Prelude and The Raft
In the Circus Ring
The Pedlar's Prediction
Jealousy is Dead
A Steam Engine for a Piano
Hungarian Rhapsody: a failure
All or Nothing
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.
are, I feel, weary of descriptions with its executioners and martyrs,
criminals and heroes, its processions of horrors and great deeds.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE RAFT OF POVERTY
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.]
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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…"
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.
knowing it, I was looking at my first piano.