'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 4, Part 9.

  • 18 May 2023 11:51 AM
'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 4, Part 9.
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 Four:  Courtyard and Characters

Part 9 – Return to Budapest: pregnancy and packing

We spent two days in Paris. I devoted the whole of one of them to finding the French composer, Debussy's grave. It was not as I had presumed, in Père Lachaise with those of other famous artists and musicians, but in a small out-of-the-way cemetery.

We stood in the scorching midday sun and looked at the stark, black marble slab with its movingly simple inscription: Claude Debussy, Musicien Français. I walked over to a nearby grave covered with red geraniums and took one pot. Then placing it on the middle of the tomb I said a silent thank you for the music I had loved more than any other since I was thirteen.

At around midnight on the second day in Paris we began to pack up to leave for the ferry. István was down in the street loading the roof-rack, Margó was checking she had not left anything while Paul and Laurence were chatting about music. Suddenly there was a whistle from the street. Margó went to the open window having recognised the whistle as István's.

‘I've left the car keys up there somewhere, can one of you bring them down?’ he shouted as discretely as he could, not wanting to wake the whole street at that hour.

Laurence, seeing the keys on the bed next to him, stretched out and picked them up. Then, strolling lazily over to the window, he threw them down. It would have been a perfect shot, a good landing, but for the gutter hidden in darkness on the second floor which neatly intercepted the keys.

Margó, Paul and I stood speechless waiting for István's reaction but none came: he was waiting for the arrival of the keys by more orthodox means, and was unaware of the goings-on above him. Laurence seemed to have taken root to the spot. Then suddenly, he sprang to life.

‘It's alright,’ he said, unconvincingly. ‘Margó, you go and tell István there's a slight hitch, while Paul and I go down to the second floor to the room below us and ask them to let us in and get the keys out of the gutter.’ Margó left.

‘You realise they're probably asleep?’ I said to Laurence. He smiled nervously and left the room with Paul. A moment later I followed them downstairs and heard them knocking at first politely, then more insistently. No luck.

‘Maybe there's no-one there,’ I said.

Laurence turned. ‘You two keep trying and I'll see if I can explain the situation to the porter, then he'll probably let us in. What's the word for gutter?’ Laurence asked.

‘No idea,’ said Paul.

‘Just say they're outside the window,’ I said trying to be helpful.

Laurence wandered off practising his French speech. He must have succeeded because he soon returned with the porter who was brandishing a large bunch of keys. He too knocked loudly on the door, but to no avail. He shrugged his shoulders and put a key in the lock, then beckoning to Laurence they walked into the room.

I could see by the lamp light from the street that someone was fast asleep in bed but blissfully oblivious of the intruders. The window was open and the porter waited while Laurence half climbed out and began to grope about in the gutter.

He was lucky - triumphantly he held the keys up so we could see them. I shook my head and smiled. Typical. The porter locked the room again, leaving its silent occupant none the wiser as to his midnight visitors.

Paris  Courtesy Fortepan/ András Mezey

We arrived at Calais shortly after dawn and joined the queue of caravans and cars already waiting at the docks. We shivered in the early morning sea breeze. We spent most of the voyage dozing below deck, but patriotically went up to see the white cliffs of Dover looming towards us as we approached the coast.

Then we guided István to the west of London where he and Margó were to spend a few days with friends of ours, and from where Laurence's father was to pick him up and take him to their home in Wales, dropping us off in Reading en route.

We met both István and Margó and Laurence once during our stay, but we each had friends and families to visit and István his own itinerary to follow. We did get a phone call announcing their safe arrival back in Budapest, though the car had broken down in France somewhere.

We also made arrangements with 'Attila Tours' for three seats on the coach back at the end of August with Laurence. We managed to see most of our friends including Danielle, who herself  had returned from Hungary and was full of stories of a visit she had made to Transylvania just over the border into Romania.

We saw Sue and Steve, now with a second baby boy called Laurie - after Laurence, whom they had met on their visit to us in Budapest. Two weeks passed quickly, and then just a few days before we were due to leave I realised I was pregnant. I went to the local chemist's and bought a do-it-yourself pregnancy test.

The result was positive. We were overjoyed, as was the whole family who had almost given up on grandchildren.

On the morning of our return to Hungary, we had to be in the east of London in a small side street at six in the morning. Luckily, I felt fine, no morning sickness, though our pre-dawn departure would have been enough to bring it on.

Laurence arrived a few minutes after us and on being told of our good news did a balletic pirouette in the middle of the road for joy. We soon realised that we were probably the only non-Hungarians using the coach, the other people lining up already munching salami sandwiches and speaking Hungarian.

A stockily-built man was giving instructions about luggage and seating - he turned out to be the Attila of ‘Attila Tours’, more affectionately known as Leftie. We assumed that this was connected to his political persuasions, but later learnt that he was in fact left-handed!

It was a thirty-hour drive back to Budapest with several changes of driver but no real stop. The coach was comfortable, but it was impossible to sleep. We were seated at the front but at the back the Hungarians were already in party spirit, joking noisily, smoking, laughing, eating, the only temporary lull was when we crossed the Austrian-Hungarian border.

Our friend Attila was waiting at the Hotel Wien in Budapest where the coach terminated its journey, ready to take us home.

János Korház (hospital)   Courtesy Fortepan/ Tamös Urbán

Classes at Lingua began a few days later. We planned to move to our new flat ten days' hence at the end of August, though as yet we had not even begun to pack. I returned from my first day back teaching and realised with alarm that I was losing blood.

I knew a gynaecologist, an Armenian woman called Marina, at St. John's Hospital, and Paul decided to try and phone her and ask her if she could come and see me. He ran out to Mrs. Nagy's flat, the only one with a telephone.

The combination of the noise of the football match on the television in the adjacent room and the crackling of the ancient apparatus made any attempt at a discrete, intimate conversation an impossibility.

As he tried to describe the situation to her he caught the Nagy-es exchange glances. Before they could start to ask questions Paul thanked them and left. Marina had told him I should not get up and she would visit me the following day. It was a great relief to see her kind, smiling face and even more of a relief to hear that the baby was in no imminent danger, though apart from one visit, by taxi, to the hospital, I was condemned to stay in bed for two weeks.

Nothing less than the thought of losing the child I so much wanted would have kept me there - I could not remember having spent a day in bed since childhood. I was hot, I was restless, and we had to pack. I tried to read. I listened to music, but became increasingly fractious.

In the meantime, Paul contacted Miklós and said I would not be able to teach for a while. On his way home he bumped into Harvey who offered to move us in his car. Laurence dropped in and helped pack and finally we were ready to go.

I was fine but not allowed to help. I was still confined to ‘resting’ most of the day. When I emerged from our flat for the first time in two weeks our neighbours were ready to say farewell, and with knowing looks and kindly smiles, to wish me the best of health.

Harvey took me to the new flat first where I watched the gradual arrival of our boxes. Laurence came later in the evening just in time for a plate of the spaghetti Paul had made. We sat in the huge sitting room, surrounded by the antiques and large oil paintings.

‘It's a bit like living in a museum,’ mused Laurence.

‘Well, you're welcome any time - without an entrance ticket,’ laughed Paul, accompanying Laurence to the door outside.


I walked over to the window. It was dusk. Diagonally across the broad avenue of Dózsa György út was the Museum of Fine Arts, and beyond it, Heroes' Square and the City Park. On the other corner were the Botanical Gardens, a part of Budapest Zoo, and immediately opposite us was the Kéményseprő restaurant.

Nothing had changed since our meal there with Endre one summer's evening two years and two flats previously. The same faded green trelliswork surrounded the tables in the garden, while strains of the same music, which always sounded the worse for drink, wafted up from the gypsy musicians playing in the deepening shadows of the small bandstand.

The Kéményseprő restaurant (with our house to the right)

Click here for earlier extracts

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