Thirty Eggs

It happened during the second act of The Glass Slipper, when the wedding was well under way and the cast were enjoying themselves at leisure with glasses of water in their hands and little Irma was getting tiddly on pálinka, wanting to give the little cat her breast as in the first act, and the storm was gathering in the stifling air: at the end of May 1987 there weren’t very many in the auditorium at the guest performance by the Vásárhely Theatre School, friends, relations, intending students of the School and a few members of Zsebszínház, the amateur company, which was bereft and had no director anymore (Ödön, the interior decorator-cum-director had gone off to Sweden, and before that had played his last mime at the station, waving a white handkerchief from the train, then stiffening into a still), and the self-confident year-ten girl was sitting there among the amateur actors, a fortnight before her entrance exam, after the National Hungarian Literary Olympiad that had been held in the spring and at which she had carried off the special prizes given by Young Worker and The Week for her essay on Bánk bán[1], and she felt that she had nothing to fear from the entrance exam for year eleven because for years there had been eighteen places allotted to Arts students in the Hungarian fraternal class in the Lyceum, and there she sat calmly in her seat in the middle of the fifth row, I’m obviously going to be the first to get in, she thought after the unexpected triumph in the Olympiad in April, but in the Humanities faculty of the University, where her sister wanted to go, a total of only seven Hungarian places had been announced and last year a hundred and seventy had applied, and her sister, who had opted for the Hungarian-Romanian specialism, was having private tuition that day with the best Hungarian teacher, old Auntie Juli, who lived near the Sétatér theatre on the other side of the Szamos, I might make the third act, Juci had said that morning, perhaps she’ll make the third act, thought her sister, because they both wanted to see their friend who had been accepted at her first attempt for the Theatre School, where there’d been only three places, so that for the examination performance they’d have had to put on a three-man play, the rest of the candidates laughed, they wouldn’t even have been able to do Godot, and so now every year in the High School was performing, and in fact a few actors from Vásárhely as well to make up the full cast for The Glass Slipper, but during the act there was suddenly thunder outside and through the door of the auditorium they could hear the storm break a few minutes before the storm on stage, and the Year Ten girl looked anxiously at her black velvet slip-ons which it had been her turn to wear that week; she was wearing the Chinese shoes belonging to Gyöngyi, her first-floor neighbour who was in Year Twelve, which the three of them–including Juci—took it in turns to wear, as they did the green velvet cord Levi’s, and the comfortable, one-size velvet slip-ons fitted Gyöngyi, Juci and herself perfectly well, as they usually took sizes 38, 39 and 40, the only thing was that the cardboard insoles were beginning to wear out and they were becoming smellier and smellier, and because they wore them without socks they sprinkled menthol powder in them, but they daredn’t wash them in case they fell completely to pieces, I’ll hang on and wait for the storm to pass, she thought, but there was still an interval and the third act, then suddenly the stage storm too broke, and as it crashed down the wedding party began to run from it towards the covered veranda, and in the racket the girl didn’t even notice that the side door near her had opened; Is my daughter here? asked somebody, panting, and the old lady usherette pulled aside the heavy brown velvet curtain and turned her electric torch on the girl as she bit her nails in the fifth row: her mother, soaking wet, excused herself and made a married couple stand up–they were Krisztina’s parents, and it was because of Krisztina that she’d come that day–and sat down by her: her dress–the white polka-dotted red and dark blue one with the shoulder straps, which Grandmother had made and for which they’d ticked her off that day at the Central Trade Distribution Centre, saying that such indecent clothing wouldn’t be allowed in future, was absolutely clinging to her, and she was holding a completely soaked copy of Igazság,[2] all four pages of it stuck together in a single thick mass, and she bent towards the startled girl and, still panting, whispered in her ear the entrance exam, but the rest was swallowed up by the thunderstorm, which had come in from outside before and then, to the delight of the spectators, continued at higher pitch on the stage, and on Mother’s face raindrops were mingling with the tears that she was trying to hide–the hair that had been permed the previous evening had been completely straightened and her blue eye-shadow had run, so the rain had caught her unawares: the girl leant quite close to her and looked into her startled face in the light from the stage, it seemed that she didn’t want to make out the words from the severe, straight and now strangely pale lips, but the effect: Mother took the soaked, indecipherable newspaper in both hands and shook it, and, shivering from cold repeated, this time aloud, There’s no entrance exam for the Ady, the paper didn’t list the school she’d chosen among those offering  Hungarian, because that was the simple and direct way that a news item was made known–by silence and evasion it was announced that there would be no more Hungarian class in the former Calvinist grammar school, which had actually had nothing to do with Endre Ady, but all the more with Apáczai, who had begun teaching philosophy and theology there, and that day, three hundred and eighty years later, at the end of May 1987, had been shut down by a news item, Fuck three hundred and eighty years! Why couldn’t they have put up with it for another two? she stamped her foot at Grandfather, who for once didn’t dare complain about the foul language, but this news couldn’t be a printing error or an accidental slip of the pen, it was simply the long-inherited method of announcing a decision, which would seem innocent to the outsider: ‘The register of lawyers working in Kolozsvár’ had been carried in January 1941 by Ellenzék,[3] the forerunner of Igazság, and from that register Uncle Jenő had discovered that he no longer belonged to the company of lawyers working in Kolozsvár, but it seemed that the helpful newspaper only wished by this to inform its gentle readership, to extend useful information to the citizens of the town as to where they might turn, but Uncle Jenő had been deleted from the register, had simply ceased to be, just like his brother Pál’s ‘Stadion’ sports-equipment shop, which the following year did not feature among the ‘Christian trade sources’ proclaimed by the paper, and the little business was then closed as a ‘Romanian-Jewish global concern’ and the owner himself made to prepare the inventory for the sale, but in the autumn of ’46 the same paper wrote that Dr. Constantinescu Neumann Erzsébet was not a member of the Romanian Communist Party, though she had served nearly a year in Szamosfalva jail as an illegal communist, and she (although by then divorced from her second husband too) had been able to pick the paper up and learn from it that she was no longer a party member, because everything and everyone was excluded and included in this way, just as the thick-walled, low, vaulted classroom of the fraternal Hungarian-language class in the Ady-Şincai lyceum had been shut in the face of the hopeful Humanities student: that’s done it, she thought, no more school, because she couldn’t take the exam for the old maths and physics specialist school, she wouldn’t be able to work up either subject in a fortnight, and now Krisztina, in her second year at Theatre High School, who likewise had gone into special school instead of year eleven because she’d failed the entrance exam, was now singing drunkenly on the stage about ‘The pollen of my happiness, blowing in the breeze’, because she’d been accepted with her certificate in cabinet-making, and her diploma work had been a piano-stool which she’d seen for the first time the morning when she went for the exam as it had been made for really big money–500 lei–in the theatre workshop and had gone back there free of charge as there was no need of it at home, Krisztina had her own piano stool and upright piano, and now she was singing falsely and rocking to and fro in front of the ‘sweet poisonous’ Lajos Sipos, played by the balding head of year, Let’s go home, dear, said Mother next, but on stage the disconcerted crowd was frantically seeking shelter from the rain, which was only present in sound, because it poured from the loudspeakers but through an unusual arrangement of the producer’s not a drop fell on stage and the only person that was wet through was Mother, sitting in the auditorium, and nobody on stage seemed surprised or amazed or said anything or suddenly burst out swearing, but they said nothing and went on playing their parts in disciplined fashion, The water’s been cut off, said Krisztina with a laugh in the interval when she went backstage to see her, because she’d stayed until the interval after all and said to Mother that she’d heard said that you could get eggs in Vásárhely and she was going down with the cast in the bus after the performance and she’d bring back at least thirty, that was how many there were in a tray, she’d go the one day, catch the night train and come back the next, and Mother, without a word, took out her purse and gave her two green 50-lei notes, then hurried back home to give a lesson, and it didn’t matter any more whether she went to school next day or not, There’s nowhere to go, she thought, as if school would never come again, because that toadying, loathsome poem which was always declaimed at moving-up ceremonies, usually by an awkward, bespectacled girl, and reduced everybody to tears with painful emphases in the pious silence in the school decorated with wilting wild flowers, that poem had suddenly come home to her with its personal, sharply piercing message: what would there be if one day there were in fact no more school: the square building with its cloister-like corridors beside the church in Farkas utca, with the tiny rooms with space for no more than eighteen, that is, half a class, it seemed that the size of the little rooms had determined in advance the future fate of the classes, in that only classes half the size of so-called fraternal classes[4] could function, and next afternoon eggs really were piled high in the empty butcher’s in Vásárhely, and the woman serving replied in Hungarian regretting that she couldn’t give her any packaging, and it seemed futile to bargain with her, saying that she would pay for it, and she tried promising to take it back, but the woman insisted, she had to account for the trays, please understand, and she put the forty-five eggs into two bags and advised her to wrap them individually in newspaper, especially if she had far to go with them, To Kolozsvár, the girl replied proudly, Yes, I know, the woman commented sadly, as if speaking of a death, like someone that knew that there were no eggs in Kolozsvár, Eggs are rationed up our way, a person gets seven a month, but you can’t always get hold of any, she’d have liked to inform her, but by then there was another customer behind her so she just put the money down and felt about the forty-five eggs, carefully stowed in nylon shopping bags, that it was going to be quite a job, un tour de force, and if she reached home with the heavy burden of her errand it would all have been a success, and she’d even had change from the hundred lei, enough for a real Vásárhely melba, what was more, something that she’d never tasted, only Grandmother had often mentioned the special Vásárhely dessert with eyes upturned to heaven: in the afternoon Krisztina and the director took her to the Lido patisserie in the main square, Three melbas, please, said the director, a middle-aged man, with a smile to the girl at the cash desk, No melbas today, try again tomorrow, she replied regretfully and with a hint of encouragement, at which there appeared from the back an elderly woman, who put an arm through the girl’s: You’re in luck, director, we’ve just got three melbas left, and she winked, only just take them home, will you, and she leant closer, I can’t even serve them on the terrace, there’s been none for days, at least sit and have them in the back, and she pointed to the dark depths of the patisserie, and the girl, touched and astounded, paid for the melbas in gratitude for their putting her up, but she had simply no idea where she’d got to, into Grandmother’s dream-world of Vásárhely where there were eggs, this melba with whipped cream, apricot jam and ice-cream, and most of all Hungarian women behind shop counters . . .

[1]    A Hungarian classic play by József Katona.

[2]    ‘Truth’.

[3]    ‘Opposition’.

[4]    Classes containing Hungarian and Romanian pupils, taught in Romanian.