a long time ago

After I’ve finished the examination and written up the report, I go over with Lajos what to expect next.
A heavily-built man in his seventies, Lajos has an attentive but sad expression, his bald head inclined to the right, his great, meaty paws stowed in his lap.
‘I don’t want to go back into the hospital,’ he says.
‘Hopefully it won’t come to that.’
‘Good. Because, you know, I’ve really had enough of the hospital. Wonderful though the staff are with their treatments and their care and everything. But really, I would not want to go back.’
‘I can understand that.’
‘I don’t mean to sound ungrateful.’
‘No.’
‘It’s just – well, one can have too much of a good thing.’
‘Absolutely. We’ll do what we can.’
‘Thank you.’
Lajos is Hungarian. I’ve got a little time to spare, so I ask him about his journey to this country.
‘When did you make it over?’
‘A long time ago,’ he says. ‘In nineteen fifty-six.’
I tell him I’ve just been reading a book about the revolution.
‘Really?’
‘I had no idea. It must have been a difficult time.’
He shrugs.
‘I was a boy.’
‘So what happened?’
‘Well, my mother died when I was a baby and my father couldn’t look after me so I went to live with my grandmother. I didn’t much like it there with her and I knew I would have to escape one day. Well, one morning she sent me out to buy some bread. At that time there were always long queues at the bakery. Long, long queues. And I thought to myself By the time I reach the front of this queue I could have walked to Vienna. So then I started walking.’
‘What time of year was it?’
‘Winter. Very cold. And me in my grandmother’s slippers. But I was only small, and I had no idea what I was about. Still, I walked and walked along the main road that led out of Budapest in the direction of the Austrian border. Eventually it started to get dark. A farmer driving a horse and cart pulled up alongside me and he said Where do you think you’re going? And I told him my plan, to walk to Vienna. I think I lied. I think I told him I was going to find my family or something like that. But it’s getting dark and cold and you have no overcoat he said. Jump up and I’ll take you back to the farm. So I went with him, and his wife was there, and they gave me some stew, and somewhere warm to sleep. In the morning they found me a jumper and a coat to wear, which were too big but his wife she turned the sleeves up. I’m sorry we have no shoes to give you, having no children of our own he said. But he gave me some money to buy some if there were any to be had, and they waved me off at the door. It wasn’t long before I fell in with a band of other people making the same journey. One of them was a bank robber. He had a suitcase filled with money, and I knew it would be hard on us if we were caught with such things, but we were so cold and hungry by that time it didn’t seem to matter all that much. We were stopped at the border and put on a train back to Budapest, but it was easy to get off at the next station. We left the road and headed across the fields. Eventually we saw a fire in the distance and because we were half frozen to death we headed for that. Unfortunately it turned out to be another border patrol. The bank robber offered them the suitcase of money if they would let us cross over to Austria, but they said No, the Russians will shoot us for sure if they see we have taken money to let you go. I thought they were going to arrest us, and I’m sure they would have, or worse. But it happened that one of the women in our group was pregnant. The baby was coming and she started moaning a great deal, which made the guards very anxious. They said Go! Quickly, just go! Jump down in that ditch and follow it to the end. You’ll see the Austrian flag and that is where the border is. But as soon as you are in the ditch we will have to set off our flares, because if the Russians see that we have let you go it will be all over for us. So we jumped down in the ditch and started running, with the poor woman crying and moaning and doing her best to keep up. Well, the flare it went up, and it was a great crackling light above our heads. And then a moment later, there were shouts, and then shots from the Russians, and the bullets started landing all around us. We ran as best we could, but then the pregnant woman screamed out. She had been shot and badly wounded. We picked her up and somehow made it to the border. There was a nurse on duty at the station there. She delivered the baby, but the mother died. You know, I often think about it. If it wasn’t for that poor woman, I’m sure the border guards would not have let us through.’

He sighs, raises his hands, presses the heel of them firmly into his eyes, and then in one smooth movement sweeps his hands over the top of his head, to separate at the neck, and come to rest back in his lap again.
‘But it was a long time ago,’ he says, as sad and watchful as before. ‘A long time ago.’

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