I opened my eyes to a silvery light and burrowed down into the blankets with just the tip of my nose and my eyes exposed. Ildiko slept soundly on the part of the trundle bed under which fit my rolling mattress. My eyes slowly adjusted to the details of the room and I craned my neck to better see the shiny tiles on the kandallo, the ceramic clad fireplace, in the corner of our room. The white glazed tiles looked as cold as the room felt and I was reluctant to emerge from my warm cocoon.
What was going to happen today, I wondered? We didn’t have to go to school, it was temporarily suspended. Anyu might have to go to line up for buying meat, milk, rice or flour. Maybe she would take Ildiko and me along to wait at the shops, and we could help bring home provisions in the string bags she carried bunched up in her purse. Or, perhaps, she would let us go outside to play the stone-tossing game against the apartment walls, with Marta, Tibi and Karolyka. I knew Laci, my violin tutor, was arriving in the early afternoon to monitor my practice session, and that Herr Kropatschek would make his appearance in the early evening for our German lesson. Life was certainly topsy-turvy, but Anyu made sure that not all of our routines were interrupted. Apu was keeping appointments in the surgery in our apartment, and would afterward go off to the hospital and the clinics around the city to do his doctoring.
As I lay pondering these possibilities it occurred to me that maybe today the Russian army might arrive. I crept out of bed, wrapped in the top-most blanket, shuffled to the window and looked down upon Stalin Utca. Skiffs of snow drifted about on the road and on the soccer/handball court across the street. And parked on the empty street were tanks, lined up end to end as far as I could see. These were a mossy gray colour, patrolled by one soldier per tank dressed in long khaki overcoats and fur-lined khaki shapkas. The soldiers carried strange-looking guns and walked back and forth along the length of each tank.
I shuffled back to the beds and shook Ildiko awake. “Come and see all the Russian tanks outside! They really did come!” She blinked, sleepy, stretched and muttered “Go away, leave me alone… you are making this all up!” I poked at her and insisted, ” Really, I have seen them from the window… come and see for yourself”. Ildiko crawled out of bed, rubbed her eyes and slowly made her way to the window. When she saw the tanks she groaned, “Oh, no!…now what will we do?
I was excited and suggested that after breakfast we gather all of our friends and go visit the soldiers. ” We just have to find out where they came from, and see if they really are dangerous to us,” I announced, “and besides which none of us have seen tanks before. We need to take a good look at them.”
We washed up in the cold bathroom and dressed in our matching grey sweatsuits, our regular at-home winter wear. Anyu had our usual breakfast of cream-of-wheat, sugar and milk ready for us in the dining room. As we ate, she told us that today she would go and line up to buy lentils and rice; she had heard a shipment had come in and she had to make sure to be able to get some for us to eat. “I want you girls to stay inside. The Russian tanks have arrived outside and it may not be safe for you to go out.” Ildiko said she would practice on the piano while Anyu went shopping. I mentioned that Marta wanted me to come downstairs and exchange stamps from our collections, but carefully left out any hint that I wanted to talk with the soldiers.
After Anyu left the apartment, Ildiko opened up the piano and set out her sheet music. She wound up her metronome. Before she began practice she turned to me and warned me, “You better not go outside. You will get into trouble if the soldiers don’t shoot you first.” I just shrugged, and ran off to the kitchen to prepare some slices of lard bread with sugar sprinklings for the soldiers. Then I went to collect Tibi, Marta, and Karolyka and we trooped outside bearing the pile of lard bread.
We stood outside the apartment building door and fooled around kicking up snow. Slowly we approached the nearest tank, and studied it carefully. It looked somewhat like a mechanical sow-bug, but one with a long gun protruding from its humped back, and was a dusty moss green. The soldier patrolling, holding his gun, watched us, curious. “Good morning, Comarade”, greeted Tibi in his best Hungarian/Russian. The soldier approached us and motioned us to back away from the tank. This we did. I held out the pile of lard bread toward him and asked if he would like a slice. He shook his head, “No.”
He appeared very young, about the same age as Laci, my violin tutor. Like a skinny teen-ager, he seemed. From under his sheep-skin lined shapka strands of pale blond hair escaped, his skin was very white and his long green eyes gazed at us. I sensed he was friendly and was not about to shoot at us, so I offered him the bread again. He took a slice and ate it down in very few bites. “Good!” he said, in Russian.
Marta asked him, ” Where is your family?” “Novosibirsk”, he replied. “You are very far from home” I said. “Yes, The Suez Canal is a long distance from Novosibirsk. I am surprised you African children can speak Russian”, he responded. This took us aback and we exchanged glances and began to confer in Hungarian. Karolyka decided that the fellow confused our river with the Suez Canal. Karolyka’s Russian was better that the rest of ours, mainly because he was in a higher grade and had longer time to learn it. He clarified for this soldier, “You are in Hungary, not near the Suez Canal and our river is the Raba. We are not African kids, we are white skinned like you.” “No, no,” insisted the soldier “This is Africa. We were told that we were to be stationed at the Suez Canal”.
We didn’t feel like arguing with him, after all he had a gun and a tank. So we politely said our goodbyes and went back into our building. I could not figure out how a soldier might not know where exactly he was. Karolyka said that the soldier was just stupid. Tibi, Marta and I climbed the stairs to our apartments, and on the way to our homes determined that adults lied, not only to children but to each other. I found this difficult to grasp.