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Uprising (When I Was Better) - a novel in progress

1956, Saturday, November 3. Hungary

The Road To Freedom

István was witnessing a monumental exodus. At the border from where the thirty-one year old ran supplies, he watched as his fellow Hungarians decamp by the thousands into Austria. Fog turned to drizzle then freezing rain, pelting the refugees senseless. They looked worn, uncertain yet elated. István wondered what propelled these people to depart on foot, walk hundreds of kilometres from Budapest carrying only a suitcase or a cloth grocery bag? Some women wore muddied pumps and fur coats, matted like drenched animals. Children whimpered, their legs tired and listless. Dragging their feet, elderly men wept openly, their faces a confusion of dismay and wonder. István envied their courage, knowing this initiative would come only once. Why were they leaving and not he? Despite his devotion to the cause, he felt his own impotence and wasn’t sure if it was fear or stubbornness that prevented him from agreeing with his wife, Etelka, to pack their few possessions. He had a country to defend and a baby to keep safe.

            Underneath the foodstuff provided by the peasantry and first aid supplies donated by the Austrians, István packed munitions. Their source undisclosed. He covered the cache with heavy woolen blankets and gave firm hand shakes to the Red Cross workers all of whom wished him, “viel Glück. Wir sind für Sie Verwurzelung.” Good luck. “Danke sehr,” and, “Auf Wiedersehen,” he replied with a perfect accent endeavouring in everything he did to be precise. Turning the key in the ignition, István breathed out and braced himself for another trip into the heart of the Revolution. He could smell dank smoke on his fireman uniform. It needed a wash but he’d spent precious time early in the morning servicing the cargo truck. Nothing mattered but that it ran smoothly for the journey back.

Arriving in Budapest in the late afternoon, István recalled the familiar scent of destruction from the first time he entered the capital, nine years earlier, then in his early twenties. The city had smelled wet, clay-like and stannic. It had barely recovered from the last war. Buildings slated for repair were once again knocked down to their knees. Regret choked his throat. As the wind picked up forcing puddles to move onward, István drove into Buda’s castle district. He passed through iron gates then parked at the secret door to the underground medical complex some ten to fifteen metres below the surface of the city. The hallways of the “Hospital in the Rocks” overflowed with the wounded. István knocked in code. Minutes later he was greeted by the red-head nurse who seemed to be immortal though she no longer bothered to fix her hair. Strawberry strands fell over her green eyes. Just as the last time he made a delivery, she looked at him like a hero with the power to transform her predicament. He wanted her. He could feel his reptilian appetite rise, the need for food, safety and sex in times of danger, which sent blood pulsing to his loins. Why not? Extraordinary measures for extraordinary times.

 

(I Remember) Hungarian Radio and the Effects of Trauma - a memoir in progress

July 2008, Hamilton

My mother cooks from morning to night. If only she’d sit down, just once, and stop running. The kitchen is her church and food her Communion. Everything else has failed her. Including her daughter.

I sit, flip through Nők Lapja, a Hungarian women’s magazine. Takes me forever to read in Hungarian. So I give up, look at the tacky fashion spread instead. Do-it-yourself trends and the exclusive availability of red hair dye and blue eye shadow during Communist times pervades the esthetic today. Horrible.

“Can you still read?” my mother asks.

I don’t answer.

The classical music station plays grating concertos; horns blast and pianos scale up and down the octaves; violins reach manic swells. Dizziness and a hangover settle in. For twenty years, the radio has remained on this station. Abrasive over the racket of my mother’s cooking; a boiling kettle, frying onions, an ancient coffee grinder and slamming cupboard doors. From the TV room floats heavy aircraft and gunfire, bombs exploding. My half-deaf father watches television. I follow the sound of war down the hall. At the doorway, I implore him to put on his headphones. He nods and complies. He looks small and frail, sunken in the brown loveseat as he reaches for the headphones, the skin on his hands translucent and thin.

“Can I get you something?” I ask, a lump in my throat. My father doesn’t hear me.

I return to the kitchen, more auditory assault, and read the Hamilton Spectator. Crappy reporting. My mother’s roiling. She burned the onions a second time. Swearing, she tosses the fry pan in the sink. “I should have ended it long ago,” she says, under her breath.

Her comment feels like a fork stabbing my gut. My chest feels hard as a cutting board.

“Are you going to eat something? For a change?” she asks.

“I’m not hungry.” I sneeze.

“You’re cold,” says my mother.

“I’m not cold. I just sneezed.”

“You’re sick,” she says.

“I’m not sick,” I raise my voice. “I just like sneezing,” I say flatly. “I’m turning off the radio,” I shout over the mixer, “that’s what’s making me sick.” I sneeze loudly and stop the radio. I’m teaching her a lesson on the positive effects of silence on her over-reactive nervous system. The state in which she could learn calm, and reconciliation, if she really wanted to.

“It’s the only thing that keeps me sane,” she says, “I’ve spent 60 years leaving with his silence. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.”

“Can you at least listen to CBC for a change? You’d learn something,” I say.

“It’s a bunch of talk. They’re saying nothing.”

“That’s because you’re not listening.” I feel my neck get rigid, a pain in the back of my head. “People on radio, have discussions!” My hands splayed open, an imaginary lump of dough in each, I’m ready to whip them at the wall. Instead I tug at my own hair. Admittedly, I think her inadequate.

The radio’s back on.

I change the channel, quickly, scroll through obnoxious commercials, more horns, and other stations I momentarily mistake for the sophisticated sound of the CBC. Like the tranquility that descends after a puff on a joint, the voice of Eleanor Wachtel and the interviewee on Writers and Company relaxes me.

“See, it’s about a book. They’re interviewing a famous writer.”

“It’s just chatter.”

“It’s not just chatter!” I turn a page of Nők Lapja. Another ugly dress. “It’s NOT chatter.” Imposing my lifestyle on her, in her home, I feel justified. Why not improve her English? At seventy-eight she could attempt to accept a language she’s never liked and learn to speak properly.

“If you’d only listen,” I mutter.

She collects her mixing bowls, her batter and heads for the second kitchen in the basement, away from me.

I still haven’t learned how to honor my mother. I’m such an asshole.

 

Other Writings

Living Two Wars  - an essay

The ‘savage Serb’ was a term I learned from my parents and relatives. They had nothing good to say about the race they once overtook. As a child I believed what I heard, albeit with confusion, because I instinctively felt I wasn’t getting all the information. What made the Serbs savage? Were they born that way? Or were they simply evil people?

“Thanks for an amazing read. The acute reminder of the ‘bullet that rang around the world’, is how I learnt about the reason for WWI. To realize again the Serb connection and how it was a continuous history thread that of course finds us in Canada. Both sides, newborns, refugees and lovers united and confused suffer from the aftermath of wars. The storyteller speaks with the depth of authenticity you know and feel this must be a true telling. The weaving of ignorance and openness and the twisted way we often learn through our skin despite the naivety of our actions. Actions tainted by our immediate ancestors live long in us through their prejudices purposely taught or not and how much it takes to go beyond them. If we ever do. And how the perceived enemy teaches us more than we can ever appreciate. To meet in the space of therapy was so very North American. Thanks, this is the second story I have read from this author. More More More please.”

Carol-Anne Bickerstaff