Soon after the graduation ceremonies Emily phoned to
congratulate him. Charlie thanked her and pledged everlasting gratitude
for all her encouragement and support. Redheaded, lanky, pockmarked Emily
was a high school teacher, a patron of refugee Hungarian students such as
himself. As President of the Newman Club she had lunched fundraising
drives for their benefit. She had done even more; she had tried to
establish contact between well-to-do, influential alumni and the student
exiles. Now she hoped to spend the evening with Charlie and hinted as
“Sometimes loneliness hurts.”
Pleading fatigue, he politely declined her veiled invitation. Indeed,
worries and privation had now started to erode his earlier euphoria. He
preferred to spend the evening alone.
A little later he dressed up in his Sunday suit. Downstairs, he glanced in
the hallway mirror and tried to smooth the dark circles from under his
eyes. Then he set off for the park at the end of Florence Street, pausing
in front of the house to look up at his attic window gleaming in the
sunset light. How many days and years had he spent sitting on the bed
there, exploring the history of the Middle Ages! He recalled how sobs had
racked his throat when for the first time he had looked out that window
and seen the restless, milling crowds on the sidewalks. It was an alien
society. Full of fears he had stood, thinking, thinking of the
inhospitable life out there, that icy ocean into which he too would have
to plunge, to join life in Hamilton, Ontario in Canada. At that time he
could neither speak the language nor obtain a scholarship to carry on his
studies. Of weak constitution and anemic, he had been worn down by the
years, and especially the intense study of the past months. Before that,
in the Austrian refugee camps, he had lived embittered in an inner
loneliness. The youthful cynicism of his barrack mates had made the
feeling of uncertainty even more unbearable. Because of his diminutive
size they had nicknamed him Shorty and teasingly predicted a bright future
for him as a newspaperman. “If you can’t write for them you can always
hawk them on the street. You’ve got the build for it!” Every time the
phone rang they had rushed to him shouting “Shorty, this is for you…
Shorty, the Editor-in-Chief of the Globe and Mail is calling!”
But the passing years had proved his worth. Now he longed to confront his
tormentors with eloquent pride. McMaster University had not given him
credit for the courses he’d taken in Hungary. Nevertheless, he had
mastered the language fairly well within a year and started again from
scratch in history. His well-tried study methods had brought him success
and he could stand in front of this huge brick house with uplifted head.
The jostling, scurrying throngs of the city were the same as ever. It was
he who had changed, he thought. He turned, with satisfaction and an air of
self-importance befitting a new graduate, toward the park. He breathed
deeply and felt a totally new man despite the tension that still gripped
his muscles at the end of this day of celebration. In his renewed elation
he would not have been surprised if even the trees and benches noticed the
change in him this late afternoon as he took the customary stroll. At the
convocation ceremonies, the Dean of Arts had called on “Charles Toth,” not
Charlie, to receive his diploma. The President of the University had
handed it to him with a warm smile, turned to the large audience, and
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this young man has accomplished something
remarkable. He has won his degree summa cum laude against the powerful
odds of a strange country with a strange language. If this is the kind of
talented students they have in Hungary, let’s have some more of them!” His
words were received with cheers.
Charlie had been deeply touched by these words of praise. He thought of
his parents, far away on this memorable day. He especially missed his
mother, who had always encouraged and strengthened him. Sometimes, when he
had been home for Christmas or summer vacation from the university in
Hungary, he had felt tangible in her gaze the restless, unvoiced
expectation that her dreams for him were about to come true. “Karcsi” he
had been then.
Now in this distant country those long expectations had been fulfilled.
His head swam at the very thought of the immense distance from the village
to Hamilton – a road beset with struggle and privation. All through those
hard months and difficult years the steadfastness and determination
inherited from his peasant forefathers had sustained him. Attaining his
goal had made all that worthwhile. At times he felt pangs of conscience
for leaving his own people to the dark days of destruction, defeat, and
martial law that followed the revolution. But who knows? Perhaps he was
one of the chosen few whose destiny it was to accept an exile’s life in
order that the Magyar heritage might endure.
Slowly his muscles relaxed. The cramp in his stomach eased. With
absentminded playfulness he kicked at the pebbles in his path. Hands in
pockets, he reflected on the lean years in his chosen land. It seemed now
that he had been happy often enough most of the time, even though the
savings from his summer work at the tobacco farms and collecting tolls at
the Burlington Bay Skyway Bridge had often been exhausted before Christmas
and only the Almighty knew how he had kept bed and board together. Even
though there was loneliness of a foreign land.
He stopped at a bent, familiar tree and stoked its bark. How often had he
sat in its branches, watching the sun set. Here he could let his orderly
mind free itself from the polished logic of the textbooks and take flight.
Sitting here, taut nerves unwinding, he would drift off into daydreams. In
his village the sunset had meant serenity and the peace of evening church
bells. As a boy he had loved to sit in the yard at his mother’s feet. She
was imbued with a mythic wisdom mixed of folklore and Christianity, and
often talked about the mysteries of heaven while her short fingers ruffled
his brown hair. She spoke about Paradise beyond the kingdom of the stars,
abode of singing Cherubs and exultant Seraphs. After life here on earth,
good people went there too. Karcsi had pointed to a bright star which he
considered their own property for every night it shone above their yard.
He had been ordered to bite that finger for by folk belief nobody was
allowed to point at the starry sky. He thought of the simple life with
nostalgia. No troublesome ideologies to be confused by. No doubts. One was
expected only to have faith, and children are born with that. Now
everything in the world seemed upside down. He was standing beside a bent
tree in a park on the other side of the world, with a diploma in the
history of the Dark Ages, called by an English name.
In order to escape these haunting thoughts, he got up suddenly, caught a
bus on Main Street, and rode to downtown, where the Hungarian district
was. He wanted company now, not Emily’s, but that of his own kind, with
whom he could share his happiness. He could drop in on the Kozma family,
with whom he had made friends when he first arrived in Hamilton. On the
corner of Main and John Streets he got off the bus and in front of the
Connaught Hotel he came upon a Salvation Army band. Passersby stopped to
listen to the music. The drummer was a curvaceous young woman. Charlie
stopped to listen too. A lady in a blue uniform buttoned to her chin
distributed printed leaflets. A few accepted them and sang the songs with
the band. The others stood in silence.
The musicians flipped the pages of their dog-eared music books. A slim
fellow of about Charlie’s age joined the onlookers and eyed him curiously.
“Are you, by any chance, a Hungarian?” The accent was unmistakable.
Charlie answered in his native language. “Yes, I’m a Magyar.”
“Shorty!” the fellow cried with obvious glee.
Charlie tried to place him.
“Little Shorty, don’t you recognize me?”
“You look familiar.”
“I certainly do! You bunked with me in the refugee camp on Dadlergasse
“Yes, yes, in Vienna,” Charlie remembered aloud. Drugi, a dark,
good-looking fellow who drove the girls crazy. Because his ambition had
been medicine they called him Drugi.
“At last,” he said.
“I thought you went to Brazil.”
Drugi waved his hand resignedly. “I did. But after a year I called it
quits. It’s a rotten place, old son.”
“How did you recognize me?”
“By your sour countenance, ha ha ha,” said Drugi jokingly.
“You took Medicine, didn’t you?”
“No, I studied pharmacology,” replied Drugi.
Drugi, who was a good organizer, had been very popular in the camp. Bull
sessions, card games and dreams had gathered round his bed, next to
“What are you doing now?” asked the graduate.
“Don’t ask,” said Drugi sadly. “Last year I came out from Toronto. It’s a
shit place, my friend.
Drugi had changed. His cheeks were sunken and pale. Blinking nervously, he
gesticulated wildly with his arms. “I cannot make a go of anything here. I
enrolled in the Uni in Toronto and just imagine! They flunked me - in
guess what? - Pharmacology!” He said this in a shocked and indignant tone,
as if he were the Pope announcing his own excommunication. “The kids
adored me at the college, by God they did! I helped them with their
studies. You remember, I had the text in my pinkie. But the Profs! What a
bird-brained bunch. They’re a flock of chickens in pecking order.”
“To hell with it,” continued Drugi. “Look here.” He produced an official
envelope from the inner pocket of his jacket. “Do you know what this is?”
He waved the letter under Charlie’s nose.
“It’s a passport, buddy. I’m going to France! To the great country of
France! Do you dig it, my boy?”
“Why do you want to leave this country?”
Drugi looked at him with amazement. “Am I out of my mind? Do I want to
ruin my life? I’ve had enough of this, pal. Paris! The Sorbonne! French
dames! Who needs a worthless Canadian diploma?” Then an idea hit Drugi.
Even in the camp Drugi had been full of ideas. “You dreamed of becoming a
“What are you waiting for? You’ll wait till doomsday. Why don’t you join
me?” He chuckled. “You’ll find it unbelievable, pal, but I have recently
become a poet too. Right now I’m working on an epic about the
Sumerian-Hungarian common roots,” said Drugi. Then he glanced at his
watch. “Excuse me, I’ve got to run, buddy. You can find me in the tavern.
Usually I’m in the Three Candles. By the way, I work for the sisters at
the St. Joseph’s Hospital. See you!”
He hurried off into the crowd. Suddenly he turned around and yelled back
from the distance. “What did the Editor of the Globe and Mail say when he
saw you? Ha ha ha! Where do you work?”
Without waiting for an answer he disappeared in the milling throng.
Charlie stood there for a while wondering whether he should drop in on the
Kozma’s or not. The idea had lost its appeal. In low spirits he
In his room he walked to the window. The sun had long since disappeared
behind the maple trees across the street. Scarlet after-glow filtered into
the room, bathing Renoir’s Lady, a magazine cut-out on the wall. She
delicately held an umbrella in her sand-coloured hand, her chameleon coat
recalling summer’s rich hues. For a while he gazed out, absorbed in the
quickly fading light. He threw himself upon the bed. His dazed imagination
took flight. He saw himself as a high-school student at the movies back
home, watching a show about Outer Space. That show destroyed his illusions
about the glowing Paradise of his childhood. Instead of singing Cherubs
and the glory of the Seraphs, he saw the chaos of spinning stars which the
camera lens brought close. The musical accompaniment provided by a
bad-tempered pianist emphasized his chilling realization that life was not
so simple and paradisean as his Mother had told him. The angry pianist
might hit a false note… an unruly planet, defying Nature’s law, might
crash into another, and then…
Suddenly he sat up and looked through the window again. The city swam in
neon lights. Billboards gaudily proclaimed their wares. The whole city
looked like an enormous booth at the world’s fair. People scurried like
ants in hoards, each preoccupied with his own business. The new graduate,
with a job offer on his table as a teacher at St. Patrick’s High School,
was struck with desire to mingle in that unceasing stream, to step from
the stifling garret which had clamped him four long years in isolation
while he earned this diploma - slim introduction to the great book of life
now opening before him.
Then he phoned Emily, who had always comforted him in his hours of
(Translated from Hungarian by George Payerle
and Maxim Tabory)