On Christmas night, stuck in freezing fog at the Austro-Hungarian border, I had telephoned my best Budapest friend and spoken across an insufferable line, fed with near-worthless forint coins cadged from a friendly guard. ‘Have you heard?’ said Ferenc, ‘Ceaușescu has been assassinated.’ The choice of word seemed odd. ‘Murdered’ wouldn’t do, of course, in the circumstances. ‘Killed’ would have been banal. ‘Executed’ – too correct. And Ferenc always chooses his terms with meticulous care. No, a baroque dictator who was already a prisoner, and an ex-tyrant, had somehow been ‘assassinated’. I took the first of many resolutions not to resort to Transylvanian imagery. Yes, there had been King Vlad, known as the Impaler, reputed to drink blood as well as spill it. Every writer and subeditor in the trade was going to be dusting him off. Still, I found myself wondering just how Ceaușescu had been ‘assassinated’ after his capture. A stake through the heart? I had read that the chief of Ceaușescu’s ghastly Securitate was named General Julian Vlad, but I was determined to make absolutely nothing of it.

A sorry-looking shopfront, which was in one of the radial streets off Calvin Square in Budapest, housed the Alliance of Free Democrats (SDS), Hungary’s main opposition party. It resembled the headquarters of every ‘movement’ I’d ever visited. The stickers and posters in haphazard pattern gave promise of an interior of clanking duplicators, overworked telephones and bearded young men in pullovers. One of the stickers was fresh and blazing with colours – the national colours in fact. It read: TIMIȘOARA=TEMESVAR. To any Hungarian, it summoned an immediate, arresting image. On the plains of Transylvania, near the town the world now knows as Timișoara, the Hungarian patriots of 1848 were scattered and cut down by the Czar’s Cossack levies, lent as a favour to the Austrian emperor. Near Temesvar, as the Hungarians call it, the national poet Sandor Petofi lost his life. At nearby Arad, the thirteen generals who had sided with the 1848 revolution were put to death. Now, under its Romanian name, this lost city so well-watered with patriotic Hungarian gore was again an emblem.

Today, the first day of the post-Ceaușescu era, the office was crowded to the doors with people of every class and category, standing around wearing intense expressions. Most wore buttons reading simply: TEMESVAR. Others displayed the more reflective symbol of two ribbons, one in the Hungarian colours and one in the Romanian, arranged over a black mourning stripe. Nationalists and internationalists, they were all waiting for the Romanian border to be declared open so that they could get to the stricken field of Transylvania and the wounded city of Timișoara. A volunteer convoy was in formation, with taxi drivers, workers, housewives and students offering to donate, or to transport, food and medicine. As so often in the course of the astounding Eastern European revolution of 1989, people seemed to know what to do. And they seemed to know, what’s more, without being told. My companion and I, who continually needed and sought advice and instruction, felt this keenly.

Bucharest, 26 December 1989