A story written by Andrew Wright
I went to hospital for a check-up. I had to queue; about five people in front of me. In Hungary we now have to pay three hundred forints for hospital visits, about one euro and, of course, show our various papers.
In the queue in front of me there was a small, old woman with white hair. I looked down on her pink woollen bonnet so I couldn’t see if her hair was thinning but I expect it was, it was so fine, like vapour.
She turned, looked up and asked me to change a ten thousand forints note. I told her I could only give her five notes of two thousand. She heard my English accent and immediately replied in good English. In Hungary, very few older people can speak in English. She spoke fluently, though with an accent.
‘Oh! You speak such good English!’
‘I have lived in Canada for fifty years.’
‘Fifty years? A long time. Did you leave in 1956?’
‘Were you in the revolution?’
‘Yes. My husband and I had just graduated from the Technical University in mechanical engineering. We were in the revolution. We thought we were winning then the Russians came back and so we left…’
At this point the old woman was next to pass her 300 forints and her medical papers through the grilled window to the administration officer on the other side; a middle aged, stiff bodied woman with a mouth ready to give severe judgements. Then it was my turn. When I had finished I looked around for the old woman in the waiting room. There was an empty seat next to her and I asked if I could sit there.
‘You must have many stories to tell.’
‘I could make a book of all my stories.’ She said.
‘Will you tell me some stories?’
She paused and then looked down at the ring on her finger; a gold ring with a large, round, russet coloured precious stone. ‘Now this ring has a long story. You see it was given to my grandmother by the Queen Sissy and my grandmother wore it all her life until she gave it to me. When she was a young woman my grandmother worked in the palace in Godollo; it was Sissy’s palace. Sissy was much happier there than in the court in Vienna with her husband Franz Joseph and all the court tittle tattle and intrigue. She loved being in Hungary. She loved the Hungarian people. She often said so. And she was much loved by the Hungarians and everybody was grateful to her for trying to make the punishments levied by Austria on the Hungarians, after the uprising, more bearable. Her great joy was to go riding in the forests around Godollo. She was a great horsewoman. She always rode side saddle.
‘Anyway, one day she received a letter from Franz Joseph or someone in the court in Vienna just as my grandmother was bringing her tea. And Queen Sissy suddenly got very angry and she stood up and pulled off this beautiful ring and told my grandmother to come to her and then she gave it to her, ‘Take it!’ she said. ‘I cant bear it! I hate everything it represents! Do with it what you like. Keep it or sell it. If you sell it make sure you get its full value. It is very valuable…in money.’ So my grandmother kept it. She was often poor in her life but each time she wondered if she should sell the ring she decided not to and she put all her strength into working instead.
‘Then in 1956 my husband and I took part in the revolution. We were there in the Technical University on Monday 22 October when the students put together the sixteen demands: the withdrawal of Soviet troops, a general election, and all those things. Then the next day we went to the big demonstration which began at Petofi’s statue in Marcius 15 Square and then the walk to Berne Square. And I used my nail scissors to cut the hammer and sickle out of the middle of the Hungarian flag my friends and I were carrying. Maybe I was the first one to do that I don’t know. The hole in the middle of the flag became the symbol of the revolution. I had my nail scissors with me because I have always liked to keep my nails clean and tidy.’
She glanced down at her hands and stretched them out, the skin over the joints of her fingers was creased and the ring, oversize and brooding in colour and tone for such small pale hands.
‘We wanted to get our sixteen points broadcast on the radio and so we went to Radio Kossuth, the state radio station…other people went to the Parliament and another group went up to Dozsa Gyorgy Street to destroy the statue of Stalin. They pulled it down in about four hours. It was huge; eight metres high. Only his boots were left. They called it Boots Square after that. There was a joke, What should we replace the statue with? A fountain so that those people who were licking his boots could rinse out their mouths.
‘We couldn’t get into the Radio building, the soldiers were too strong. At least they didn’t start shooting, at that point but later on in the evening they did and that was really the beginning of our getting hold of guns and shooting back.
‘It was frightening and exciting at the same time. I was just so nervous that my husband, we weren’t married then, would be hurt or killed.
‘The next morning, about 3 am a lot more Russian soldiers and armoured cars came but by this time we had weapons which we had taken from the soldiers and police and from some weapon storage places. I didn’t shoot with a gun but I stayed with my husband and he did and the Russians fired back and all the building behind us was filled with holes and there was noise and dust everywhere.
‘I remember some terrible things. The students at the Corvin Cinema had got hold of a Russian field gun and they shot a tank with it. The tank burst into flames and as the soldiers came out of the tank their kapok jackets got dowsed in petrol and they burst into flames and some of the students shot them as well. Some of the students were really only school children and they shot at the soldiers with little air rifles. I have nightmares about that.
‘Imre Nagy, the prime minister, started to make concessions and although the Russians brought in more troops we really felt we had a chance. A few days later the Russians began to leave…maybe it was a week later…and then we really thought we were winning. But then, a few days later, in early November, the Russian tanks started to come back from Slovakia and the Ukraine and we knew it was all over. We still kept on hoping that the West would try to help us but we realised that it wouldn’t happen when Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt and we lost the worlds attention. So on November 8 my husband and I decided to leave, so many people had already left and we went to say goodbye to the family and that is when my grandmother pulled the ring off her finger and said, ‘Take it. You need it. You have no idea what may happen to you. Sell it if you want to. Do what you want. There is nothing else I can give you.
She looked down at her ring. ‘Its funny, I suppose I must look like my grandmother now, old and white haired.
She gave me the ring on November 8, 1956 and it has been on my finger ever since.
‘We took the last train out of Budapest to go to Austria. I think it was the last train. We always said it was. The train stopped about fifteen kilometres from the border. We had to walk the last part through the fields. It was night time. A local man came to us and a few other people and offered to guide us to Austria. I realised he would want money and I hid my ring so he couldn’t ask for it. In the darkness of a forest when we had no idea where we were he asked us for all the money we had. He even took our watches. He must have made a lot of money. But he didn’t get my ring.’
She touched the round russet stone of her ring with the ends of the middle two fingers of her right hand. The names of other people in the waiting room were called out by loudspeaker. I only half listened for my own name. I didn’t want to hear it. I preferred listening to the story, so richly told, sitting in a hospital waiting room, by a woman whose name I didn’t know.
‘We crossed the border and then we were met by Austrians and taken to a camp. It was full of Hungarians. We stayed there for several weeks. We were fed and looked after but we had no money. I asked my husband if he thought we should sell the ring but he said, ‘Don’t sell it. Things will work out. Lets only sell it if we have really no alternative. We didn’t sell it but it reassured us, having it.
‘Then we went to a camp in France and from there we went to a camp near Toronto. It was Christmas when we got there and we felt very overwhelmed, missing home, not being able to speak in English, having no jobs. But my husband said again, Lets keep the ring and only sell it if we have a really big problem.
‘After two months he got a job. I had to wait for a year! But we both got good jobs as engineers and we saved up and bought a house. I hardly ever asked my husband again whether we should sell the ring. I knew what his answer would be. So we became Canadians. We had a nice house near the Niagara Falls, we had good jobs. We travelled, went to the theatre, did so many nice things.
‘But, at last, we retired. We have kept the house in Canada but we have bought a small flat, here, in Budapest. My husband likes to sit in the spas during the day and in the evening we go to the opera and concerts and have a nice time. In Canada we are 150 miles from Toronto and it is too far, now we are older, to go to concerts in the city but here in Budapest it is so easy.
‘We began to wonder what to do with the ring. We don’t have any children; noone to leave it to. Then we got a good idea. Why not give it to Sissys’s palace in Godollo? So we went to see the director. She was really grateful but she said, ‘I ‘m an historian. I have to be sure it is Sissy’s ring. Just let me take a photo of it and I will go through all the records, all the correspondence, all the paintings and photos and see if I can trace it. Oh, and what was your grandmothers name? Then I can check on that as well.
‘After a few weeks we went back to see her in Godollo. She was rather regretful. She said, ‘I have gone through all the records and paintings and photos but I can find no reference to the ring. I am really sorry, but I cant take it from you. You must keep it. Oh, and I couldn’t find any reference to your grandmother in the staff lists of the period. Perhaps she worked in another palace?
‘A few days later my husband and I were walking through Budapest when we came to a big jewellers. My husband suggested that we go in and get the ring valued. He said, ‘Lets find out what it is worth and that will help us to decide what to do with it.
‘We went in and the jeweller put one of those magnifying glasses to his eye and he looked at the ring just for a few seconds. He said, ‘I am really sorry but it is not worth anything. It is glass paste. It is beautifully done and I am sure you love it but it is not worth anything.’
‘We were so shocked. But I love the ring. So I will keep it. I expect I will be buried with it. I don’t think I could take it off now, in any case! It’s a funny thing we never sold it, even when times were difficult but it always helped to give us strength. I suppose it must have done the same for my grandma.’
It was her turn to go to the doctor.