The prisoner, who had had no news from home for a long time, was tortured by fear and his imagination of how things would be at home. The guards tormented him, “Its complete chaos back at your place”. And what would be surprising if it were so, said the prisoner to himself? The men were all away, at the front, in captivity, six feet under,…
The prisoner was a tram conductor at home, so in some ways he was taking a rest not just from the war, but from peacetime as well. It had been toil and trouble. Twelve or more hours a day in the tram, always on his feet, squeezing between sweaty riff-raff and arrogant bourgeoisie, mumbling, “Thank you” to every nonentity who paid two cents more than the price of the ticket, carrying the responsibility that the drunks didn’t fall out of the tram, that the women didn’t jump off in the wrong direction, and the children who climbed on the seats don’t put the windows through.
Yes, when his wife pulled his boots off and brought him his beer and his filled pipe, he was surely within his rights to let out a long sigh of weariness. If his wife complained about the hard times, or brought him a badly filled pipe, he was surely also within his rights to scowl at her and ask casually, “What do you know about toil? And responsibility? And the load of being the bread-winner which weighs on men’s shoulders?”
Certainly it was toil and trouble, but the peace and quiet in his armchair in the evening did taste sweet. He was a slave for twelve hours in the outside world, but then the master for twelve hours at home. And he had his moral compensation for the servitude he endured: it was in the gaze with which his wife and children looked up to him. And how they listened when he told them about the stress and strains of duty, fraught with adventures with inspectors and passengers.
And then the little one says, “I want to be a conductor as well”.
The prisoner realized how nice it was at home. And he often felt physically sick with apprehension and homesickness.
And then he experienced how the Russian earth burst, the centuries collapsed, and a terrible gale threw everyone all over the place. He was among those that it threw back across the border.
Now he had embraced his wife and child again, and told them about his experiences during the three years’ exile. And like all returning prisoners, it didn’t take him long. The three years seemed to him like one huge overblown hour. How much could happen in an hour? In ten minutes he had told them the most important things. When he used to come home from being on the tram, he usually had more to tell them about the day than now, about the three years as a prisoner of war.
Then it was his wife’s turn to report. Oh, how hard it had been in his absence! And now she is a tram conductor herself, and works ten hours a day in the tram with the uniform cap on her head, and the ticket clipper between her fingers, which are blue with cold. And it’s difficult with food. There is only beer for an hour on Sunday evening, and even then, it’s not proper beer, it’s just bitter, yellow water.
“So? Female conductors in the tram? Are there a lot of them?”
“It’ll be few hundred at least”.
Well, yes, the war! The men are all away; the women have got to go to work. He could understand that.
What he didn’t understand was why the floor suddenly seemed to have turned into dough, and he couldn’t take a step without sinking in.
His slippers were by the bed: a sign of his dignity as pater familias and his holy right to peace and quiet.
His wife went over to them and put them on. She sat at the table, sighed, and told him about a man whose ticket had run out, but wouldn’t get off until she called a policeman. And about an aggressive inspector. And about a traffic jam which had lasted three-quarters of an hour. And about all the other conductor adventures, troubles and strife.
“It was once minus 45°C in Siberia”, he said hesitantly. “The Russian guard had a blind dog which could distinguish between Germans and Austrians. It bit the Germans. In St. Petersburg, the tram conductors wear thick furs. You can only see the ends of their noses.”
His wife had let her head sink onto her breast and fallen asleep.
Of tiredness. Of course.
He looked at her, and a heavy wave of disquiet crossed his heart. And now he knew why the floor seemed so doughy that he daren’t put his foot on it.
He had been robbed during his captivity. He had been robbed of his dignity. He specialness as a man. His crown of labour. It may have been a crown of thorns, but it was still a crown. His kingdom had been abolished, just like the Russian one.He no longer had the right to demand submission, his slippers, devout gazes, a well-filled pipe, respect, or a glass of beer. His prestige capital was all used up. It no longer paid interest in respect and awe. His lordship, which used to hang on him like an invisible, service-demanding priests robe, now hung around the shoulders of his wife.
He felt as though he had caught her in flagranti with his best friend. With a friend to whom he was as close as to himself.
Filled with anger, he shook his sleeping wife so hard that her head, which had been leaning on her left arm, flew across to the right one.
“Bring me my pipe, you!”
She just sighed a little in her sleep, and mumbled, “Please let the passengers get off first.”
He nearly burst into tears of irrational self-pity.
And he felt sick with apprehension and homesickness, just like in Siberia.
Published in: Polgar Reader