Chapter 8: Staying Alive

The lawyer’s office is in central Budapest, not far from the Parliament buildings. Kerstin and Martin want to take the HÉV train but Nandi insists on driving there in his only driveable car, the precarious-looking Jeep. The art deco building containing Dr Kovács’s office was grand once: over the double-door entrance, two well-toned Atlases balance a large globe. Now years of neglect and heavy traffic have lead to the elaborately decorated and undoubtedly once colourful façade to be covered in a uniform brownish-grey patina of layers of dirt and exhaust particles.

The office is on the third floor and appears to be part of a complex of lawyers’ suites. On the wall Kerstin spots Nandi’s poster again. In East Germany such open criticism of another Warsaw Pact member’s internal policies would be unimaginable, she has time to think before Dr Kovács hangs up the phone to greet them. The human rights lawyer is in his fifties and thick-set with thinning grey hair. He exudes the self-righteous air of someone who always gets what he wants, a trait Kerstin both detests and admires in other people. Well, if what he wants is the same as what they want, she is happy to ignore her gut feeling on this occasion.

Kovács speaks fast in Hungarian, with Nandi translating as quickly as he can. He repeats what Kerstin heard the day before about the general political situation, plus he has contacted the Biochemical Institute in Szeged where Martin had worked until March when the grant ran out. The Head of the Institute, a colleague and friend of Martin’s, has written a ringing endorsement of him as an exceptionally talented scientist who would be a real asset to Hungary and greatly help to increase the country’s international standing as a centre of scientific research. If the government would grant him – and by extension his wife – permanent leave to stay in Hungary, the Institute would create a post for him immediately.

“Excellent stuff, excellent“, repeats Kovács, looking appreciatively at Martin over the edge of the letter. “That should sway the Ministry. I’m working on getting you an appointment with Turos András, the Minister of the Interior, for next week, you know.“

Briefly, panic rises in Kerstin: In East Germany, the Interior Ministry is the home of the notorious Stasi, the hated and feared secret police.

“Don’t worry, that’s not what they do here“, says Nando, reading her thoughts. “In Hungary they are the ones deciding over who can stay here.“

“Does he really think we are in with a chance?“, asks Martin sceptically.

“Absolutely, he’s very positive. That endorsement will open doors“, says Nandi, looking for confirmation from an enthusiastically nodding Kovács who obviously understands English far better than he lets on.

“I think I will have an appointment for you early next week. Will you be around?“, asks Kovács, rising from his chair.

“Seeing as we can’t go anywhere right now, I suppose we will“, replies Martin with a dry laugh as they shake hands. It doesn’t occur to Kovács to shake Kerstin’s hand. She is the wife, the girl, the add-on. She doesn’t count.

The night after the meeting Kerstin has the first of a series of recurring dreams: With her Interflug ticket she somehow managed to board a plane back to Berlin and gets off at the other end without being arrested or detected. She is now in the university building, looking for her seminar room where she is hoping to retrieve something vital and unspecified which was important enough to her to leave the safety of Hungary for. Racing along the empty dark corridor, she suddenly becomes aware of her precarious situation. They must be searching for her by now. It also hits her that she is trapped: she has no return ticket to Budapest. She needs to get out quickly before someone might spot and recognise her, she thinks, anxiety rising, when a shadowy figure walks out of one of the doors towards her, addressing her. Before she can recognise who it is, she wakes, heart beating fast.

True to the lawyer’s word a letter reaches them on Friday, inviting them to an interview with the Minister the next Monday. Even his office isn’t in the beautiful Victorian-style Parliament but in an ugly 1960s building next to it. It smells faintly of boiled peppers and disinfectant inside. They walk along an endless corridor laid out with that very shiny yellowish-brown vinyl which appears to be the floor-covering of choice of every institutional building in Central Eastern Europe.

They are meeting the minister, his surly-looking bespectacled secretary and an official translator in a conference room which is panelled in some large ocre-coloured tiles of an undefineable material. At the end of the room a copper relief of Lenin’s profile is framed by a Soviet and a Hungarian flag each on either side. So not quite the end of communism in here, thinks Kerstin. András Turos, a jovial man with a receding dark hairline and a luxurious moustache that makes him look not unlike Super Mario, shows himself almost as impressed with Martin’s scientific prowess as Kovács did last week.

“Very good“, he keeps saying, “very, very good. We certainly need people like you here. But you will understand that your application for political asylum places us in a somewhat – how shall I put this? – awkward position since traditionally we had to fullfill certain … obligations towards your government. This is not to say that we will be sending you back“, he adds hastily as he sees their faces sink, “you may have heard that things are changing fast in Hungary right now. And we have human rights obligations towards West Germany too, as part of an agreement the Hungarian government signed recently. Of course we know that you can’t simply go back to East Germany now. But we will have to go through the motions, tick certain boxes, you know what I mean. We will consider your application carefully in the light of your situation and this letter. This may take a few months, so in order to avoid you breaking the law by being here illegally while you wait, we will grant you temporary leave to stay in Hungary as of today. You will receive all of this in writing at your – ” – he checks the paperwork – “Pomáz address.“

Outside the building Nandi awaits them.

“How did it go, what did he say?“, he asks impatiently.

“He said we have temporary leave to stay starting today“, says Martin, not quite believing what he had just heard.

“That’s bloody phantastic!“, cries Nandi, his face beaming, “So why aren’t you dancing in the street?“

“We still don’t have permanent leave to stay“, injects Kerstin doubtfully.

“Why the hell do you need that?“, laughs Nandi, “by the time they grant you that or throw you out you might be God knows where! To be honest I never thought he’d be this quick with the temporary leave to stay, you must have impressed him with that letter. Hey, you’re legal now, I can show myself with you!“

“Thanks, my genius scientist“, says a relieved Kerstin, throwing her arms around Martin’s neck.

“I told you that wedding was good for something“, he grins, wrapping his arms around her.

Nandi leaves for East Germany the next day to join Caro. Martin and Kerstin are on their own now in the bungalow, with Kerstin’s meagre tourist allowance of Forinths running seriously low. Because they’re very careful, they manage until about the middle of the following week. Then they cook whatever they can find in the cupboards: pasta, rice, tinned soup. They turn temporarily vegetarian. They work out how to cook white squash, the scallop-edged small pumpkin variety Nandi is fond of and has left a fair amount of behind. One night they’re down to the last potatoes they can find, months old and gone soft, and boil and eat those still edible without anything else.

“This is delicious“, remarks Martin sarcastically while they eat.

“We have to make some money“, says Kerstin determinedly. “I’m going to Szentendre tomorrow with my drawing kit, there must be some Austrian tourist I can sell a picture to.“

The next day they are sitting in the sunshine on one of the little walls of Sentendre’s Old Town, a pretty whitewashed old Serb settlement with winding staircases, walkways and endless picturesque rooftop vistas, perfect for drawing. Kerstin fills an A3 sheet with a view of the church and the mosaic of rooftops. It takes her hours, and several tourists walk past, admiring the picture. By the time it’s finished she is so attached to her pencil and graphite drawing she doesn’t want to let go, but one man offers her 500 Forinths for it – peanuts for him, almost a week’s worth of food for Kerstin and Martin. She sells and takes nearly as long to draw another one, this time for her portfolio. By the time she is finished the sun sets, and they go home to celebrate having briefly staved off starvation with a pizza and a small beer to share in the Pomáz bungalow.

Kerstin contemplates going back to Szentendre again the next day, but an unexpected visitor changes all that: A big, white, dreadlocked Hungarian shepherd comes to see them at the bungalow. The dog appears to be on his own until they spot the slight, pretty, dark-haired girl he is dragging along. She looks about 12 but is in fact 22 and has worryingly little control over the huge animal. The dog, whom they learn is called Pipacz, and his hapless owner Ilona are looking for Nandi and Caro. The three of them wrestle with the friendly but completely untrained dog for a while until eventually they manage to tie him to one of the wooden posts at the porch before he can chase after the neighbours’ cat. Kerstin prepares jasmine tea for Ilona and excuses the fact that they don’t have anything to go with it. She explains about their situation and the money trouble when Ilona’s big brown button eyes light up:

“Maybe I can help you“, she says in heavily-accented English. “There’s an archaeological site in Budakalász, over by the quarry lake, and they are looking for people to help them dig. I came over to ask Caro if she wanted to work there. She was a bit fed up with her waitressing job in Szentendre, she told me last time I saw her. I thought of her because the archaeologists speak German.“

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One thought on “Chapter 8: Staying Alive

  1. Pingback: Chapter 8: Staying Alive | A truly novel novel

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