Friday, April 17, 2015
In the mid-fifties, I and my mother, when she was not off on one of her fan-dancing tours, were living with my grandparents.
It was a Victorian house – 17 rooms including three separate toilets and two bathrooms, ideal for renting rooms either on a short term basis during the summer months or long term, but excluding the two back garden-sheds, the pigeon loft, and the attic and by the time of my 14th birthday I had the pleasure of sleeping in them all – bathrooms, toilets and sheds included.
The situations which resulted in me being shuttled around the maze of corridors and rooms were also strange. But then, boarding houses are the strangest places. They have this creative ability of absorbing the character of the souls who pass through their portals making them multi-faceted shells of human pain and joy.
Laszlo Bartos entered the portals of The Beachcomber one fine summer’s day in 1957. He occupied the attic and for this privilege he paid my mother the princely sum of one pound and ten shillings a week. His arrival at the height of summer season along the Fyde coast had necessitated me being shunted into the last wooden shed at the bottom of the back garden which housed my grandpa’s tools.
“Hi”, I replied as I released my hand and glanced up at the sweat glistening on the stranger’s forehead.
Two words of greeting – the only two we exchanged at our first meeting. He clutched a battered old suitcase wrapped round with string in his left hand. My eyes darted from the case to his bright yellow nylon socks. They seemed to light up the space between his grey flannel trousers and black plim-soles in a way that appeared to keep his slender body out of contact with the ground. The closer I observed him the more I was aware of a surreal aura that enveloped his whole body. The air shimmered around him.
“I want must study – me – alone, get the English. I need room. Time to get heal.”
My mother who was in charge of the rentals, had no time for small talk, especially pigeon-Hungarian-English and replied, “You can have the attic. One pound ten shillings!”
“I take it,” and off they walked.
I wondered if he would manage to survive the heat up there. I had been an occupant of the attic and during the summer months and the oppressing humid warmth of the house rose and hung trapped under the rafters. He wanted privacy. That he would certainly have up the two flights of twenty-two steps to the dingy brown fading door.
Mr. Bartos proved to be one of the best lodgers my mother and grandparents had ever known. He kept himself to himself. He was clean in his habits, as least he cleaned the bath, which he shared with the summer time guests on the second story, after he’d used it and to my mother this was of prime importance. So after the first few tentative weeks when she used to follow him around like his own shadow, checking how much hot water he’d used and whether he’d switched off the hallway and stair-well lights, my mother resumed her normal routine.
To her mind Mr. Bartos could do no wrong. Every Friday night he paid his rent in cash and my mother wrote him out a receipt.
He secured a reasonably paid job working as a conductor, a ticket dispenser on the Blackpool tramway system. He was supplied with a uniform and his very own ticket machine and belt. His name was etched into the leather belt and the machine had its own serial number.
He was very proud of this and often asked me if we had any brasso and black boot polish. I would often catch him sitting in his fold-up chair he brought down from the attic, enjoying the summer time sun and cleaning the metal machine until it glowed in the dark and rubbing the boot polish into his belt, which he wore off duty when he attended the local Catholic church every Sunday.
His job also was a blessing to me.
I had a daily long tram ride to school, or to Gypsy Rose Lee on weekends. School was at the South Shore of Blackpool almost next to the Pleasure Beach amusement park, a three shilling return ride. It meant that when he was on the early morning shift six am till two in the afternoon I gained a free ride on the tram.
Laszlo and I had our own little secrets, as I pocketed the fair money my mother gave me and bought chocolates and crisps, which I used to share with him.
We established a routine should a ticket inspector board the tram. He would whistle and a minute later he was next to me rolling out a three-penny student ticket, which entitled me to five tramway stops.
We’d worked out that the inspectors were usually off the tram after the fourth stop.
However, it amazed me that the inspectors did not cotton on, as often I was twenty or so stations away from my point of alighting. It was clear that the inspectors didn’t pay much attention to the school uniform, because that would have given them an idea as to where I would be getting off the tram if he’d been able to identify the uniform.
When Laszlo was on the afternoon shift 2pm till 10pm his journeys from South Shore to my home of Cleveleys, we followed the same routine. I normally finished lessons at 4pm and would be able to catch the four-thirty tram, but on days when extracurricular activities like rugby, drama, choir practice happened, I’d only be finished at approximately six o’clock. On those days I had to stand around at the tram stop as I knew Laszlo’s tram would not be coming till twenty past six.
So during my second year at secondary school I had an ample supply of sweets, chocolates and my favourite new on the market, smokey-bacon crisps.
Over the winter term at school Laszlo’s and my friendship blossomed, whether this was due to the very hot coffee I had procured from the border’s matron, for my large thermos-flask and shared with Laszlo on those gusty wind swept evenings, I’d never discover.
He told me of his escape from Hungary during the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Soviet tanks on the street, how to make a Molotov-petrol-cocktail-bomb, how the black-market operated and many of the political depravations he endured.
The story of his older brother’s death was spine chilling. Lucas had been in the Hungarian army and had deserted and joined the uprising. He was captured by the Soviets and shot, his body wearing his dull green army fatigues was delivered to his parent’s house wrapped in a yellow sheet. They were told he was a traitor and a coward.
I was gaining valuable knowledge about the workings of the communist system, which thirty-five years later sprang into my head on my first visit to apartheid South Africa. The working class Hungarian and the South African blacks had much in common; pass laws, restricted living areas, a thriving black market and a diabolically poor wage packet.
I digress. I’m sorry but it tends to be a habit of mine which I have been trying to cure all of my life; where was I?
Oh yes, tram rides and Laszlo the perfect conductor.
He told me a recent argument he’d had with one of the inspectors who’d referred him to his boss. It was his yellow nylon socks. They were not part of his regulation dress code.
“You not give me black socks!” he’d screamed at his boss, “I these wear as yellow reminder of the uprising!” Obviously the Hungarian uprising was beyond the comprehension of the surly middle aged Blackpudlican and he demanded that Laszlo wear black socks and if he was ever caught again incorrectly dressed, “H’d be goin back t’ uprising!”
Laszlo was deeply upset when he told me this and was almost close to tears. I did my best to console him, but a near adolescent youngster was hardly capable of offering advice, or tear him away from his horrific memories.
I didn’t see Laszlo for the rest of the week either at home or on the tram.
It was the Sunday morning of that week when I was summoned by my mother to find out what was wrong with Mr Bartos. He hadn’t paid his rent as usual on Friday night, and she’d noticed an odd smell in the upstairs rooms.
I was given the pass-key to the attic and climbed the two flights of stairs. It was almost a year since his arrival and the summer months with their exceptionally hot days were with us again. I also noticed the smell which reminded me of the tripe my grandmother used to cook.
I opened the door and called his name, “Laszlo!”
This was the last word I spoke before I screamed so that whole street could hear me.
Laszlo was hanging from one of the cross-joists, his fold-up chair on its side a few feet away from his dangling bare feet and entwined around his neck were six pairs of tied together bright yellow socks.
The police translated his two word suicide note “emlékére” in remembrance.