Moment in Time

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Summer in Budapest can be a marvellous time — if you are in love.

It was 1961, and the cold war was in full swing. My girlfriend wanted to go somewhere exotic.

“Let’s see what it’s like behind the Iron Curtain,” she said with that cheeky little smile that told me I was wasting my time arguing.

I never won any of these debates, so I rolled over and said, “Let’s do it.”

It had crossed my mind that we were likely to end up in some Communist gaol with a one-hundred-and-fifty-watt bulb giving us sunburn while some large party member shouted at us in a language we didn’t understand.

But, in the end, her father pulled some strings, and a few weeks later we landed in Budapest with full diplomatic immunity. I made a mental note not to piss off her father any more than was necessary.

We didn’t live at the embassy, “That would be boring. We need to live where the real people live.” She was right, and she kept on being right for the entire year that we lived in that beautiful old city.

We answered an ad written in broken English, posted on the embassy’s notice board.

Eric worked at the embassy, and his girlfriend Frida worked at a bar just across the square. Sometimes, when her boss wasn’t looking, she would top-up our drinks without us paying.

They had an apartment in the old part of the city, close to public transport — which is important when you have a microscopic amount of money. Two bedrooms, a small sitting-room and a tiny kitchen; and all on the third floor with no working elevator. What did we care? We were young and healthy, and the third floor had an excellent view of a brick wall with just a hint of parkland, which you could clearly see as long as you leant out the window while standing on a kitchen chair.

I was riding the tram that day. Ingrid, my well-connected girlfriend, was off making arrangements for our departure: we were going home.

The year had gone by so fast, and you learn a lot about a couple when you share a house with them. We liked them a lot, and they seemed to be very much in love.

I watched it all play out in the time that the tram was stationary at the platform. I didn’t need to hear what they were saying; I could see their lives together crumbling in front of my eyes.

They didn’t visit the airport to see us depart, and as far as I know, they never spoke to each other again.

Their belongings disappeared from our shared accommodation over the next few days without us ever seeing them.

Half a century has passed, and I still think about them and wonder how their lives turned out after that day at the tram stop.

Ingrid and I limped along for a few months after we got home, but I think that we both knew that something important had been lost, and neither of us was mature enough to recover it.

So, in the end, that tram stop saw the beginning of the end for all of us that day.

You can never go back, but sometimes the past comes to you.

That photo is a frozen moment in time, and when I look at it, I could be back there in that country where very few people spoke my language, and my friends were slowly walking away from each other.

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