“You have to build a house with your own bare hands otherwise it will fall in on you sooner or later. Plant a few trees, make love to your wife, invite some friends round for homemade wine, make a swing for your daughters and tell yourself that life is beautiful.” That is what my grandad used to say every Sunday when he was lying in the bath, listening to Koós János and going underwater. One day he stuck it out underwater for a full twelve minutes, carrying on until Grandma burst into tears and started looking for his coffin boots.
Jano Krajči was the handsomest man in Lošonc. He had beautiful large hands, a comb in the back pocket of his trousers and when someone annoyed him he would kick them in the balls. He did not go to the pub nor to church. He said that he could get drunk at home and that the only thing he believed in was love.
When in 1938, the first Vienna Arbitration awarded Lošonc to Hungary, Grandad was five years old. Together with his father, he moved to his grandparents’ in Mýtna, which lay on the Slovak side of the barricade. In a two-generation house with a long verandah and garden going right back to a haunted forest, there lived more animals than people. They all slept together on the ground in a damp little room with a huge clay stove. The only one who had the privilege of sleeping on the soft hay in the kitchen was the goat, Františka. Her intelligent beard and piercing glare gave her the position of the family aristocrat who read Hungarian poetry and used the latrine.
Less than a year later, when the stink of war and decomposing bodies had penetrated into every home, Františka passed into eternity. A group of villagers had lured her into the meadow above Mýtna where they then stoned her to death and ate her, raw and unmourned. Grandad was one of those to witness the dreadful scene from afar. For years afterwards the bloody mouths and bloodthirsty expressions on the faces of the villagers deprived him of sleep and inner peace. He took what was left of Františka home and buried it in the garden. He then carved her name into a wooden cross, hung it with a wreath of dandelions and placed alongside it Františka’s favourite collection of the poems of Sandór Petofi, A Szeptember szerelem.
Grandad’s mother and brother, Laco, both signed the Magyarization charter and stayed in Lošonc, where Grandad visited them regularly. This was especially when the situation had calmed down, no-one was shooting anyone, neighbours weren’t slitting the throats of each other’s cocks and the Germans were neither poisoning wells nor throwing naked soldiers into mass graves. Janík, or János as his friends called him, usually went to Lošonc in summer, sometimes for the whole two months.
In the sizzling August of 1941, Lošonc experienced the highest temperatures in its chequered history. Fires spread like an epidemic and turned everything that stood in their way into dust. The corn and sunflower fields, the high heads of which usually formed a graceful ruff around the sad town, were withered and inflammable.
Decaying fish and eels accumulated in dried-up river beds, hills changed into dusty steppes and forests were full of dead trees with bowing crowns. Hunger and unrest was everywhere, the water in wells stank like the claws of partisans and a strange disease spread among people which was to become known in Slovak history as the ‘blue plague’.
Hungarian officials knew that Lošonc needed a miraculous new lease of life and so in the very eye of the war hurricane and galloping epidemic, they organized the legendary football match between the Hungarian team, Debrecín and the Austrian team, Graz.
News of the match in which the great Mátyás Popó (nicknamed Fecske), father of Pelé and holder of the Golden Sausage award for the greatest player in the history of Hungary, would be playing, spread far beyond the limits of Lošonc and tickets were sold in no time. It was obvious that the capacity of the old stadium, in the middle of which a huge sycamore tree stood, would be insufficient. Thousands of pieces of turf were thus carried to the main square in the town and cascading tribunes, snack bars and coffee kiosks erected roundabout. Within a month and a day a new stadium had been built in the middle of Lošonc with the largest capacity of any in Upper Hungary. It was appropriately named Újvilág – the New World.
On that memorable day, there were reputedly one hundred and one thousand people crammed into the stadium. People sat on each other’s knees or stood on each other’s heads, hung from lamp-posts and perched on stilts; some of the local landed gentry even followed the match from a miniature airship. When the players ran out on to the pitch, the stadium roared like a drunken siren, sending out a wave of sound which rippled around the whole world. It was said that when the American president, Theodore Roosevelt, heard the roar, he was so startled he spilt boiling tea on his groin. After which he always walked around bow-legged like a jockey.
Those who saw the match with their own eyes were unanimous in saying that it was the greatest match in the history of modern football. Debrecín thrashed Graz 7:1, with Mátyás Popó scoring all eight goals. It was a celebration of sport and of Lošonc’s rebirth; the town had shaken off the depredations of the blue plague and, now rejuvenated, could continue in its struggle for survival. When Grandad witnessed the artistry of the legendary Swallow, his ingenious passes, superhuman ball control and lethal shots together with his success in winking at every pretty woman in the crowd and combing back his brylcreemed hair, he vowed both on his family and Františka’s grave that he would become the best footballer in Lošonc.
The war ended and the town and its people started to recover from the Hungarian lobotomy as they learned to walk, speak and think again. Smoke once again started to issue from the steam mill which had once supplied the whole of Slovakia with wheat. Grandad and his father moved back to Lošonc, where life was slowly returning to its old ways. Grandad did not forget about his vow and within a few years, had advanced from the youth to the senior team where together with the other old and experienced matadors who played and quaffed at first league level, he spat out his chewing tobacco, combed his hair back and bared his rugged, hairy and sweaty chest during training. All the women in Lošonc loved them like fallen kings and admitted them to their bedrooms when their husbands were on night shifts.
Grandad played in defence and was fast, tall and reliable. He had an unfootballer-like humility about him but when necessary, could be as sharp as Sunday goulash. After unintentionally breaking the legs of both the opposing strikers in the match against the dreaded Hajnáčka – and then personally attending to their injuries – he was accepted by the old matadors as one of their own and became a darling of the fans. From that day onwards, he was always called Favágó.
Even today Grandad is breathless when he recalls the famous derby between Lošonc and Opatova in which his older brother, Laco, played in attack. The match would finally decide who the footballing kings of the southern country really were. The stadium was full as pies, bottles of hooch and an electrifying excitement were passed from one spectator to the next and anyone not in a white shirt was classed as a hooligan.
Just before the end of the game, Opatova’s fastest winger (and the only player with coeliac disease on the pitch), Béla Tarr, crossed the ball and both Krajči brothers ran to clear it from in front of their goal. The goalie, however, flew between them both with elbows sharper than the nipples of a gipsy girl. He broke Grandad’s nose and knocked out three of his front teeth; Laco came out of it with a fractured jaw. Neither of the brothers finished the game.
Lošonc won 2 :1.
When the match was over and the players, limping to the changing rooms, had become engulfed by crowds of news reporters and amorous widows, a quiet girl with long chestnut hair ran on to the pitch to pick up Grandad’s missing teeth. At the time no-one could have guessed that it was the start of the biggest love in Lošonc’s history.
A few days after the memorable derby, there was a big dance held at the prestigious Szüsz coffee-house in the town. Grilled corn was being sold out in the street; in front of the café stretched a long line of elegantly dressed citizens and in the salon, with its high windows and ornamental ceiling, Dany Ruby, the famous gipsy bandleader heated up the loins and groins of his audience. The architect, Ottó Jabak, had given the place a Secessionist charm as well as secret catacombs leading to private chambers where big burly gentlemen would entertain themselves with light ladies of easy virtue. Half-naked women draped themselves over the banister rails of the spiral staircases, men swung from the crystal chandeliers and rivers of spilt alcohol converged to form an ocean of southern debauchery. Grandad was, of course, there. And with his broken nose and missing front teeth, he was the best-looking man on the dancefloor.
When a fracas broke out by the bar, he was the first to intervene. A few seconds later he was standing on the terrace outside facing a wiry little man with a crooked mouth and clenched fists and surrounded by chanting drunks. He did not need to undo his cufflinks, roll up the sleeves of his newly-washed shirt nor remove his short tie with its Malevič motif before laying the man out with one hook. Then, like a Lošonc James Dean, he lit up an unfiltered Sparta and carried the beaten man to hospital over his shoulder. A few days later, there was an article in the town’s Timravin hrtan newspaper about how a local footballer had floored the Salgótarján lightweight boxing champion, Kornel ‘Talpa’ Szabo, with just one punch.
When Grandad returned to the dance, he found there more than two hundred drunk men and just one girl. All the other girls had left at the end of the evening under the protective wings of their fathers, older brothers or domineering husbands. The young woman in a long white dress came up to him shyly and gave him a bloodied handkerchief in which he found his three missing teeth. She had a pretty name which the footballing Woodcutter had never heard before.
My grandmother, Liana Krajčiová, née Skuhrová, is now seventy-six years old.
My grandfather, Jano Krajči, is eighty-one.