When Nothing Can Help

Peasant house, northeast Hungary.

When Nothing Can Help

By Malcolm Sharps

One of the rare curiosities of Central European travel is to make the crossing from Hungary to Slovakia underground by way of the Dobsina-Aggtelek cave system, which in all is 21km in length. On my first visit to Aggtelek, I met with no such lucky opportunity; the tour was not available on that day and I had to make do with the short cave tour on the Hungarian side only, fabulous though that is; but I did meet with luck of a different and odder kind, if luck it really turned out to be in the end.

Sitting in the café near the cave entrance, I watched the take away queue and noted how few tourist types were among them; the locals use the café more than the tourists as there is no other one in the village. Apart from visitors to the caves, this area was beyond the tourist circuit, hemmed in as it was by the Czechoslovak border immediately to the North and the prospect of the Ukrainian border further to the East. Even small countries frequently contain such pockets of remoteness.

I was in hearing distance of a child of about 12 waiting to get served. So when he got to the counter it was clear he could speak a fair amount of Hungarian, but he wasn’t Hungarian and still had problems with what is perhaps the most difficult of all European languages. He confused ‘mennyi’ and ‘how many’, which do sound alike and have a similar meaning, combining them as  ‘how mennyi?’

I asked him if he was English. He told me he was from Canada. This was Stephen, who explained about his being there and about his family. His grandmother, who had never moved from the village her whole life, had just died, and he and Béla, his Hungarian-born father, together with his mother Helen and Helen junior had all come from Canada to claim Béla’s inheritance. I found out later there was a time limit on such claims, and allowing claims from escapees in the Revolution of ’56 was a comparatively recent concession, and a deceptively liberal and compassionate one, since most returnees brought much-needed western currency with them.

Stephen felt freer speaking English and he obviously considered me a proud find, so he opened up talking about any and everything as it came into his head, about Canada, about Hungary, about his family, all in no particular order, while taking me along to see the family and the cottage they had inherited. His father had been a forester in the old days in Hungary; in Canada, he had done many different jobs; there were street gangs in Winnipeg he had to stay clear of; the girls in Hungary were given a tough time by Hungarian boys; the family treated his sister special but he didn’t mind because she was the weak one and had been very ill and almost died; the mushroom hunting in the woods around Aggtelek was magic and you could fill a whole bucket in maybe five minutes, less; he missed burgers, cheeseburgers most, his grandmother was Catholic but the family wasn’t anything and his father was against religion and had got mad with his mom when she wanted to go to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and told her they were all just as bad.

Finally, we came to a typical three-room peasant long house, much like all the others we passed on the way but this one was all theirs now; Béla, after fleeing during a raging revolution, had finally come back home. As he told me later, ‘Vee tought tirty year in Vinnipeg vas enough’. Enough for Béla maybe.

When Stephen showed me the cottage, he was not noticeably so proud, but he changed within a breath when he caught sight of the animal brooding in the rear. ‘Hey, we’ve got a pig too, no one in Winnipeg has a pig in the yard’. I looked beyond the shabby wall of the long house to the even shabbier sty at the back in which skulked an inscrutable, fat-bound porker, an animal that always seems to me dissatisfied with his lot in life and waiting to get even. I scanned Stephen’s satisfied face and silently I asked no one in particular, ‘Béla, what on earth have you done?’

What he had done was to become clearer and clearer through the day: he had brought his family from one of the the richest countries in the world to a remote forgotten part of a rather poor one in Central Europe to chance their fortune as they were best able. From one viewpoint, he was merely re-commencing his old life, or making an attempt at it, but at the same time he was disrupting the lives of the rest of his family, making them hostages to the vagaries of his personal fate. They were accessories in the most unpredictable of experiments, except there was no standing outside this experiment to observe detachedly; this experiment was their lives.

All peasant long houses follow the same pattern: there is an all-pupose room, a bedroom and a store. Often each room has its own door to the outside, there is also a porch running the length of the house. We entered the store room where Béla was occupied cutting apples into pieces for the pig’s supper. When Stephen took his café purchase out of his pocket and handed it to his father, I saw it was a liquor miniature, an item with two bad associations in the minds of all Hungarians: poverty and drink reliance. A standard bottle was broken into 14 tiny parts to provide the poor with an affordable quick fix. They drank them too hastily to calculate the truly exorbitant rate they were paying, which anyway seemed far less painful than the price of a full bottle.

Béla downed his 5 centiliters in one swig plus one more a little later, like a short affirming statement to quell any remaining doubt. Béla saw me looking; I hoped it didn’t appear to be a stare,

‘It helps’, he explained in a clipped way.

Béla somehow turned all looking into stares. I was going to ask him many questions and now I felt restricted. But, anyway, I chanced one question central to my understanding. Did they leave a house behind them in Canada they intended to return to? Béla answered in one abrupt word: no.

We both fell silent for some time after this. Béla was naturally taciturn and his answers and even more his silence had about them an aura of shame.

On the floor beside the the waist-high mound of apples lay something close to evidence of guilt, the length of a small body and not moving, wrapped in an oily blanket was a chainsaw. The precious prize brought from Canada had not found life to support it in the new land, the voltage and frequency rating were so far found to be incompatible with the local grid supply. He had tried it and it had not come to life. Had it suffered damage? Béla’s clipped replies seemed like a defence against more questions. I was too uncertain to ask. There it lay dead as a doornail on the floor. Perhaps this was Béla’s shame? Or a large part of it, or just a symbol for it: the badge of the homecoming?  A judgement on the whole endeavor. He had left with nothing and returned with just a useless machine.

The middle room of the long house could be entered directly from an outside door. The room was almost empty except for two beds and a single religious painting on the wall, a haloed virgin, the work of an unskilled artist painted on discoloured hardboard without a frame.

When I was introduced to Helen, Helen junior was on her knee and suffering as only an eight-year-old can having her ears poked with cotton swabs dipped in some liquid, then poked again with dry ones. I had once been eight myself and knew it was not the pain but the indignity of the intrusion that hurt most. Helen junior wailed in protest at this invasion and when she complained in actual words, she turned her head as if she were fighting with the air to hear her own voice. It came unmelodiously, but it was not an unpleasant sound and its music managed to touch me.

‘I do this every evening to keep Helen’s ears clear’. Helen senior explained. ‘But the buds are so expensive here, like everything else. It eats up all our money, but what can I do?’

Everything about elder Helen fitted with my picture of the passively compliant wife who had been brought to a place not of her choosing where no one spoke her language; wrenched up in her middle years and put down to sink or swim in this foreign spot that was alien even to the city people of this country. I took the complaint about the prices as her code of complaint about her situation in general which she felt too overwhelmed by to articulate more precisely and directly.

We talked a little around her problems of adjustment. She had tried to learn something of the language but her own background didn’t help, her family was Polish. The neighbours had all known Béla’s mother and were kind to her and spoke to her whether she understood or not. After a while she turned to Stephen.

‘Show Malcolm your dad’s book, Stephen’.

Stephen knew immediately where to find it on the shelf. The book was wrapped loosely in an offcut of cloth to protect it. It was a work on cave exploration in the Aggtelek area. I knew that the caves of the region had been explored in stages. The most accessible caves had been known about for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, but even recently new branches were found and explored, they were mapped and became part of the known network of underground caves and tunnels of the border area.

Stephen drew my attention to two pictures of a young man seen against the familiar background of fantastically sculptured rock formations.

‘Guess who this guy is.’ Stephen grinned.

A gap of thirty and more years made identification less assured, but with the additional knowledge that it was actually Béla I was looking at, I was able to see these photos were of the same person as I had just spoken to beside the apple mound in the store room, but much transformed. More transformed than the years alone would seem to account for. Béla had been involved in the exploration of newly discovered caves and the young man’s expression seemed to reflect a curiosity and questing that I had found no surviving trace of in the present Béla.

Getting ready for the evening meal meant fetching the milk. A can resembling a miniature churn was found. Like the sighting of the pig, this was a moment of great pride for Stephen. ‘ Hey, I’ll bet you get your milk from a shop? We don’t. Our neighbours got cows’. He obviously saw the fetching of the milk directly from the dairy as a great privilege. I was glad he felt about it that way and not as a chore which wasted precious minutes of his life. Little Helen didn’t want to be left out of the great event, and she wrestled the can from her brother’s hands. She was determined to play a major role in the milk fetching and confronting her own challenges had taught her to be a fighter.

‘I’m taking it. I’m taking it ‘ she repeated many times. Stephen let her have the can with little hindrance.

Going for the milk entailed a walk away from the village though empty fields. Evenings were coming on early now, and the gloom and the lingering warmth together were specific to this time of year, as was a certain softly decomposing smell of fallen leaves. The one and a half liter metal milk can swung merrily on its wooden handle in Helen’s hand, and she sang her own wordless, tuneless song. She was around four foot six and eight years old and this empty can was enough to fill her whole being with joy.

Three cows were in sight as we entered the milking parlour and one was just having the milking apparatus taken from its udder. We waited as our can got filled from a ladle dipped into a churn. The whole of the milking parlour turned their smiles on us. The neighbours still treated the children as special visitors from a far away land.

‘This is our friend from Canada’, said Stephen with double pride at his own celebrity amongst the cow people and the privilege of my presence. I felt like a prize catch being shown off.

‘I’m really from England’, I put in, for all that it mattered. I was from some place else, that’s all, a curiosity, Stephen had it right without my correction.

In the morning I got on the school bus with Stephen to be driven into the village and say good-bye. Again, Stephen told the bus full of kids I was his friend from Canada. I was going to correct Stephen again but I decided not to this time: it was the facts that were in error.

The evening walk to the dairy to buy the milk, the smells of evening, being shown off to the neighbours, sleeping the night in the apple store: these are the greater memories of the Aggtelek trip, greater than the wonders of the cave itself.

Years passed and I intended many times returning to see how Béla, Helen and the two kids had got on. But ten years slipped by, and then a few years more. The kids might have been anywhere by now, young grown ups with independent lives, and their own burgeoning families, even if Béla and Helen had not moved from the peasant long house and become fixed in an unchanging routine.

Eventually, by chance, I started seeing a girlfriend in the remotest part of Eastern Hungary and went on visits that way. I made an opportunity out of one of my visits and with only a short detour I found myself back in Aggtelek, but with all memory of where Béla’s house was located, erased. No problem, everyone in such villages knows everyone else, and how many other families belonged to ’56 returnees from Canada? I stopped the first man on the street not walking quickly by me. He was using one of the street wells to fill some buckets with water.

‘Ah, Béla, of course, poor Béla, that was some time ago. Are you a relative?’ He told me that Béla’s drinking, which I had guessed about, got much worse over the months, as time went on it sustained him entirely. His life was never easy. As he said, the drink helped. One night when he had returned from wood-cutting and taken the edge off the day by downing a heavier draught than usual in the hope of softening the aches in his arms and his shoulders and perhaps making more remote some other aches residing in the recesses of his soul, he had fallen onto the hard concrete in the yard and did not regain consciousness. People who saw it happen said Béla met the ground like a diver meeting water and giving no resistance. It was as if he were succumbing to the pull of the lode of his destiny. This was the way it had to happen for the book of Béla’s fate to be fulfilled.

The misadventure of Béla’s return had lasted two years only. Helen, with young Helen and Stephen, waited until only a few bleak weeks showed her what the prospects were for them. Then she took the decision to return to Canada. Without Béla, without people she could easily communicate with, those weeks must have been the loneliest weeks of a very lonely life. Poor Helen, poor Béla; for thirty years in Winnipeg he had endured life rather than celebrated it. Waiting always for his return. Dreaming all the time of the village of his cave exploring triumphs.

As for the kids, one always thinks time gives them more hope; somehow I believed they would cope. Little Helen’s struggle to hear and be listened to would have gone on; she seemed like a fighter. Stephen would always find pride in his finds in life, and no matter how humble they were, be enhanced by them.

I hardly knew them, I knew less about them than some characters I had read about from a book, but Béla’s self-created tragedy touched me more than all the heroes of the Greeks and Shakespeare combined because I knew these people really existed. Their voices were in my head. I could conjure them up anytime and I could recall the oddly tuned song of little Helen’s speech, the voice of Helen senior complaining ‘everything is so expensive here’, or Stephen’s amiable ‘he’s our friend from Canada’. And I hear from time to time also Béla’s characteristically brief words which with the increasing remoteness of events have grown to sound sadly ironic: ‘it helps’.

3 Responses to When Nothing Can Help

  1. David Daniel says:

    Dear Mr. Sharps: Put simply, you had me in the very first (2-sentence) paragraph:

    “One of the rare curiosities of Central European travel is to make the crossing from Hungary to Slovakia underground by way of the Dobsina-Aggtelek cave system, which in all is 21km in length. On my first visit to Aggtelek, I met with no such lucky opportunity; the tour was not available on that day and I had to make do with the short cave tour on the Hungarian side only, fabulous though that is; but I did meet with luck of a different and odder kind, if luck it really turned out to be in the end.”

    What’s the big deal? an inattentive reader might wonder. But that would miss what a beautifully modulated bit of lapel-grabbing & narrative tease this is–a long sinewy detail-rich paragraph that mimics what such a journey through the 21 kilometers of (literal & figurative) cave might be, and raises a set of questions to be addressed in the essayistic journey that ensues.

    In sum, a terrific piece. Bravo!

  2. Peter Bendall says:

    This is a moving tale, deftly told and enhanced by the author’s empathy with the family, as well his knowledge of things Hungarian. “I hardly knew them”, he says in the last paragraph, yet his account conveys a great feeling for the different characters of the family members and a recognition of their plight.

  3. Stephen O'Connor says:

    It is, as Peter said, a moving tale of Bela and “the pull of the lode of his destiny,” which was pulling his wife down with him. “Bela, what on earth have you done.” It seems he had to fulfill that self destructive destinty so that his wife and children might have a chance to escape a life of desperate indigence.
    HDT said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, but not many have a Malcolm come along can understand their story and enunciate it so well. The young Helen and Stephen seem able for the fight and destined to rise, and we all leave with some curiousity about and interest in their destiny. Combines the keen social observation of a trained journalist with the empathy of a genuine literary writer.