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

  • 27 Nov 2023 12:41 PM
An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 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.

Book Two, Chapter two: First Cracks
Part 5 – rodent problems; translation challenges

Back at home, we had problems of our own. Tamás’s brother, who had originally stated that he had no intention of ever living in the flat we were renting from him, was now telephoning every few weeks to enquire how long we were intending to stay. At the same time, it seemed possible that we had mice in our flat.

A combination of finding what looked like mouse droppings in the larder, and small pieces of silver paper off a chocolate bar in the kitchen had alerted us. These suspicions were later confirmed when Paul caught sight of something running along the kitchen worktop late at night. Then I remembered having seen a movement near the plants the first night I visited Éva, and decided to ask the caretaker if he knew anything.

‘Someone’s probably let their pet hamster out,’ he said, smiling indulgently at me. ‘Mice in a block of flats? Cockroaches, maybe. On the ninth floor?’ He shook his head and continued heaving the bins to the rubbish chute. I asked Évi and Feri.

‘Well,’ said Évi, with some embarrassment, ‘yes, I think we’ve got them too.’

I told the caretaker. This time he just shook his head. ‘When you’ve caught your mouse come and show me.’

A few days later, teaching Éva’s group next door, I had an idea. Éva’s brother-in-law was the only non-medic in the group, a graphic artist. He had illustrated countless books in his inimitable, instantly recognisable style. Now, however, in a dawning age of pulp fiction and cheap printing, he had become all but unemployed.

As I explained to the doctors before me the meaning of the idioms they so loved – to have butterflies, a bull in a china shop, a golden handshake – I could see Pista out of the corner of my eye, sketching amusing representations of each one.

Engel Teván István: Képes angol szólásszótár

‘Pista! Could you draw me a poster?’ I asked. In no time I had a large, mouse-shaped poster on which I appealed to any other residents with rodents to come forward so we could solve our common problem. It turned out that they were all on the ninth and tenth floors – Feri discovered that where water and gas pipes came through into our flats from the metal cupboards that lined the corridors, the holes were twice as large as the pipes themselves, and the mice were using this route to enter the flats and obtain food. Feri laid traps, and plastered all the gaps surrounding the pipes, and so we managed to get rid of them.

Another problem was not going to be solved so easily. Our Libyan neighbours, while causing us not the least concern, were heading for a nasty confrontation with the family living beneath them on the eighth floor. The husband, having realised we were English and could therefore communicate with Suli, used us to interpret for him.

The recurring problem seemed to be that they were flooding their bathroom and water was running through the ceiling and down the walls of the flat below. Once, he had taken me down to see for myself the latest patches oozing behind the already stained wallpaper and threatening to seep into the built-in wardrobes.

‘Tell them this is a civilised country! Tell them to go back home if they want to live like animals!’ I did not. Suli denied everything, while refusing to let us enter his flat; his neighbour could not be appeased, and I realised that the role of interpreter involved far more than my mere translating abilities.

It was February and Hannah was one. She was still placid and sunny-natured, sleeping well and now crawling. She could already say five words intelligibly at ten months, though the most important – the first one she had spoken – continued to be ‘John’.

Leaving for Lingua one afternoon, I called at Éva’s to confirm the time for her group’s lesson.

‘Come on in,’ said Éva. ‘Won’t you have some tea?’

‘No, I’m teaching in half an hour,’ I said. I noticed that she looked uncharacteristically shabby, dirty even. ‘Are you cleaning?’

‘Come and see,’ she said, leading me into one of the two smaller rooms.

There, piled high on every available chair and on the divan, and balancing in unsteady stacks on the floor, were literally hundreds of magazines and newspapers she had bought over the previous year.

The 90s saw an explosion of new printed matter  Courtesy Fortpan/ HMSZ

‘I just haven’t thrown any of them away,’ she said. ‘Every one has some interesting article in it, but I hadn’t realised I’d accumulated quite so many.’ I smiled, thinking back just a year to a time when, if you read a paper it was one of three or four government organs – broadsheets, of strictly censored content.

If you read a book, it was by definition literature, since pulp fiction no more existed than did the tabloid press. Though Éva was a particularly avid reader, I imagined her reaction to this change was far from untypical of Hungarians, and like a child allowed the free run of a sweetshop, she had been systematically gorging herself for the previous months.

I left Éva with her papers and headed down in the lift. Dusk was falling, and I was surprised to see an unshaven, elderly man I had first noticed the previous summer, now bundled up in blankets in his wheelchair alongside the path. He had not been there since the autumn, but the relative mildness of the day and a few weak rays of February sunshine had obviously tempted him outside. His transistor radio was resting in his white, fleshy hands, a yellowing wire leading to the earpiece on the left side of his head. As he saw me approach he pulled the device from his ear and turned to face me.

You’re new here, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, we moved in last August,’ I replied.

He looked at me quizzically. ‘You’re not Hungarian, are you?’ I shook my head. ‘Where are you from?’

‘What do you think?’ I challenged.

It did not take him long to guess. He had a good ear and had soon identified the idiosyncrasies of my pronunciation. Satisfied with who I was, he introduced himself as Gyuri-bácsi, sometime journalist and passionate music lover, who spent his days reading and listening to the classical music station on the radio. As he talked of the metamorphosis which the political changes had brought to journalism, a woman arrived to wheel him back up to his flat.

‘See you again!’ he called as she bumped the wheelchair over the uneven paving slabs. ‘I’m always out unless it’s raining.’

I headed for the underpass at the metro station, where I was to catch my tram. As I glanced at the crowd of people emerging from the terminus of the underground line, there was one figure waving to me. It was Tamás. He greeted me with surprise.

‘What are you doing here?’ he asked.

‘I’m just going to teach at Lingua,’ I said.

‘But I thought you’d moved,’ he said.

‘Moved?’ I echoed. ‘What do you mean?’

‘My brother’s wife told me you were leaving, in fact, I thought you’d already gone.’

I was puzzled and angry. Six months previously we had been told we could stay indefinitely and now we were being urged to leave.

I crossed the expanse of Árpád híd and walked down the gravel path that led to the block which housed Lingua. There was a huge, stone building on my left, the tablets of Moses on its roof declaring it had once been a synagogue, though it was currently being used as a television studio.

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photoOur building: we lived on the ninth floor

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