147. The Television

Part 1 of the 'Melbourne 1956' series and part 1 of the 'Pax Olympia' series.

THE FIRST TIME I met László Kaszás I was 16 years old. It was late 1956, and I lived with my family in a comfortable, exceedingly dull suburb of Melbourne. In those days, more or less the entire city was dull, except for the slums, which we had been trained to avoid, and tiny outposts of bohemia downtown, in St Kilda and Bulleen, which my mother occasionally escaped to after a fight with my father, or when he was away and loneliness got the better of her. The rest of the city was dull, almost proudly so, and our suburb especially so. The great gaudy city of the Gold Rush had given way to temperance movements and mutual societies. Modesty had been the vogue for generations, and the dawn of yearning for something more was yet to break. In my family's house, the prevailing mood was more contempt than pride. We were worldly enough to know how unworldly we were. My stepmother spoke with an accent - highly unusual at the time - and my father spent most of his army career abroad. In fact, he had recently returned from an overseas posting mere weeks before the Games to a barrage of pleas from my twin brother Lloyd and I that he apply to the Organising Committee to accommodate an athlete. There was a shortage of accommodation for the athletes, and the Committee had asked householders to assist with housing them. There was a flood of applications. My father bowed to our demands and, weeks later, we were informed that we would have a Russian gymnast stay with us. Her name was Nadia Abashidze and, we were told, she was 19 years old and from Georgia. She arrived to stay the day before the Opening Ceremony. She was a very small girl, sparrow-like, with dark features, and didn’t speak a word of English. I of course fell in love with her instantly. Thankfully, both of my parents spoke Russian – my stepmother had grown up in Poland before the war, and at war's end had found herself in Berlin, where my father was stationed in the British zone, an Australian army officer and widower. It was there they had met and fallen in love and married, while my brother and I were being brought up by my maternal grandparents in Melbourne. When they returned, we moved in with my father and new mother. She spoke beautiful English and I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. I tried to get her to teach me Russian but each time I asked she would laugh off the request, telling me to concentrate on English, that it was the language of the future. So when Nadia arrived I was quite unable to guess what she was talking about with my parents. I would ask them afterwards and they would reply with a little fact about her life, such as that as well as training several hours a day she was also completing her high school studies like a normal student, which should (they added) be a lesson to me. Every time Nadia entered the room I blushed a deep crimson. Lloyd noticed immediately and teased me relentlessly for it. She was rarely home. The Soviet team would send a car for her in the early morning and she returned late at night. By this time, Lloyd and I were in our beds. I would hear the car draw up outside, and several voices, all male except for Nadia, then there would be a knock at the door and my stepmother would answer, and Nadia would dump her bag in the guest’s room and join my parents in the kitchen for a cup of tea and biscuits, and they would talk happily for a while, sometimes for half an hour, sometimes longer. However, a drive had been organised to the hills the following Sunday, during which I was hoping for a chance to have some time alone with Nadia, when I would confess my love for her, and she wouldn’t understand my words, which would then give me a good excuse to hold her hand and kiss her. That Friday night, however, over dinner, the telephone rang and – contrary to his rule of never answering the telephone during dinner – my father answered it. I heard him grunt into the receiver a few times and hang up. He returned to the dinner table and announced a surprise. There had been a mix-up with the accommodation and we would be hosting another guest: a Hungarian water-polo player called László. Lloyd and I were thrilled. The Hungarians were the heros of the Games. The Soviet Union had just invaded Hungary a matter of weeks before the Games. When is he arriving?, asked Lloyd. Any moment now, replied my father. Sure enough, László arrived a matter of minutes later in a taxi, a huge blonde bear of a man who could not, it seemed, stop grinning. He was immediately likeable. Unlike Nadia, László could speak some English – not much, but between the few words he knew and some imaginative gesturing he told us riotously funny stories about what had been happening in the Games village. After dinner, we took tea in the lounge room, where we sat around father’s latest purchase, of which we were inordinately proud: it was a television, just arrived in time for the Games. We were the second house on the street to have one, and we were allowed to watch one hour of variety before bedtime. When he saw it, László was astonished. He circled it twice, leaning over it, leaning back from it. He said he’d seen no such thing in Hungary. He watched the variety show with us, and every time the audience laughed he exploded into laughter too, even though it was clear he had no idea what was being said. This made us laugh in turn, so that László became the entertainment, rather than the variety, which despite the novelty of the medium was very familiar to us, as our stepmother had often taken us to sit in the audience of the radio shows at the Tivoli Theatre. When our stepmother sent us to bed, I was crushed, but my protests only drew threats of a grounding from my father. László cooled my anger by promising to get me a ticket to the finals of the water polo early the following week. As I lay in my bed, I heard the three of them talking good-naturedly in what sounded like German – another language both my parents could speak. My mother also spoke Polish, French, Hebrew and Yiddish – she said Yiddish wasn’t a real language but I decided it was, as it meant I could boast she spoke six languages, rather than five. Then I heard a car pull up outside, and the customary voices, and Nadia knocking at the front door. My stepmother answered it and I heard them greet each other and walk down the corridor to the kitchen, where the two guests were introduced. I heard László say something politely to Nadia, and her equally polite reply – so he too spoke Russian! My dreams of a weekend seduction, already fading, evaporated. I had a competitor for Nadia’s affections with whom I couldn't compete. Had he mentioned a wife? A girlfriend? He had not. But surely, I fretted, they are not going to both sleep in the same room? I listened closely to the movements throughout the house. Nadia entered the guest’s room while I heard noises emanating from the study: my stepmother in my father's library, putting together the cot for László to sleep in. Reassured, I finally allowed myself to fall into a fitful sleep, filled with frightful dreams.