We gathered at the side of the parade ground because we wanted a good laugh. The British regiment has a rather peculiar feature. It marches at double speed. The band provides a madly fast beat, and these boys – fine strapping lads – march to it as if they were taking part in a walking race. In straight lines, guns on shoulders. And, of course, they pant and sweat like hell.
After breakfast, along with the Vitéz boys, Gizi Kárász the one-time national table-tennis champion and Mister Bazsó, I went out to see them. By now only a company of infantrymen was left in the camp, plus the band. The rest had been sent to Suez. The empty dormitories were at our disposal.
It started to drizzle and we became bored by the spectacle, so it was time to return to our sleeping quarters. In any case Gizi Kárász wanted to wash some panties for her little girl. Sitting on the iron beds, Mister Bazsó entertained us, describing for the umpteenth time what a fantastic knitting operation he would open once he got funds for purchasing a few machines. He would use some of his original patterns which – as he told us – would win at a canter over any kind of Western competition. Back in Communist Hungary he might have become an international name but, fenced off from the West, it proved impossible to acquire the right kind of yarn.
The week before we wrote to my uncle, a London businessman, asking for a loan, but had received no reply as yet. Bazsó suggested I join his business as a designer – he was willing to teach me the tricks of the trade – but I had different plans with the Vitéz boys. We hoped to buy a cottage where they could start repairing motor cars, while upstairs I intended to set up my artist’s studio.
On the bus bringing us to the camp from Biggin Hill airport a Hungarian interpreter woman told us that it was relatively easy to buy a small house on the outskirts of London. It would cost no more than a thousand pounds or so, according to her.
We discussed this during lunch. For pudding the army chefs once again served rhubarb and custard. To my surprise, the twenty or so Dorog coal-miners, who crossed the border to Austria as an armed revolutionary group, most of them rough, burly men in their forties, became instant custard lovers. They kept asking for more. Just as well since they were on the verge of returning to Hungary, complaining about the food.
After lunch our pocket money was distributed. An elderly Hungarian refugee from the 1930s was in charge of this, a stocky gentleman wearing a bow tie. He tried to be difficult with the Vitéz boys. A little slow on the uptake, the man did not understand that “Vitéz” was the boys’ family name and not the title “vitéz”, granted by Admiral Horthy’s pre-war regime to its most faithful followers. So he started to lambast them for “using a fascist title” adding “this won’t go down well with the British authorities”. He became so worked up that it took us ages to explain the situation. Of course, he’d never heard of the famous motorcycle repair garage run by the boys’ father, Antal Vitéz, who in his youth was a motor racing ace.
With the pink ten shilling notes we received we went out to the village. The rain stopped. Strangely-shaped grey clouds drifted across the wintry sky. The village consisted of a few rows of houses, all of a piece, built for army officers and their families. We found it rather curious that, although Christmas was a mere ten days away, there were roses blooming in the rain-soaked little front gardens.
“You speak some English, Mat. Find out where the post office is”, suggested Tibi Kollár. He had smuggled out a gold napoleon coin, sewn into his coat, and hoped that the post office would exchange it for sterling.
A man came towards us, brandishing an umbrella. “Please, who is the post office?” I asked him politely. We were only twenty yards from it, since it happened to operate from the corner shop. Of course, they were unable to deal with Kollár’s napoleon, but we spent our pocket money on oranges and milk chocolate.
I disliked the English sky. The clouds constantly criss-crossing the firmament made me uneasy. But in my mind’s eye I could picture the little red-brick house we were ready to buy, my artistically untidy studio on the upper floor, the large table around which we would gather at supper time with the Vitéz boys, perhaps also with Gizi Kárász and her little girl.
But next morning Gizi and her daughter were taken away. A spindly-shanked woman arrived, driving a brown car, and offered our one-time national table-tennis champion a cook-housekeeper position. So who will look after us in the cottage?
Later that afternoon a soldier came from the office with the news that while we were in the village my uncle had tried to call me. He left a message saying he was very busy just now, but promised to visit me in the camp after Christmas. Blast! By Christmas we will all be scattered. The process had started already. I needed to use my full powers of persuasion to keep the Vitéz boys from leaving. Some who had relatives in Britain were joining them, others were being transferred to hostels. Meantime my clever Uncle kept leaving telephone messages instead of filling out the forms for my release.
Christmas was fast approaching. Our numbers were dwindling. Now just a few of us gathered after breakfast by the parade ground to laugh at the soldiers: a self-important little fellow, four members of a Gypsy band, the Vitéz boys, Mister Bazsó and me. Then Bazsó vanished, sent to Bristol.
At the office the army clerks granted me a three-minute telephone call to my Uncle. The old man sounded very friendly and promised to post me a woolen sweater. He had mislaid the forms needed for my release. However, there was a small problem – said Uncle. They had only three bedrooms and their son Johnny was coming home for the Christmas hols from Harrow.
So, Uncle wanted to delay thing until after the break. “I will most likely motor down to visit you, my boy, perhaps early in the New Year”, he said. “But Uncle Oscar”, I interrupted, “by Christmas, we are going to…” At this point the call was cut off, my three minutes having elapsed.
On Thursday morning the Vitéz boys were taken to a hostel in Wapping. Our house-buying plan was still alive. After lunch the Camp Commander summoned me to his office. He said that they presumed that I would be happy to spend the festivities with my family and they had passed the hat round to buy me a rail ticket to London. One of the officers’ sisters had volunteered to collect me from the station and take me to Uncle’s North London address.
I’d been given an army hold-all to cram my things into. The Red Cross provided me with two collarless shirts, a slightly moth-eaten grey pullover, a pair of striped trousers, a toothbrush, a very hard piece of soap and two rough towels. My black hat with the white ribbon was the only item in my wardrobe to remind me of Budapest. But, of course, I would soon buy myself a broad-brimmed hat like Picasso wore in his young days when only a few people knew that he was going to be the greatest artist in the world.