Never before had she been in such a strange building, with such a tangled branching-out of corridors.
As she discovered later, the renowned Bishop Matula Gymnasium was an old monastery dating from the Middle Ages, which explained the massive outer walls, the vaulted ceilings and the unusual shape of the classrooms. The inner walls had been either cut through or taken down and moved to create suitably large spaces out of the old monks’ cells. On the other hand, the furniture and fittings were rather more modern than in Gina’s old school, and everything sparkled with cleanliness. Through a door someone had left open she glimpsed the white tiles of an enormous built-in bath. Susanna immediately closed it, as if it were somehow improper for anyone to set eyes on a place where the girls would strip naked, even when there was no one in there.
They continued on their way, ever further away from the front wing, where her father was no doubt still in conversation with the director. Here all the windows were shut, and their panes of thick frosted glass obscured the view of the garden. They had reached the part of the building where the boarders lived, and now she had her first sight of the pupils. Girls of different ages were standing at the wall organizing their lockers. As Gina and Susanna came in they all turned, stood to attention and greeted them. They all wore the same long-sleeved uniform with red piping around the shiny black material. It covered the whole body, almost down to the ankle, and the wearers looked so alike that Gina began to wonder if she would ever be able to tell them apart. Their hair was done in exactly the same way, with a parting down the middle and tresses of various lengths woven into plaits and tied by a black ribbon that looked more like a shoelace.
[ Return to the review of “Abigail.” ]
Susanna took her on to the storeroom, where the Sister Housekeeper issued her with her own uniform and equipment. She was sent to an enclosed space where she had to change not only her clothes but also her underwear. Her petticoat, with its bluebirds hovering over a lake of yellow silk, earned a look of such disapproval you would have thought they harbored some virulent tropical disease. The new outfit she was given in exchange for her own—hat, gloves, jacket and the long uniform with its sleeve ends reinforced with protective ruffles—was all, on close inspection, well-tailored from cloth of the finest quality. But Gina was still shocked. It was as if someone, presumably the designer, had done all she could to make sure the pupils of the Bishop Matula Gymnasium should never attract attention, and, if they did, the onlooker would simply stare in horrified wonderment that anyone could have deliberately created a costume like that for an innocent child—a Sunday-best outfit that resembled nothing so much as a naval uniform, sharply cut and sitting high against the throat, where, instead of a collar and tie, it was held tight by a narrow band embroidered with white tulips to add a festive air.
A locker had been cleared for her, and she was now able to examine the things she had been carrying: slippers, a towel, a dressing gown and a bathrobe. The ones she had brought had all been rejected and replaced—even the twelve new handkerchiefs. In her mind’s eye she went through the objects she had packed with so much love and care in her trunk: the fluffy sky-blue and pink towels, the scented nightdresses that brought back such vivid memories of the home she had left, of her father, of Auntie Mimó (and Marcelle too, who had made the soft, playful dressing gown for her), and the bathrobe with the fantastical reed beds in which baby hippopotamuses frolicked and openmouthed crocodiles lay in wait. The Sister Housekeeper told her to take that desperate look off her face: surely she did not have to be told that such trumpery should be of no interest to a good Christian girl. The only thing she and Susanna disagreed on was whether, because of the wartime shortages, Gina might be allowed to keep and use her own toothbrush and soap, but in the end they decided against it. These last had come to Gina through some secret source of Auntie Mimó’s: the soap was green and smelled strongly of camellias, and the handle of the toothbrush was a bright cherry red. But even setting aside the question of color, the housekeeper declared that it clearly failed to meet the regulations and its slanting tufts were a disgrace. In its place Gina was given a white one, on which the woman immediately inscribed her new registration number in permanent ink, and she was handed a large block of the school soap. “It’s made here, on the premises,” Susanna said. “Everyone uses it, including the director.”
As she pulled on the black ribbed stockings and the tall black boots she thought that that would be all. But she was wrong. What came next was, in its own way, even more horrifying than the new outfit. Susanna teased out her long tresses with the new wooden-handled brush that had replaced her old silver-backed one, then chopped them short to match the other girls’ and added a parting down the middle and plaits, tied by the same black shoelace. Gina was now trembling with shock. They have swallowed me whole. I am no longer myself, she thought, and her breathing became a rapid pant. The prefect, knowing what this meant in a young girl, hurried to finish her task. And now they’ve taken even my hair. I have nothing left.
“I advise you not to cry,” said Susanna. “If you must cry, let it be for something other than your hair. To cry for that would be quite unworthy.”
Gina did not cry, if only to make it clear to the two of them that she considered them absolute strangers whom she could never allow to witness her suffering.
“So there we are,” said the Deaconess. “This is how we dress here, and how we wear our hair. You will have to get used to it, because it’s the regulation. There are good reasons, you may be sure.”
“What are those reasons?” Gina asked. It was the first time she had spoken, apart from simple greetings.
“I will tell you when you have learned not to ask for explanations.
You will also have to learn that you do not ask questions without prior permission. Goodbye, then” (to the Sister Housekeeper). “We are off now.”
The new shoes were too large for her feet; they felt heavy and unfamiliar. Tagging along behind Susanna over the stone floor (which had been scrubbed until it shone), she had to take care not to trip and fall. Her personal belongings had been locked away by the housekeeper and she was carrying the new outfit she had been issued with in her plundered suitcase, while Susanna carried the bed linen. They came to a door above which a plaque read “Day Room A, Years V and VI.” Inside, girls were sitting and chatting around a long table. The moment the door opened they all stood up and greeted Susanna. “This is where you will be when you aren’t in the dormitory, the refectory or the classroom. Girls, this is Georgina Vitay. She has just arrived, so do give her your help.”
The girls greeted Gina the same way they had addressed Susanna: “Good morning,” followed by, “and welcome.”
“Good morning to you too,” Gina murmured, echoing what the director had instructed her to say. It must have been the right answer, as this time Susanna did not correct her.
[ Return to the review of “Abigail.” ]
They continued on their way. Susanna took her to the dormitory, laid the linen on the bed nearest to the door and told her it would be hers. She would find a locker in the corridor where she could keep her things. Her name was already on it, and the key was in the lock. When she had finished she should be sure to turn the key and then hang it around her neck. If she lost it she would be punished.
The dormitory was not quite empty. Two girls were there, busy making their beds. They stopped when Susanna came in, stood to attention, as the others had done in the day room, and lowered the sheets they had been unfolding. Susanna introduced Gina and prepared to leave. Gina realized with horror that now it really was about to begin: she would be left alone with these girls she had never met, she would have to talk to them and answer their questions. What sort of person can you be, she wondered about the Deaconess, if you can’t see how terrified I am? Say something, if only to show me that you feel sorry for me, or at least that you understand. Show me that, for all your strange customs here, you are still a human being. Say something, so that this won’t be so terribly hard!
“May the Lord be with you,” Susanna called from the doorway, smiling her beautiful smile, and out she went.
She might have said something more to the point, Gina thought. Something a bit more personal, if only to help me breathe more easily.
Later, many months later, she came to understand that this laconic remark was indeed the simplest and in fact the only possible way the Deaconess, who lived so close to her God, could have said: “I truly pity you, my child. It will be difficult for you here, and in my own way I shall do all I can to help you get used to it. But I don’t count for very much in this place. Someone more powerful than I must find a way. But fear not: find it she will.”
Gina looked around the dormitory and counted the beds. There was a row of ten against each of the two longer walls. The two girls carried on unfolding their sheets and she started on hers. Feelings of intense gratitude to Marcelle began to well up inside her. Her governess had insisted that besides her lessons she should also learn housekeeping, and she would have been ashamed to show herself less adept than these two. The three girls finished their tasks at almost the same moment and the two parties stood looking at one another for a minute or two. Then the shorter of the pair, whose pitch-black hair had been squeezed into such tight plaits they must have been hard as iron, came towards her. The taller one, the blonde, followed behind. Her eyes were red, as if she had just been crying. They introduced themselves: the shorter, dark-haired one was called Mari Kis, the one with red eyes Torma, Piroska Torma.
Mari Kis asked Gina what school she had come from and was amazed that it was as far away as Budapest. Gina explained that her father was in the army, that he was so often away from home that he didn’t have time to look after her; her governess was a Frenchwoman, but she had had to leave the country; and her mother was dead, so she had been sent here as a boarder. It surprised her how very logical it all now seemed, and how natural the other two found it. She would have loved to believe with them that the General’s conduct had been quite so straightforward and unambiguous, and that there was no other reason why she had become an inmate of this fortress.
“I don’t have a father either,” said the red-eyed girl. “Neither father nor mother. I never knew them. I grew up here.”
“Ungrateful girl!” said Mari Kis. “You’ve got no one? What about the director? It’s no bad thing to be the director’s niece. You should see the trouble he takes over her education! He’s already made her cry once today. My own parents are primary school teachers, in a rural village. They sent me here because there’s no proper school there, just the elementary one.”
“Look at her handbag!” the fair-haired girl gasped.
Before starting to make her bed Gina had placed her silver-monogrammed handbag on the chest of drawers beside it. It caused her no surprise that it should be admired—Auntie Mimó had bought it for her in Lajos Kossuth Avenue one Christmas. She ran the tips of her fingers sadly over the soft leather. Its powder-blue elegance was so totally out of keeping with the shapeless school outfit.
“They’ve forgotten to give you your bag,” said Torma. “Have a good last look at your work of art. They’ll take it from you, and everything in it, soon enough.”
“Here we have school-issue bags,” Mari Kis explained. “We carry everything we need in them. Handbags like yours are strictly forbidden. And you’ll have to redo your hair. You look awful. There’s a mirror in the washroom. Come, I’ll show you where it is.”
What were they saying? That the handbag too, and everything in it, would be confiscated? They were going to take away the miniature photo album with the pictures of her father and Auntie Mimó and Marcelle, and even the one of Feri—Feri taking a fence on his horse Silkworm? And all her money? The hundred pengő note and the change left over from her purchase of the ashtray? And her powder box, her little calendar, her comb and the key to the house? I’ll have to take them out and make sure they don’t see them, hide them somewhere. But where? In the bed? Impossible. They’ll be sure to look under the mattress. Where could I possibly find a place to hide my last prized possessions? They’re all I have now to remind me of my vanished former life.
“So, are you going to do your hair? It’s time to go.”
She slipped the handbag over her arm and followed Mari Kis out. There was no refuse bin in the dormitory that she could see, but she hoped there might be one in the washroom. If there was, she might be able to hide her things behind or underneath it until she found somewhere more suitable. Mari Kis went with her to the bend in the corridor, held the washroom door open and told her to be quick, because Susanna made a note of how much time each activity took and doing your hair twice before lunch was frowned upon: in fact it was against the rules. The reason they had to wear their hair like that was so that you only needed to comb it once in the morning and again at bedtime.
The washroom was permeated with the damp odor of scoured bathtubs, but through the large, sunlit sash windows of the communal area came a stream of fresh air, rich with the scent of autumn and harvest time. In one corner stood a tall house plant. Some disease had begun to attack its leaves, so it must have been put there to convalesce in the warm stream of moist air. On the sills of the high windows geraniums glowed a cheerful red in the sunlight, in boxes placed behind a protective metal barrier to protect the varnished wood from random splashes when they were being watered. There was a waste bin, under one of the basins, but it was made of some cheap white material and was quite unsuitable as a hiding place. The toilet roll was not tucked away in a holder, as at home, but left exposed. There was no boiler or water heater to be seen—the hot water must have arrived from some central point elsewhere, though no pipes could be seen on the walls. She had no qualms about standing on the toilet seats to feel the tops of the cisterns, but they were covered with sheet iron and screwed firmly down.
She had failed. They were going to take away the last mementos of her former life. She was simply too weary to cry, and she no longer felt the urge to deal with her hair. That was not why she had come into the washroom: she no longer cared what sort of scarecrow they had made of her. She went over to the window and tried to look out, but she failed there too. The narrow opening above the thick pane of frosted glass showed her only the sky, nothing of the garden. She stood on tiptoe and gripped the geranium box, wanting to pull herself high enough to feel the fresh air blowing on her skin and caressing her face—the crisp, free-wandering breeze that would speak to her of the world outside, the one she would be deprived of for God knew how long. Her fingers slid into the gap between the protective shield and the flower box behind it, and almost brought the whole lot down on her head. She leaped backwards, her throat so dry with excitement she began to choke. She had found the answer.
[ Return to the review of “Abigail.” ]