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Book Extract: Fever at Dawn by Péter Gardós

In July 1945, Miklós, a Hungarian survivor of Belsen, arrives in a refugee camp in Sweden. He is skin and bone, and has no teeth. The doctor says he has only months to live.

But Miklós has other plans. He acquires a list of 117 young Hungarian women who are also in refugee camps in Sweden, and he writes a letter to each of them — obsessively, in his beautiful hand, sitting in the shade of a tree in the hospital garden. One of those young women, he is sure, will become his wife.

In a camp hundreds of kilometres away, Lili reads his letter. Idly, she decides to write back.

Letter by letter, the pair fall in love. In December 1945 they find a way to meet.

Based on the letters of the author Péter Gardós’ parents, Fever at Dawn is a tale of passion, striving, and betrayal; true and false friendships; doubt and faith; and the redeeming power of love.

Read the extract below.

***

Pressed against the X-ray machine, Miklós had done his best not to move. Dr Lindholm shouted at him from the other room. The doctor was a gangling figure, at least six foot six tall, and he spoke a funny sort of Hungarian. All his long vowels sounded the same, as if he were blowing up a balloon. He had run the Lärbro hospital—now temporarily enlarged to accommodate the intake of camp survivors—for the last dozen years. His wife, Márta, a tiny woman whom Miklós reckoned couldn’t be more than four foot six, was a nurse and worked in the hospital too; she was Hungarian, which explained why the doctor tackled the language with such bravado.

‘You hold breath! No frisking!’ he bellowed.

A click and a hum—the X-ray was ready. Miklós relaxed his shoulders.

Dr Lindholm walked over and stood beside him, gazing with compassion at a point slightly above his head. Miklós was slumped, his sunken chest naked against the machine, as if he never wanted to get dressed again. His glasses had steamed up.

‘What you say you occupied with, Miklós?’ the doctor asked. ‘I was a journalist. And poet.’

‘Ah! Engineer of the soul. Very good.’

Miklós shifted from one foot to the other. He was cold.

‘Dress. Why you stand around?’

Miklós shuffled over to the corner of the room and pulled on his pyjama jacket. ‘Is there a problem?’ he asked the doctor.

Lindholm still didn’t look at him. He started walking towards his office, waving at Miklós to follow him. He was muttering, almost to himself, ‘Is a problem.’

Miklós sat in a leather armchair. Opposite him, on the other side of the desk, sat Dr Lindholm. He was flicking anxiously through Miklós’s medical reports.

‘How much you weigh now, Miklós?’

‘Forty-seven kilos.’

‘You see. It works like a clock.’

As a result of Dr Lindholm’s strict diet, Miklós had gained eighteen kilos in only a few weeks. My father kept buttoning and unbuttoning his pyjama jacket, which was far too big for him.

‘What temperature you have this morning?’

‘Thirty-eight point two.’

Dr Lindholm put the reports down on his desk. ‘I won’t beat away the bush any longer. Is that what they say? You are quite strong now to face facts.’

Although Miklós’s smile was anything but heart-warming, Dr Lindholm forced himself to look directly at him.

‘I come straight at the point,’ he said. ‘It is easier. Six months. You have six months to live, Miklós.’ He picked up an X-ray and held it to the light. ‘Look. Come closer.’
Miklós obligingly stood up and hunched over the desk. Dr Lindholm’s slender fingers roamed over the contoured landscape of the X-ray.

‘Here, here, here and here. You see, Miklós? See these patches? This is your tuberculosis. Permanent damage. Nothing to be done about them, I’m afraid. Terrible thing, I have to say. In everyday words, the illness… gobbles the lungs. Can one say “gobble” in Hungarian?’

They stared at the X-ray. Miklós held himself up against the desk. He wasn’t feeling very strong, but he managed a nod, thus confirming that the doctor had found a way through the tangle of his language. ‘Gobble’ was accurate enough to show what the future had in store for him; he didn’t need technical terminology. After all, his father had owned a bookshop in Debrecen before the war. It was housed in Gambrinus Court in the Bishop’s Palace, under the arcades, a few minutes’ walk from the main square. The shop was named Gambrinus Booksellers and consisted of three narrow, high-ceilinged rooms. In one room you could also buy stationery, and there was a lending library too. As a teenager Miklós would perch on top of the high wooden ladder and read books from all over the world—so he could certainly appreciate Lindholm’s poetic turn of phrase.

Dr Lindholm continued to stare into my father’s eyes. ‘As matters stand,’ he explained, ‘medical science says that you are too gone to come back. There will be good days. And bad ones. I will always be next to you. But I don’t want to lead you up the path. You have six months. Seven at most. My heart is heavy, but that is the truth.’

Miklós straightened up, smiling, and then flopped back into the roomy armchair. He seemed almost cheerful. The doctor wasn’t quite sure that he had understood or even heard the diagnosis. But Miklós was thinking of things far more important than his health.

 

TWO DAYS after this conversation Miklós was allowed out for short walks in the beautiful hospital garden. He sat on one of the benches in the shade of a big tree with spreading branches. He rarely looked up. He wrote letter after letter, in pencil, in that attractive looping hand of his, using the hardcover Swedish edition of a novel by Martin Andersen Nexø as a desk. Miklós admired Nexø’s political views and the silent courage of the workers in his books. Perhaps he remembered that the famous Danish author had also suffered from tuberculosis. Miklós wrote swiftly, placing a stone on the finished letters to stop the wind blowing them away.

The next day he knocked on Dr Lindholm’s door. He was determined to charm the good doctor with his frankness. He needed his help.

The doctor fingered the stack of envelopes with surprise. ‘Is not in tradition to ask patients who they write to and why. And not curiosity now that…’ he mumbled.

‘I know,’ said Miklós. ‘But I definitely want to let you in on this.’

‘And there are 117 envelopes here? I congratulate you for diligence.’ Dr Lindholm raised his arm as if he were gauging the weight of the letters. ‘I ask the nurse to buy stamps for them,’ he said obligingly. ‘Always feel free to apply me for help in any financial matter.’

Miklós nonchalantly crossed his pyjama-clad legs, and grinned. ‘All women.’

Dr Lindholm raised an eyebrow. ‘Is that so?’

‘Or rather, young women,’ my father corrected. ‘Hungarian girls. From the Debrecen region. That’s where I was born.’

‘I see,’ said the doctor.

But he didn’t. He hadn’t a clue what Miklós intended with that pile of letters. He gave my father a sympathetic look—after all, this was a man who had been sentenced to death.

‘A few weeks ago,’ Miklós went on eagerly, ‘I made an enquiry about women survivors convalescing in Sweden who were born in or near Debrecen. Only those under thirty!’

‘In hospitals? My God!’

They both knew that in addition to Lärbro there were a number of rehabilitation centres operating in Sweden. Miklós sat up straight. He was proud of his strategy. ‘And there are loads of girls in them,’ he went on excitedly. ‘Here’s the list of names.’

‘Aha! You look for acquaintances,’ exclaimed Dr Lindholm. ‘I’m in favour of that.’

‘You’re mistaken,’ said Miklós with a wink and a smile. ‘I’m looking for a wife. I’d like to get married!’

At last it was out.

Dr Lindholm frowned. ‘It seems, my dear Miklós, that I did not speak myself clearly the other day.’

‘You did, you did,’ Miklós reassured him.

‘The language is against me! Six months. Is all you have left. You know, when a doctor must say something like this, is dreadful.’

‘I understood you perfectly, Dr Lindholm,’ said Miklós.

They sat in uncomfortable silence, each on his end of the sofa. Dr Lindholm was trying to work out whether he should lecture someone who had been sentenced to death. Was it his job to beg his patient to think sensibly? Miklós was wondering whether it was worth trying to persuade Dr Lindholm, with all his experience, to look on the bright side of things. The upshot was they left each other in peace.

~

Dear Nora, Dear Erzsébet, Dear Lili, Dear Zsuzsa, Dear Sára, Dear Seréna, Dear Ágnes, Dear Giza, Dear Baba, Dear Katalin, Dear Judit, Dear Gabriella…

You are probably used to strangers chatting you up when you speak Hungarian, for no better reason than they are Hungarian too. We men can be so bad-mannered. For example, I addressed you by your first name on the pretext that we grew up in the same town. I don’t know whether you already know me from Debrecen. Until my homeland ordered me to ‘volunteer’ for forced labour, I worked for the Independent newspaper, and my father owned a bookshop in Gambrinus Court.

Judging by your name and age, I have a feeling that I might know you. Did you by any chance ever live in Gambrinus Court?

Excuse me for writing in pencil, but I’m confined to bed for a few days on doctor’s orders, and we’re not allowed to use ink in bed.

~

Lili Reich was one of the 117 women who received a letter. She was an eighteen-year-old patient at the Smålandsstenar rehabili- tation hospital. It was early September. She opened the envelope and scanned its contents. The young man from distant Lärbro did have lovely handwriting. But he must have mixed her up with someone else. She promptly forgot the whole thing.

Besides, she was terribly excited about her own plans. A few days earlier she and her two new girlfriends, Sára Stern and Judit Gold, had decided to put an end to the grey days of slow recuperation and set their hearts on staging an evening of Hungarian music in the hospital hall.

The concert was a resounding success. After the last piece, a lively Hungarian dance, the csárdás, the audience gave the five blushing girls a standing ovation.

As she ran offstage, Lili felt a sudden unbearable pain in her stomach. She hunched over, pressing her hand to her belly, moaning. And then she lay down; her forehead was bathed in sweat.

‘What’s the matter, Lili?’ asked Sára, who had become her closest friend, crouching down beside her.

‘It hurts dreadfully,’ she said, and passed out.

Lili couldn’t remember being put in the ambulance. She could only recall Sára’s blurry face saying something she couldn’t hear.

Later, she would often think that without this pain, which had something to do with her kidneys, she might never have met Miklós. If that hulking white ambulance hadn’t taken her to the military hospital more than a hundred kilometres away in Eksjö; if, when she came to visit, Judit hadn’t brought Miklós’s letter, along with her toothbrush and diary; if, on that visit, Judit hadn’t persuaded her, against all common sense, to write a few words to the nice young man (for the sake of humanity if nothing else); that’s where the story would have ended.

 

Dear Miklós,

I’m unlikely to be the person you were thinking of, because, though I was born in Debrecen, I lived in Budapest from the age of one. Nonetheless, I’ve thought a lot about you. Your friendly letter was so comforting that I would be happy for you to write again.

That was a half-truth, of course. Confined to bed with a strange new illness, out of fear, by way of escape or just to stave off boredom, Lili allowed herself to daydream.

As for myself, neatly ironed trousers or a smart haircut don’t do anything. What touches me is the value inside someone.

~

Miklós had grown a little stronger. He could now walk into town with Harry. Each of the patients received five kronor a week pocket money. There were two cake shops in Lärbro. One of them had small round marble tables just like a café in Hungary.

In the café in Lärbro, Harry looked at Miklós with admiration. ‘How many have replied?’

‘Eighteen.’

‘Are you going to write back to all of them?’

‘Some of them, but she’s the one,’ Miklós answered, patting the pocket where he had hidden the letter.

I’ve introduced myself, now it’s your turn, Lili. First of all, please send a photo! Then tell me everything about yourself.

‘How do you know?’ ‘I just do.’

Fever at Dawn is published by Text Publishing. You can buy the book here.

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