Magazine article The Spectator

Family Friction

Magazine article The Spectator

Family Friction

Article excerpt

Spending part of the winter in Hungary has become an annual fixture in my life. Budapest, where my mother was born, is an intriguing hybrid of a town. It is divided by the Danube which is at its silver-shimmering widest when it flows through the city.

Buda is built on a hilltop and when viewed from the Pest side, with its turreted castles and baroque royal palace, resembles some anachronistic Ruritania. Pest was always the industrial part of the city, but favoured as a residential area by the wealthy middle class and large aristocratic families. Andrassy Utca was the Eaton Place of its day, with large houses and spacious gardens.

The wide boulevards resemble those in Paris, though these days they have only just begun to be restored, so that next to a mansion shining in pristine ochre splendour is a half-derelict building hiding behind a dark cloak of grime.

My great-aunts Lili and Edith used to live in one of these. After the communists came, they were moved to small apartments smelling of municipal cabbage stews. To describe these women as eccentric would be to do them a great injustice. They howled at the moon.

Poor Edith was not destined by the Almighty to be a beauty. She remained a virgin until her forties, and even then the family was not sure if the affair was consummated, because her lover died shortly after the act was alleged to have taken place. For the next 33 years Edith was convinced that her dead lover would be reincarnated in someone else's body. As a precaution, therefore, she never changed her clothes, but wore the same iron-grey boiler-suit.

Then one day it happened. Hoping to facilitate the meeting with the reincarnated lover, she took to inviting strangers off the streets to share her meals. On her 75th birthday, she walked into a bar, picked up ten men and took them to her flat. My Aunt Lili was convinced she would be murdered, but Edith was equally sure that love would touch her with its scarlet wings.

Love eventually came in the form of a carpenter. But its wings were grey and it required a walking-stick. Edith was by then 83, the carpenter a relatively young 71. Edith was in the frenzy of a young bride. She changed her clothes for the first time in more than 30 years. …

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