'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 5, Part 6.

  • 29 Jun 2023 8:58 AM
'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 5, Part 6.
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 6 – A surprise visit; more demonstrations

At the beginning of July we moved out to where we were to house-sit on the very edge of Buda. In fact, on the city map the road was the last in that direction. To describe it as a road would be an exaggeration: it was no more than some steep steps leading down a hillside beyond which lay a deeply-wooded valley.

We had visited Marcsi and Gyula a few days prior to their departure for Greece to learn the ins and outs of locking up, the dog-feeding routine and the plants to be watered.

We did not plan to go anywhere or do anything in particular - it was extremely hot and a great relief to be out of the stifling city. In addition, I had just had the fact confirmed that I was pregnant, and I felt like sleeping at every available opportunity.

It was during the peaceful days we spent here that I first conceived of the idea of writing a book, though I was unsure how to set about organising the multitude of memories and impressions of the previous years.

Our plan had been to stay in the house for the entire month of July, but in the event this proved impossible.

Emerging from the bathroom one evening Paul said, ‘I think there's something wrong with the plumbing - I can hear the sound of rushing water from behind the bathroom wall, it could be a burst pipe.’

‘Does it matter much?’ I asked in my usual impractical way.

Paul looked heavenwards.

‘The whole wall could come down - just go and listen, it sounds like a waterfall. I'll have to find the mains tap,’ and so saying he disappeared out of the kitchen door and outside.

I walked into the bathroom. It was exactly as he had described. However, in the dark outside, our search to locate the tap proved fruitless.

‘Why don't we try the neighbours, maybe they can help?’ I suggested.

Paul walked up the few steps as far as the gate of the nearest house. He returned alone a few minutes later.

‘Let's say they weren't very enthusiastic about the idea,’ he told me.

‘You mean they wouldn't even come and look?’ I asked in surprise.

Paul shook his head. This was not a response we had encountered from neighbours in any of the five flats we had thus far rented, and it seemed to me that attitudes more prevalent in the west of keeping oneself to oneself, and leaving others to their own troubles, had reached the more affluent corners of Hungary too. We walked back into the house and debated what to do next.

‘Why don't we try Tamás?’ I said, having discounted a whole list of friends who either had no phone or were on holiday. ‘He knows so many people, maybe he can give us the telephone number of a plumber.’

Paul reached into the basket with coins for the phone and headed back outside. He returned after some minutes saying that Tamás had asked him to ring back half an hour later, by which time he hoped to have contacted someone who could help us.

When Paul rang again it transpired that Tamás had enlisted the help of two of his cousins, one of whom - Laci - had attended some of Paul's English lessons at the Music Academy.

They arrived half an hour later, and as it turned out, the task of switching off the water proved far simpler than that of having found their way to the house. Paul's suspicions were confirmed: there was indeed a burst pipe, and the only immediate course of action was to switch the water off at the mains.

Inevitably, this meant we would have to leave. Laci told us not to worry, that among the many members of his and Tamás's families someone would find us somewhere to go. He arranged to meet Paul the following day in the Music Academy library to discuss the possibilities.

Paul went the next morning as planned, while John and I spent most of the day on the shady terrace outside the kitchen, playing with the dog and trying to entice the family of cats down from the steep embankment that rose up behind the house.

It was very peaceful there, the only sound was the wind as it rustled through the swaying sea of trees all around.

The balmy nights were filled with the sound of crickets, like the backdrop to a film about Africa, and if I climbed to the top of the steps beside the house I could see the city spread out before me, the dark plain of Pest, and the even darker hills of Buda, a million lights twinkling far below; and in the distance there was always the lone barking of a dog, somewhere further down the hillside, who was, however, unable to disturb the deep peace of the sleeping gardens, and the still deeper silence of the wooded valley.

John, dog-sitting

When Paul returned from the Academy, it was with some unexpected news. He had met Laci as arranged, but while they were considering the various options of where we could go, they were overheard by someone who had come to return a book to the library.

This was János, the conductor of the Tomkins choir who sang, among other things, English madrigals. Paul had often helped them with their pronunciation prior to a concert.

On learning the gist of the situation János immediately insisted that we go and stay in his flat, since he was travelling to Lake Balaton the next day with his wife and three children, and they would be away for a month. We contacted Marcsi's parents and related the situation to them, and they agreed to come and water the plants and feed the dog.

Thus it was, that we moved back into the heart of the city, into the very street in which the Music Academy stands. The flat was huge, larger than any I had so far been in, though it was stiflingly hot. I went out early in the morning to do the shopping, we ate salads and fruit which avoided my having to stand over a hot stove, and only in the evening did we venture out to the city park with John to stroll around the lake and feed the ducks.

One evening as we were preparing to leave, there was a ring at the door. I heard Paul shout in enthusiastic surprise as he saw who was there: Laurence.

‘At last I've found you!’ he said, walking in. ‘I've been to Ági and Kazi's who told me you were in the wilds of Buda somewhere. I found my way halfway there, but then I had to get a taxi and even he had no idea where he was going. And once I'd found the house an old lady watering the flowers in the garden told me you were here!’

Paul took Laurence into the sitting room while I went down into Liszt Ferenc tér with John to buy some ice-cream from the cukrászda. When we got back, and as I put my key in the lock, I could hear music.

Laurence was seated at the grand piano which dominated the sitting-room, illustrating something to Paul, who was seated close by. They stopped to eat the ice-cream, after which Laurence insisted on helping bathe John and put him to bed.

We then resumed our seats around the piano while he entertained us with stories about his new life in London working for Andrew Lloyd Webber. His job was what had brought him to Budapest: he was now responsible for travelling to cities where any Lloyd Webber productions were being performed, and ascertaining their quality.

If he was unsatisfied, he was supposed to take rehearsals to improve the standard. In Budapest he had come to watch the production of Cats which he had found perfectly satisfactory.

1980s poster for ‘Cats’ in Hungary

We saw Laurence several more times during his short stay, and together we trekked out to a remote part of Buda where Margó and István, with whom we had all travelled to England two years previously, had just bought a plot of land and were laying the foundations for a new house.

The days passed, hot and still, the city shrouded in a heat haze you could plainly see if you were up in the hills.

Tamás's cousin Laci had called in to say that if we had nowhere to go for the last part of August, we were welcome to stay with himself and his new wife Rita, in the village of Sárisáp, some thirty kilometres outside Budapest where Rita was the doctor at the local agricultural co-operative.

We enthusiastically welcomed an opportunity to escape the oppressive city heat, and in the evening of the day that János returned from Lake Balaton, we were driven out to Sárisáp. Village life was quiet and uneventful, and we passed the week sitting lazily in the garden, playing with John, and reading. The only surprising thing we learnt about Sárisáp was that there was no refuse collection, and that the local people dumped all their rubbish on a tip alongside the main road out of the village.

We knew Ági and Kazi were returning to Brussels before the end of the month, in good time for the new school term, so at the end of August, with already a tinge of autumn mist in the air, we returned to Budapest.

It seemed that all Hungarians, like us, having abandoned their capital city for the months of July and August, were now refreshed and ready to resume life where they had left off in June, and thus September began with another demonstration.

This time it was against the building of a huge hydroelectric dam on the Danube which, it was said, would do great environmental damage. It was also in September that large numbers of Hungarians who had been executed in the aftermath of the '56 revolution (along with Imre Nagy) were rehabilitated.

“Vote for the Danube” – protest against building a dam

Late in September Paul resumed working at the Academy. I began to teach the two children's groups once again, and to mark translations for the state language examination centre. I had been back to my doctor at the Railway Workers' Hospital and told I was fit and well. Marina also wanted to keep an eye on me, and after doing a scan, she told me that the baby was probably a girl.

As autumn passed into winter rumours began predicting price-rises which would double or treble the cost of goods. Wild speculation grew out of a more general consensus that 1989 would mark a dramatic change in Hungary's politics and economy.

I was, however, totally unprepared for what I saw. In an unprecedented spending spree people were buying two and three televisions, fridges, hi-fis, merely to put their savings into a commodity they could sell in the new year.

Shops became a wasteland of empty shelves and denuded stockrooms.

On December 30th I went to the Lehel tér market where I had shopped almost daily in our Szinyei utca days. As I stepped off the tram and walked into the area of the huge market place, all I could see were small clusters of stall-holders, deeply engrossed in conversation, their completely stripped stalls behind them. I looked about me in sheer amazement - there was no food of any description anywhere.

Last days of the market at Lehel Square

In January new laws were passed on the right of assembly and the formation of new political parties: there could be no doubt as to where all this was leading.

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo:  The Danube Circle (Dunakör) environmental group forms to oppose the building of a dam on the Danube

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