, threatening to call the police if we did not pay. I told her we had no money left and I would have to ring the embassy to find out which bank was open on a Saturday.

It was a bluff, I had no intention of trying to get to a bank, I merely wanted to ask someone what the best course of action was in the circumstances. She allowed me to ring. ‘Hello, British Embassy?’ I enquired.


I outlined our predicament as briefly as I could. ‘I'm sorry, madam,’ came the smooth reply as I finished, ‘We're closed on Saturdays.’

‘But you can't be closed,’ I shouted. ‘We're likely to be arrested.’

‘Just a minute…’ I waited. The voice returned. ‘We recommend you leave the building as quickly as possible and go to the airport and wait for your plane.’ I thanked him and hung up.

I relayed the call to Paul. ‘Let's pretend we're going to the bank and make a run for it,’ he suggested. We told Mrs H. that we would go to the bank at nine, so a truce ensued during which we carried our cases into the hall and she, still in her nightdress, continued to make phone calls.

We waited until she seemed sufficiently deep in conversation for us to risk making a bolt for it. The only hitch in the plan was that we were on the fifth floor and the lift was not working. We ran out, cases in hand, to hear a shriek of horror behind us and shouts of ‘Rendőrség! Rendőrség! (Police! Police!)

Staircase and lift  Courtesy Wikimedia

It was not easy to carry the heavily laden cases down the stairs at any speed. Mrs H. soon caught up with us and tried to tear my handbag off my shoulder, realising that to take away our tickets and passports would pre-empt our escape.

Having failed in this, she grabbed my suitcase and we wrestled with it until the handle came off and I continued my descent kicking the suitcase ahead of me. By this time, anyone in the building who had not gone to work was standing in their doorway watching in silent disbelief.

Paul was waiting for me on the second floor, but as I reached him, a flat door behind him opened and hands half-beckoned, half-pulled us in. The door was quickly closed behind us.

‘What's wrong?’ asked an elderly woman in perfect English, taking us into the sitting room. We explained the whole story. She was kind, though I felt she did not quite believe it all. ‘How terrible,’ she said.

‘Your first visit to Hungary and you will never want to come back. But how can I help you? Shall I call a taxi for you?’ We consented gratefully. Meanwhile, Mrs H. banged on the front door and shouted in an affected gruff voice, ‘This is the police!’ It was bizarre.

The taxi arrived in the street below, but we had no idea how to get past Mrs H. In the event we found her sitting, still in nightdress and dressing-gown, on the stairs outside. She followed us meekly out into the street, but as we got into the taxi she once again produced her bill and indicated that she wanted Paul's signature on it as an acknowledgement that he owed the money.

He wrote a capital P. and M. followed by a scribble. She scoffed, and showed it to the bemused taxi driver asking, ‘That's not a signature, is it?’

He shrugged and revved his engine. ‘I'm going to the office to check your signature, and if it's no good I'm coming after you to the airport,’ she threatened as she allowed the taxi to leave. 

Főtaxi  Courtesy Fortepan/ Péter Karabályos

We had an anxious five-hour wait at the airport before the departure of our flight. Once back in England Miklós rang to say that Mrs H. had been to the office and complained that Paul hit her, but that they had believed his and our story, and would never again send anyone there.

And now here I stood once more, practically outside her front door. I wondered if we would recognise one another if we did meet, and what her reaction might be. I did not wait to find out.

Click here for earlier extracts

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