Even my vulcanised fibre suitcase was nervous as I got off the 61 tram and set off up the incline of Himfy Street. I had been more confident four years before in Tapolca in my first year in grammar school; now I was a freshman at university, standing in the unfamiliar gates of Eötvös College among strange room- and classmates. I put down my luggage and a senior boy gave me a blanket. On the bottom bunk of the iron bed, sticking around for a repeat exam was Big Boy, eating plums from a thick paper bag. The evening hour of my arrival smelled of plum and gym shoes.
I had nothing to do yet the next morning and did not have any canteen tickets either. As suggested, I went down to get some breakfast in the House of Lords on Móricz Zsigmond Circus. I had coffee and milk and a crescent roll. Standing at the counter next to me was a has-been beetroot-nosed Tolstoy waiting for somebody’s leftover split pea soup. This entire self-service, cauldron-smelling purgatory seemed as elegant as the ballroom in Tapolca, especially in comparison with the Iszkáz pub. I am a Budapester! I own the tram, the Danube, Gellért Hill, the theatres, cinemas, sports matches, the wonderful fruits of mature women.
On this mild early autumn morning, on Ménesi Street, a man publicly slaps his woman, who kicks him in the groin in return; more slaps follow, and then as if nothing had happened, they join arms elegantly. If my mother had seen this, she would have prayed for her son, but her son assumes this was just a show, and goes down to the street where the bad girls are, who ruffle his well-groomed hair. In Ilkovics Street he has a spritzer with a friend, and two tables away the lover boy pours a glass of beer on a volleyball-sized breast, making for a frothing raspberry- coloured jersey. Excitement in the room, people shuffling out the back door; the few of us left behind look so innocent that the police do not even bother to check our papers.
Papers rustle in the school benches during weekdays, pages flutter in search of anonymous words, Milán Füst roars over the desk; bored with József Waldapfel, young poets recite their poems to one another. I bunk off and meet my older brother at the literary tables at which Zelk, Pál Szegi, Juhász, Kormos, Jékely, Vas, Déry and the Three Editors were seated and where I was given half a seat. György Lukács is a guest, scared lecturer in the political deluge. I relish the present whose future is unimaginable, even if at the writers’ demonstration at Kossuth Club I hear the kind of poems I have never heard before, and where, according to Imre Nagy, László Nagy is a mere rhymester.
It is an autumn of entanglement; I take a shortcut across fallen leaves as the trees are shaken by the wind. And suddenly a mass of people is being drifted by “O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being”; passions are uncontrollable, they inspire and repel. I imagine Kossuth Bridge would collapse under the weight of the mass of people. No individual sounds can be heard. I end up next to Kati, she touches me, I feel the warmth of her hand with adolescent excitement; she grabs at me perhaps because she has a fear of crowds or she’s afraid of the torches of Szabad Nép, the yelling from the backs of the trucks, the hollow sound of the battered statue of Stalin, the clattering, the burning ambulances, the broken but untouched shop windows, the belts, the swarms of gun-wielding Újpest workers on Múzeum Boulevard. Volley of shots at the Radio, Kati drags me behind the trunks of the trees in the park. There and then I would have liked to make love to her, as if to the entire Budapest.
Perhaps this girl’s hand radiated unsuspecting courage, that inexhaustible notion of immortality, that bold move the following day across Liberty Bridge, amid gunfire in the side-streets to the canteen and back to fetch a meal of meat and bread. Perhaps it saved my life on 25 October, thanks to the love pangs of youth. I awoke refreshed, and wanting to face the day clean, I shaved, washed at length, but in my cold wet palm I thought I noticed a bloodshot, but decided my misgivings were without reason, because I could visit my brother, the bus number 7 was running, and we needed to see each other. The 7 stopped at Astoria, and a tank bearing the national flag led the way on to Hell, where the National Anthem meant nothing, mother and child could be shot just like the Russian tank commander, and we were all just cannon fodder.
I looked the other way and Kossuth Square exploded. I do not recall the moment, just like scientists cannot account for that infinitely tiny span of time in which the universe was born from nothing. I stood too far from the Ministry of Agriculture to run back under the archway, because the guns were being fired from the roof of that building. It had to be a salvo of heavy weaponry, not the 1848-type rifles or papashas. I figured that the statue of Rákóczi would be a good shelter, but I was driven away by the dead bodies, so I fled, past toppling people and the sight of bursting intestines reminiscent of pig killings, towards the embankment, but saw the gunmen opposite. Led by the incontrollable and unfathomable guidance of instincts, I lay flat on my face in the trench where the underground was being built behind the number 2 tram stop, landing right next to the boy in my year, with whom I had set off that morning, but had lost each other. The spot we were in would not save us, because the tank that had turned up from Nádor Street could have caught us from the right. It was firing into the middle of the square and, again with a sense of immortality, I watched the gun shaking under the weight of the shots, with the machine gun’s fiery, icy-white flashes coming from underneath. I watched the live war film, but then the very real turret turned towards me, having done its first job and moving on to the next. My friend turned my head to the ground and a shell exploded in front of us, covering us in black soil and mud. I cannot die! My neighbour’s hat rolled over onto me. His body jerked, I hid underneath him, using him as cover, as if there was any cover. My left thigh felt paralysed as though I had been struck by electricity. I reached down and drew back a hand drenched in blood. There I was, lying in the exact spot where divine providence had placed me. A few inches to the right and I would be the dead body by my side; a few inches to the left and I would have been mashed to pulp by the shell (my friend’s arm had been mashed to pulp, by the way); if I had lain lower, shrapnel would have killed me. The madness of the half-dead seized us, the tank crawled up behind us, trampling over everything. “Oh, Dani darling, where are you? Stop climbing over me, do you hear me?”
The silence of the end of time ensued. My friend and I, clinging together, armless and legless, fell in the door of the Ministry of Construction, exposed to gunfire. It was as if I had walked many metres legless, eventually collapsing in the arms of a nurse and ending up in a cellar where fifty wounded people were passing around a bottle of cognac. We were alive! I became aware that I was alive. Lord, I partook of the Eucharist – the neat spirits of your grace – I flew, my Lord! We were transported on the back of trucks, me to Tétényi Hospital. Lying on a stretcher, I looked around the square. The sight in itself from that angle would have made me turn grey – seeing what happened after I had been lying there. Like after a battue shooting. The saying “to bite the dust” is true. Dying people were biting the earth, clutching to the roots of the turf. For me it was a grey sky above, the lip-biting endlessness of the rattle aboard the truck, in the quest for survival. I was still bleeding after being bandaged, because the medics had failed to notice the other wound. There was a piece of shrapnel at the front, still encased there; at the back a gaping hole of carved-out flesh, torn muscle, but unscathed bones and nerves. I authenticated my identity with a bloody fingerprint under the photograph in the dark red-coloured ID.
I was registered under a married woman’s name in the maternity ward, the only place that had a bed left. Mrs István Nagy. Wounded males were giving birth around me. My second birth: I am my mother and my son. Around us were adolescent midwives and volunteer nurses. Kati Magyar, aged sixteen, art school student, wearing a red tracksuit, offers me a segment of orange. Her accidental, innocent caresses are invigorating; she would be dead after the fourth of November, spread out on her back outside Terézváros church, wearing her Red Cross trench-coat, the red tracksuit, which I saw in black and white, courtesy of a photographer elder cousin of mine. I dare not see her, I do not want to. But eating the orange, nothing can be suspected.
The lightly wounded are transferred to the inhalation chambers of Gellért Baths. Nurses Lilla and Klotild – patriotic world-war girls – dress the wounds of us, unlikely survivors. Légrádi from Landler Jenő Street: his stomach was shot through; only two plasters give away the wound, everything inside being left intact. The young lawyer had both of his ears cut through by shrapnel; his head in between is unscathed and his ears heal fast. Palika, the theologian, took charge of a 49 tram on Kálvin Square, ramming it into a tank; a round of bullets hit his calf; now he imagines he is pole-vaulting with his crutches, looking to break the world record to the top of Gellért Hill. The sixteen-year-old Ádám is a sturdy little fellow, a postman commuting from Érd. He smashed the head of an officer leaning out of a tank with a brick, for which he collected a shell shrapnel in his thigh. Lucky fellows, every one of us; liberated, all yearned for a woman. The breast, hand, the crook of the thigh of the cleft-lipped cleaning woman was shared from bed to bed, even though she was pregnant. We had merited smiles in national colours and mourning bands. Stranded in the hotel, Ida Turay* presented me with a gilded ballpoint pen. Antal Páger,* returning from emigration in Argentina, with no place to stay, would often come down to us to listen to the radio, exchange stories and urge common sense.
The shelling began, the mortars were firing on Gellért Hill. Then they stopped and my brother had me released and took me to his place. His neighbour, a doctor, drove me in his medical Jeep across the ruins, to the other end of Zugló in the collapsed early-autumn Budapest. My brother wrapped me in his sheepskin coat because the mid-November weather had turned really cold and there was hoar frost around. My trench-coat was covered in blood and mud. It was not until we got home that we discovered the singed bullet holes on either side of the coat, received when I was lying in that designated, narrow place where I have remained since. We burned the coat as it was, muddy, bloodied and unwashed. Buried in my left thigh I still carry material evidence of that autumn: the Magnitogorsk shrapnel.
Translated by Nicholas Bodoczky
* Celebrated actress and actor.