Well, that award was so long ago that the people who ran the contest, the New Zealand Writers’ Association, no longer have a website. Still, a prize is a prize.
I have returned to it because Rhobin Courtright’s topic for August, 2019 is: “Post an excerpt from one of your books dealing with travel and or/vacation.” The problem is, I never go on vacation. I only ever travel to visit family, and in the past, for business reasons. Somehow, the characters in my books copy me.
This page, the opening of Anikó: The stranger who loved me, is about my trip to Hungary, in order to be there for my mother’s last days.
Budapest, June — July 2000
I’ve always thought that ‘an aching heart’ was a cliché, a metaphor, a mere turn of phrase. But during my daily visits to my dying mother, I learn that it is an exact description. My heart is where I feel the pain of grief.
Oh, I don’t cry, even in private. I haven’t cried since childhood. When I am with her, in that antique and under-equipped hospital room, I pretend to be cheerful and optimistic, pretend that of course she’ll get better. We both know that she never will.
I watch the solid, muscular body of my brother as he bends over her. His ear is almost touching her lips, so he can hear the less-than whisper of her voice. He repeats whatever he thinks she has said, waiting for the nod or shake of her head before bending over again. She is giving instructions, about paying the car insurance on time, about reading the water meter. She lists the names of people to telephone because they should be able to help me with my book about her life. It’s to be my memorial to her, but, even on her deathbed, she is my research officer.
The thinking part of her brain could still vie with a chess champion. Everything else is dying.
She has given me hundreds of images. They are her flashbacks, but I can see them.
I see her as a child, cosseted in a loving family, though one rent by emotion. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, she had a holiday in Italy, attended wonderful family parties, learned to play the piano.
I see her as a young woman, the mother roaming bomb-torn Budapest, risking torture and death for food, and to seek safety for her loved ones. Along devastated streets she pushed my pram, using my blond hair as a disguise. These streets were covered by snow, the rubble of fallen buildings and the gore of victims. The hated yellow star was missing off her coat, and yet a single hostile pre-war acquaintance could have been our death sentence.
I know she can be hard as a mace and soft as a parachute, daring, imaginative and successful. I feel her pain, when her love deprived her of her child. I share her success against all the odds, as she built a million-dollar export business despite every handicap that prejudice, criminal action and bureaucracy could throw in her way.
And I see her as an old woman, lovingly caring for the husk her husband had become.
I have plaited a story from two strands, two strands from opposite sides of the globe, about two people whom circumstances have made into opposites in so many ways: woman and man, a generation apart, religious Jew and unbeliever, one firmly rooted in Europe, the other transplanted and now thoroughly Australian.
And yet, in that bleak hospital room, we have come together again, for the last time, I and the stranger who loved me.
Australia, September 2002
I’d barely escaped paying for excess luggage on the return trip, because my suitcase bulged with documents and ancient photographs. During the weeks of my stay, I’d talked to many people. My mother had spent endless hours before her final illness on laboriously handwriting many pages of remembrance, although arthritis had left her hands awkward and uncoordinated. Yet when I assembled it all, translating faded carbon copies and hurriedly scrawled notes and near-illegible official documents, I found many gaps. For example, I know that she and three other owners of tiny businesses combined to form the seed of her future success, and she gave me a vivid description of the events at the initial meeting. But all I have is a few names, no personalities. I know that seven people were at that meeting. She was the only woman. I’ve had to invent identities for the others, and I want the descendants of those people to know, should they ever read this account, that there is no relationship between my characters and the real people who were there.
Inevitably, my mother’s memory returned almost exclusively to the two most important periods in her life: the furnace of the Second World War, and the joys of her one real love. But, when I went through my pile of documents, I found high drama in other places. Some of it brought back hazy memories for me, other events were a surprise. A number involved criminal activities. My information about them consists of my mother’s correspondence and papers, and interviews with people many years after the events described. Naturally, I was forced to reconstruct much of what had happened. Therefore, to protect the possibly innocent, and to save myself from the risk of litigation, I have changed names and other pointers to identity where appropriate. The events I have described took place, but many of the people, including the villains, are my own invention.
This book is a tribute to a remarkable woman who managed the impossible more than once. Her story is worth the telling.
Wombat Hollow, 2002.
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Rhobin L Courtright