I waited eleven years for my first visa back to Hungary. To be more precise, for a permit to stay for two weeks, supplied on a purpose-designed form. This was all I had to present at the border, so my trip would leave no sign of the date of my departure and entry in the refugee passport I had been issued in Geneva.
Man is prone to oblivion. It is useful to recall such terrifying trivialities for the record.
Nor was where I would cross the border indifferent. For instance, going through Austria to visit home was not advisable: you could easily have your refugee status revoked. When that would happen – perhaps on the spot, when you entered or departed from the country – was something nobody knew.
Better safe than sorry, I thought, and decided on Czechoslovakia. Yes, a country by that name still existed then. I packed my French family into the Citroën deux chevaux – a people’s car if there ever was one – with my wife in the passenger seat and the two kids in the rear. The first night we stayed at a hotel somewhere around Nuremberg. From there, there were no motorways to the border. In fact, there were no signs directing the motorist to the nearest border-crossing point.
I remember this as the first time I was seized by visceral fear since I had made it through the Iron Curtain eleven years before. It now seemed a naive illusion that a French license plate and two children could weigh more in the balance than a Genevan passport and official refugee status.
Around ten o’clock my wife dispensed the sandwiches she had painstakingly prepared, as she would every day, while making us breakfast. We ate in silence, with no other vehicle in sight on the highway. It was a no-man’s land, without houses or any evidence of farmland cultivation.
My fear had been utterly unfounded, as it turned out. The Czech border guards barely took a peek inside the car.
“Shouldn’t we have a beer?” I proposed as we drove through Plzen. My wife gave me an apprehensive laugh in reply.
I recall that our bathroom in Prague had a marble tub. No cheaper hotel would accept my credit cards.
The next day Hungarian customs confiscated my manuscripts, but let us through. “Are we in Hungary already?” the kids demanded.
The only other small detail worth mentioning about this trip is something that has just come back to me, after being forgotten for half a century. It was when I tried on my orthopaedic shoes. Naturally, many other things of much greater import happened to us during those two weeks.
I visited my father at the hospital daily. The nurses would sit him up to receive me. At that point, they said, he was no longer given any treatment or medication. While he still had some money on him, he had had two lunatics with shaven heads help him do a little exercise every once in a while.
“It’s not for… whatever,” he explained. “Only to get those muscles relaxed. To ease the spasms.”
It took me quite a while to wheedle the truth out of him: he was unable to stand up because his feet would not fit inside his shoes any more. That’s why he had to stop the exercise. His old boots were collecting dust under the bed. And his feet had become – how shall I put it – deformed.
There had been a time that I dreamed about having my own house one day where I would furnish him a nice spacious room of his own. Then, eleven years later, it all seemed more complicated than that. I had no house to my name, and my father’s condition had worsened.
But those old boots were not to be sniffed at. “I will have them stretched”, I told him.
This is how I went in search of Mr Csatári, the shoemaker I had known as a child.
Back then, his shop had been downhill from us just around the corner of Lejtő Street – a tiny yellow cottage by the sign where the city-bound tram would stop. A counter, a single window, and an iron stove. It was a former tobacconist’s shop, of the kind where grim war widows had sold tobacco, cigarettes and cigars between the two wars.
Mr Csatári, the man of the cobbler’s trade, would sit in the depths. I had always pictured him as a slight old man, because nobody had ever seen him standing up – only surrounded by shoes and boots on the narrow, crammed shelves, and clouds of shoe polish in the air. Nobody was allowed inside; you handed him his work through that tiny window. He was a man of few words, for good reason. Everyone knew how much a pair of new soles or heels would cost.
Already back then, he would wear the same thick-lensed, wire-rimmed glasses.
The cobbler’s shop had since moved closer to the city centre, next to the motion picture theatre in Ugocsa Street. Yet I found the master sitting deep down below as usual. This time, I was allowed to enter and approach his stool by descending a set of narrow wooden stairs.
It never entered my mind that he might recognise me, but he did.
“Is that you?” he asked, calling me by my nickname. His wire-rimmed glasses, pushed back on his forehead, glinted in the faint light.
“How could I forget?” he added, casting a glance around him as he set aside the glue brush.
In that year, October 25 fell on a Thursday. Others around me were shot to death, but I got lucky: I fell and scrambled under a truck. I escaped unscathed, except for the sole of one of my boots that was ripped off.
I had a hard time explaining to him what I really required, for I did not have the exact measurements.
“They are not going to look very nice”, Mr Csatári said, shaking his head in disapproval. But he showed me what he could do anyway. He did not even mention the more costly option of replacing the upper leather.
“Have you come home for good, sir?” he asked later as he handed me the mended boots.
“Just to visit”, I replied. I was just standing in the doorway, feeling ashamed.
I just had enough time to bring them back to my father. He marvelled at them, the poor soul, but he could no longer stand up on his feet, shoes or no shoes.
Since then, fifty years have passed – or have I mentioned this already? There are no special permits or borders. I have my citizenship, more than one in fact. And nobody can take away my refugee status from me these days. Mr Csatári has long since stopped working away hunkered down in his shop on the corner of Ugocsa Street. And few people remember that, in the autumn of 1956, October 25 was a Thursday.
As for that French woman and the two blond kids, they are gone with the wind. Early specimens of the Citroën deux chevaux are relegated to museums. And I have not sat behind the wheel for quite a while myself.
I only remembered this story because my new shoes were finally fitted to my feet, at the third attempt. At first, the special insoles were made at János Hospital in Buda. They turned out to be too short. I don’t know what it was: they may have wanted to cut corners in the cost of materials, or simply taken the wrong measurements.
For my second try, I got my orthopaedic insoles here, in the New World. But the Americans seem to be built differently. Here in the Wild West nobody seems to have flat feet. Not even feet, perhaps…
For the third go, I retained the services of a clinical specialist. As a result, I am donning my new orthopaedic shoes today – hopefully, the final version.
Back then, the old cobbler had waved my hand aside when I wanted to pay for his work. This time around, hiring the specialist cost me more than that entire trip long ago. Including the money I lost on the way back when the customs officers confiscated my cash on the Rajka-Rusovce border station.
Indeed, my father’s boots did not turn out well. Just as Mr Csatári had warned me. An acceptable look would have called for replacing the upper leather, and the shoemakers of old would never recommend such an expensive solution. As I am staring at the new, hypermodern trappings I am wearing, I find myself thinking of that botched upper leather. And no, I am not crying. I am simply wondering if any of my kids will visit me as I visited my father back then.
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel
(In György Ferdinandy, Mélyebbre – elbeszélések, jegyzetek [Dig Deeper – Short Stories and Notes], Budapest: Magyar Napló, 2013.)
The reviewer Mario Fenyő and the author György Ferdinandy did meet in person at the Budapest Book Fair in 2014. The encounter in fact made it into a short story in Ferdinandy’s latest collection of stories Álomtalanítás (Dereminiscence), also published by Magyar Napló in 2015. (Editorial Note.)
AN ENCOUNTER IN MILLENÁRIS PARK
I enjoy sitting in my publisher’s kiosk in Vörösmarty Square or in Millenáris Park. It used to be that readers would stand in line waiting for their turn to shake hands with me and to have their copy signed.
These days, people don’t tend to form a queue to meet grey scribblers of my ilk. The occasional weary reader hardly has the time to sit down by my side to catch his breath.
Yet I still find it worth my while to take up position on a square or in a park. Familiar faces come and go, and I am often greeted by old acquaintances who have shared my lot, and whom I only get to see once a year, on this precise occasion. Indeed, a book fair can sometimes harbour surprises that are utterly serendipitous. This is one of them. I am sitting under the wide open sky in Millenáris Park. Nobody is strolling down the aisles between the booksellers’ tents. It’s a fair day, suffused with sunlight. And then this couple walks by and stops right in front of me. A heavy-set blonde woman leading a frail man well ahead in years. They say a few words that custom dictates to be said on occasions like this, about knowing me. And, for all I know, I have met this little old man somewhere before myself. As the blonde takes centre stage, I reach for my pen, only to realise that these two have not brought along a book for me to sign.
And then what I have emerging before my eyes, from the murky waters of the remote past, is Mario Fenyő, the son of the Great Man, who once visited me on a tropical island that may never have been. A tall, fetching young man back then, perhaps thirty years ago, now reduced to the fragile insignificance of a rain- drenched sparrow.
That day – I remember it quite well – he came looking for a job. I took his résumé – yes, this is what a CV was called on the island, there and then – and showed it to the dean. Needless to say, he never got an interview. The dean did not appreciate unknown job-seekers dropping in out of nowhere.
By the time the light goes on in our heads and we recognise each other, we have been surrounded by publishers’ staff. The Son of the Great Man, none other! What a surprise! They take turns shaking hands with the little old man. In person! That he should have come to see us of all people!
“Switch to Spanish, for Christ’s sake”, the blonde implores. I don’t see the point; we all speak Hungarian.
Then it dawns on me.
“You, my man”, I put it to him, “were a terrorist in those days! No use denying, the university had taps on you!”
He won’t deny it, but starts laughing instead.
“Not me”, he retorts demurely. “It was my wife, you see.” “In Spanish, please!” the woman beseeches us.
In vain, for the crowd of overjoyed fans has vanished without a trace. In this corner of the world, tatterdemalions with a criminal record get no sympathy. When he asks for a complimentary copy to review, my man is shrugged off with a perfunctory “Can’t. It’s the policy.”
“And you talk with this kind?” someone asks me later.
Time passes. Others come by, and I sign away. I have no chance to interrogate my man. I catch a glimpse of him as he waves good-bye, ready to move on. With a sad smile on his face. I may never see him ever again. He was the only creature I could have had a word with, here in Millenáris Park. In this great island of apes.
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel