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

  • 6 Jun 2024 8:25 AM
An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 5.
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 5
Part 3 – New arrivals; a break-in

Back at home a different kind of building project was causing stirrings among the residents of the house. The Szabó-s on the first floor were agitating to build a garage in the garden adjacent to our own.

‘I’m not getting involved,’ said Mrs. Sándor one day on her way downstairs. ‘I told you I have nothing to do with the others in the house – so it’s no good their putting invitations to residents’ meetings in my letterbox. Why should I care if they want to build a garage?’

Mrs. Katona and Mrs. Hortobágyi were discussing the same topic when they met on returning from shopping.

‘Garden? What garden? There won’t be any garden left, the whole thing will just be a car park,’ said Mrs. Hortobágyi.

‘They’ll never get planning permission!’ said Mrs. Katona. ‘They want to build right up against next door’s fence, but you know they have to leave at least a metre between the fence and whatever they build.’

Mrs. Katona took another puff of her lipstick-stained cigarette and coughed. Though approaching seventy she was well-versed in local regulations, while her slight build belied a fearless, outspoken character.

‘Oh, it’s all right for them!’ continued Mrs. Hortobágyi, steering the conversation towards her favourite subject. ‘People with money can do what they like – look at all those monstrous villas they’re building in the hills in Buda…’

Mrs. Katona made the gesture of someone accepting a bribe.

‘Wait and see. And you know why they want a garage, don’t you?’ Mrs. Hortobágyi continued. ‘He’s got a new job and he’s getting an Audi – he won’t want to leave that on the street, not with car theft as it is now. It’s safe enough with his old Lada, but who’d leave an Audi there?

This was news to Mrs. Katona. ‘Where’s he going to work, then?’ she enquired.

‘Near here somewhere. Some leasing company. I don’t know….and here we are, I can’t tell you what I have to spend on medicines for my heart condition, and I can’t work…’

So continued the conversation until Mrs. Katona, realising that it was past eleven, finished her cigarette and left to cook the lunch which she and her husband always ate at noon every day to the accompaniment of the midday church bell chimes.

Returning one afternoon from the nursery I found Ágota weeding around the rose bushes at the front gate, engrossed in the same topic of conversation with Mrs. Kis.

‘But they need a garage,’ Mrs. Kis was saying. ‘You can’t keep a valuable car like that out on the street.’

‘I don’t know,’ Ágota prevaricated, smiling uncertainly.

Such whisperings and complainings continued until a residents’ meeting finally took place in the Szabó-s’ flat. Sketched plans were shown, promises of money made with which necessary repairs could be carried out to the house, and a paper circulated asking for our ‘theoretical’ consent to the building.

We were unsure whether to sign, but Mrs. Katona later said, ‘It’s not legally binding, it’s not a real contract – they’ll never get planning permission.’ Thus, when the Szabó-s knocked on our doors in the following days, we all signed.

Unanimous agreement was necessary for any building work to be carried out legally in such houses.

A few weeks later we witnessed the arrival of what we were later to dub the Dream Machine. The latest Audi model, sleek and black, brought neighbours from nearby houses to admire and discuss like a newborn baby.

 ‘You don’t imagine he’d ever get that into the size garage he sketched for us at the meeting, do you?’ Mrs. Katona asked me a few days later.

The arrival of the car was closely followed by a new bathroom and Italian furniture. As Évi – who was now cleaning for them – observed, ‘Every week I go there’s something new, and I don’t mean just small things.’

However, whether they were now too preoccupied with these other acquisitions and their new lifestyle to concern themselves with the garage, or whether they had realised that the car would not fit into the available space, the subject was no longer mentioned.


József rang to say that all four of them would be in Budapest the following week, and they had time to pay us a visit if we could be at home. John was at the nursery, Paul teaching and Hannah playing, when I realised we had run out of milk.

A small grocery shop was situated next door but one, and I asked Hannah if she would mind if I ran down to get some milk while she continued to play at home.

‘I want to play in the sand,’ she said, referring to the sandpit in our garden.

It was a warm, sunny day, so we put her shoes on, bought the milk together and then sat under the chestnut trees on the edge of the sandpit and played.

A voice called through the ivy-covered fence. ‘Good morning! How are you both?’

It was Mrs. Zombori from the house next door whose garden bordered ours. We often chatted when the children were playing outside, and I knew that she had lived in the house since 1948 and now shared it with her son, his wife and their children.

She had been a librarian in the national Széchenyi library, spoke good German and still gave some private lessons. Though I guessed she was at least seventy she was both physically and mentally agile.

‘What do you know about the garage?’ she asked me.

‘I don’t think they’re bothering with it,’ I replied.

‘Oh good. I really don’t want it – just look,’ she said, pointing at the other gardens bordering hers. ‘Concrete everywhere, just count the garages!’ We counted three. ‘Is that big Audi his?’ she asked. I nodded. ‘Well, they’ll have to cut down at least one tree to be able to build a garage large enough for that.’

I told her what Mrs. Katona had said about building regulations forbidding any structure within a metre of the neighbouring fence. She looked sceptical. ‘There’s illegal building going on everywhere,’ she said. ‘But let’s hope.’

I glanced at my watch, time to go and make some lunch. Hannah and I collected up the milk and her toys and went upstairs. As I entered the flat I saw that the contents of my handbag were strewn under the coat stand where it had been hanging.

‘Paul? You home?’ I called. I went into the sitting room: drawers had been pulled out, their papers, photos and odds and ends covering the table.

I was still convinced that Paul had come home early and was searching for something. It was only when I went into the bedroom to see all our clothes, bed linen and towels scattered over chairs and floor that I realised we had been broken into.

I ran back into the sitting room; television and video recorder were in place and we had nothing else of any monetary value a burglar might be interested in.

I had a few items of jewellery, but as luck would have it I had not removed them from the chest of drawers where they had been in our previous flat, and which was now in the children’s bedroom.

On opening their door I saw all as I had left it. If the burglar had looked in he had obviously considered a room containing two children’s beds and assorted toys not worth rifling.

I knew I should not touch anything, but was otherwise at a loss what to do. The Katona-s were not home, so I went down to Mrs. Kis. In her usual cool unflappable manner she asked me inside while she telephoned the police.

‘Now, you’re not to touch anything,’ she said, replacing the receiver. ‘The police will be here soon.’

I thanked her and walked back upstairs. Some fifteen minutes later the doorbell rang. I felt impressed at the swift arrival of the police, but on opening the door I saw Virginia and József. I had completely forgotten about their visit in the midst of the morning’s events. I quickly explained the situation.

‘Perhaps it would be better if we went home,’ Virginia said.

‘No, look – the children can play in their room, nothing was touched there. And we can make tea and have it in the sitting room as long as we don’t disturb anything. Come on.’

Paul and John arrived about half an hour after the police. Thus Paul expected the worst when Virginia let them in to hear me supplying a detailed account of what had happened to one officer, while a second was busy dusting the front door for fingerprints.

‘Are you insured?’ he asked me.


‘Well, we’re finished now, so I suggest you check that nothing is missing. My guess is that it was gypsies after money or jewellery – something easy to carry. Too difficult in a small house like this with one shared stairway to be carrying televisions out. If we have news to report we’ll contact you, and you’ll be sent a written report.’ With this, they collected up their things and left.

József had some business still to do in town, and so he suggested he leave Virginia and the children with us.

‘Don’t you want to clear up?’ asked Virginia.

‘Never mind, I’ll do it later. You stay,’ I said.

Paul made more tea and I related the tale of our shopping and playing in the garden, and the scene which had greeted me on my return.

‘But didn’t you lock the door?’ asked Paul.

I winced. ‘Not exactly…I pulled it to – we were only intending to be gone for five minutes. And I was sitting there on the side of sandpit – I still can’t understand how I didn’t see anyone. They must have been watching and gone in as soon as we left.’

‘Well, at least nothing seems to be missing,’ Virginia said. ‘There are break-ins all over Dabas too,’ she added.

‘Yes. I suppose we’d better get an iron gate in front of the door – the policeman said it wouldn’t be too difficult to force the front door open.’

Flora wandered in carrying a jar she had extracted from a bag in the hall.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘A fish for Hannah,’ she replied.

Virginia laughed. ‘I’d almost forgotten; yes, someone gave us some goldfish and you’d said John and Hannah have been asking for a pet, so we brought one for you!’ The children were delighted.

Click here for earlier extracts

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