I was about to turn five and father and I were on the move again. This time, we were going to Kétegyháza, on the Southern Great Plain of south-east Hungary, near the Romanian border. Once there, my father looked for his brother-in-law, who was the director of an agricultural college. Uncle Attila lived in the caretaker’s house with his family. It must have looked like bucolic bliss.
‘Can she stay a while with you? It’s complicated right now. I’m trying to work out whether I can come home to Hungary and start afresh. There’s a lot to consider,’ my father confided to Attila.
‘Of course she can stay, Stephen,’ my uncle answered. ’She’s family and we always look after family.’
‘It’s only for a while,’ my father said and then he was gone again. I didn’t mind being left this time. I loved my time with Uncle Attila, Aunt Margot and their twelve-year-old son, Atti. My cousin and I adored each other from the moment we met. He treated me like his little sister and I saw him as the brother I’d never had. For Atti, I was a welcome distraction from his exacting parents and for me, he was nothing short of a demigod whom I idolised. For that one magic summer, we were inseparable.
It was fun to be in the country where I was allowed to play all day and make as much noise as I wanted. The house and garden seemed enormous after my time at my grandmother’s deathly quiet flat in Budapest. My stay seemed perfect in every way, and I honestly can’t remember missing my parents at all.
I followed Atti everywhere. Every morning we ran out of the house, climbed trees, played hide and seek. When we were tired, we lay down in meadows and watched clouds drift across the sky, I picked a riot of wildflowers for my aunt. There were so many that my fingers barely reached as I hugged the bunch to my chest. Everything about this summer was expansive like the soft blue sky above us.
In the evenings, I sat on the veranda and watched the colour of the sky change from pale blue to pink then orange and finally to ink. I inhaled the intense sweetness of lilac flowers and kept an eye on the light show in the sky. For hours I sat mesmerised watching uncle Attila whittle away at a piece of wood which would become a miniature blacksmith’s block with a tiny anvil on top. He also carved tiny hammers which made up the blacksmith’s set. I never tired of watching my uncle, although I did think at the time that the tools he made would be too small even for one of the seven dwarfs. Years after my uncle’s death, I would learn that he had made these intricate ornaments to supplement his income.
‘Let’s go and pick some apricots,’ Atti said, near the orchard at the back of their garden. ‘I know the best tree to climb. Catch me if you can!’
I ran after him barefoot. Knee deep in grass, I felt the soft blades brush against my calves. In the orchard dappled apricots hung heavily, ready for the taking. But then, inexplicably, agonising pain. Piercing pain shot shards up my left foot. I screamed. Atti raced back to find me sitting in the grass, fat tears tumbling onto my cradled foot.
‘Show me,’ he said, and, ever so gently, he removed the bumblebee stinger.
I limped along beside him attuned to the drone of bees. Sure footed, Atti arrived at the orchard, reached up and picked ripe, freckled apricots. He ran back offering the sweetest antidote to a bee sting. One bite and the sting lost its power.
That summer passed far too quickly. It was almost time for Atti to return to school. I couldn’t imagine the house without the sound of his footsteps searching for me, inviting me to come and play. My aunt and uncle spoke about me in hushed tones and then, just like that, my father walked through the front door.
Fifty years later, my cousin Atti explained what had happened on that day. My aunt and uncle had desperately wanted another child and when I arrived on their doorstep, it was as if their prayers had been answered. They put their case convincingly to my father. If he allowed them to formally adopt me, I would not only stay within the wider family, but I would be assured of a secure future with excellent educational prospects and loving ‘parents’ to look after me. Uncle Attila, who was always self-assured, could also be loud and overbearing. No doubt, he clearly spelled out the advantages that my father could not provide. I think he made my father feel inadequate. Indignant, and above all proud, my father packed my few belongings and we left for the train station. In a little over three hours, we arrived in Vienna. He had a few leads to follow but besides those, he knew no-one.