An early overcast morning, at the beginning of November 1956. Father has gone again, Mother is clearing out breakfast dishes, Ildiko opens up the piano and begins to do scales. I take up “War and Peace” and continue reading, lying on my stomach on the divan. Eva our maid arrives to make beds, dust and sweep. Quiet, subdued, she moves around with girlish grace doing her chores. The light in the room is under-watery, low, peaceful.
Mother comes into the room and announces that Tibi is in the hall asking for me. She spies the book I am reading, snatches it up, looks at the title. “You are too young to understand this book!” she announces, as she goes to replace it in the bookshelf. “Go, play with Tibi!”
Tibi and I lie about the steps in the stairwell, exchanging news we have sussed out despite our parents best efforts to keep us in the dark about what is really going on. That very morning, he had overheard his Father mention to his Mother that our town was most likely going to be bombed the coming evening. We decided to call out Marta and Karolyka to confer with us about what we could do ourselves about this. The four of us met in the main lobby to draw up our plans. We agreed that Ildiko should be kept out of our doings as she was known to rat us out whenever she thought we were doing something the adults would not approve. Marta and Karolyka were delegated to scrounge up food from their family larders, water in empty wine jugs and sneak these into the basement. Tibi and I were to raid the maids’ rooms off our kitchens and remove matresses and blankets down to the basement via the elevator. We dispersed to get on with our appointed tasks.
I ran back into our apartment. Mother was in the kitchen preparing food. I needed to get her out of there. So I sat in the waiting room and deliberated at length as to how I was going to distract her. Through the doorway into the front room filtered the strains of piano music. Ildiko had warmed up and had moved on to playing “Anitra’s Dance”, and it seemed to be rough going for her – she got stuck at the same place over and over again, struggled with the fingering of melody. Aha!
The solution presented itself, rather naturally. Mother was quite anxious that Ildiko be very competent playing the piano, and could be easily convinced to stand over her making multiple corrections. So, I casually strolled into the kitchen and mentioned to Mother that Ildiko was having considerable trouble with some passages and needed immediate help. She bustled off to do the piano practice monitoring, and thus left the coast clear for me to move the mattress and blankets from the maid’s room to the lift. I hauled my treasures down to the basement and dragged them into a far corner.
Soon, Tibi arrived with his load of bedding. We set to making separate family spaces, and made up the “beds”. The elevator disgorged Marta. She was wearing several necklaces of sausage and had a round of cheese under one arm and a bundle of bread cradled in the other. We found a pile of bricks and made a little pallet to put all the food on. Karolyka descended next and dragged several big jugs of water to the corner. We were most satisfied with the results of our efforts and lounged about on the mattresses discussing what it might be like to be bombed the coming evening. We imagined our parents being pleasantly surprised that we had the forethought to provide some little comfort for us all while we found ourselves hiding out in the basement. Tibi thought it might be a bit scary to be down there in pitch black, so suggested we go back and steal some candles from our pantries. Karolyka said he would be the music director and distract us all during the long night hours by organizing us kids as an entertainment troupe. We argued about what kinds of songs we could perform, and I put forward that I knew some disgusting variations on folk-songs which might provide some humour and distraction. So we practised these in the half-dark basement.
Soon, it was time to go to our apartments and have an afternoon snack, so we dispersed. I let myself quietly into our hallway, hoping to get by Mother without being noticed. She heard me anyway, came out of the kitchen and scolded me for having misrepresented Ildiko’s difficulties with her practice. She ordered me to go inside the front room and sit quietly listening to Ildiko practice.
Chastened, but privately pleased with myself, I climbed up on the divan and quietly sat. Ildiko played “Anitra’s Dance” over and over again. The sprightly tempo echoed my feelings of pleasure and excitement with having had a part of making a little haven of safety for my family and those of my friends.