Tuesday, 26 August 2008


P had been a prisoner at Mauthausen. He once told me that, on liberation, some prisoners had found a store of honey in the camp, ate it, and died soon after. I don't know whether he was a communist before but he was certainly one after, as was his wife, K, both communists of the old steadfast, whatever-may-happen-we-still-believe school. P proudly drove a Trabant in which dangled a sign saying Köszönöm hogy igénybe vett, which means roughly, thank you for needing me.

P was kindly and tubby by the eighties. He did a little post-retirement work and played bridge once a week with friends, always having a snooze in the afternoon. K didn't like travelling so he drove to East Germany once a year for a holiday and clearly enjoyed it. He would drive us around too, to places we should visit, in and out of Budapest. On one occasion we took the train and shared the carriage with an old peasant who asked him where the foreign family came from. 'From England,' answered P. The old man sighed. 'Ah, there they are free.' 'What do you mean?' asked P anxiously. For him, and for K, the world as it was was the best possible compromise, with still something to aim for. They were, after all, on the right side of life. 'We are all slaves here,' the old man continued, wagging his head. P was rattled. This was not an opinion he shared and he didn't think it was the best of all possible opinions for us to hear.'Well, we are all slaves,' he blustered. 'Some of us are slaves to work, some to our hobbies, some to our wives.'

He was sweet and benign. His son had died suddenly at the age of twenty-one, of a brain haemorrhage, while sitting on a park bench. That was before we met them, before we went to Hungary. He would have been precisely my age. (You even look like him, they'd say.) There remained the daughter, F, who had married T, another party member, who worked as a chief in the radio advertisement / propaganda branch of the party. T was very clever and had been involved in Vietnam in some function, probably the press, but I can't remember. A thin, bright-eyed man. He and F lived in the same apartment as P and his wife did. His bookshelves were lined with rows of works by Marx, Lenin and all the other necessaries.

In 1989 we were over at P's discussing the rapidly unfolding political situation. 'This is all very well, all this chaos,' said P , 'but what if they kick Gorbachev out and replace him with a harder man? What if that hard man declares, "Enough is enough!" and smashes his fist down on the table?'

T shrugged and smiled. 'The table breaks.'

He could see which way the wind was blowing.


The wind had blown. We were a year or two on. T and F had found new jobs, both as representatives of Amway - the American way - of selling goods directly. They were doing quite well. T was writing articles for 'Cats' magazine, which was about, well, cats. He got me to write an article for it too. It must exist somewhere.

But cats did not suffice. Nor did dogs (they had both). One day T did a bunk. He absconded with what money there was. Went abroad. Disappeared.

So there were three.

But not for very long, because dear old P had a heart attack and died. He had been fading and flickering for a while.

Two women left now, mother and daughter, who was now training other Amway employees.

Then Amway went west, or whatever direction such things vanish into. K had bad hips and then a fall. One hip was replaced. The flat they had been living in became unaffordable. They had to move. F continued working at this and that but work was hard to find. So they moved again, to something still smaller, though within a stone's throw of the earlier addresses.


K puts down her stick, sits at the table and serves tidbits with a glass of fizzy water. F is out at the call centre. She does twelve hour shifts and night shifts. She can't be here to meet us. The work is over an hour away by public transport and she has to do the shopping too. She is not expected home until shortly before midnight. Unfortunately, she doesn't sleep as well as she used to. But who wants to give a fifty-seven year old woman a job nowadays? Retirement age is sixty-two. Will they be able to live on her pension? K shakes her head. 'But I might not be around then,' she adds.

She seems to feel no self-pity, does not complain, and is only a little sorry to have had to leave the flat the family had all lived in. She doesn't talk about hardship. It may not be the best of all possible worlds, not even necessarily the best possible compromise, but it is still a world, still capable of some improvement, but when was it ever not?

Sunny outside, the estate gardens are lush and rather overgrown. Two cats now, one scrawny with a single working eye, the other terrified of all visitors. K and F walk a neighbour's dog. It is, in effect, half F's dog now. On the way out we stop to look at a painting. It's of two little children, a touch idealised if not quite Disneyfied. Who is that by? That's by an earlier member of the family, a handsome woman who ran a dress-shop and was something of a couturier. It shows F and the dead brother.

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