'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 5, Part 3.

  • 8 Jun 2023 8:41 AM
'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 5, Part 3.
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 3 – An accident avoided; John’s arrival

Attila rang and invited us all to go on a horse and cart ride in the countryside just on the outskirts of Budapest. He was planning to take groups of German tourists for an authentic Hungarian gulyás to be cooked in the middle of the fields and woods, and was now ready to do a dry run before taking his first group.

I could imagine no more pleasant way of spending a warm spring afternoon than being gently jogged along on a horse drawn cart, but both Paul and Danielle were against it.

‘I don't think you'd better come,’ said Danielle, ‘What happens if you go into labour or something?’

‘Oh, come off it!’ I protested, ‘I'm fine, nothing will happen!’

But Paul shook his head. ‘No, we can all stay at home if you don't want to feel left out, but you're not going on any horse ride.’

I did not at all mind staying at home alone, I would practise the cello, read, but I would have liked the cart ride.

‘No, you go, it'll be fun; I'll do some cello practice, I haven't done any for ages.’

It was arranged for the following morning and Attila assured me that Paul and Danielle would be back at four or five o'clock in the afternoon. As it happened, I spent a lazy day because Cili, who bumped into Paul and Danielle on their way out, insisted I go and have lunch with her, and that included the remainder of the afternoon. Laci came back from work at around five and I went back home to get the meal ready for Paul and Danielle.

The hours passed: seven, eight o'clock and no sign. The phone rang. It was Attila's wife Anna, to say that there had been a delay and they would be home soon, but she was either unwilling or unable to give me any further details.

At a quarter-to-nine I heard the front door open. I walked out of the sitting-room into the hall.

‘So, what happened?’ I asked.

Danielle groaned, leaning against the wall with her eyes closed. I turned to Paul.


Paul opened his mouth as though to speak, but hysterical laughter took its place. He could hardly stand; tears of mirth ran down his cheeks as he staggered into the room. Danielle had not moved.

‘Tell me what happened!’ I said, starting to laugh myself. It took a long time before Paul was able to speak comprehensibly.

The trip had started well. There were in fact two carts, the one they had travelled in being covered like a wagon and packed with food, drink and cooking utensils.

The horses were a bit frisky, but Paul said that the first part of the trip was uneventful. The carts made their way along the village street to the edge of the wood where an unmade track led down through the trees.

The rain of the previous week had dried leaving deep ruts in the mud where other carts had passed through. A few other people had joined the outing and were travelling in the first, open cart, Paul and Danielle behind.

Their wagon was forced to make a short, unscheduled stop when one of the horses' feeding buckets fell off.

The other cart slowly continued down to the bottom of the path and out of sight around a corner and into an open field. Having remounted, the driver hurried the horses along to catch up with the others. It was at this point that things began to get out of control.

The horses were, it seemed, just waiting for this kind of encouragement, and thoroughly bored with their unaccustomed load to pull, took off at speed down the track.

The cart wheels were caught in the ruts, and try as he might, the driver was completely unable to slow the animals down. As they hurtled in a cloud of dust towards the sharp bend at the bottom of the hill, the horses dramatically parted company from the cart.

They successfully negotiated the turn, but the cart was flung sharply over to one side, catapulting its unsuspecting passengers and the food over the hedge and into the neighbouring field.

Bruised, dazed and breathless, Paul and Danielle found themselves sitting among a heap of cooking pans, onions and broken eggs, the cart in the hedge, and the horses nowhere to be seen.

Horse and cart accident  Courtesy Fortepan/ Tamás Urbán

Danielle, never having been designed for anything more athletic than a short run to catch a bus, gingerly picked herself up and dusted herself down.

Having reassured herself that she had not sustained any permanent injuries, she began to look for her handbag and glasses on the ground. The other people came running back along the track and managed to right the cart, their driver had already caught the two runaway horses.

Attila was full of apologies. No, these horses had never actually pulled a cart before, but they were usually reliable. Danielle was not amused. She was as yet unconvinced that she would be able to give her recital two days later.

Attila decided that they should go ahead with the cooking and Paul sat, bursting into laughter every few minutes as he gazed at Danielle looking dazed and dishevelled and recalled their dramatic flight into the field.

The gulyás was duly cooked and eaten, the horses once more tethered to the carts and the convoy moved off.

The carts emerged from the fields and woods out onto the road near the bottom of the hill leading back up into the village. But the horses were playing up again.

Danielle prepared to abandon the cart and walk, but the driver persuaded her that everything would be alright. Yet no matter how he encouraged them, how he cracked his whip, they steadfastly refused to go up the hill.

Then, making a sudden decision, the driver turned the cart around, shouting at the horses, and galloped them down the hill. In the middle of the road was a small green with bushes.

They shot around it at top speed so that before the horses realised what was happening, they were heading back up the hill. The sheer velocity at which they were travelling lifted Danielle off her wooden seat.

With one hand she clutched at her glasses, with the other she grasped the seat, and lacking a third she watched helplessly as her handbag bounced to the back of the cart. She was too shocked to utter a sound as they hurtled through the village, before coming to an abrupt standstill further on.

It was not until the following morning that she felt up to speaking on the subject, and it was days before Paul could stop himself laughing at odd moments whenever he looked at Danielle. And I was forced to admit what a good thing it was I had agreed to stay at home.

As April came and went, I had to go for more regular check-ups at the hospital. I was lucky; the Railway Workers' Hospital was on the same block where we lived. The baby was due on the 2nd of May, and on the 1st I had a phone call from Geoff.

He was going to the Mayday parade and wanted to know if I was interested in going too. It was a beautiful day, and I was more than willing.

We joined the seething mass of people carrying balloons and flags and headed for the middle of the park where hundreds of stalls sold everything from leather belts to pancakes and from silver jewellery to western-made bars of chocolate.

May 1st celebrations   Courtesy Fortepan/ Gyula Nagy

‘Don't do that!’ Geoff shouted at me as I jumped down from a low wall onto the path by the lake, ‘You're not to have him for another four days yet!’

The next day I had another quick check-up and then I went off to hear an English pianist friend give a recital. I felt relaxed and happy. The following two days dragged by - I had not planned anything and now I just wanted to have the baby.

I had partly packed my bag but without any sense of urgency: ‘There's no need to rush at the first sign,’ my doctor had said, ‘a first birth is usually ten hours or so, and you live next door.’

It was May 5th; it did not look as though I could fulfil my promise to Geoff after all. We went to bed at eleven o’clock; I tossed and turned as usual, looking forward to when I would once again be able to fall asleep on my stomach.

Shortly after midnight I awoke to find the bed swimming with water. I got up, startled. I sat on a chair. Was this it? How could it be that I felt no contractions? I woke Paul. He jumped out of bed and began pulling on his clothes.

‘Let's go!’ he said.

‘But I can't feel anything, I don't think we need to rush.’

He sat back down on the bed.

‘Do you think there's time for me to make a pot of tea?’ he asked hopefully.

‘Why not?’ I answered.

Paul made the tea and brought it into the bedroom on a tray. We sat and chatted while Paul found the book on childbirth he had promised the doctor to read as a condition of being allowed to attend the birth. But before he could look up the relevant passage, I felt a strong squeeze which took my breath away. Another followed quickly.

‘Shall we go now?’ Paul asked noticing my change of demeanour.

‘I don't think I can walk,’ I gasped. I glanced at the clock, almost one o'clock.

‘I'll get a taxi,’ he replied, making for the door.

I smiled. I wondered what the driver's reaction would be to driving me just around the block. Paul ran along Dózsa György út to the taxi rank on Heroes' Square.

Learn Hungarian had not prepared him for this particular turn of events. There was only one car there, its driver snoozing peacefully. Paul ran up and knocked on the window.

Taxi rank (far right) close to our flat Courtesy Fortepan/ Tamás Urbán

‘There's a birth!’ he yelled dramatically.

The poor driver, as if awaking to a dream called, ‘Where?’

Paul explained and they drove the few yards back along Dózsa György út to our house.

I had managed to throw a few more things into my bag and was half-dressed. Paul helped me with my socks and shoes and we headed for the front door. A light shone from around Cili's doorway and a moment later she appeared in a dressing gown.

‘Good luck!’ she said as we walked slowly down the stairs, ‘I won't be able to get to sleep now!’

Side entrance to the hospital

The taxi driver took us around the corner to the side entrance of the hospital. ‘All the best!’ he said patting Paul on the shoulder. I felt alright as long as I stood still during a contraction.

We made our way up the dimly-lit stone steps to the first floor, and knocked on the door. I handed my papers over to the nurse.

‘What has happened so far?’ she asked me.

‘The waters broke at midnight,’ I replied.

She took a sheet of paper and put it into an ancient typewriter. Glancing at the clock I saw it was one-twenty.

‘Alright, put these clothes on,’ she said, handing me a white nightdress-like garment.

Another nurse came in and examined me.

She took my notes and then said, ‘When did the waters break?’

‘At midnight.’

‘And you felt nothing before that?’

‘I was asleep,’ I said.

‘Well, we'll be lucky if the doctor gets here before this baby is born,’ she said. ‘Is your husband staying?’

‘Yes,’ I replied.

She picked up the phone and rang my doctor.

‘Okay, come this way,’ she said to us both.

As we approached the labour rooms I heard frantic screaming and doctors' voices urging calm and more pushing. Good God, I thought, this is really it.

 I was taken into the room next door but soon became oblivious of the tortured screams as I fought to concentrate on the breathing exercises I had practised, and I watched the two nurses going in turn to the window to see if my doctor was coming.

After that, time stood still. Later, I had vague memories of seeing the doctor's face smiling as he came into the room, apparently at two o'clock, and before half past two John was there, a screaming bundle of red and pink.

As I lay, tired and unbelieving I heard Paul say, ‘Well, that's not what they said in the book!’

The doctor laughed. ‘I'll come and see you later this morning; you try and get some sleep.’

Paul stayed a while and after he had gone I was wheeled to the ward. The other five inmates were asleep; it was dawn. I was put in the bed next to the windows.

There was a door leading out onto the long veranda which looked out over a large yard full of trees, on the other side of which stood our house.

The sun was just coming up orange and pink through the branches, and the birds were singing loudly, ecstatically, as I surely felt they should.

Newborn babies in neonatal ward Courtesy Fortepan/ Semmelweiss Egyetem Levéltárara

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo:  Horse carriage outing - Courtesy Fortepan/ FŐFOTÓ

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