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Sport 39: 2011

Hungarian Lessons

page 267

Hungarian Lessons

After my father left, my mother filled the house with foreign men. Their names—Laos! Stephan! Julius!—were like the startled cries of birds and when they laughed they threw back their heads, showing gold fillings in their back teeth. My mother told the Hungarian refugees she would teach them English, dress them in proper clothes (they arrived off the military plane in white singlets and shorts) and find good wives for them. But first they had to know what a man did in this country. She emptied a bag of potatoes in the sink explaining that it was customary for the men to start the dinner preparations. ‘Like this,’ she said, running the tap over the potatoes, ‘like this,’ she said, peeling the skin. She smiled at them. ‘New Zealand women will be happy with you.’

When the men got bored with hanging around the house my mother sent them off to bike around the neighborhood. The black Raleigh bikes had been given to them by the church and looked almost new except for a few scratches on the mudguards. Behind the seat of each bike was a little leather bag filled with tools and a long tin containing rubber patches, chalk and glue. ‘Chalk,’ I said helpfully. ‘Spanner.’

‘Botto,’ my sister said, patting the seat. She pointed towards Stefan mouthing the words slowly. ‘You sit on the botto and then you pedal off.’

I knelt down by the rear wheel and ran my fingertips over the wire spokes.

‘Pokes,’ I shrilled. Stefan’s troubled face looked down at me. Then Laos suddenly threw down his bike and chased after us. We ran into the kitchen, ‘Save us! Save us!’

page 268

There was something wrong with Laos. Though he was the oldest, he hid in his room when the Hungarian welfare officer came around. ‘He’s going to help you find a job,’ my mother said, standing outside his room, ‘don’t you want a job like the other men?’ She leaned in closer to the door. ‘There are no spies in New Zealand,’ she whispered. Later she asked Stefan to talk sense into Laos. ‘Tell him the war is over,’ she said.

After a while Stefan became boss of the Hungarians and began night lessons on the kitchen table. He brought an English dictionary, a Hungarian dictionary and a roll of newsprint. Us kids had to go to bed but we heard laughter and stamping of feet in the kitchen and in the morning we found several sheets of paper still on the kitchen table. Strange foreign names were scribbled over the paper alongside stick figures, their heads too small for their bodies. Sometimes the stick figures stood next to cars. ‘Taxi,’ said Laos, passing me in the hallway one afternoon. ‘Please I go in a taxi.’

My mother brought herself some new clothes, including a button through voile frock. It was time to move on, she said, other people got over worse things than her.

The Hungarians came home from a bike ride in great excitement. They’d come across three other refugees from the same US plane who had made their way down from Wellington. ‘Party,’ the men cried. My mother looked taken aback and then Stefan rushed into her room and before she could object he brought out armfuls of her clothes. He danced around the kitchen, the voile frock dangling from his arm. Laos and Julius slapped their thighs and stamped their feet. ‘OK, OK,’ my mother said, snatching back her clothes. She held up her hands to indicate people. ‘No more than ten,’ she said. ‘And no drink.’

‘Ja, ja,’ they said.

My mother was worried that Stefan would find a Hungarian wife and then he would leave. She said she didn’t want a party at her house, they would all get drunk and trip over beer bottles and cut themselves. That night she went to visit a friend in the next street. Stefan watchedpage 269 her tie her scarf around her head. ‘Lessons,’ he cried, pointing at the dictionaries, but my mother shook her head and sailed out the door as if on important business.

Stefan sat at the kitchen table. Laos put his hand on his shoulder. ‘Kurva életbe,’ he murmured. He opened the kitchen window. ‘Kurva életbe,’ he shouted into the dark night.