17 May 2017

Mother and the Revolution


Every time I tackle this, I stop and work out how old mother was. The result always takes me by surprise. In the autumn of ‘fifty-six, as I remember it: an old lady. Nervous, timid. She sits by the radio, listening to the Voice of America. She doesn’t set foot outside the house as the events unfold. She tries to talk me out of going, too. In the doorway she grabs my arm.

What’s even more surprising: she has no opinion. This revolution’s got her completely confused. She asks me questions, she who’s always known everything. I recount what I’ve seen out on the streets. And what the bus drivers are saying in the Buda depot. She shrugs, not believing any of it. Stay at home, she begs me. And put down your weapon. Where? I ask. I’m unarmed.

Mother’s frightened. Unbelievable. She who watched the aerial attacks. She who, in her day, walked across the front line several times. And that was only ten years ago. And she’s still only forty. The same age as my son now.

It’s the third day. The sun’s shining over the city. My shoe is torn off, my foot covered in blood. I soak it in tepid water. “They’d better not find these”, she says, and throws my warm, squelching socks into the stove. “They fell on me!” I explain. The side of the truck was bashed in. I don’t know how it happened. I know for certain that there was a girl there: we dragged her under the arcades. And an equestrian statue. And the bus drivers. Everyone just seemed to be moving their lips. I couldn’t hear my own voice.

A piece of my right palm is missing. It’s not bleeding, just white. It has a nauseating smell. It’s grown back since then, leaving no trace. The arcade, I looked, a government ministry. A heavy silence has fallen on the square. The sickly smell of gunpowder. There are flowerbeds around the statue.

She looks for iodine, bandages my foot. “Who shot first?” she asks. I don’t know that even today, fifty years later. “At least you’ll calm down now!” she says, objectively.

 

***

 

All this happens down in the garage, where we’ve lived for five years now. Ups and downs! Others have had their whole house confiscated. There’s an entrance door and a window, tiny holes in the concrete. The water freezes in the basin by morning, but the iron stove’s still glowing if I stoke it up before bed. The back door leads to the stairwell. Nobody uses it. We don’t go upstairs, the flat up there has a new owner. And they don’t come down either.

They knock for the first time today, on the third day, a Thursday. It’s already dark in the garage; this is, after all, the basement. But out there, the sun’s still shining over the city. So they knock. They stand in the frame of the back door, looking at the pot-belly stove and the bunks. Mother turns down the Voice of America, unaware that she’s allowed to listen to it now.

What’s happening in the town?” asks the Major.

This is the first time I’ve heard his voice. He never even used to say hello. “Revolution, what else?!”

And is it true”, he continues, “that people are hanging from the trees?” He’d like to go into town. “They didn’t send it for me”, he says. “My staff car”.

My lips are cracked, don’t make me laugh!” I tell him. “You’ll be recognised, however you disguise yourselves. How? Nobody in the town’s got leather-soled shoes, for example.” I show him mine.

You don’t need to go into town”, I say. “They’ll come for you if you’re on their list”. Good God! The wife bursts into tears. I’ve seen her naked; I peeked in through their kitchen window. Their window? Our window.

Could we move down here?” The man is more practical. “Just until things return to normal…”

They don’t even thank us, but just drag the mattresses down into the washroom. Mother looks at me.

They can’t help it”, she says. We turn up the radio. “The world’s eyes are on us!”

she says. The iron stove is cold. I stoke it up. Just until things return to normal.

  

***

 

I’ve hammered the heel of the boot back into place. I try it on to see if my foot will go in it. I’ve hardly got a limp. There’s thick fog again. It’s very quiet, there’s no traffic.

What are they saying?” asks the major. He should know: nothing. They’ve been playing Beethoven all day.

Father lives nearby. He’s being treated in the physiotherapy ward. A quarter of an hour’s walk away, and I’m back before my foot swells up. He asked for roasted chestnuts, but now, here, how?! He insists on these little things.

I’ll go with you”, mother stands up. She purses her lips; she’s got a brown winter coat. There’s no shooting at the moment. We hurry. The curfew takes effect in the evening. The streets are deserted, and the houses are dark too. They’re not ruined around here. Father’s been made to sit outside in the corridor. There’s a blanket on his knee, and on his nose the broken, thick-lensed glasses. Mother stands in the doorway. “Good God”, she says. “How old he is!” Both father’s legs are in plaster. I have no idea why this is necessary.

It’s nothing!” he makes a dismissive gesture. “They dropped me”, and he laughs while shaking his head.

It happened on the stairs, when – at the start of the shooting – the disabled were taken to shelters. Both his legs suffered open fractures. The nurse is a young boy. He cries. Father comforts him:

Don’t give it a thought, Laci”, he says. “Like poking out the eyes of a blind man!”

and again he shakes with laughter.

Let’s get out of here”, mother’s pulling me away. It’s unbearable that father’s still laughing at everything, even now. Could this be the same person? She stands, sniffing, silently, coldly.

As a child I often dreamed of father. He lives with us in the garage; he sits beside me on the bed, and laughs out loud like he used to. We learn to lift him, iron for him. It’s good to know he’s here. How many times I pictured these wonderful scenarios! On the way home, mother is silent. The truth? Does it matter? We lived our lives without compassion or mercy. Can someone who’s never felt sorry for anyone have a good old age?

We get up the hill; it’s a dark evening. The curfew’s already in effect.

 

***

 

Those two weeks meant something different for everyone. For most people, a bit of breathing space. An opportunity to think over their lives.

Let’s go out to the Farkasrét cemetery!” says my mother. Down there, in the depths of the city, machine guns are barking; the fog amplifies the noises. We walk. The buses arent running.

Mother hasn’t been to the cemetery since the war. Back then, in the spring of ‘forty- five, we wheeled the washbasin out to the gravestone carver in a wheelbarrow: two great marble slabs. Into these, Gyula Vénusz, the master craftsman, carved the names of grandpa and grandma; 6 February 1945, Sándor and Emília.

Mother doesn’t talk about her parents. I remember they fell out over something, but what does a child remember! In ‘forty-four we didn’t even visit them at Christmas. I only saw the two old folks on the day of their exhumation. This quiet, my mother’s silence, has accompanied me throughout my life.

And as for her grandparents, I barely remember one or two laconic comments made about them. Vilma the paternal grandmother, a spiteful woman. Her husband, the inventor, always ill.

Mother has no memories of grandpa Szabó. Lisbeth Preiss, the grandmother, is the only one she has anything to say about. “She spoke broken Hungarian”, she tells me. And she remembers the semolina and the bread dumplings: the smells. And out in the pantry, the pickle jars.

We spent a long time searching for the Szabó grave. Somewhere out back, where there used to be a drainage ditch, and now there’s Bürök Street. I squelched through the mud alongside her, and there might have been an uprooted wooden cross, but we didn’t find the graves even back then.

Now, in the autumn of ’56, both names, Sándor and Emília, have worn off the marble slab of the washbasin, leaving no trace.

Guided by the love of Christ”, said the script inlaid on the family crypt. Grandpa, the professor, did his best to put this into practice. By the time the grandchildren arrived, however, there was not much of this love left. And the owl, which – sitting on an open book – clearly symbolised learning, had been stolen not long ago. What the great- grandparents wanted to live for had worn away completely in barely half a century.

  

***

 

Mother has created a vacuum around herself. She steps silently next to me in the rotting vegetation, forty years old.

Meanwhile, the tanks had withdrawn from the town. For three days it seemed the revolution had triumphed. Transport resumed, the scent of chrysanthemums filled the air, there was time to bury the dead.

We won!” I report to mother, and she replies, “it’s not over yet!” Marika, the major’s wife, is weeping in the washroom. Her husband’s disappeared. He just had to go looking for trouble; it was mother who said that too. His wife hasnt heard from him for three days now. Down there, armed squads are hunting down the secret policemen of the ÁVH, with their blue insignia.

Potatoes are being given out for free at the entrance to the bus depot. I shoulder a bagful of them myself. The next day, a Sunday, I report for work.

The weather is mild and warm during these three days. On Saturday, mother ventures out into the open too. We haven’t been able to go out into the garden until now, because of the major’s dogs. But now the bloodhounds are gone without a trace. Tomorrow, says mother, we’ll dig troughs around the fruit trees.

She doesn’t have any other ideas. For her, the revolution came too late.

But by morning nothing remains of these plans. At dawn the fighting flares up again. And by around ten o’clock, conscripted soldiers are stumbling down the hill. A wounded man falls into the garage. We search for some civilian clothes for him, and mother bandages his arm. And so that he has some papers with him too, I give him my trade-union card.

He’s perhaps twenty years old, and sobs relentlessly. His younger brother was killed above the barracks, on the side of the hill. This is how the revolution ends for us, between Marika and the sobbing soldier.

In the evening I go down to Hamzsabégi Road. In the garage, the busmen crowd together in the thick smoke. That was the world we lived in. For better, for worse, every working man insisted on doing his job.

The major turns up as well. The staff car parks in the gateway once again. We don’t go to the hospital or cemetery any more. The post office brings back my trade-union card.

Mother is silent again. Things have returned to normal.

 

Translated by Daniel Nashaat


NOTE:

 

This and all subsequent texts on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution are reprinted from the new anthology Down Fell the Statue of Goliath by Hungarian Rewiew (see advertisement on page 127.)




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