Chapter 27 – A Phone Call from Mother
Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
[Apologies for late post - computer failed on Monday afternoon.]
Chapter 27 – A Phone Call from Mother
Very soon after starting at Elektroimpex, my mother called me with the surprising news that my parents were “coming home earlier than planned”.
She was, of course, careful how she phrased things on the phone in those days, especially on a call from western Europe. Not that what she said was untrue – it certainly was “earlier than planned” - because, of course, my parents had not intended to return to Hungary at all. Thy had planned to start a new life in West Germany. Clearly, something had happened to change all that.
Within a few days they were in Budapest, my mother earnestly explaining she was concerned about her young son facing life alone in a city he'd been away from for nine years. As loving parents, they had come home to reunite the family and take good care of me.
Call me cynical, but I didn't believe her. It sounded hollow, as indeed it proved within a week or so of their homecoming. It happened like this.
One evening, after work, I invited a girl from the office home. She wasn't really a girlfriend - it never got that far - she was just a colleague, and I thought we'd have a chat and spend some time together. I can't remember her name, though perhaps for good reason.
So back she came, we went into my room, and I made some tea. There we were, drinking tea and listening to Bob Dylan or something, when all of a sudden, the door burst open, and my mother came in. No knocking, nothing – that was the first thing that surprised me, because she usually knocked.
Instead, she simply stormed into the room, stood there with her hands on her hips, and snarled: “What is this bitch doing here?”
I thought the floor would swallow me up. I could hardly believe my ears. She saw that I had come home with a girl, I said hello and walked into my room with my guest. That's all she knew. Nothing more than that. OK, maybe I should have introduced her, I don't know. But it wasn't a case of bringing home my fiancee or something and introducing her to my parents. It was just a colleague coming up for a chat.
Well, I had to say something, so I asked her what on earth was wrong. My friend was from the office, we wanted to listen to music, why was she so upset?
My attempt to defuse the situation backfired spectacularly.
“Don't bring all sorts of whores to my home!” she screamed.
I was flabbergasted: you'd think I was setting up a brothel or something – when in fact this was the first woman guest I'd ever had invited to the flat.
I tried to keep cool. “I told you, she is one of my colleagues. At Elektroimpex. She's come up for a chat, so please, don't behave this way. Apologise.”
“No no no. I don't want to see any of your women in my home!”
This was a nightmare, and I had to end it. Still pleading with her to behave, I stood up, pushed my mother out of the room and closed the door.
Of course, within seconds, the poor girl got to her feet, and said she'd better leave. I apologised profusely, saying I had no idea this would happen.
It was really embarrassing, and naturally, as she left our home, I was thinking about the next day at work, hoping she would keep this episode to herself.
Some hope. By the end of the morning. all of Elektroimpex was talking about it - I could just see it in their eyes. It was all very bewildering.
But a few days later, I realised it was possibly all opportunism on my mother's part. One evening at dinner, she announced: “I think I've found a very good solution, so you can take your girlfriends somewhere, but not to my home!”
This grated on me, and I snapped back, keen to make the point: “It's not just your home.”
Mother ignored me, and proclaimed that it would be far better for everyone concerned if “You go to live in Zita's house.”
Uh? What house?
This was the first I'd heard about my half-sister having any property in Hungary. (Zita, who went to Khartoum with us in 1965, played no real part in my life, having defected to the UK in 1966, gaining British citizenship in the meantime.) In fact, it became obvious that my mother had been plotting all this in secret, because it was also news to my father.
Whatever, it transpired Zita had inherited a large house from her paternal grandmother in Mészáros utca, a street in Buda not too far from the Castle tunnel. As was common at that time, the house was divided into flats, including one where the grandmother had lived.
As a young man, mother intoned, I should be living on my own, and not with my parents any more. The grandmother's flat was the solution to this.
There was, however, one snag – the place was occupied by “some sub-tenants” who were “illegally resident”. But since I was a “clever young man”, mother continued, the move would kill two birds with one stone: it would both “get me out into a place of my own” and “help your sister out by getting rid of these pesky tenants”.
My eyes and mouth were now probably wide open as I tried to digest all this.
You see, Budapest in 1973 had a serious housing shortage, a continuing hangover from the massive destruction of World War 2. And though Hungary was certainly no anarcho-squatters' paradise, getting people out of property once they were living there was no easy matter.
Mother, however, had a decidedly fiendish plan to overcome the problem: we would turn up and tell the residents that, as the brother of the owner, I needed to live there from now on. If the others didn't like it, they should find themselves some new accommodation.
Well, I didn't know how these things worked, but I said ok, let's go, and a couple of days later, we were knocking on the door.
The first shock was to find there were six living there: a family with two children, and two girls in their 20s.
How had this all come about? It seems Mária, one of the girls, had moved in to help the grandmother through her last years. She was there legally, because the grandmother had signed her registration documents.
But with the grandmother's death, instead of moving out, Mária had taken over the place, inviting in her sister, who was married with two kids, and Vera, a friend, to stay there. To cap it all, and give the arrangement a fig leaf of legality, Mária was paying a nominal rent to my sister – I think it was the grand sum of Ft 30 a month, which even those days wouldn't buy more than 40 cigarettes.
Whatever, mother was in no mood for compromise: we had a van bring a bed and dumped it in a corner of the middle room, which everyone was using as a kind of common room, but where nobody was sleeping.
“Right,” said mother, “This is your room from now on. Just try to manage the others in the flat. If you're clever, you'll soon have a place of your own.”
And with that, she got rid of me! So much for the promise of “returning to Hungary to unite the family”.