Things that go Bump in the Night
Updated: Apr 23, 2020
This is one of the first pieces of travel-writing I had published, part of a series of articles that appeared in The Scotsman newspaper (under a different name) in the late eighties. It describes one moment in an inter-railing trip to eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin wall. I was prompted to post it by a recent exchange with a woman who lives in Hungary, and who had herself posted on a rather nice lockdown-inspired Facebook page called View from my Window. Her picture was of the courtyard of a block of flats in Budapest, and it immediately evoked memories of our first, and slightly odd, night in Hungary.
We entered Hungary on a tiny, dusty diesel train. Two soldiers, young and moustachioed, hung off the back like trapeze artists, their machine guns casting unmistakable shadows on the featureless rural landscape. There were more soldiers at the border town, fat and unsmiling. One prodded the blue rucsac, the one containing Cee’s clothes. He didn’t blink as the disposable nappies and tiny white vests spilled out onto his official wooden counter.
We emerged from the station into the vibrating heat of an unfamiliar town and instinctively made our way to a shady row of shops across the street. Cee was happy and there was no sense in hurrying, so we bought large lemony ice creams and contemplated the cheap pyjamas and shirts in the shop windows. The buildings were ancient, and drab with a colourful drabness of pale pink and yellow; above the roofs a dome or two shimmered in the sunlight. It was a clean town, but dusty and old like the train.
I left the girls to try my luck at the Ibusz office, which deals with the letting of “private rooms”. I pretended more confidence than I felt, but in five minutes I was back with a scrawled address. I had parted with 250 forynts, which at the time I took to be a deposit. In Vienna we had paid as much for our morning coffees. We were directed round the back of the shopping street to a cobbled square with a domed church at one end. The tower was encrusted with ancient scaffolding made of split timbers lashed together, and in the door at its foot a woman in black sold fruit and vegetables. The buggy bounced on the cobbles and Cee bounced with it.
The address we had been given belonged to a huge crumbling façade of yellow ochre with double wooden doors through to a courtyard. There we stood, uncertain and a little in awe, surrounded by four levels of iron balconies draped with washing. Cee was letting out sharp little squeals, as she always did when she sensed an echo. A bun-shaped woman in black appeared at a second floor balcony and called something incomprehensible to us. I studied the scribbled paper and called back an approximation of the name. She disappeared into the dark interior, and we heard her heavy footfall echoing down to our right.
A door opened and the woman beckoned to us to follow her through the cool hall and up a stone staircase. Whitewash had been plastered on the flaking plaster of the walls and antique wiring raised dark, twisted scars on the pale surface. At the first floor she produced an enormous key and unlocked a tall door, stepping back to allow us to enter.
We found ourselves in a kind of vestibule-cum-living room, with a coffee table, a settee and a couple of easy chairs. On one of these lay yesterday’s newspapers. Open doors led into what were evidently kitchen and bathroom, and on our left were a much grander set of double doors with brass handles, such as might lead into a ballroom. The woman, who we gathered was either a neighbour or some kind of concierge, bustled past us and threw these open with a gesture that belonged somehow to another century.
It was not a ballroom, but it was big enough, accommodating with ease a large double bed, a single bed, a child’s cot, a divan, and several other pieces of solid, dark furniture. The woman handed us the heavy iron key and waddled backwards out of the apartment, beaming, and flapping her hand at Cee. Presently we caught sight of her across the courtyard, taking in washing.
In the kitchen there were spent matches in the saucer by the stove. In the bathroom a scarlet toothbrush and a half-full bottle of shampoo occupied the ledge above the basin. The flat evidently had an occupant and the occupant presumably slept in the bed, but all the beds were in one room. We went out to eat not entirely sure we were on top of the situation.
The evening sunshine was mellow on our bare arms and early diners were gathering outside the large tourist hotel in the square. Cee dropped off to sleep with the rhythm of the cobbles and we looked for a restaurant. The menus sometimes had German translations but never English – it was foreign and exciting and the taverns were dark with unfamiliar cooking smells. We ate spicy goulash on thick noodles and drank bottles and bottles of state lemonade. Afterwards we bought ice creams and wandered round the back streets, but we were both preoccupied with our inevitable return to the flat with its absentee landlord, and our conversation was desultory and vague.
The colour was draining from the house fronts and a blue dusk was settling in the streets. From the square we could hear voices, and the chink of glass, but these died abruptly when we closed the heavy street door behind us. We stood in the gloomy courtyard, letting our eyes adjust to the grey light and Cee woke up. She rubbed her eyes and started to cry and Julia picked her up. We left the buggy at the bottom of the stairs, and climbed in silence, unsure whether finding the flat occupied would be worse than finding it still empty.
It was empty. As far as a brief inspection could show, it was exactly as we had left it. I brushed my teeth slowly while Julia made up Cee’s milk and put her to bed in the cot. With the heavy shutters closed the room was like a tomb, and when we went to bed half an hour later we left the double doors open to allow some light in from the window across the hall.
I was awoken by a noise that was at once familiar and disturbing. It was the bump, bump, bump of the buggy being pulled up the stone staircase outside. Moonlight lay across the room like gauze, and Julia was fast asleep. As far as I could tell the flat was still empty. Cee didn’t stir, and the bunping stopped. Fee Fo Fi Fum, who’s been sleeping in my bed? My instinct was to close the double doors in the ostrich-like hope that whoever it was would leave us alone, but as I threw back the covers a key grated in the outside door. Three light footsteps and a small middle aged woman with a benign expression stood framed in the doorway.
She, in the moonlight, appeared more embarrassed than I. She extended her hand and repeated a phrase in her own language that might have been welcoming, or apologetic, or both. Julia, awakened by the commotion, sat dizzily up in bed and accepted the proffered hand with a blank smile. I was perfectly certain the lady spoke no English but I proceeded with formal introductions to wife and baby as if at a cocktail party. There was a further absurd square dance of handshaking; pyjamas and moonlight and nervous chatter in two languages. It was all over in about few minutes – the landlady graciously withdrew to who knows where and had the good sense to close the doors behind her. Sleep returned with the darkness.
In the morning Julia remembered nothing but when we ventured from our room there was black coffee in tiny cups waiting for us on the kitchen table. The settee in the vestibule had been pulled out to form a bed – we learned afterwards that locals will often let out the only large room in the house to tourists. Our hostess, with whom we could find no common language to convey our thanks, left before us, presumably to work, and indicated that we should return the key to her neighbour. We washed up, collected our rucsacs, and bumped the buggy back down the stairs, through the courtyard, and into the bright, dusty street.
©Wildword Publications 2020