World War Two is over and Budapest is slowly emerging from its Twilight Zone, but marauding Red Army soldiers still roam the streets and, at times unexpectedly, collect fit looking men off the streets, load them into trains and ship them to Siberia for slave labour.
Men under sixty-five dare not go into the streets and women neither because they are afraid of being raped. But the schools are functioning and, miracle of miracles, so is the Opera House and the movie theatres.
My sister is eight and has been studying ballet since she was five. She has now been admitted to the Opera’s ballet school and, as a result, is at times required to perform as an ‘extra’ in operas in which the script calls for ‘children prancing around and having a good time.’ She is very happy because she loves the dancing part and the music and the theatrical ambiance and she is ecstatic about getting paid every time she appears on stage.
Trouble is that there are no adults around who dare go out into the night to fetch her when she finishes – usually around eleven p.m.
So I volunteer. I am grown up. I am eleven. Fetching my sister is no big deal: the subway station is in front of the Opera, and the station, Heroes Square, near to where we live is only the fifth down the direct line. When we emerge, we run home like the wind, skipping and laughing and happy. I love my sister very much.
On Sunday mornings we have to go to Mass, then to Grandma’s, to take part in the compulsory torture she calls family lunch. But we don’t mind because after lunch, before coffee is served, we are excused and allowed to go to the movies.
We know the location of every movie house in Pest and we also know what movie plays where. Believe it or not, nobody stops an eight year old accompanied by an eleven year old from going to the cinema as long as they pay.
And we pay. Correction – my sister pays. I have no money, but she gives me the cash when we are a block from the cinema so that I can pay the cashier and not she, thereby enabling me to pretend that I am a true gavallér (gentleman in Hungarian.) (The word is derived, like so many other Hungarian words, from a foreign word: cavaliere – gentleman in Italian.)
Why am I telling you all this, you ask?
Simple. My sister is eighty-two and I am eighty-five. After lunch last Sunday, I said to her: “Let’s go and see 1917, the film everybody is talking about.” She giggled. “Who’s paying?” she asked. I didn’t answer.
Guess what: she gave me the money when we got close to the theatre. I took it, we looked at each other and then burst out laughing.
By the way, we both thought that the film’s plot was seriously unrealistic at times: a live cow among dead horses in the middle of a battlefield with a bucket full of milk at its side … a beautiful woman alone with a baby in her arms whose name she doesn’t know, hiding in rubble with houses burning all around her … and soldiers exchanging shots nearby …
The two of us have been there … done that. War just ain’t at all like that!