'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 5, Part 2.

  • 30 May 2023 1:13 PM
'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 5, Part 2.
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 Five: Children and Change

Part 2 – Coffee shortages; changing telephone numbers; hospital and embassy visits

Cili popped in the same day, pleased to see us back.

‘I've got the letter about my exam,’ she said, ‘it's at the end of the month.’

‘Well, we can start today,’ I replied.

She smiled.

‘By the way, our telephone number's been changed,’ she continued, telling me the new one. ‘There's one problem though. The Post Office has given us the same number as the Hajdú washing machine repair shop, so every second call is from someone who wants their washing machine repaired.’

‘Another service from the Post Office,’ I mused to myself.

I spent the afternoon ringing those people I could, to tell them of our new number. One of my calls was to Marina, my doctor, who was keen to see me. We arranged that I should go the following afternoon for a check-up. Public transport was still erratic, so I decided to go by taxi. As we reached the centre of the town, however, I saw that all the traffic lights were switched off and a long queue of cars stretched in front of us. My taxi driver began to chat about the weather and the problems it had caused him, while I hoped I would still get to Marina on time.

‘What's going on?’ I asked him after some five minutes had passed.

‘Oh, it's probably one of our friends or relatives,’ he replied - referring to the politicians of neighbouring countries - ‘they’re always coming and going.’

At that moment a cavalcade of shiny, black Mercedes cars bearing the red flag of the Soviet Union swept past.

‘Well, they don't go much,’ he added meaningfully.

As we crossed Margit híd I caught my breath again at the beauty of the view. The words of a Zoran song came to my mind: Az én városom tudod, két részből áll... (You know, my city has two parts); and I thought: yes, this is my city now. I loved its hills, its dark back streets and hidden restaurants, its smells, its courtyards, its trams.

Margaret bridge over the Danube Courtesy Fortepan/FŐFOTÓ

Marina pronounced me to be in excellent health, as I in fact felt. She also did a scan which showed unequivocally that the child was a boy. Having thought of it as a girl for some months, I was glad to have time to readjust the picture of myself with a daughter to that of a son, before the beginning of May when it - or rather he - was due.

The harsh winter weather continued, and the Danube flowed slowly, a thick syrup with huge ice floes like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle being carried downstream.

I continued with my private students and taught a few classes at the journalists' school to fill in for someone who was ill. It was always interesting to hear the stories behind the stories and to get advance information about political happenings. On one such visit I ran into the small tobacconist's opposite the journalist's school, hoping to be able to buy some coffee which had completely disappeared from the shops. I was, however, out of luck.

‘So, where's all the coffee gone?’ I demanded of my students when I got into the room.

‘Don't worry,’ one of them replied. ‘It'll be back in the shops in the next few days. They're obviously going to put the price up, so they stop supplies for a bit so that everyone's desperate, then when it comes back into the shops people are so relieved that they don't complain whatever it costs.’

Cili and I were having one of our last practices for her oral exam when I had a surprise visit from Geoff. He had been conscripted into the army for a year the previous autumn, and very rarely got any time at home. His camp was in Lenti, in the south-west of Hungary.

We hugged each other then he stood back and looked at me, ‘Good, now I can actually see you're pregnant,’ he said.

‘It's going to be a boy,’ I replied.

‘Well, couldn't you have him on my birthday, on the 5th?’ he asked.

‘I'll try,’ I promised, smiling.

‘I should be on leave for a few days then, what with May Day,’ he added.

I asked him about what it was like in the army but he refused to be drawn, it was obviously something he wanted to forget for the short time he was away.

The doorbell rang. It was Laurence. Geoff was as pleased to see him as I was. He walked straight into the sitting room peeling off layers of clothes and leaving small, melting puddles of snow where he stood. He made for a small table in the corner and automatically began to fiddle with the lamp next to the phone.

‘So, what have you been up to since we last saw you?’ I asked him.

He shook his head with an exaggerated look of despair.

‘Look at this,’ he said, thrusting a small newspaper cutting into my hands. ‘My mum seems to think I should go back to the Motherland and do a proper job.’

I began to laugh.

‘But this is an advertisement for a trombonist in the BBC symphony orchestra!’

‘Yes, I know,’ he said, agitatedly pulling at the wire of the lamp. ‘Anything that mentions music and she sends it; I don't even want to go back,’ he said finally detaching the shade of the lamp from its base which went crashing to the floor.

He carefully placed the base next to the shade on the table and began to pace up and down. At that moment Paul arrived home with a four-hand version of Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh, and together with Laurence they lost themselves in a frantic rendering of the Sabre Dance, while Geoff and I fell about laughing at their mad attempts to keep up the hysterical tempo.

It was at about this time that I finally allowed myself to be persuaded to make a visit to the British embassy to discuss the future nationality of my unborn baby. Various English people had told me that to assume he would automatically be granted British citizenship was folly. 

Thus, I approached one of the immaculately dressed women seated in the quiet, carpeted consular section of the embassy. Having requested an audience with the consul and filled in the appropriate forms, I was asked to wait. A few minutes later a grey-haired, bespectacled man in his late fifties appeared from behind one of the glass windows and called my name.

It transpired after some ten minutes' questioning that my son could indeed have a British passport, but if he were to marry someone who was not British, their child - even if born in Britain - would have to apply for citizenship. I considered a moment.

‘Do you mean to say then, that there is no really good reason for me to travel to England to have this baby?’ I asked him.

For a few seconds he said nothing. Then, leaning forward in his seat and looking me straight in the eye over the rim of his glasses he said, ‘Tell me - have you ever been in a Hungarian hospital?’

Hungarian Railway Workers’ Hospital

The winter snows melted, and people began their annual look-out for the first signs of spring's approach. Danielle was due to visit at the end of March and would be giving a recital in the Austrian cultural attaché's residence.

Shortly before Danielle's arrival, at one of my check-ups with Marina, she told me that she would have to be in Armenia at the beginning of May. I was very disappointed; I trusted her and felt confident and relaxed about giving birth with her help. But as she pointed out, there was no possibility of Paul being present at the birth at her hospital.

This was a new concept in Hungary, in fact Marina herself found the idea strange. She told me that she had already spoken to the consultant at the Railway Workers' Hospital, who had worked in England for four years, and he was willing to take me on as his patient. This was the only Obstetrics department in the country where fathers could be present.

I agreed to go and see him the following week. In the event he was friendly, spoke excellent English and reassured us that I was very healthy and he anticipated no problems, dismissing me with the words, ‘Go away and enjoy yourself.’

I did. Danielle arrived and we spent our time going for walks, chatting in my favourite café, the Müvész, and going to concerts and museums. And I sat lazily listening to her play through her recital programme at the Austrian cultural attaché's residence, with the windows open to the warm spring breeze and the birdsong outside.

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo:  A delegation arrives - Courtesy Fortepan/ Magyar Rendőr

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