Thursday 29 December 1988
They do not know it, but the wolf is already at the gate.
Seven o’clock on a moonlit night at the end of December; a terrible time for a party, and the guests are about to arrive. After the complex agony of invitations, the expense, the whipping of cream, the residents of Flat Two, Westminster Court, are almost too tired to greet them, yet there is so much still to be done. They have been up since five in a fury of efficiency, wiping the underside of ornaments, hoovering beneath the many rugs, rolling pastry, slicing cucumbers: innumerable tasks if this evening is to be perfect, as it must be. And now, while Marina’s grandmother and great-aunts rest on their beds, Marina and her mother stand in front of the wardrobe in Marina’s little room, pretending not to panic.
‘Can’t I just wear my school jumper?’ asks Marina. ‘Lambswool’s smart.’
‘Maybe not enough, sweetheart,’ says Laura, her mother. ‘You know they hate . . .never mind. What about that green dress?’
‘Grotesque,’ says Marina.
‘Where’s your long skirt, then? Oh Lord. What does your grandmother say?’
‘I don’t know,’ says Marina, ominously wet-eyed. ‘I look repulsive in everything. I-’
‘Dar-link,’ says a voice from the doorway. It is Marina’s grandmother, not resting at all: Rozsi, eighty today and not a woman one disappoints. ‘Vot-a-pity you don’t vant to look pretty. Look, I have this.’
Marina turns round and sees the blouse Rozsi is holding out to her: olive satin with a leaping gazelle motif. ‘I . . .’ she says. ‘I think-’
‘And Laura, darling,’ says Rozsi. ‘Tonight you also try.’
Laura’s mother-in-law is not easy to ignore. One does not become a major figure in the world of Ladies’ Underclothing if one is weak. Laura swallows. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Of course I will.’ She frowns at herself in the wardrobe mirror: her wet hair, her fair apologetic Midlands skin. Save me, she thinks, as the liver-spotted arm withdraws. ‘Marina, love. Your kilt?’
‘I could,’ says Marina doubtfully. She lowers her voice. ‘Mum, I . . .I wondered . . .can we talk?’
Usually, this would make Laura’s heart beat faster. However, she is less vigilant than usual, thinking of all that dill still to chop. ‘About what?’ she asks distractedly.
‘It’s complicated. I-’
‘Dar-link,’ they hear again from the doorway. ‘Hurry. We have still to set out the sair-viette.’
‘Coming,’ says Laura. ‘Sweetheart,’ she whispers to her daughter, ‘we’ll talk later. I promise. OK?’
How the world loves a party, particularly one in honour of a great age attained. Some of the guests, being quite as old and impatient as their hostess, have arrived early, with enormous boxes of chocolates and expressions of defiance. Every time the intercom buzzes, Marina or her mother has to rush over to let them in. It would have been easier to have left the street doors open, but the residents of ugly old Westminster Court are security conscious, for reasons of their own. Here in the barely-respectable depths of Bayswater, some stranger tries to gain admittance once or twice a night. It is better to be sure and so the doors are shut.
In any case, downstairs in Flat Two the noise is incredible. Everyone is eating, smoking, gossiping; they are not thinking about unwelcome visitors.
The guests who hurry in from the shabby street in the drizzle do not, at first sight, look like they could possibly be the source of so much noise. If you had happened to come across them as they took their cold constitutionals in Hyde Park this afternoon, they would have seemed perfectly normal elderly Londoners, looking forward to a quiet night in with a cup of tea and a chop and the Radio Times.
At least, that is how they think they seem.
But come a little closer. ‘Dar-link’ seems to be their usual form of address. Are not their hand gestures a little more extravagant than those found in Surrey, their eyebrows more dramatic, their hair swept back like something from Nosferatu? They seem both more formal and more exuberant than you might expect, as if you had wandered into a theatre dressing-room of the 1950s, not a cramped West London basement flat. Their bags contain poppy-seed pastries as long as your forearm; velvet-packed pralines, smuggled by fur-wrapped pensioners on the overnighter from Berne. Their perfume smells like the air in a hundred department stores. What are they speaking? Nothing you know, no rolled ‘r’s or recognisable sounds but either an entirely impenetrable language – megmásíthatatlan, örökkévalóság – or a distorted English, full of dactyls which dust familiar words – ‘Pee-codilly’ or ‘voshingmochine’ or indeed ‘Vest-minstaircourt’ – with snow and fir and darkness.
Oh. Hungarian. Now it all makes sense.
So where is little Marina, granddaughter of the house? Is she sitting humbly at the feet of an dashing old émigré? Is she having her hand kissed by a young accountant, being complimented on her embroidered apron? She was here a minute ago, beautifully dressed for the party – not perhaps in the height of fashion, but in the circumstances . . . Besides, she is always so polite, such a credit to her relatives. Very strange: where has she gone?
‘Boldog születésnap!’ Happy birthday, cry the guests to Rozsi. ‘Kezét csókolom,’ I kiss your hand. Some of them actually do it. There is also a great deal of cheek-kissing: the very young led by the hand to pay homage to the elderly.
‘Yoy, dar-link! I rare-member you ven you vere so high!’
These people make the French look reserved, and the English costive. And, at the centre of this kissing, cheek-pinching maelstrom are tonight’s hostesses, two of the generations resident in this little flat: three old women and an abandoned wife.
Marina, known tonight as ‘Mor-inaka’ or Maza, to rhyme with ‘Pots-a’, is in charge of coats. Furs and sheepskin and mackintoshes already fill the hall cupboards; the twin beds in her great-aunts’ room lie buried under a sea of headwear, although they are far from the Endless Steppe. Nevertheless, the piles of protective outer garments keep growing: berets and fedoras; gloves like warm leather claws.
The air stinks of tuberose, caraway and garlic: the universal scent of central European hospitality. But Marina is not hospitable. After only an hour her skin is tender with cheek-pinchings; she has been matchmade, prodded and instructed beyond endurance, and the night is young. Soon they will come to find her, to admire the shape of her fingernails, the thickness of her lashes, their eyes peeling back her clothes, weighing her like fruit. This is not new. She has been brought up to accept the questions and kisses as if nothing could please her more, however much lava is boiling inside. The problem is that Marina has changed. She can bear their scrutiny no longer, because her life is a disaster, and it is her fault. She betrayed them and escaped them, and now she wants to come back.
Be careful what you wish for.
This is one of the wise and inspiring precepts she has been gathering lately; she has forty-three so far, six in Latin, but they haven’t helped at all. They did not save her from making the worst choice of her life: Combe Abbey. Boarding school. She had wanted to be different, to escape just for the sixth form, and now she is reaping what she sowed.
Five more terms to go.
She is sitting on the edge of the larger bed: that of Zsuzsi, the younger of her two resident great-aunts, the beautiful one, who has a silk pillow to avoid facial wrinkles. Zsuzsi would be disgusted at me, she thinks, wiping her nose and avoiding her own reflection in the three-way dressing-table mirror. Crying is ugly and so, to stop herself, she bites down on the beads inside her lower lip for the taste of courage: blood and iron. Flawed as she is, with an incorrect ratio of leg to torso and freckles everywhere, she must be courageous. Women of her family always are.
In the sitting-cum-dining-room, the party is reaching its climax. There is so much food: cold sour-cherry soup, chicken paprika, buttered noodles, stuffed cabbage, red cabbage, sweet-and-sour cucumber salad, cold krumplisaláta, made with gherkins and chives and hot paprikás krumpli with sausage. Somebody has tracked down the last carp, or pike, or perch, in London and jellied him – it looks like a him – with carrots. Although it is of dubious provenance – not from Lake Balaton but a pond near Weybridge – all agree that it is wonderful. Rozsi’s sisters, virginal Ildi and beautiful Zsuzsi, beam like angels through the steam. Schnitzel; goose-liver pâté; Polish salami; Ildi’s famous palascinta stuffed with ground walnuts and rum, with lemony curd cheese and raisins or, in the unlikely event of a vegetarian guest, with spinach and only the tiniest taste of bacon. Someone has even brought a large curled ox-tongue, which looks exactly as one might fear. And, alone in the darkness of the kitchen, touched with pinky-yellow haze from the fanlight to the communal stairwell, this evening’s culinary highlight is waiting: iles flotantes, known here as madártej or birds’ milk; bosomy islands of caramelised egg white, half-subsiding into an inland sea of vanilla custard, suspended in a Czech lead-crystal bowl.
‘Von-darefool,’ say the guests: a rare comprehensible word in an opaque wall of conversation. They are comforted to know that Ildi, although eighty-two, is cooking the food they remember: still pressing dumplings through the nokedli-machine, chopping veal-bones, melting lard. They are a wonderful family, aren’t they, all things considered? Admittedly not quite as they were but then, dar-link, who is? They are bringing Marina up terribly well, despite everything: so respectful, so polite, and now she is at that school for English aristocrats – well, who knows what might happen?
There are many cousins here, all with mad diminutives: Pubi or Gobbi or Lotsi. The wife of one of them has trapped Laura by the window, and is cross-examining her on behalf of them all. ‘So,’ she says. ‘Dar-link. Tell me sum-sing –’
Despite living at close quarters with elderly Hungarians for over a decade, observing their habits like a less successful Jane Goodall; despite the fact that she was once married to Rozsi’s son and has produced Rozsi’s only granddaughter, Laura does not have a diminutive. One cannot catch Hungarianness; they welcomed her and Marina into their home, have kissed and nourished them endlessly, but Laura remains a puzzling pet.
‘So!’ she says. ‘I mean I can’t-’
‘Vot are you doing?’
‘Pro-fession-allyspeaking. You know I am once mus-e-um director? Vair-y big museum in Czecho,’ she says complacently, bracelets clanking on her loose-skinned arm. ‘But you? You are not still reception-girl for von-darefool doctor?’
‘Oh – the surgery? Yes, yes I am.’
The cousin, or cousin’s wife, shakes her aged head. She is wearing Capri pants, or what Rozsi would call ‘a little troo-sair’, and a blouse and waistcoat; perfect, if alarming, lipstick; huge glamorous glasses and a bronze puff of hair. Compared to the others, she is dressed casually; it is almost a slight.
‘And,’ the cousin’s wife continues, offering Laura a pink Balkan Sobranie, ‘you are lonely, yes?’
‘No!’ says Laura, stepping back.
‘Fortunate, to live with the others, but lonely. So. I know.’
‘Of course now little Mor-inaka is at vot-you-say board school-’
‘Boarding school, yes, bu-’
‘The evenings, the weekend. Vot are you doing with so much time? You are learning a language? Instrument?’
‘Er . . .’
‘Do not tell me,’ stage-whispers the cousin’s wife, ‘you are having boy-friend?’
‘Me? No, not . . . not at all!’
‘Because of course without Pay-tare . . . vell.’
Laura has been expecting this all evening. Given the number of Hungarians present, their rampaging curiosity and lack of embarrassment, she knew it would come. Poor Rozsi; they can hardly ask her. The disappearance of Peter, Rozsi’s younger son, and his abandonment of Laura his wife and Marina his child, is not for general discussion. Laura, however, is fair game.
‘You hear from him again?’
‘Peter? No, gosh, never. Not since, you know, that first time, there was a, a card he sent to-’
‘Yes, yes, of course I see this. You do not know where he is, all these years – tair-ible. You cry and cry, don’t tell me, dar-link,’ she says, thumping her fragile-looking breastbone; she has, Laura is certain, been happily married to the cousin for many decades.
The questions keep coming. At least her inquisitor is , as she reminds herself ceaselessly, so affectionate; they all are. When Laura visits her quiet father in Kestonbridge, the Cumbrian village to which, after her quiet mother’s death, he quietly retired to a bungalow, people who have known them for twenty years are still hard-pressed to greet her. Here, they embrace her like a daughter, albeit a disappointing one. Warmth, she tells herself once again, is not to be sniffed at. Since taking them into Westminster Court after Peter walked out, Rozsi has refused to let them consider leaving, even after Ildi was mugged on an Acton bus and moved in, and then widowed Zsuzsi followed. They share their food with her. It is like being raised by wolves.
The problem is that they think they know her. They do not realise that, however sweetly Laura smiles, however demurely she answers, there is somewhere she would prefer to be, something she would rather be doing. And someone, of course, which nobody else must know.
They never will. The idea that, after over a decade of chaste abandonment, Rozsi’s shy daughter-in-law might have, well, needs, has not crossed their minds. However, there are no secrets here, particularly from one so observant as Marina.
Could Marina conceivably have guessed?
Please, God, not yet. Still, Laura worries. With so many inquisitors stuffed into this little flat, no corner where secrets hide, or are hidden, is safe.
‘Nev-airmind,’ the cousin’s wife is saying cheerfully, putting her bony hand through Laura’s arm and frog-marching her back into the throng. ‘One day when you are old vom-an like me you understand. Men leave. Children leave. All that is left is death.’
With a roar from the crowd, Rozsi stands.
To the casual Englishman, were one present, she might appear as other grandmothers: reading-glasses on a chain, worn wedding-ring. Do not be deceived. Rozsi is unusually clever and fearless even by her compatriots’ standards. Her younger son Peter, Laura’s former husband, used to call her Attila, with reason. Laura, whose references are more prosaic, thinks of her as Boudicca dressed as Miss Marple. This is not a woman one ignores. She has a white bun and black eyebrows, her cheeks are soft and age-spotted but consider the cheekbones underneath: you think she forgives easily? Think again.
Her cake, as is correct and traditional, is not a birthday cake at all, but simply her favourite, a rum and walnut dios torta, made by her devoted elder sister Ildi last night. Rozsi, remember to blow the candles out, for luck.
Haaapy Birsday to you…
Rozsi looks, all agree, very well. Tonight, in her good dark red dress with gilt buttons, she could not be beautiful; she is too severe for that. But striking, handsome even, like a relatively glamorous Russian spy. Why should Rozsi care about beauty: the smartest of the sisters, a career woman for all these years? And isn’t her life at eighty something to marvel at? Despite everything – that terrible business with her poor late husband and then Pay-tare disappearing – to be working still is remarkable. Wonderful. Look at them now, see how Marinaka loves her grandmother; Rozsi will never be lonely. Isn’t that something else to be grateful for?
Haaapy Birsday to you…
The cameras flash at Rozsi and, to be truthful, a little more often at her younger sister Zsuzsi, the beautiful one, with her lovely skin and her good teeth and her cigaretty laugh. Those who knew the famous Károlyi girls, Kitti-Ildi-Rozsi-Franci-Zsuzsi, back in Pálaszlany over fifty years ago, claim that people would stop on the street to gaze as Zsuzsi passed by. Men were known to have killed themselves for her and marriage, then early widowhood, have not reduced her powers. Several of her suitors are here tonight, tall white-haired handsome ‘boys’ in beautiful suits: rich Bíró Eddie, globe-trotting André, Tibor with his duelling scar, still patiently waiting for her to choose after all these years.
Haaapy Birsday Dar-link Ro-ji,
Haaapy Birsday To You.
Rozsi, of course, widowed almost as young as her sister and more unjustly, has no such suitors. She lifts the knife. She smiles.
Excerpted from Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson. Copyright © 2013 by Charlotte Mendelson.
First published 2013 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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