The little boy shovelling snow in his grandparents’ garden was one of the lucky ones. He and his mother had managed to escape the bloodbath by crossing the border into Austria before the iron curtain descended with brutal efficiency, sealing off the troubled country. The boy’s father, however – a freedom fighter – had remained behind, helping to hide, and care for the wounded.
‘You must leave now, before it’s too late!’ he had told his young wife. ‘Your parents are in Austria waiting for you. You have a home to go to; in the West! There is nothing left for us here. I will join you later; promise. Go!’ That had happened in early November.
This will be a sad Christmas, thought the young woman, watching her son play in the snow outside. At least he’s safe. Of course she hadn’t heard from her husband, nor did she know if he was still alive. The horror stories which had leaked out through the Red Cross, spoke of summary executions, chaos, hunger and despair; the wages of defeat of a humbled nation that had dared to demand freedom, and lost.
The little boy pushed the wooden shovel along the path at the bottom of the garden when something caught his eye: a dark shape at the gate. Squinting through the snow falling all around him like sparkling tufts of cottonwool, he could see a man wearing a slouch hat and a long coat watching him; motionless and silent. The boy dropped the shovel and walked slowly towards the gate. With each step came recognition, hesitantly at first, but growing stronger and more certain.
‘Daddy?’ whispered the boy, his eyes wide with disbelief and wonder. The man put down his little brown suitcase and took off his hat.
‘Daddy!’ shrieked the boy as he flew into his father’s outstretched arms. It was an embrace neither of them would forget.
Of course the little boy in the story was me. It had taken my father three weeks to walk from the smoking ruins of Budapest to my grandparents’ home in Austria. Hiding in abandoned stables and chicken coops along the way, and living off the kindness of farmers prepared to risk all to help a fugitive, he finally crossed the border into Austria at night during a snow storm. I remember his swollen feet looked terrible and he was frightfully thin and very weak. But none of that mattered; he had come home for Christmas.
A couple of years later, in high school, we were asked to write a short story about an event that changed our lives. This was my story. The teacher entered it in a little competition run by the local paper. The story won a prize. It was my first step towards becoming a writer.