The first time she drove me to the river so I could swim she pointed out a bakery set back from the highway on the right. “His cakes were never the same after they took his lions away,” she said.
“Excuse me?” I said, leaning forward to turn down Elvis singing “Always On My Mind”.
She sighed, as if she was telling me the story for the hundredth time. “He was a simple old country man but his hobby was to keep lions. He had three on his little farm, not so far from the bakery.”
“Where had he got them from?”
“I don’t know. Wherever you get lions from. I was a teacher at the school in this village. When the teachers wanted an excuse to take the children out of school they would bring them down to the bakery. And the old man would show them the lions.”
“That’s fantastic,” I said.
“Not really. One day a little girl came from home from school with a tear in her school cardigan. Her mother asked her what had happened and she said she’d been attacked by a lion. Of course, her mother didn’t believe her and was angry. But the little girl insisted she was telling the truth. Her mother took the little girl to our school and they asked her chemistry teacher if it was true, that she took the children to see the old man’s lions. The teacher said it was. It was a big scandal. The television people came.”
“It’s a great story.”
“It’s not a story, it’s true. And they took the old man’s lions away. It was terrible for him. His cakes were never the same after that.”
“What were they like before?”
We drove over a bridge that crossed a broad river. “Is that where I’ll be going swimming?” I said.
“No. His cakes weren’t bad. But they weren’t as good as Rozsika neni’s.”
Yesterday we bought Easter cakes from the unhappy blonde woman at Rozsika neni’s with bright makeup who has lost a lot of weight. Afterwards we went into the Catholic church to light candles. The white paint around the entrance to the church was peeling but the gloom inside was familiar and comforting and the baroque painting above the altar shone.
Just inside, on the left in front of some embroidered white sheets, was a short metal box for candles divided into perhaps five rows. Two small red candles had been lit and placed on the right-hand side of one of the rows. She put two hundred forints into the money box and I set our two candles in the centre of the middle row.
She moved them to the left-hand side of the same row as the already lit candles. “It is not the custom in Hungary to put the candles in the middle,” she said.
I lit my candle with a match and tilted the flame until hers caught. For a second the flames wobbled but they straightened out and became strong. As we stood side by side holding hands and made our wishes I felt the heavy weight of the cakes from Rozsika neni’s in the bag in my free hand.
Last night we ate cake again. ‘These are so good,’ I said, taking a small square of flodni from the rows on the paper tray on the table between us. “I can’t remember, was it tigers or lions?”
“Lions,” she said. “I’m sure Rozsika neni puts more into her cakes at Easter. They taste better.”