‘Abigail,’ by Magda Szabo: An Excerpt


“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.” ]

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