Grandma always knew what the weather was going to be like. There were times when she didn’t even go outside the tiny dwelling, just her rested her back on the gaudy hotch-potch of cushions that had been foraged from the neighbourhood’s rubbish bins, groaning A cold snap’s on its way. There were all sorts in that house. Sitting piled up high on the bed, with its orange artificial fur coverlet, were a mass of teddies and one-armed dolls, one with an eye missing, another with a wound ballpoint-inked onto its face. All along the walls stood cardboard boxes into which Grandma stuffed the materials, bed linen and rags that she had picked up on her nocturnal perambulations, with growing difficulty incidentally, so everything was gradually becoming engulfed by higgledy-piggledy heaps of clothing tatters and curtain scraps. The chairs had long been out of use, indeed would have been hard to locate; there were just two shapeless mounds to indicate where it had once been possible to sit down in the middle of the room. After a while, she and Shooli stretched a cord across the room and hung new acquisitions on that. A drying banana skin, because it made a nice rustling sound. A bottle-gourd, a sullen-looking globe-fish, a picture cut from a newspaper and held on with a clothes-peg. And they drew on everything: on the walls, in half-used rescued exercise books which still bore the names of unknown pupils and whose pages were sometimes covered with mould because they had been lying for years in a cellar just waiting for the day Shooli would scrawl them full of naked women and palm trees. Grandma had even sketched laughing human faces all round the light switch and on the walls long, flowering creepers, colourful plants, pocket-sized monkeys, a devil sticking out its tongue.
There was a frightful stench in the shack; usually one would retire indoors only to sleep, otherwise, for all practical purposes, we lived in the garden, which ran near-blindly, steeply down the hillside. Just mind you don’t go out on the street, she would say, more sleepily than sternly, as if that were the greatest source of danger and with that one warming she had taken care of her responsibilities as a grandmother for a good few days: Coz if yer does, I’ll lick yer to a frazzle. She didn’t worry much what I ate during the day, what I wore, or even whether I washed myself. I never saw her personally washing: she always had a coloured scarf on her head and slippers on her feet the year round, summer and winter, while her ankles were perpetually scabby with big, crusted wounds.
I looked at her feet when she and Shooli were digging a clay-pit: the dun-coloured mud squeezed up between long, black-clawed toes. Shooli built the chimney in under two days, after which we could fire what we made. “Couldn’t we bake in it,” I asked. From that Grandma must somehow have tumbled to the fact that I was hungry, because she poked with her chin towards the depths of the garden: “Tuck into some almonds. There’s blackberries as well.”
Shooli, her partner, was hardly ever there; he would sometimes vanish for weeks at a time, but then would always bring a sack whose contents they would squat down to sort through by the side of the cottage. Apart from my mother, Grandma had given birth to another child, who had died of hunger, at least that’s the story I got from relatives. That Mother is supposed to have had a little brother by the name of Rudi, who died of dysentery at the age of two because in his hunger he had stuffed himself with unripe apricots.
I never dared to ask her, because I was scared stiff of the word dysentery and scared stiff of my grandmother’s occasional crazed outbursts of anger, when she would hurl curses into the echoing air of the hillside: I hope death worms its way out of all your eyes.
Once she went off for several days. That reminded me of my mother, who I had not seen for about three weeks; she had gone to give birth to the next stillborn sibling of mine so she could quickly have it buried and be left with only a slowly flattening belly as a memento of the promised baby. Or my father, who at that time was making the rounds of border villages with the shooting range and would occasionally drop by with his loud voice, only to vanish again just as quickly.
I was sitting in the dirt in the garden, trying to identify the route the ants were taking. For years Grandmother and Shooli had sketched maps of the larva-carrying hordes as if they were seeking to foretell the future from the marching black columns like others do from the lines on the palm of a hand or from coffee grounds. The maps would be pinned up on the outside wall of the shack, and there, though shielded to some extent by the yellow sheet that served as an extension to the eaves, they would start to crinkle and trickle coloured streaks from the rain that would leak in.
I was sitting in the dirt, inspecting the soles of my feet, which had been stained from treading on blackberries, and thinking about going to our relatives in Újpest. I knew the address but not how I could reach it from up here. On getting to the bottom of the hill, I boarded a tram, which took me to a huge square. I knew that from there I ought to go on by bus, but I didn’t know which service. I asked everyone how one gets to the big department store in Újpest, because I knew the way from there to the now demolished settlement, with its rows of single-storey housing and the washing from four of five families drying on lines in muddy back yards all around. They too were in a terrace, the wreck of a wheel-less, butter-toned Lada in its back yard and with a broken sign hanging on the final door: “No spitting.” That was where one had to knock. It was late by the time I reached there; I was the only one who got off at the bus terminus. The smoke inside was choking, with at least ten people crushed together around the laid table.
“It’s Sandy’s girl,” said one of the women, edging her way to me from behind the backs of the seats. The menfolk were singing lustily; one of them had “Lizzie” tattooed on his fist. All of a sudden he looked at me and started bellowing into the smoke, “Here it comes: ‘In the whole wide world there’s none better than my dear dad’…” He launched into the song, while the woman, hand on the nape of my neck, steered me into the kitchen and asked, “Have you eaten?”
I gnawed on a chicken thigh as I listened to the singing. From time to time squabbling would break out, but just when one thought it might be coming to blows they would calmly pick up the melody again. In the meantime, a long-haired woman with gold teeth came out and started handing out plates over my head. “Look at this, Ida! What’s this child got on her head?”
For days my scalp had been itching, and when I scratched big yellowish scales flaked off. In their place grew scabs, like when one grazes one’s elbow or knee.
While the merry-making carried on outside, ever more clamorously, the two women poured warm water into a washbasin, washed my hair and then rubbed in something that stank horribly. It made my eyes smart, but it somehow felt good as well, for the tormenting itch that I had tried to get rid of on the bus on the way over, by ceaselessly scratching my scalp with Grandma’s partly toothless comb, subsided. They then made up a shakedown for me in the kitchen and closed the door. Every now and then somebody would come in, every now and then somebody would go out; in a doze, I heard them talking in the other room for a long time. “That’s not what little Rudi died of; he was feeble.”
Someone was recounting that my grandmother had photographed the dead child on the bier and, to the great consternation of the mourning, wailing relatives, having hitched up her skirt, had crouched down beside the coffin, but not in order to take her leave, nor to breathe a last maternal kiss on the pallid little face, but so as to take what she intended to be an artistic shot from a suitable angle. Cameras were uncommon in those days, but she still wouldn’t allow it be sold, then or even later on, when she had been kicked out of everywhere and had to move into the shack on the hill. “She always was crazy, that one,” a hoarse voice drew the lesson. “In any case, one day they’re going to get that Shooli.”
During the night I woke up to find my bumhole was itching like mad. I tried scratching, but it didn’t help. It had been like that for days: getting on for dawn, I would be wakened by the itching and then, to the sound of my grandmother’s snoring, would suffer in agony until, with the approach of morning, sleep overtook me again. It was the same now as well. I lay awake for a while in the dark, listening to the snores that filtered in from the other room, until I made my mind up and, in the dim light that was filtering in from the street, I crept into the room. It was darker in there; the noise of a dawn bus could be heard from behind the drawn rolling shutters. I cautiously threaded my way among the furniture that had been pulled right, left and centre all over the room to a let-down couch over which a big, garish picture of the Virgin Mary was hanging on the wall. “Auntie Ida,” I whispered into the darkness.
We stood in the kitchen, and I had to adopt a really odd pose. With my knickers round my feet, I had to bend over and grab my ankles while my uncle’s wife carefully inspected my rectum in the dingy light thrown by the kitchen’s electric bulb. “To hell with the damn things! Rot their bloody guts!” she summed up.
With a knife she carved a narrow sliver off the soap bar then told me to lie on my belly. It’s going to hurt, but it’ll drive them out: they hate this—and garlic. Then she shoved the sliver of soap in like a suppository.
I felt an excruciating, unbearable pain like never before in my life. I rolled about on the shakedown, sobbing without a sound, sure I was going to die, that this was death itself, that all my innards were on fire and would turn to ashes, like when a person is hit by lightning, though Shooli had always wanted that and actually stood out in the garden during thunderstorms, waiting to be struck by a thunderbolt. He would always stand under the big almond tree and look at the lightning flashes, while grandmother screamed at him from indoors: that was their game.
By the morning the pain was gone, only I couldn’t bear to move my bowels. Auntie Ida packed up a pile of meat and potatoes, while Uncle Dodo, who had a broken nose from boxing in his youth, bent down and as a send-off informed me, “Tell Grandma that she’ll get a kick up her jacksie. That’s coming from me, Dodo,” he added meaningfully, because he was in the habit of using that phrase to give particular weight to his words within the boundaries of Újpest, and he was sure that in this case even my maternal grandmother, who in every other respect would rebel against it, would not be able to evade the male authority flashing from the dark pupils of his crossed eyes—to say nothing of that weedy, foot-dragging Shooli, who on top of everything didn’t even belong to the family.
And they didn’t even know his real name, come to that; apparently he was called Shooli because he was always sounding off about his learning, how he had his school certificate and had a trade as well. What that trade was, though, never came to light, but at all events he could draw superbly and he taught my grandmother how to produce clay pots, just as he was later to explain to me too how the clay had to be thoroughly worked on and kneaded so that no air was left in it, otherwise it would explode during the firing.
I got back to the cottage around noon. As there was no refrigerator, I set Auntie Ida’s box down by the wall, in the shade, thinking that it was covered up and the flies would not get at it. I poked at the clay a bit, but it was a warm day and the pit was completely dried out. I cracked a few apricot stones then got tired of that, too, and so carried on with the ant map that had been begun before.
A sweltering heat lay heavily on the garden; my skin was slippery with perspiration whereas my hair was still giving off petrol fumes. I lay at the edge of the pit, my head on a moth-eaten cushion taken off the bed, and looked at the ever-darkening clouds. They were towering up in strange shapes, billowing as though the smoke from a forest fire were drifting towards us from down in the valley. The ants were carrying larvae as if they knew something was up. There was some kind of deadly determination about their advance. If I built twig obstacles in front of them, they would climb over the barriers and carry on lugging their tiny young to what they believed was the safety of their hiding-place.
It’s hard to say whether it was twilight that descended or merely the approaching storm that darkened the sky, but at any rate it was getting quite late when I spotted my grandmother making her way up from the bottom of the garden, a shopping bag on one arm and over the other an improbably grey wedding dress.
“I had to go out,” she panted. She went into the house to put down her things. A gigantic crash shook the hill; the sky was riven by brilliant flashes of heat lightning. “Have you eaten?” came from the kitchen to a rustling of paper bags pulled out of the shopping bag.
“Ida sent some grub.”
“Fancy,” Granny acknowledged, without bothering to ask whom she had sent over but bending in curiosity over the box as I took the lid off it.
The chipped plate on which the meat had been placed was completely overrun with ants, as though I had set a heaped dish of poppyseed down on the table. My grandmother blew at and waggled the jacket potatoes, whereas outside the rain got under way with a rumble, rattling on the corrugated asbestos and tarred sheets of the roof.
“Your mother’s given birth,” she said. “A boy.”
As best she could, she shook the ants off one of the thighs and offered it to me.
“It died, though. Eat up, now, or you too’ll be going weak on me.”