Blesok no. 42, May-June, 2005


Thomas Shapcott

    Emre would rise at five. His palliasse could be slid beneath the couch so that Frau Losberg could use the tiny room through the day for her piece-work sewing. Emre was grateful for this space. It was much more tolerable than the Migrant Hostel. His wife and daughter were still in the women’s quarters but he was determined that would end. This present situation was only temporary though he had been living in Frau Losberg’s front room for ten weeks. An apartment – even if only two rooms – would be found somewhere. Adelaide had many houses split up into flats, sharing kitchen and bathroom space but at least they were preferable to the dormitories and inedible meals at the Hostel.
    As soon as he had escaped the Hostel Emre was able to drag his precious typewriter from the leather suitcase which was all he was able to bring with him. Its keyboard was Hungarian but could manage English. He typed out, on thick white paper; many repetitions of his calling card and then cut them carefully to size:
       Dr Emre Halasz Ll.D
       Translator and Linguist.
       Personal letters and documents
       Typed and prepared to order.
    Frau Losberg’s address was given. She had agreed to that, on the promise of clear typed copies of her tenancy agreements with all her lodgers, expressed as ‘reimbursement of outlays and maintenance’ to avoid Australian taxation watchdogs. Emre’s typing was always meticulous, though he worried about the cost of a new typewriter ribbon. Every postage stamp was a consideration.
    By 5.15 he was washed, shaved and dressed, his neat goatee scrupulously trimmed. No breakfast. The woollen suit still looked presentable, Frau Losberg had turned the cuffs and collar excellently (in exchange for labour in painting the front exterior) and had assured him there were years of use there, if he did not wear out the pocket linings with objects. He pulled on his almost-new Homburg (a miracle from Anglicare) and affixed the bicycle clips. His first acquisition once he got out of the Migrant Hostel had been the attaché case. He kept it oiled and polished and had made his own attachment in front of the bicycle to carry it to work. The bicycle had been the major investment and he was still terrified – he dreamed of it being stolen, or smashed, or there being a bomb exploding in the very street, even though he had been assured, with rough but easy laughter by his workmates, that bombs do not go off in Adelaide. “This isn’t Europe, mate.”
    Each time he rode it was a dare. He would be paying it off over the next two years. In his entire life he had never committed anything that far in advance. The last seven years had been lived a day at a time, sometimes an hour at a time. Even when he and Marie had married, last year in Milano before embarcation, they had both thought of it as being, not an insurance or a certain future, but a vow to stick together for whatever time was granted to them. The concept of a child had been almost unbearable but real enough once the signs began to manifest themselves. Marie had been more stoic than Emre. ‘We shall see it through,’ she had said, knowing there was no alternative. By the time Kotie had been born – somewhere between Aden and Australia – they had both somehow come to the realization that they were on a very long journey indeed and nothing they had been through might prepare them, either for parenthood or for the forthcoming tribulations.
    Emre had been the first to consider plans. Marie had absorbed herself in the immense routine of feeding, bathing, comforting and accommodating the baby. Even the separation of the male and female quarters in the hostel did not seem to concern her overmuch.
    Emre had fretted, right from the outset. Fatherhood may have taken him somewhat by surprise, but it also galvanised him in a way that was much more energising than the effort of their survival which had been the only possible aim over these times. The voyage had seemed endless but out of it Emre had found time to think. And, thinking, had begun to plan.
    To escape the grim prison-like regimentation and anonymity of the Migrant Hostel had been the first task. Achieved, the second had been to find some means of earning income.
    Emre had been directed to an employment agency assisting migrants. He had filled in forms, in English, and listed his qualifications. The university degree and his years (1936 to 1943) as a newspaper journalist counted for nothing. Neither did his command of seven languages or his typing skills. He was allocated a shift work labouring job in a vulcanising works 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.
    On his first day there, fresh from the excitement of locating a corner in Frau Losberg’s rooming house, and nervous over the audacity of committing himself to the bicycle with its fixed terms and outrageous interest payments, he had arrived ten minutes early, following the directions supplied by the employment agency on the back of an old printed circular on the Australian taxation ‘deduction at source’ system for employees. He had to stop under several streetlights to confirm road names and turns. He felt elated when he made it.
    But his new workmates were another hurdle. They made noisy and disturbingly obscene comments on Emre’s clothes – the suit, the white shirt and tie (borrowed), his leather gloves, the Homburg hat and his attaché case. Sometimes it is a hindrance rather than a help to understand a language. Emre did not catch all the new words, nor the slippery, congested accents, but the general impression was absolute.
    One older man with grizzled short hair and overalls directed him to the clerical section to fill-in employment particulars and then to the change room, where Emre disrobed completely and picked out of his briefcase a fresh laundered pair of overalls (he had been given previous instructions). His hands were soft and pale, true, but would harden up (‘Piss on them’ his new foreman had said). In the refugee camps in central Europe he had done his share of hard manual labour.
    The vulcanising works was a place of extremes. Extreme heat. Extreme labour. Extreme language. Emre only had to ask a few times for directions to be repeated or explained. He was always willing, too willing. His workmates rebuked him, and he found it difficult to slacken his pace to meet the unspoken but definite requirement for minimum performance not maximum efficiency. In the lunch hours or at tea breaks Emre was educated in the finer points of industrial restrictions. He kept his own counsel, and at the end of each shift, while the others slewed off to the pub and a few beers, Emre completely cleaned himself in the showers and dressed in his formal attire, before affixing his clips and unlocking the gleaming bike from its safe place. He pulled on his gloves and set the Homburg at a firm angle before pushing off, back to the boarding house.
    Only once had he been enticed to the pub with the other workers. That was after his first pay, and some of the group insisted he must shout them all a round. They had beers. Emre quietly asked for a white wine. He was chiacked ruthlessly, but even by the end of the first week he knew where he stood, and it was outside.

    The gibes about his hat and his gloves and his ‘bloody briefcase’ had subsided. Within a month they would be proprietorial, proud of their resident Perfesser on the vulcanising floor. But that first payday, in the pub; Emre paid for his difference.
    Eventually, though, he found he could remember several mildly salacious limericks from his university days (His English tutor preferred them to Keats and Shelley) and, to show his conviviality, he began quoting them. His accent broke them up. Before the session was over a couple of the younger ones had memorised his limericks and his accent.
    Emre might have proved himself ‘a good mate’ but his pay packet was frighteningly depleted and he spent the bike ride home calculating where he must economise to make up. Breakfast was out. Now lunch must be eliminated also. Fortunately, he had discovered an Hungarian ‘social club’ where proper food could be obtained quite cheaply, if he did not indulge in the overpriced Barak Palinka.
    His weekend ’business’ as a translator and letter writer moved only in fits and starts. He had initially made contact with others in the Migrant Hostel, men who needed to fill out forms, or to write letters of supplication and appeal, or who could not even write. He supplied verbose and lying epistles to loved ones, or distant families, in Italy, in Austria, in Hungary.
    But though Emre had busied himself in those early weeks of freedom with following up those contacts – and had even performed innumerable tasks of translation, or transcription, or letter writing – when it came to payment everybody was in the same boat. It was not going to earn him anything, except the burden of confidence over awkward confessions. He tore up the remaining business cards. The typewriter was put back in storage.
    His languages had failed him. For so long they had seemed almost a certain passport to small favours or to negotiable concessions. ‘They can take everything but your education,’ his mother has insisted. Here in Australia education was reduced to a fine sense of irony. ‘What did you used to do?’ one of his workmates had asked. When he replied that he studied languages they crowed, almost as an ensemble: ‘No, work. What work?’ He had pretended not to understand, but that only brought ribald jokes. And it was true: the dialect they spoke was often enough a different tongue to what he had studied even in Dickens and Somerset Maugham.
    Frau Losberg was insidious. Although she offered suggestions for possible new accommodation and even allowed Emre to peruse her Saturday Advertiser or News, the leads always turned out fruitless – rent too high, distance from his job too far, rooms too cramped or too squeezed for a family of three – and always when he returned, glum from another search, Frau Losberg almost inch by inch increased her attention. Emre finally began to understand.
    In a sudden move he took an apartment in the city. It consisted of three upstairs rooms above a hairdresser’s, and could only be reached through the shop itself. It was entirely illegal. And it had no kitchen and no water. Three bare rooms at the top of a creaking staircase. He had to find a bed, and coverings, mattress, pillow, as well as things for the baby, and what about water?
    With the help of a Czech plumber who owed him for a series of duplicitous letters to his wife, an Italian still waiting for him to send her the voyage money, they managed to tap into a water main in the back lane and pass a copper pipe up the external wall (hidden by an overgrown creeper). At least there was, now, a tap. His plumber friend suggested a small spirits stove. There was no electricity upstairs either, he also discovered. Well, he could pick up a couple of kerosene lamps. Marie’s cottage in the Austrian Tyrol had only such lighting. When he felt he could do no more for the present he took a bus to the Migrant Hostel. He returned with his family.
    Frau Losberg was incensed when she heard, and threatened to tell the authorities. Emre only kept her pacified by promising to paint the remaining external walls of her place. That meant another month of weekends which could have been more usefully employed, but it was worth it.
    Marie looked at the apartment with its dusty green walls and bare boards and smiled at Emre shyly. From the window they looked out onto a brick wall across the alley.
    ‘Look,’ she said, and pointed to a small fern growing out of a crack in the bricks near the top. The baby was grizzling, she was teething. They spent their first night together for more than six months in the creaky bed with dusty blankets and only one pillow. The child was restive between them and woke almost every hour. It shat the bed. Emre had no sleep. He knew that he must rise at 4.30 in order to cycle the extra distance to the vulcanising works.
    Between bouts of feeding and soothing the infant his wife slept solidly. Emre tried to remember when it was, how it was, that they first got together. Marie had fallen pregnant so quickly. For the first time he wondered: was that accidental?
    Back then he had no thought of any coherent future. He only knew that his past had disappeared utterly. The apartment in Budapest had been long since taken over by the authorities and nationalised. His parents had not survived 1943. He knew only the blowsy woman who ran the ‘Hungarian club’ or two peasants from the voyage over who spoke his language. Marie spoke German and had stubbornly refused to master English. Emil now tossed and tried not to rouse the stranger sharing his bed. A streetlight threw a yellowish rectangle upon the wall opposite. The prickly smell from the hairdresser’s below could not be ignored. For a brief moment he thought of Frau Losberg’s cosy, crowded front room. There were two oil paintings with huge frames: Alpine scenery, a secluded chalet. She had heavy drapes on the windows. It had reminded him of an aunt’s apartment in Buda. He had no idea where his aunt was now, or what had become of her much loved furnishings. Frau Losberg’s little room had the musty warmth of memories. He knew he must never allow memories to crowd him. But for those moments he had seemed almost to be back there, though of course nothing could be the same.
    The vulcanising works was his life now. Or for the foreseeable future. This was his existence, and it seemed almost as tangible as razorwire fencing. Except that circumstances change. Even he had recognized that. One step at a time. One step then one step and even now he could look back and see the burden of despair and dulled endurance receding. The walls of this place, caught in that glare of light, carried echoes he would not remember. But after his next pay he would take Marie to look for cheap curtain material. Unless she had other priorities. Which might well be so…
    In all those years of servitude, flight, desperate and sudden displacements, transit camps, barracks, odd jobs and odder black market dealings, he had never thought of such simple but clearly articulated beginnings. Only endings. Each moment was an end. Every new change was an end. His seven languages were all ends, interchangeable, isolating him internally while at the same time giving him a fluency others envied him for. He would cast off things here, as well as take things on. Language was a commodity, he had learned that. It was a tool of barter, not of emotions or feelings or human warmth. Warmth? There was only body warmth. Or body cold.
    The first encounter with Marie: even that had seemed another ending, really leading nowhere, except for instant gratification. Instant sleep. Sleep.
    It was the beginning.
    Preparing to rouse himself, Emre thought of the hot labour ahead and the rough and needy badinage of his workmates, and he realized his life was only beginning, it had always been only beginning. And that beginnings always lead onwards. Two years’ time, he thought. One year.
    And he laughed out loud so that the baby gave a startled cry and Marie reached out her hand – not to Emre. Six months, he thought. I will write this down, this room. No, I will get a camera and photograph it. In six months time we will look back and see how far we have come.
    Had he even had such a thought before?

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