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Prelude and The Raft of Poverty
In the Circus Ring
The Pedlar's Prediction
Hail Caesar!
Jealousy is Dead
A Steam Engine for a Piano
Stalin Organs
Hungarian Rhapsody: a failure
White Nights
All or Nothing


          With a past such as mine, it is impossible for me to imagine a musician floating serene and imperturbable above the earth. This prelude is intended to remove any such misunderstanding.

          People are, I feel, weary of descriptions with its executioners and martyrs, criminals and heroes, its processions of horrors and great deeds.

          Yet as soon as I start to evoke that period of my life, images of major and minor events of the last war flit past me; my memories of a Europe aflame and flowing with blood intertwine, twitch and die. A Europe plunged into darkness by the eclipse of the human mind.

          That long night explains why a major part of my experience has not been on the world’s concert platforms but in the operating theatre of dreadful war. How many of us, when I think back, were waiting for the miracle of peace, longing for it, we the inhabitants of Budapest as much as those of Paris or the other cities of Europe!

          I don’t know whether such episodes in my life came back to me deliberately or instinctively. It is not so much a taking-stock as a confrontation between two worlds which know nothing of each other, irreconcilable fragments of eternity on different orbits.

          With time, something obvious has occurred to me about my disordered memories: only the laws of relativity can explain why I can find no link between past and present, why my inner world is split into two islands.

          That is why I can only reveal myself as I was at the time – a child then a soldier. Art and music had no part to play in war or the destitution of my family. It should be understood that during that period I was cut off from my past and my future: I had no time to weep nostalgically for my youth or dream of my future. My relationships with others were purely animal-like, mechanical and automatic. You should realize that I can’t write about it all philosophically, looking down peacefully from a height on the horror and absurdity of the good old times, thanking God for saving me from hellfire as though some arcane Providence had planned it all.

          It is not the picture of a young man seated at a piano that comes to mind but that of a soldier wandering in no man’s land. During the long war years, I forgot ever having touched a keyboard. My hands were no different from those of other combatants: hands for wielding a weapon, for eating, for surviving, hands raised under the menace of a machine gun, hands tied behind one’s back. How could I have remembered what it was like to have the supple hands of a musician? Those had died with the war.

          There are strange coincidences in life which I am tempted to see as signs. Emotional moments of parting or of return to life are the only landmarks in a harsh series of events of which the coming together in time and space passes all understanding. From his earliest years, my son György has been able to interpret the mysterious signs which pursue me now as they did in the past. I entrusted myself to him without realizing it, bit by bit by hints, even in glances and silences. These tales from my life have seen the light thanks to our invaluable understanding and are now available to all.


          Inexorable poverty enshrouded my mother, sisters and me in the single tiny room where we lived. It beat incessantly against the walls and against the bath tub into which I fell when I was born. With it came destitution and, worst of all, starvation – ‘The Great Daily’, as it was known.

          It assailed us until I was eight, passing over me without crushing the little child that I was or ruining my health, despite the paralyzing effect it had on us.

          When I became an adult, the phantom of that pitiless cruelty which had viciously hounded our humble existence often appeared in our haunted dreams. Later, even though life has not always deigned to show me its sunniest side, I was able to look on those dreadful events with certain objectivity: had we really deserved such incredible hardship? Had all our sufferings really existed? Hadn’t it all been just a nightmare, vanishing suddenly as if by some divine order the better to let us glory in our victory?

          Whenever pictures of the past come back to me, I do not see them with my sensibility as it is now; I have gradually come to experience the past as I did at the time.

          It is in this sense that the theory of relativity seems most appropriate in my case. It alone makes an utterly poverty-stricken past credible, while at the same time showing what a boundless distance exists between that past and the person addressing you now. There are two different states of awareness and yet the same man bears them within himself.

          Isn’t the secret of our resistance to the blows of Fate the ability to forget that life is ever-changing? Our salvation is in fact due to our astonishing ability to adapt which, if necessary, modifies our metabolism, both physical and mental. Such transformation ensures our survival, however great the distress, for the mind gradually puts aside all other preoccupations until it can no longer even conceive of any other form of existence than the present.

           For me, looking back is not just an evening reminiscing by the fireside or tears of emotion on looking through an old photo album. It means plunging into a strange, almost unknown world, which I gradually decipher. There is no bridge or pathway: to get to the other side you have to leap into the void and lose sight of the present world.

          We were not alone on that raft of poverty. The scourge of God which fell upon us was the lot of countless families which tried like us to live – or rather stay alive – in the white wooden huts hastily crammed together on the outskirts of Budapest thanks to some humanitarian organization which had designated this unsanitary masterpiece a ‘temporary residential block’. The spot was called ‘The Land of Angels’. That was all we needed to call our dwellings ‘Angel Court’.

          My mother and sisters had had to move into the tottering hut, perched on piles, attributed to them not long before my birth. Removal was no problem: they did not have anything to move. How had they sunk to this when only a short time before they had been living in a smart flat in Paris? Quite simply because of the 1914-18 war.

          A short time after the declaration of war, the French government had issued a decree expelling all foreign residents whose countries of origin were fighting against France. Their property was to be confiscated. Since he was a Hungarian citizen, my father was immediately imprisoned, then interned in a special camp along with several hundreds of others, also of ‘enemy’ nationality. My mother was given notice to leave French territory without delay by special convoy, each person having the right to five kilos of luggage. Their fifteen kilos contained the little that remained of my father’s earnings from his years as a cabaret musician. The rest was simply seized: furniture, family souvenirs, everything representing some fragment of the happiness of their lives up till then.

          Her arrival at dawn at Budapest station, shrouded in winter fog, cannot have been exactly joyous. Like most of her fellow travellers who, under the same sign of destiny, stared blankly and despairingly at the world confronting them, she had nothing to look forward to and no-one to welcome her. The journey had drained her morally and physically. She had travelled the whole way seated in the corridor on her little suitcase with her second daughter in her arms.

          The eldest lay near her on the floor. Many others journeyed in such conditions for they had all left France on an equal footing. The train carried twice as many people as there were seats and my mother, who was then thirty-eight, got out of the train on the point of collapse with no idea of where to go or with what objective. Resigned yet wishing with all her heart for some miracle to occur, she and her children made their way towards the exit.

          At the end of the platform stood a few guardian angels sent along by the Hungarian Red Cross and waiting with an air of complete indifference for all those bewildered people so that they could be sorted. They were assembled and asked straight out if any of them would like permanent lodgings. In her exhausted state, my mother said yes without even enquiring where and in what conditions she was to be billeted. Her period of martyrdom began shortly before the start of my own life story.

          All this was only a foretaste of the distress which was to wind its tentacles around her for years to come and of the daily anxiety the menacing shadow of starvation caused.

          My first home, that hut wavering on stilts, comes back to me in a strange, misty halo. Why indeed was I born there of all places? I have no idea. It was my meeting place with Destiny and there my father found us all when he was released from internment in the French prison camp. Nor could I say if the right to live, granted to every human being when he comes into the world, was the greatest of rewards or a supreme infliction for a child born in ‘Angel Court’. Perhaps it was both.

          The background of my early years will not take long to describe. The epicentre of the slough of destitution I lived in with my parents and sisters was bounded by the few dozen constructions, all alike, on the makeshift estate. The terrain was marshy so the City Council, in a burst of humanitarianism, decided to elevate the rotting edifices. These were linked in fours by a wooden balcony which acted as a passageway. Every block was divided into a dozen rooms eighteen yards by twenty-one, each with an identical opening: a tiny window on a level with the door, looking onto the inner yard – a sea of mud in autumn, a skating rink in winter – the latter a paradise for children but a purgatory for the elderly.

           The only staircase for the inhabitants was a model of its kind. It had been added as an afterthought, a sort of miller’s ladder, its original rungs replaced by planks, with a symbolic handrail which children and old people alike made sure not to touch. Lodgings such as these could only encourage the spread of human degradation yet the public health authorities in all good conscience crammed in unemployed down-and-outs with their large, poverty-stricken families. No account was taken of the number of children or of their state of health: each family was allotted just one room. Apart from ‘enjoying the rights’ to the open space roundabout, the estate dwellers had no advantages, unless the constant supply of nauseous air from the nearby marshes counted.

          The rooms were damp beyond belief yet, in the half-light of winter evenings, they were the only safety net left to all those whom even Fate had grown weary of battering. They lived stranded, cooped up in the hovels they had been allotted, all hopes dashed - and we lived in their midst. It would be incongruous to speak of comfort in such a context. The word no more existed in our vocabulary than it did in the brilliant mind of the property dealer responsible for the wooden slum. He had not even thought to provide the tiniest space for a stove on which, if only on occasion, my mother and her neighbours might have concocted one of those dishes, using a few scraps, of which only the truly poor have the secret. The water in the well at ‘Angel Court’ was no more drinkable than the liquid in the head of the Health Official who had had it drilled – again because of infiltration from the marshes round the estate. Promiscuity was forced on adults and children alike as they washed and relieved themselves in a bucket in one corner of the room. Each evening it was emptied into a pit situated, as luck would have it, at the other extremity of the estate. Those still healthy enough lay beside the sick and made love in full view of everyone. Their way of life – if such stagnation could be called life – had soon rid them of any feeling of embarrassment or shame.

          There were at least five people to a family in the shanty town. At first, my mother and sisters were not too cramped in their room. The living space was sufficient, if hardly acceptable, for three. When my father returned, our family grew and, after I was born, there were five of us to enjoy the lifestyle.

          Some of the better-off neighbours could afford the luxury of an old mattress, which they set up on chocks. Others got hold of an old camp bed. Like most other families, we were not so lucky. Hoping for something better in the future, we slept on old jute sacks refilled regularly with fresh straw by our parents, and these made pleasantly soft beds.

          The raft of poverty gathered speed as it was sucked into the maelstrom of degeneration. Even so, people went on living at ‘Angle Court’ with utter indifference. The unemployed remained unemployed; the dreamers dreamt; the hungry went hungry and the pessimists had nightmares. In actual fact, they had no need to: it was enough to open one’s eyes and look around. Some time later, my sister told me that a younger sister, born shortly before me, had tied of TB as a consequence of so much privation.

          As my mother later told me, I was a little over two when my younger sister had a quite unexpected chance to jump off the raft which was carrying us along. My mother hurried to fill in a form for the Dutch Red Cross, which proposed lodgings for a certain number of Hungarian children on a temporary basis, with charitable Dutch families paying their school fees, board and lodging, etc... The offer was limited to one child per family, providing he/she fitted the criteria of ‘in special need’. As regards poverty, we were well up to the mark. It was not difficult to understand my mother’s relief at knowing that at least one member of her family would be well provided for. So one day my sister left for Holland to spend her childhood free from want. Shortly afterwards, my parents received a letter from her hosts asking them to take the necessary steps to have her legally adopted. The very idea was revolting to them. However, sick at heart, they accepted. What else could they have done? The threat of under-nourishment – an ever-present guest at our rare meals – and, worse still, starvation - the daily spectre – forced the decision on them. They just could not face any longer that feeling of helplessness and anguish which brought a lump to the throats of every parent on the estate every time a loss of energy in one of the family was noticed. Time passed. Like any child who changes countries at an early age, my sister learnt Dutch as quickly as she forgot her mother tongue. To start with, my parents heard from her regularly then the letters grew fewer and finally stopped altogether.

          At least she had escaped from the ship which was slowly sinking beneath us. We were clinging on fast – but for how much longer? To cap it all, my father’s health prevented him working full time. The poor man persisted in making his way to Budapest in the hope of finding cabaret work. The outcome was inevitable: either there were no jobs or the last one had just gone. In the evening, he downheartedly made his way back, sucking on an old pipe as empty as his pockets. On arrival, he sat down on his low chair in a corner of the room and, his eyes blank, brooded over his disappointment.

          My mother’s chief worry was, of course, of the same order. To a little boy, his way of discretely disappearing was as mysterious as his suddenly reappearing. I was at once astonished and delighted at his always being there. Actually, it was thanks to his gift for being in several places at once there he was able to pick up here and there just enough coppers to cover the cost of the paraffin we needed for our lamp in the evening. On those days when my parents both came back empty-handed, we went to be with the sun. He who sleeps forgets his hunger! My mother wrapped me in a sort of shawl and stuffed me inside one of the mattresses which made up the major part of our furniture. I was protected from frostbite, but how long those dark evenings seemed in that room where the thermometer dropped well below zero – as long as a funeral wake.

          On other evenings, and believe you me they were occasions for celebration, I fell asleep my belly as tight as a drum skin, with all the satisfaction of a job well done, dreaming I was eating all over again.

          One day mother came back looking radiant. She came up to me where I lay, picked me up and, squeezing me to her, waltzed several times round the room. To explain her extraordinary behaviour, laughing aloud as our dance continued, she popped something meltingly delicious into my mouth. She saw how delighted I was from my puzzled look accompanied by a broad grin more eloquent than any words. As my first ever chocolate dribbled from the corners of my mouth, she suddenly grew serious again and explained that from then on I would be having more of this lovely stuff as she had found a job.

          I must have been three at the time. I was so ludicrously small and weak that my mother had to leave me lying down all day. I was subject to frequent giddy spells and was constantly tired. I often fell flat on my face when attempting to take a few steps. Like many children handicapped, my mind developed precociously to make up, as it were, for my physical weakness.

          The near religious awe with which those around me pronounced the word ‘work’ each day taught me very early on its fundamental importance. The frequent rumbles in my stomach, more often empty than full, taught me to respect it well before I understood exactly what its function was.

          At the other end of the estate stood a building stood apart from the rest, the only one not on stilts, with walls of old, re-used, cracked bricks daubed with lime. At least the foundations were solid concrete. It was a makeshift grocer’s thought up by some distinguished town planner for the poverty-stricken spot. Its aim was to satisfy the most elementary needs of our ghetto. Since the resources of the locals were virtually non-existent, it specialized in selling the most basic foodstuffs. Although ‘Angel Court’ was heavily populated, only a derisory number of customers could pay for what they bought. But (there is always a ‘but’ in such cases) the couple who ran the shop had no children. They were moved by our dire poverty, which was notorious even in that ‘Court of Miracles’[a courtyard in Medieval Paris, the haunt of beggars, cripples and thieves] and offered to give my mother work from time to time. A child who had died young for want of medical care and food; another too weak to get up; a third obliged to go abroad to escape starvation; an elder daughter as yet too young to work; a semi invalid husband recently released from prison camp, unemployed – and all with nothing to eat. My mother was dogged by the attempt to makes ends meet. (By the way, congratulations to anyone who may suspect I am blackening these memories. This is perhaps the moment to point out to those who may consider the story of this period of my life as much the sort which certain journalists revel in that I too would rather read about it in a comfortable armchair than have lived through it.)

          Thus it was that, due to the pity of those kind people, my mother at last had a little job. Sometimes she went out as often as three times a week to do the housework, laundry or work in the shop. Her modest earnings were our only income at the time. What rejoicing there was at home: for the first time in ages our meals contained sufficient calories and, more important, were daily. My mother kept her promise, bringing me back whenever she could a sweet to saviour blissfully after dinner.

          As a matter of fact, the basic revenues of the families in our colony came from unemployment benefit, which arrived through the post every month. It amounted to the price of a large, five-kilo loaf. It was a pittance, true, but in our community the amount was acceptable. Destiny became the banker of those who found the market value of that modest banknote too low – for a time. It printed beautiful notes for them, as large as they were worthless, with a plethora of zeroes. Inflation was upon us.

          Such was its gravity in Hungary that all social classes and all salaried workers began frenetically buying absolutely anything to be rid of the money as quickly as possible. When the value of the notes was virtually nil, magnificent brand-new ones appeared in all the colours of the rainbow. The face value of the smallest was fifty or one hundred thousand. The largest were worth a million, a billion, even a trillion. It was a time when anyone lucky enough to have employment was paid daily in the form of a large sack crammed full of banknotes – barely enough to buy a few kilos of sugar. Even then, they had to be spent quickly for the contents of the sack were soon worth no more than the price of a newspaper. I can still remember those great multi-coloured notes on which were stamped an impressive row of zeros – enough to set one dreaming, for a while at least.

          Under such conditions, the avalanche of afflictions which swept down on the survivors of ‘Angel Court’ had an immense impact on all concerned until they developed a shell which made them indifferent to their fate.

          What resignation and passivity I recall on looking back. My memory is subject to the laws of relativity – it is a mirror now reflecting the truth, now deforming it. The truth probably was that with time our misery must have seemed to my mother and sisters so bound up with our lives, so inescapable, as to cause them to lose all notion of time and even of life a few years earlier.

          I now feel the concentration camp atmosphere, with all the families of the unemployed crammed into identical huts, was in its way salutary. The idea they were sharing their poverty with others stopped them giving up during the terrible hardship of the winter months.

          Sometimes at different stages of my life I have wondered – as I still do – whether the war was the sole cause of that insane poverty. It is possible.

          To me, such anger from on high is far more terrifying for someone who is destitute because it forces him to face up to his situation and robs him of all hope, draining him still further and also results in a self-indulgent blackening of his condition until the external poverty starts to eat away at his very being like an incurable disease, utterly destroying him.

          I don’t want to appear cynical or avoid confronting something beyond our understanding but you must surely agree that if you were to get out of that black hole sound in mind and body your willpower had to be riveted to your body.

          I must have been four or five when I first became aware of the utter calm and passivity of my mother and elder sister in their deep distress. Naturally, they must have known their chance of survival was as slender as that of other families. Above all, this certitude led to a degree of resignation such that all notion of past, future and even present, plus the perception of time, gradually faded from their minds before disappearing to make way for a Job’s poverty of such magnitude that they were under the impression just about anything could be imputed to it. Everything is relative.

          I can still see my mother in the little room in the evening, her head bowed, her face like that of the grieving Virgin Mary, expressing infinite acceptance. She never forgot to mention all our names in her evening prayers.

          The people in our block used to call in on each other. Sometimes they came to see us too. The meetings followed a set ritual. Everyone brought his ‘seat’ with him, usually an old crate slightly modified. While waiting for the others, the latest arrivals listened to the complaints of the earliest. Then all together they cursed their fate, their poverty, their future and, of course, the government. When everyone was at last settled, the most fortunate would take from his pocket a handful of cigarette-ends and roll up the shreds of tobacco in a bit of old newspaper. He licked the edge of the paper, examined the cigarette with an expert eye and lit up. With morose delight, he inhaled deeply then solemnly passed it on. Meanwhile, the others awaiting their turn spoke in a low voice of all the marvellous dishes they would enjoy…as soon as the occasion presented itself. The communal cigarette continued its rounds. The room reeked with the rank smell of re-used tobacco. Yet at the very mention of lovely stews or wonderful roasts a sudden resounding concert of empty stomachs reminded everyone it was time to change the subject. Each took a final puff at the tiny stub to calm his turbulent innards and quickly went back home to digest his dream banquet in his sleep. That was, basically, our social life at the time.

          Inflation continued to soar. Up till then, everyone had been guided by two delusions: the possibility of getting a job and the return of financial stability. Both had fallen by the wayside. So necessity became the law at ‘Angel Court’. It must be admitted that thefts and murders were a frequent occurrence. To bet on keeping one’s spirits up and on remaining honest in such surroundings was of a temerity bordering on the irresponsible.

          Our situation had become worrying once more. This time fortune smiled on us by giving my eldest sister, who was just thirteen, a helping hand. She was taken on to do the washing-up in the canteen of some firm or other – in the back of beyond, it goes without saying. Every day without fail she was up at dawn, ready for the two-hour walk to our place of work. She never forgot to take with her a decent-sized saucepan. Late each evening, on arriving back, she set the saucepan of plenty, full of leftovers, on the table and served us generous helpings on our tin plates.

          These Gargantuan meals restored our good humour. Everyone was pleased except for my father. With a disposition such as his, he could not stand feeling useless. His outbursts became more and more frequent. He was inconsolable at the thought that one of his children, still of school age, should have taken over his role at the head of the family to look after our basic needs. By now, he was refusing to sit with us at table during our ‘blowouts’. He sat in a corner of the room, silent, turning his back on us, his head buried in his hands, now and again shaking an accusing fist at heaven. His nerves already sorely tried during his recent captivity, were almost at breaking-point. [Interned near Paris at the outbreak of war as an 'undesirable alien', Cziffra's father along with the other prisoners had been subjected to false warnings that the prison was about to be blown up.]

          At first, during this new period in our lives, my mother, as if somehow sharing his feelings, wept when my sister got back. But she gradually resigned herself to the situation. She relaxed, her usual good humour apparently restored, and often took me on her knee and sang in a soft, clear voice popular waltzes or tunes from operettas or operas that she remembered from the past. I remember these moments so clearly because each time a strange, indefinable sensation of well-being spread through my body, warming it while at the same time leaving me feeling drained.

          As I have said, I came into this world with virtually no physical resistance. Huge squadrons of microbes and germs of various infantile diseases regaled themselves on my feeble organism and then put my pathetic carcass up for auction. No-one could diagnose the exact cause of my problems. In ‘Angel Court’ it was utopian to think of a nice steak or of penicillin. The former was impossibly expensive, the latter as yet undiscovered. Besides, it was beyond our means to pay a doctor. The Health Officers neglected their duty since they feared to venture into the estate. Though their consultations were free, people avoided asking them in, knowing full well that the chief contents of their first aid kits were a stethoscope and a book of burial permits. I lay for months on end on an old sack stuffed with straw, yet my health did not improve in the slightest. I was all wound up in old headscarves, shawls and moth-eaten comforters.

          Sometimes a fever would set me shuddering. I knew what to expect of these attacks and, weary of fighting back, waited stoically for my perceptions to grow dim so as to watch a show only I could see. I fixed my lethargic gaze on the ceiling. The grey patches on it grew multicoloured and then, so slowly as to be almost imperceptible, began to move. My nth nightmare was about to begin. As I tried hard to stop myself vomiting, the patches changed into grimacing faces all aflame. There were several of them: a scarlet monster, a gooey green devil and, most grotesque of all, a purplish blue ape-like creature. Their blinding white eyes, which grew dim after a while, were the only thing they had in common and it seemed as if they were about to disintegrate, but they did not disappear: only their consistency changed. I suddenly realized what they wanted and was paralysed with fear. The grinning masks became a glaucous, jelly-like fluid constantly breaking up and reforming, all whirling together in a hideous mass, which trickled down the walls towards my face. My heart beat fit to burst and the blood pounded in my head. My whole body, bathed in cold sweat, begged to be spared, terrified at the idea the sticky liquid might touch me. Just as the frightful hallucination was preparing to swallow me up an electric shock shook my paralyzed being and I was back on my mattress, teeth chattering, head swimming and with a feeling of nausea.

          My mother hurried to the rescue from the other end of the room. She placed a hand against my back and helped me sit up to try and relieve the choking sensation. Attacks like these could occur at any time. My mother was out of work again and gave up seeking a job for a while to look after me. She still had to leave me occasionally if only to see to the water. I dreaded the idea of an attack while she was out in case I had to manage by myself and raise my fever-racked body, shaken by spasms until it seemed about to fall apart, and remember what I could of the meal I had never had.

          My father’s worries ceased for a while when he too at last found work. Together with a spindly, shabby old violinist, he livened up a seedy bar, beautifying the odour of cheap wine with the sound of an ancient piano. The two artists speeded up the rhythm at which the glasses emptied, to the delight of the bar-keeper, and earned them enough each evening to fill the bellies of their families the next day. The cherry on the cake was the packets of cigarettes the tipsy customers gave them in gratitude – ironically, just when they could have afforded their own.

          Alas! This was not to last. My father’s nervous illness, a remnant of his captivity, grew worse. Wearied by the struggle, he spent more and more time at home, long periods of exhaustion alternating with strangely periods of over-excitement. Mumbling incoherently, he paced round the room raging deliriously. All of a sudden he would stop short and stare wildly at a point on the wall. I loved my father dearly but at such moments I was terrified of him. I shut my eyes tight and made myself as scarce as possible on my bedding. I tried to persuade myself that if I could not see him he could not see me either. At other moments, at the height of his worst attacks, he began to howl like one possessed. Terrorized, I forgot my strategy and began to howl even louder. Sometimes he was so taken aback at not being able to hear himself that he calmed down. Luckily for us, such grave attacks were rare. On thinking back, these symptoms did not particularly affect us. Compared with all the tempests our raft had survived up till then, they were a storm in a tea-cup. Yet still we clung on. All of us. But persistent, virtually continuous spasms of trembling meant that my father was incapable of any kind of work and we suffered with him from every point of view. His condition compromised our hopes of survival and seriously undermined our resolve to keep going – and in ‘Angel Court’ it was as well to keep one’s spirits up.

          My elder sister, Yolande, applied herself zealously to her washing-up and brought back generous helpings of leftovers, cleverly transformed into shepherd’s pie by my mother. With her meagre starting wages, we could not afford to add anything from the grocer’s to our daily fare apart from bread.

          My sister’s attendance record was remarked on by her employers. They even found out that she had a little culture. Like most of her colleagues, she sang as she worked to give herself courage to face the Babylonian pile of dishes to be dried. There was nothing unusual about that except that she sang in French. A girl living in a place of such sinister repute as ‘Angel Court’ singing in perfect French in a grimy factory scullery miles from that bandits’ lair seemed as out of place there as a banknote in my father’s pocket. In short, she was moved to another department, an office, and her pay went up. One evening she came home from work and astounded my parents by declaring for all to hear that she intended to hire a piano. The decision was an important one but my father said nothing, trying to catch my mother’s eye. Deep down, he could not have been displeased by the idea. He was himself a musician, after all. Fixing her large blue eloquent eyes on him, my mother replied, "Yes, we used to have one in Paris…But in conditions like these…sheer folly…and if I ever…"

          My father shut his eyes wearily. He already knew all about the idea, though they had not discussed whether the moment was opportune or how the plan could be carried out but he wanted to share the spark of unexpected joy. But my mother’s muted enthusiasm was as nothing compared with my sister’s zealous determination. In the end, not long afterwards, a horse-drawn cart drew into the backyard. We heard the pleading, ominous creak of the staircase and then my sister appeared in the doorway, flushed with excitement, her eyes shining and after her came two men heaving along a large, square object. My parents looked at each other, dumbstruck.

          Without knowing it, I was looking at my first piano.

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