George had dozed off into a fitful moment of unconsciousness inspite of the consistent sound of the shelling. He awoke with a start, awkwardly clasping the gun against his chest.
“Wake up, you idiot!” Istavan had lost his patience. “You God damn lazy fool. You will get us both killed. At least hold your gun properly.”
Istavan glared at him with his usual exasperation. He was sure being paired with George in this attic was some kind of penance for past sins.
“I’m exhausted and cold,” George muttered as he stood up to shake the kinks out of his limbs. “Every muscle in my body aches.” His greying hair was matted and his dirty shirt hung limply over his slightly protruding paunch. He stretched his lean untoned arms over his head. He no longer cared to disguise the fact that he resembled a toothpick stuck through the middle of a marshmallow.
“Join the crowd. There are no special dispensations here for professors,” Istavan sneered. “Christ! Get down. There is a sniper right across the way. Or are you so deaf you didn’t hear his pot shots?” Istavan growled, his short legs hunched under his burly stout body as he leaned over checking his rifle.
After three days with Istavan, George was becoming inured to the constant stream of criticism bellowing from his mouth. Istavan delighted in having a captive audience for what he considered witty battlefield conversation. Istavan was a former car mechanic. The Soviet invasion was a new opportunity for him. He had been transformed into a freedom fighter. He had proclaimed himself the leader of the defence of the tiny attic to which their world had shrunk. Istavan’s torrent of expletives had merged with the bombardment and shelling into a peculiarly bitter form of torture for George. Istavan would push his face directly in front of George with no way to avoid his foul smelling breath. He would scratch the black curly stubble on his pimply face with his permanently oil stained, calloused fingers while he blasted his missives.
The world outside seemed farther and farther away every time George peered out the window sill at the carnage on the street. The comfort of life a week ago was a hazy dream, one he was not sure had actually happened. What did seem all too real was the relentless hunger, thirst and cold he felt now.
While George endured the privations with bitterness, Istavan seemed impervious to their circumstances. George slept fitfully, wandering around the attic in a perpetual state of frenzy, while Istavan was galvanized by the threats all around them, seemingly delighted by the steady diet of excitement. At best George hoped to feel numb while Istavan was electrified.
He glanced out the window at the knife-grey sky. Snow was gently falling around the smoldering ruins of the buildings across the way. He could almost see where his office at the university had been.
The destruction all around him had not penetrated the absurd belief that when he left this attic he could simply put his lab coat back on and return to his microscope in the lab and his comfortable swivel chair in his office.
Had it only been one week since he left the lab at the university? His mind could not register the small amount of time necessary to devastate his world. He couldn’t remember what it felt like to feel warm and clean. The gnawing hunger in the pit of his stomach reminded him he had not eaten anything in two days.
He tried to remember the rich dark flavor of the coffee from Lazlo’s café across from the lab; the smell of its delicious aroma. And the pogacsa filled with cottage cheese that melted in his mouth. His belly ached at the thought of food. His mouth began to salivate as he remembered licking the crumbs from his fingers.
Istavan had voraciously consumed the last of the stale, hard bread and moldy cheese that they had managed to smuggle up to the attic with them with the same gusto as if they were the warm pogacsa.
George had not paid any attention to the protests, with placard carrying students marching for “Freedom”, that had begun in Budapest with the crisp air of autumn. He was too excited by the progress on his research. Rather than interest he felt annoyed by the protests. They were distractions he felt he could not afford. He focused on the bacteria he examined under his microscope. The bacteria were as apolitical as he was.
He shunned the loudest of his colleagues who felt the need to express unfavourable opinions of the Soviet overlords. He was certain all they would do was to make it hard for everyone else. There were always ears listening. He had learned to keep to himself and concentrate on work insularity gave him an odd sense of security and joy.
Until October 24.
Bitterness and shock replaced joy when the Soviet tanks rolled across the bridges. Red Army soldiers held the roads that controlled access to the city while the revolutionaries barricaded streets with patriotic zeal.
George hated the need to choose sides. What went on outside should not involve his work in the lab. He crept to work each day going through back roads and side doors. But it was not long until the choice was made for him.
And now he was forced to maintain his post in this freezing attic, having barely learned to shoot his gun.
Istavan had hoisted his gun so that it rested on the windowsill. George crouched beside him. The sound of his own breath was ragged and quick as he crouched down as he realized the shelling had stopped.
“Well, what do you know! Life on the street,” Istavan chuckled.
Below them people took advantage of the brief moment of quiet to find sustenance to live for one more day. A line-up started in front of the one bakery still operating on the street.
A man with an outsized fedora began to move among the barricades. George was mesmerized by his dust-covered suit and hat, a briefcase at his side. He sauntered forward in his scuffed shoes. If not for the grime he was dressed like any other workday. It was as if the world had not blown up around him. The man stumbled and pushed his way through the ruins.
“Oh my God. It’s Sandor.”
“You know that fool? What the hell! He hasn’t got too long to live.”
There was no mistaking the ungainly pace or the long limbs. Sandor always looked like he had never grown accustomed to his body.
“He is a respected colleague at the university I work at!”
“Used to work at.” Istavan snorted.
Sandor continued picking his way through the street, he seemed to be heading to the queue in front of the bakery.
George had never really liked Sandor. He was too pompous and self-important. Nor was he in George’s opinion a very thorough scientist. In fact at one time, he had refused to collaborate with him on a work project. When the protests started Sandor had loudly proclaimed his support for the students.
“Why should it matter to us what political regime is in power,” George queried sincerely. “We are scientists. Only science should matter to us.”
Sandor’s bushy eyebrows had shot up in disgust.
“George, that attitude is naïve. Don’t you see we cannot progress in the way we should if everything we do is drained away for the benefit of the Soviets. Have you forgotten we are Hungarian with our own history, our own language, our own culture? We can’t just be homogenized into something we are not.”
“We have been parts of other empires before. Why is this one any different?”
“It is not just some ephemeral cultural issue. Can you not see that people can’t live on such meager salaries? Every day our national wealth is drained away, people work three jobs just to make ends meet. The Soviets are crushing the life out of Hungary.”
“If you keep up this talk you will attract the wrong kind of attention to the lab!”
George was unprepared for the rage he saw building in Sandor’s eyes. He had never had anything beyond pleasant, if somewhat condescending, conversations with him. Sandor’s fury hit him like an exploding missile.
“The lab! You would give everything you accomplish to the very oppressor who is starving our people. You are a collaborator!” Sandor was shouting and people in the hall could hear.
George wilted in embarrassment. He took the only appropriate reaction he could. He had stormed out, slamming the door shut with a large bang.
Yet now he felt the need to protect Sandor, almost as though he belonged to a normal world that had to be honoured, a world before tanks and guns. But coupled with his protective instincts was an unreasoning desire to scold him. “We didn’t win,” he wanted to tell him. “See I told you not to get involved and now the tanks are here in front of the parliament buildings.” Sandor needed to stay alive so George could tell him how wrong he’d been.
“Jesus, I need to take a leak.” Istavan headed to the corner of the attic room where they had set up a small bucket to relieve themselves. The bucket sloshed as Istavan stood over it. George had taken it upon himself to empty the bucket out the window during breaks in the shelling. “Are you a complete fucking idiot!” Istavan had sworn at him. “If you empty that bucket they will know we are up here.” Then he had chuckled, “what is a little piss between friends.”
The complete lack of dignity was totally overshadowed by the sad reality that Istavan was right. George had stopped emptying the bucket.
George peered out over the window sill to the ledge as carefully as he could. Sandor looked woefully out of place in the bread line-up made up of kerchiefed women which had grown to snake down the street. George knew it was always the women confronted by the haunting cries of their children who would brave the shelling to buy bread. He could not understand what Sandor was doing there.
George shut his eyes as dirt swirled in the sudden wind. The wind suddenly lifted the fedora off his head. Sandor held up one hand to hold his hat on while he held his briefcase with the other. The murmurs of the crowd suddenly became louder as the street shook with the rumble of tanks.
“Goddamnit!” Istavan’s words were lost in a sudden roar. The room shook. George had a sensation of flying as he was thrown upwards against the ceiling of the attic. His numb fingers held onto his useless rifle. He landed with a wallop on his back, the rifle on top of him, the air forced out of his lungs.
Istavan lay in a puddle of piss from the overturned bucket, blood spurting from his nose and mouth reeking of the foul smelling urine from the bucket. As he gasped for breath George defied the pounding in his head. He struggled to right himself. He crawled over to Istavan.
He frantically felt Istavan’s soot-covered throat for a pulse. His eyes fluttered open. Before George could retreat, Istavan’s fist landed with a thud on his jaw.
George lay flattened on the filthy floor, with an animal-like groan.
“Jesus, what is the matter with you. I thought you were one of the Russians. For Christsake don’t fucking sneak up on me again!”
A chuckle emerged from deep in George’s chest. He began to shake with laughter.
“What is so funny you stupid shit!”
George pushed himself up, tears of laughter dripping down his cheeks. “I thought you were dead.”
“Whatever gave you that fucking idea. What I am is covered in piss. Jesus!” Istavan got to his knees, wiping his hands on his khaki overalls. “ Fucking tanks. Fucking Soviets.”
The window was miraculously intact. George crawled to it and pulled himself up. The orderly queue for bread was replaced by rubble, covered by dead bodies and parts of bodies. The eerie silence was interrupted by moaning and screams. The bakery window had been blown out and shattered glass glittered on the sidewalk.
Sandor lay almost directly in front of the bakery among the shattered glass. He lay perfectly still, only distinguishable by the hand gripping the handle of his briefcase. His hat was nowhere to be seen. George felt his gorge rise up and he vomited over the window sill. He heard the click of Istavan’s gun as he loaded it. “Get away from the fucking window sill you piss-for-brains. They will shoot us all to hell if they see us.”
George whirled, the pain in his head forgotten. He flung his rifle at Istavan. The trap door to the attic had been blown open and George half climbed half fell down the ladder to the floor beneath. Within moments he was on the street, the dust-filled air choking him. He ran to Sandor’s body.
He looked down at the fabric of Sandor’s thin socks stuck grotesquely to the wounds on his shoeless feet.
“If only I could find his shoes. He needs his shoes.” He thought. He looked around frantically for the scuffed shoes that Sandor had worn only moments before. The ones he had seen him wearing a million times before at the lab.
He cradled Sandor’s mangled head in his arms and rocked back and forth, like Sandor was the child he never had. He heard the click of a rifle directly behind him but didn’t care. Grief filled his lungs and he felt that he had somehow smothered under the weight of sorrow.
“Let’s go before they kill us too.”
George turned to face Istavan and was astonished by the tracks of tears on Istavan’s grimy face.
“You shit for brains, you are not going to die on my watch,” said the car mechanic turned freedom fighter and newfound friend.
Suzette Blom retired from the practise of law in 2005 and subsequently completed her PH.d in French history. She has published 12 short stories