An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 4.

  • 20 Feb 2024 10:20 AM
An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 4.
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 2, Chapter 4: A First Home
Part 2 – Bribery - Hungarian style!

‘By the way,’ said Paul, when my frustration at the missed opportunity was beginning to abate, ‘the postman called in today with the television licence – it has to be paid every two months. He said we should go to the post office and change the name on it – it’s still in the Ács-es names.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but if we do that they’ll realise the Ács-es have moved, and the next thing will be that they’ll come and take the phone away.’

Although there had been promises of improvement in the availability of telephones, change, if it was happening at all, was slow. If the Post Office were to become aware of the Ács-es departure our phone would be removed and our names added to the bottom of the waiting list.

Liz, an English friend of ours, whose arrival in the 1960s preceded even Caroline’s, had made yearly visits to her local telephone exchange ever since she and her writer husband Imre had moved to their flat in Buda twelve years earlier.

Only recently when we had met for a recording, she related her latest encounter there. On her annual pilgrimage to enquire when they might finally get a phone the answer had been, ‘Well, we can’t tell you when you can have a phone, but we can tell you that you can’t have one this century.’

The Postman Courtesy Fortepan/ Tamás Urbán

So we decided that the best strategy would always be to tip the postman who brought the television licence, ensuring his silence in our conspiracy. The situation also entailed our screening calls from people requesting to speak to the Ács-es, never volunteering the information that they had moved before establishing the identity of the caller.

This we successfully maintained for almost a year, by which time the Ács-es themselves had informed friends and acquaintances of their new number. Having taken possession of a newly-built flat which was supplied with a telephone, they had left their old one for us, though had they wanted it they could have taken both the line and the apparatus itself with them.

Later, however, in a thoughtless moment on receiving a call for Mr. Ács, Paul informed the caller that the Ács-es had moved almost a year previously.

‘I see,’ came the reply. ‘This is the Post Office. Your line was reported out of order this morning and this is just a routine check.’

It was too late to retract what had been said, and we could only hope that the employee checking the line was not too zealous and would not decide to follow it up. But some days later, while engrossed in translation work, Paul received a knock at the door.

‘I’m a telephone engineer from the Post Office,’ said the man clad in blue overalls and carrying a toolbox. ‘Could I see Mrs. Ács?’

Mrs. Ács, the official owner of the apparatus, had died shortly after their move. Paul stalled for time. ‘Um, she’s not here at the moment,’ he said.

‘When will she be back?’

‘I don’t really know.’

‘Are you her husband?’


Silence. ‘Well then, I’ll ring and arrange a time when I can see her,’ he said at last.

Paul realised that the pretence could not be maintained. ‘Look, she’s dead,’ he admitted.

‘And her husband?’

‘Has moved.’

‘Well, I’m afraid then I will have to remove your telephone,’ said the man brightly, happy that the situation was now clear.

‘But is there no alternative, nothing I can do to keep it?’ pleaded Paul, using all the well-worn euphemisms he knew to offer a ‘tip’ – itself a trite term for bribery.

The engineer looked at him closely. ‘You’re not Hungarian, are you?’ he asked.


‘Where are you from?’


‘I don’t believe it!’ said the man. ‘Look, I think we can come to an understanding.’

He put his toolbox on the floor and Paul led him into the sitting room to sit down, wondering what the going rate currently was for such an ‘understanding’.

‘I’m very interested in stone circles,’ began the engineer.

‘Stone circles?’ echoed Paul, wondering if he had heard correctly.

‘Yes, you know, like Stonehenge. I’ve got lots of books about them and I’m planning to cycle to England and Scotland to look at them.’ Paul wondered if this was to be taken seriously. ‘All I’d like you to do for me is to get some O.S. maps of those areas where stone circles are – I can give you a list,’ he added.

‘Maps of stone circles?’ repeated Paul.

‘Yes. Then I can plan my trip, okay? And you keep the phone.’

It seemed as simple as it did absurd, that of all the telephone engineers in Budapest, this stone-circle loving example should have been sent to us. We phoned an English friend who was coming to Hungary and asked if he could procure the desired maps. This turned out to be only the first and easiest stage in a procedure that was to involve more complications than we – and probably the engineer – had anticipated.

It transpired that if the owner of a telephone died, the line could be inherited but was otherwise withdrawn. In this case, the phone being in Mrs. Ács’s name, her husband could inherit it. Paul could therefore only legally be given the phone if he were a relative of Mr. Ács, and if Mr. Ács gave his written permission for Paul to become the inheritor.

Therefore, Paul had first to travel out to the south of the city and explain the situation to Mr. Ács, who was fortunately sympathetic and willing to assist. This in turn involved him in making a photocopy of his wife’s death certificate with which Paul could prove the situation.

Subsequently Mr. Ács would need to give his written consent to Paul inheriting the telephone, but herein lay the problem: only a relative could be the beneficiary. On the advice of a solicitor it was decided that Paul would claim to be the grandson of Mrs. Ács by a previous marriage, the minor flaw being that he was only twenty-five years younger than Mrs. Ács had been – we had to trust in the inefficiency of those dealing with the case to overlook this anomaly.

Three months later, O.S. maps procured, papers signed, and a bottle of Bailey’s handed over with the customary envelope of money, we became the official owners of the line.

Liz later informed us that she had been told that a fee of 50,000 forints was regularly paid merely to be introduced to the person within the Post Office who could then – for a further payment – secure you a phone. There was no doubt about how lucky we had been.

O.S. map of the Stonehenge area

What would definitely not be solved with maps and bottles of alcohol was our legal ownership of the flat.

Officially, one had to record ownership of property to the State Land Registry Office. This entailed a fee of a percentage of the property’s value to be paid in stamp duty.

We were faced with two problems: firstly, that we had not a forint left even to buy furniture, and second that as foreign nationals, albeit with permanent resident’s permits, our status in terms of owning a Hungarian property was still unclear.

We had no wish, especially in view of the unorthodox way we had managed to pay for the flat, to draw attention to ourselves, and so it seemed both convenient and expedient to delay the process indefinitely. The flat was only officially registered in our names ten years after we moved in.

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo: Telephones were like gold dust​​​​​​​

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