Rosh Hashana 1989 - Part Two

Rosh Hashana 1989 - Part Two
by Nicole Waldner 

The first thing that Gábor thought of were the words from the Illyés poem: “…where there’s tyranny, everyone is a link in the chain…” The second was the stack of books on Peter’s bedside table he’d seen when his host had taken him on a tour of his house. John le Carré. Every single one. This is what his cousin knew about Communism, about life in a dictatorship. Spy holes and secret dossiers. He looked around the table at all the expectant, well-meaning faces and words tripped off his tongue.

“It’s true some people were asked to inform on their neighbours. But maybe asked is not the right word. It’s too polite. We don’t know the extent of the spy networks. Not yet. Maybe in the future, or maybe never.”

His cousin looked disappointed with his answer. Gábor forced his lips apart and smiled. The conversation rolled on and away from him. He excused himself and went to the bathroom.

He locked the door and washed his face with cold water. He told himself he had nothing to fear but still he feared. His cousin didn’t know anything about his past other than their shared bloodlines. And what did Peter really know about Hungary anyway? What did he know of threats and coercion, of hunger and cold? If it was spy stories that his cousin wanted Gábor had plenty of those to tell. He’d first been asked to inform when he graduated from high school. His father was dead, his mother was unwell and on a pension. Gábor wanted to help her, but he also wanted to go to university. The Party arranged everything. His mother’s operation, his place at the university, a small stipend for him too. It was ignoble, ugly work, but he found he had a gift for it. An honest face, a brain hard-wired by Socialist ideologues. Years later, long after he’d stopped, someone he’d informed on found him. He brought friends with him and crowbars too. They put him in hospital for a year.

Gábor looked around the bathroom wide-eyed. He ran his hands over the marble walls, the snow white hand towels with the little pink roses on them. He sniffed the shell-shaped mauve soaps. It soothed him. All of it. It reminded him how far away from home he was. Standing in that marble jewel box on the other side of the world, he tried to feel as if the past were truly past. He smelled something coming from the kitchen, something was being fried. Ah, potato latkes! He washed his face again and went back to the table.

The food was indescribably good. The potatoes sweet and crispy, the boiled beef perfectly tender. The salads, well, those he didn’t much care for, but he saw that it was expected of him to eat those too, so he did, and then he asked for seconds of the meat and potatoes. The wine was heavy and soft as a velvet curtain. With every glass he buried his younger, malignant self and became the blameless Sociologist once more. He looked over at the little girl’s place card beside him. Claire. Klára. That was his grandmother’s name. Peter’s grandmother’s name. Had he named his daughter after poor Klára? He smiled benevolently and somewhat drunkenly at Peter, dear Peter. Were it not for his generosity he would never have known this moment.

Suddenly the speakers mounted on the dining room wall began to crackle, a guitar strummed, a harmonica wailed. A nasal cry spilled into the room:

Come gather ‘round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown

“Hannah turn that off!” Peter said.

“It’s not appropriate!” said her mother.

Gábor looked up at Hannah, his eyes glittered. She was standing behind her mother’s chair making a peace sign with one hand and pretending to smoke a peace pipe with the other.

“Bob Dylan,” he said in wonder. “Please don’t turn it off, if you don’t mind, just this one song.”

Hannah giggled, so did Claire. He didn’t really understand why Hannah seemed to mock the hippies, but he didn’t mind. He thought she was funny. Maybe she just put it on to annoy her parents, a reason he was sure Dylan would approve of.

And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command

He mouthed the revered words. When had he first heard them? ‘74 or ’75? His girlfriend, his future wife, had taken him to a party. She was friends with all of the underground dissidents. She gave him his first samizdat, she introduced him to Koestler, Orwell and Solzhenitsyn. Loving her was his salvation. She was his redemption. He joined the dissidents with the same fervour he’d joined the spies. He needed to be re-made. He looked around the table and saw that they were all watching him. He must have been singing the words not mouthing them.

“Dylan fan are you?” said Peter blandly. He sounded embarrassed.

“He has been very important to us, to the opposition. All of the poets were important to us, the ones that said out loud what we only dreamed of saying. Illyés, Petri György, Rimbaud. We needed them as much as we needed each other. And I think we loved them all the more because they were forbidden…”

“Forbidden fruit, eh?” Peter said. “Ah, here comes dessert!”

Gábor glared down at his plate. What he’d really wanted to say was that it was the peaceful, liberal intellectuals that had sent Communism to its grave. The poets and philosophers were the heroes, not Gorbachev and Reagan! He looked around the table. Everyone was eating honey cake. The moment had passed. Gábor ate too. It was deliciously sweet, oh and it had walnuts in it too. He thought that this honey cake was better than any he’d ever tasted before. Was it because he was eating it in Sydney? Or was it because he was eating it on Rosh Hashana as a free man from a free country? Gábor thought about his cousin, how for all his worldly success he was still naïve. Peter didn’t know what it was to hunger for freedom, he’d never had to fight for it. When there’s no wall to push against, what do you push? When there’s no wall, what can you know of walls?  

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