Zsigmond Niklai had slipped away from the manor of Szentmargit at the outset of war, abandoning his paintings, his silver, all his possessions, and joined the partisans in the forest, fighting for a Hungary free of Nazis, a Hungary where Hungarians could live in peace and democracy. Kate wished he had lived to see it achieved. It was through the spirit of men like Zsigmond that the hope had been passed down to the young people who had risen so bravely, so forlornly, for freedom, eight years after he had been taken away by night from the rose-red house beside the river.
I am ashamed, thought Kate. Sickened and ashamed that Britain and the other Western nations did nothing to support the 1956 uprising, started by students, taken up by ordinary men and women, and in the end even the army itself. In her teens she had heard the recording of those desperate appeals put out on the radio, finally falling into silence, and had felt guilty. But never before had she realised what it really meant. Young mothers like Juliska – who had been thirty-two – lined up against a wall and shot.
‘They threw children into prison,’ said István, ‘but it was against the law to execute anyone under the age of eighteen. So the puppet government of Russia was very punctilious, very correct. They kept the children of thirteen, fourteen, fifteen in prison until they were eighteen. And then they executed them.’
How could you live with memories like that?
Kate longed to put her arms around them both, she ached so with sympathy, but they seemed to accept what had been done to them and to their parents. It was this suppressed agony of mind in herself, this yearning to touch, to embrace, out of sheer fellow human feeling, which kept her restlessly awake.
A picture kept coming back into her mind of Zsigmond and Juliska in the forest near the end of the war. Magdolna had brought out a photograph of the two of them in camouflage trousers and heavy boots, laughing under the trees, with their arms around each other. They looked radiant. Juliska was wearing a peaked cap, pushed over at a jaunty angle on her dark, unkempt curls. You would have thought they were larking about on a picnic, not living on the edge of danger, with death threatening at any moment. István said that for years he had had to keep his copy of the photograph hidden, because his parents’ faces were known to the Ávó, and if he had been seen displaying it he would have fallen under suspicion. Sofia took the photograph and looked at it searchingly, then she handed it back to Magdolna, wiping her eyes.
‘I am sorry,’ said Magdolna, contrite. ‘I have distressed you.’
‘No, no. I am glad Juliska was able to give him such happiness. She was even younger than I, did you know that? And what makes me sad is that by the time that photograph was taken, they could have married. My mother died in 1944.’
Magdolna was silent, then, thinking about it.
‘I don’t know that it mattered very much to them,’ she said at last. ‘In the world in which they lived, such formalities must have seemed of small importance. We minded, István and I, when the other children called us bastards. But in the end we were accepted.’
‘They had us both christened, though,’ said István thoughtfully, ‘so they did care for the sacraments of the Church.’
He told them of his parents’ twenty-kilometre walk to the village, two days after his birth, and his secret christening by night in the Church of Szent Margit across the square from the csárda.
‘The next night they walked back again to the partisan camp in the forest.’
‘Poor little Juliska,’ Sofia murmured, thinking of the black-haired child with the jug.
‘No,’ said István. ‘She had become a very strong woman, very brave.’ He took a deep breath. ‘It was known amongst those of the partisans still working against the Russians after the war that my father had been betrayed by a former comrade. It was our mother who carried out the execution, in the flower market in Györ.’
Kate stared at him. She remembered the buckets of gladioli and carnations, the young man with the red roses. Magdolna was looking down, pleating the embroidered tablecloth between her fingers. István had only told her about his visit to Ferenc Kalla the evening before.
‘You have to understand,’ she said, clearing her throat, ‘that in those times it was not possible to be an ordinary wife and mother. Not for those who believed in the struggle for freedom. Hungary always had to come first – before family, before friends, before personal wishes, before life itself. By doing what she did, she helped to start the changes which meant, in the end, that I could be a mother to my children, and a wife to József. That I could work in peace on my art, instead of being called upon to give my life for my principles.’
How could you live with a memory like that?