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- 27 11 2022 - 19:10 - katatonik


She became his last wife. They got married when I must have been around 19; I was no longer living with him. She was enthusiastic, impressed, caring; she was all about education, about music, about expanding horizons, and possibilities.

At the age of 18 or so, she had left Budapest. As she tells the story, her mother had sent her out for bread one day, in 1956. On her way back she came past the railway station and saw a long queue. What are you all queuing up for? — We’re leaving, the train to Vienna. It’s time to leave. And there she was, with her bread under her arm, and just joined the queue. Sometimes piano lessons also become part of the story, but the bread is always there. That was her way out. She describes herself as a family refugee, by the way.

About the time that follows, a mesh of stories, episodes, that I could never quite place in a linear succession. They were told to me on separate occasions, islands of conversations, with dark oceans in between, occasionally light thrown into one or another abyss. Life in a refugee camp in Tyrol, studying piano in England (she was a prodigy), a period spent in Belgium, at some point the suggestion of a confinement to a mental asylum. There was a husband, there were two children, there was a divorce. There was a brief period of practical education, and then work as an accountant.

When he met her, found her, they were both approaching formal retirement age. He was retired early, a measure to prevent overt conflict; I spare you the details. She worked and took care of his debts, complicated manoeuvers of shifting accounts around so as to avoid total desaster. Nearly. There was a winter when the house was barely heated – I was still living there at the time –, for financial reasons, when food got appreciably cheaper. Was this the winter when I kept knitting woolen sweaters? Still, they lived together quietly, happily. He stopped drinking. I was able to drop out of the picture, relieved. She learned and wanted to learn; he finally had someone to appreciate his lectures, of which there were many. They read Latin together. Greek was on the horizon, for later, after she would retire. Their life together, economic hardship, not to say poverty, social humiliation, but cultural richness, built on a library and record collection reminiscent of better times. The house around all of this, well, eventually it had to be sold; the collections moved to where she had built her own home, he included.

He was not well. Decades of alcohol abuse had taken their toll; details shall again be spared. At some point he just disappeared. A few days later, his body was there for her (for us) to manage. He destroyed the future she had so been hoping for, the Greek classics she wanted to read with him. Me, you ask? A sense of relief, frankly. Rage, that he would do this to her, rage that continued from earlier occasions. Some self-pity, as well, but mostly relief, thanks for asking. Sadness came years later.

She managed. Eventually she retired. Bitterness had accumulated over the years, the bitterness of someone made to feel foreign all her life, neglected, mistreated, unseen. How dare these Viennese bumpkins with their butchered German ridicule her for a few missed articles and prepositions – people who would instantly drown in the grammatical finesse of Hungarian, who only survived with their egos intact because they didn’t care about the rest of the world being more refined, more cultured, more everything? This is not how she ever put it, to be sure, but I guess she could have. She swallowed a lot, remained ever so polite and smiling, but eventually stopped, to put it frankly, giving a shit. The gloves came off, there was a new sense of aloofness, maybe even contempt.

She decided to get a high-school diploma in the end – she had left Hungary before getting hers there –, among others to finally master these damned articles, and enrolled in a distance-learning course. Her own kids never understood; they never grasped her thirst for knowledge. She turned to me and asked questions I tried to answer, often, though my tendency to explore and analyze and her eagerness for quick answers did not always make for a happy match. Latin, mathematics, history. We sidestepped politics, me, the bourgeois leftist, her, the fervent anti-communist, even anti-socialist, with absolutely no regard for unions (union reps just don’t want to work, people who do an honest work have no time for such bullshit). She suffered, felt surrounded by people with whom she did not want to talk, there in that artificial lakeside community outside the city. She hated small-talk, she wanted Plato and Cicero, not casseroles and flower-pots. She had built a little house there, over the years, incrementally, appendages and facilities pieced together from a modest accountant’s salary. She was the first out there with solar panels on the roof, already ages ago now. That spirit of building and constantly rebuilding lives, slowly, incrementally, stitching, patching, mending, nothing thrown away, everything repaired as best as one can. She had a network of repair and supply persons from neighbouring Slovakia and Hungary, constantly arranging this and that to be repaired, to be improved, to be distributed (she didn’t just do this for herself).

She got her diploma, and then lost her sense of purpose and her everyday rhythm. There was talk of memories haunting her, very vivid ones, from her childhood, remote not only in time. She was in contact with another sphere of reality, she said, concentrations of dark matter blown around the house in the wind, and she could touch them. Compared to her stories, my own little flirtation with ghosts is really just that, I tell you: a little flirtation. Her stories sounded crazy, perhaps, but I sympathized. There was a whole deep past to her, another country, another system, another language. And that thing about aging: people who’ve been there with you, at that time, they are no longer around, the ghosts can haunt you without resistance and contradiction. Nothing to keep them in check. There’s only your own story that remains, and that can be frightening. Very.

Then, all of a sudden she wanted to go to Gibraltar to meet the “Extraordinary C.”, a handsome-looking fortune teller who she was convinced had deep insight into her psyche, with whom she communicated via the internet. Had she ever talked to him? No. Why Gibraltar? That’s his address (actually, that of a shell corporation). Her son told me she had spent money on Extraordinary C. (he seemed reluctant to say how much). And now, Gibraltar. I tried to explain how internet scams work, but to her, what she saw in online bulletin boards and in messages that were sent to her by e-mail was unquestionable, unassailable. Suggestive messages playing with the loneliness of an elderly woman, conveying to her a sense that she was understood, deeply. Prime examples for psychological manipulation. There was no convincing her that this was a scam and that there most certainly was no C. “How could he know so much about me?”

In the course of this difficult conversation I eventually came to ask what she was going to do with her tomcat, named after a Greek philosopher. She would take him with her, of course. You can’t do that, I said. This is an Austrian countryside cat, happily catching mice in a temperate climate (sort of). He’s not a mediterranean street cat, fighting with other street cats over fish in dusty heat. He wouldn’t survive. The weather, the climate, the mice, the fish, the brutal mediterranean cat world (of which I honestly know nothing, and I sincerely hope all the best for all the cats of Gibraltar). My argument had big holes in it, but she let herself be convinced. She would stay in Austria until the cat, already old, would pass. Then she would go to Gibraltar and have her encounter with Extraordinary C.

At one point there was a fire, caused by a defective gas heater, but fire engines were there quickly, alerted by the nerd kid from across the street who noticed the late night flames. The mayor of the small community arranged for a temporary flat for her, quickly, while the little house was repaired. She lives there again, still independent, but with some professional help and meals on wheels. Cognitive signs of rather advanced age are there, to be sure. Her patience with others is severely diminished, to say the least. She doesn’t understand (or doesn’t want to understand) why people can’t just come and stay with her for days. (They have jobs, but why should this be her problem?) Her short-term memory is a nightmare, you feel like a broken record, repeating the same thing to her for four, five times until it sinks in, at least for the next fifteen minutes. But that’s ok. I can’t give her much of my time, but she gets to try my patience as often as she needs to.

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