A father's love

Arpad Toth leaves an indelible impression on all who meet him. He is a man of unbending purpose, a man enraged with the world. Arpad survived the Hungarian uprising, survived an often brutal childhood, but not the death of his small son. The boy is buried in the garden, and Arpad plans to join him soon. By Tim Lott. Photographs by Dario Mitidieri
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The Independent Culture
The first time I spoke to Arpad Toth was some 20 years after I had learned of his existence. He telephoned me one December night in 1993. Up until that moment, I knew about him only as a kind of rumour, through the stories and anecdotes of mutual friends. Once, the stories had been uplifting, strange and funny. Lately, though, they had become bizarre, gothic and finally unbearable.

When I picked up the receiver, I knew immediately who it was, even though I had never heard his voice before. My first thought was to make an excuse and get off the line. I found myself frightened of what I might be expected to feel.

Is that Tim Lott?

Yes.

This is Arpad, Arpad Toth. I'm a friend of...

Yes. I know who you are.

I knew not only who he was but why he had telephoned. It was for me to hear his confession and to bear witness. I knew that Arpad had suddenly, and terribly, suffered the loss of his five-year-old son, Wilfred, to a rare disease; and Arpad had now decided that he, too, wanted to die, to rest with Wilfred in a sarcophagus he had built for him under the front garden of his house in Oxfordshire.

On impulse, I had written him a letter a few weeks previously, trying to convince him that it was worth continuing to live. Since I was writing a book about the suicide of my mother, I considered myself to be a reluctant authority on the subject of despair.

I remember little of the half an hour we spent on the telephone, except that Arpad seemed to be trying to gather support for the belief that there was the rational possibility of an afterlife. Arpad prided himself on his powers of reason.

It was obvious why he sought this belief, and I tried to be careful not to lend any weight to it. It was clear that I was in danger of being implicated in whatever was to follow - one wrong word, one misguided inference, could be disastrous. So, fearful of doing harm, wary of accruing responsibility, I extricated myself from the conversation as quickly as I decently could.

I sat down and tried to remember when I had first heard Arpad's name. It would, I imagined, have been in the late 1970s, when my friend Beverley told me stories of a man who was vain and deeply flawed, yet also charismatic and unique.

The first time they had met, he offered her a lift. Only once she was in the car did he announce that he didn't have a driver's licence, MOT, insurance or road tax - as a matter of principle, he said. He took her back to his flat, where he lived with his partner, Susan. Bev was amazed to discover that one of the bedrooms in the municipal block had been turned into an entire garden - the walls and floors were covered with vines, plants, soil and grass. He was growing his own organic fruit and vegetables.

He owned a Jaguar XJ6 engine which he was trying to recondition. He and Susan and Beverley and her partner, Tony, all tried to lift the enormous engine over the small step into his house. But it was impossible: Bev and Tony said they were wasting their time. Then Arpad got angry. He refused to believe that he couldn't do it. He started screaming at the top of his voice, and - astonishingly, impossibly - he lifted it over the step, on his own.

Arpad rode a motorbike without a helmet, and a stallion without a hard-hat, saddle or bridle. He was fearless, perfectionist and hopelessly sensitive. Once, he turned up very late to go swimming and found that Bev and Tony had already left without him: he threw his swimming costume and towel over a hedge and walked away without a word.

He allowed no one to stand in his way, Bev said. If anyone did, he employed relentless and obsessive legal action, invariably with success. He sounded like an egomaniac, I'd say to her, a sophisticated lout. Then she'd tell me why, in a strange way, she loved him:

He'll never give in.

He'll die for you, if he cares about you.

He makes you believe you can do anything. He gives you faith.

His loyalty is absolute.

He has the courage to live by his own rules.

Arpad's personal ambition had always been to create a private, self-sufficient Eden. Ten years previously, he had bought a rural site in Oxfordshire on the promise of a handshake; then, at the moment of the handshake, he'd had the buildings on the site covertly bulldozed, determined that the vendor should not go back on his word. He proceeded to build not only a new house but an entire hi-tech recording studio, where Eric Clapton and other rock stars have recorded. And he brought in animals: horses, pigs, dogs, cockerels, sheep, cats, rooks and a stallion. The sign on the gate read: Do Not Enter.

It was around this time, so Bev told me, that Susan became pregnant. Arpad was furious, but, perhaps for the first time in years, he did what he most hated to do: he gave in to circumstance.

However, when the child - called Wilfred, but later nicknamed "Chimpy" - was born in 1988, Arpad felt shocked with love. Himself a single child, who hadn't known his father and was estranged from his mother, he felt for the first time in his life that he had a place in the world, that he was no longer reliant on the size of his actions for proof of his worth.

It was not until May this year that I decided to go and see him in person. I was relieved that he was still alive, for the stories I had heard about him since the tragedy had been mostly bleak. Nowadays, so I was told, he sat in the recording studio, which no one hired anymore, listening to Beethoven and Puccini and fantasising about his own imminent death. The "where" and "how" were already established - at Wilfred's side, with potassium cyanide, already bought. Only the "when" remained an open question.

He resented and blamed Susan, as he did himself; he resented the universe for having allowed such a thing to happen. He held responsible one of the doctors who had treated his son, and was campaigning against him - and against the Government, too, over the issue of compensation. His second child, Mary, with whom Susan had been pregnant when Wilfred died, he did little to acknowledge. For much of the day, Arpad sat lost in his own thoughts, lighting cigarettes like prayer candles.

When I entered the driveway of his house, the car lifted as it hit a large lump of soil, raised maybe two feet above the ground and covered with weeds. This was soil displaced from the tomb: Wilfred was interred to the left of the drive, in what resembled a scale replica of his room. He had been laid in his own Thomas the Tank Engine bed, surrounded by toys. The tomb was carpeted, with plaster walls painted pink. It contained all of Wilfred's possessions - clothes, a television, a VCR and his favourite videos. But the meticulously constructed grave stood rough and unmarked, and would remain that way, so Arpad said, until he had completed his final tasks on earth. Only then would a monument be raised, a monument that would have two names on it. Sometimes, Arpad found it hard to wait for completion; on one occasion, Susan had come home one night to find him attempting to dig his way into the sarcophagus, to try and rejoin what he had lost.

Arpad stood in the driveway, guiding me in. He appeared ordinary - slightly overweight, crooked teeth, fleshy nose - except for the fact that he looked as if an electric shock had been passed through him: his hair stuck out at the sides, and his eyes opened too wide when he was excited, so that you could see the white beneath the rim of his eyelids. The eyes were startling: framed by eyebrows that were perfect obtuse angles, they were of a cornflower-blue that you imagined had once been deeper and was now bleached pale.

The house was large but somewhat neglected, with unfinished breeze blocks showing. The grass ran wild. There were animals everywhere. Later, he would say to me:

Everything you see here is a product of my plans. Of my mind.

There was a full bookcase inside the door, containing only scores of instruction manuals and text books. Bev had told me that Arpad believed you could learn everything you needed to know about life from a manual. I looked for Wilfred's hand prints, which I knew Arpad had never wiped from the walls, but could see nothing.

Arpad was in the garden, kicking over earth. I spoke briefly to Susan, who is studying for an MSc in nursing. She appeared frail, but with a central toughness, pastel rather than primary, and she spoke with delicacy and self-control. On her lap, she held Mary, a nervous, pretty child who is left with a childminder most days while her mother goes out to work as a psychiatric nurse. (Arpad sits all day in his den). Mary did not speak, but clung to her mother.

Though estranged, Susan and Arpad still share the house:

Needs must - says Arpad.

Susan and their daughter live upstairs, while Arpad sleeps in the boy's old room. She did not want her story told. She wanted to be left out, as much as possible, from Arpad's, she told me, and asked that her's and her daughter's names be changed. She and Arpad, she explained, saw the world through different windows:

We have suffered separately. We have each grieved alone.

There always seemed to be the faintest of smiles on her face, as if it hid some secret. Her eyes were also cornflowers; it was the only way in which she resembled Arpad.

It was the powerful elements inside Arpad, she said, that attracted her to him all those years ago.

I have never been bored by him. But he has... sometimes he has made me unhappy.

When I began to speak to Arpad, I was surprised at how much I warmed to him. He seemed animated with a life which he could not acknowledge the right to possess. He told how his existence had no purpose, that he had failed - failed big-time, as he put it. Yet he enthused about classical music, philosophized about history, railed against injustices, and praised the beauty of animals, the thrill of technology, the magic of gardens. When excited, he leaned forward as if about to leap. His face and hands twitched and danced.

With the relish of a natural storyteller, he told me about his childhood. He could not remember a moment as a child when he was happy. His memories, although he didn't seem to notice, were of forces which had been outside his control. His first, from October 1956, was of watching, at the age of three, from the balcony of his mother's apartment in Budapest as a phalanx of unstoppable and indifferent Russian tanks rolled through the streets outside. He and his mother, Livia, fled to England, where she married Sigmund, another refugee. The marriage was difficult. Arpad remembered that when things got out of control, Livia would make him, a small child, go on his knees to plead for clemency on her behalf. Although Sigmund was not violent towards him, Arpad says he was made to kneel in a corner for hours when he misbehaved.

He was packed off to boarding schools that he hated; and already he was creating his own small worlds - models, carvings, and machines over which he had absolute control. He made his own toys, constructed his own games. He spent weeks making a carving as a gift for his stepfather. Sigmund was an aesthete, an art dealer who - so Arpad believed - thought that anyone who was not creative was barely a person at all. On Christmas day, he proudly presented the lovingly crafted gift. Sigmund merely glanced at it, then cast it to one side, with scorn. The memory burns Arpad, even now,.

It was around this time that he had his first compensatory vision of an Eden, a place carved out of the country, where he could dip in and out of civilisation and be himself; where nothing could touch or reject him, but would mark his existence after he was gone.

At the age of 13, he was sent off on a train by himself to a harsh, military- style boarding school - his third or fourth - on a cold hilltop fortress in Germany. Weeping bitterly that first night, the meek and passive child decided that, however hard he tried to be good, no one would reward him with what he needed. That night, he recast himself as a rebel. He began to fight the harsh, often brutal authorities at the school, despite endless punishment. By the time he returned to England, he had changed. Sigmund and his mother could no longer make him do what they wanted. It was not long before he left home and took work in London's West End as a film projectionist.

He had never had that much interest in watching films, preferring always the technical elegance of the projector, but one film he saw in 1975 struck him very deeply. It was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. He considered the Jack Nicholson character, RP McMurphy - the wild, romantic individual raging against the dead, stifling system - to be an absolute hero, a template for his own life.

He went on to study electronics at college, where he met Bev and Tony, through whom the stories of his life were transmitted to me. They were always, in the end, the same stories: how Arpad had taken on the system and won, and how Arpad would accept nothing less than a world that was subject, ultimately, to his will and his always wounded sense of justice.

In a strong, even voice, Arpad told me of Wilfred's illness, Glycogen Storage Disease - an enzyme deficiency disorder, which in Wilfred's case meant that he couldn't retrieve his body's stored glucose. The disease meant that Wilfred had to go on a nasal drip every night. A tube was forced through his nose into his stomach, and a machine set to regulate starch intake. The machine had flaws, one of which being that it was not immediately obvious, after you hit the start button, whether the pump delivering the starch solution was running or not.

Arpad had set out, single-handedly, to find a cure, although he had no medical knowledge whatsoever. He says he was close to developing a new, safer method of administering the solution when, one morning, on 9 October, 1993, Wilfred awoke having fits. Susan had pressed the button on the machine the night before, but she had been tired and hadn't noticed that the pump was not operating properly. Although Arpad deeply distrusts "experts", they called for a GP, who prescribed a narcotic, administered by a kind of suppository, to reduce the fits. Arpad said that he felt that more radical treatment was needed. At this point, the doctor did something that Arpad now replays in his head time and again, as if the memories might be rewritten.

I remember the movement of his hand. He waved it like this...

Arpad made a dismissive gesture with the back of his hand.

This gesture said to me, "Mr Toth, Mr Toth - I'm a doctor. You know nothing." And at this moment of truth, I suffered self-doubt. I let myself trust him.

The doctor told Arpad and Susan that they should take Wilfred to hospital immediately. In a previous, less serious, emergency, Arpad felt the hospital had been caught unprepared by the exact nature of Wilfred's disorder. This time, he decided to telephone the hospital first so that they would be properly ready to receive him; by the time he had spoken to the person he wanted, 30 precious minutes had passed. Eventually they left, Arpad driving like a maniac. By the time they got there, however, it was too late. The treatment team were ready and did all the right things, but the brain, starved of glucose for too long, had suffered severe damage. Wilfred was put on a respirator.

People were saying I should resign myself. But I wanted to fight until the bitter end.

Arpad sat for three days and nights without sleep, holding Wilfred's hand. He wouldn't give up. The doctors didn't believe Wilfred could breathe on his own. Arpad insisted otherwise.

I said, no, no, no. Look at the shape of the wave on the monitor. He can breathe.

In the end, the doctors gave in. The respirator was turned down and Wilfred breathed, as Arpad had predicted. Exhausted though he was, Arpad felt more strongly than ever that there was a chance, and, before he fell asleep, he first tried to get an assurance that should there be any change in the monitor attached to his son, he would be woken.

It was while he slept that Wilfred began to develop breathing difficulties and the respirator was turned back up. Out of what hospital staff believed to be compassion, Arpad was left to sleep on. And when he awoke, the wave on the monitor representing the faint flicker of his child's life had vanished.

By now I realised that I had failed. Because I shouldn't have gone to sleep. I often wonder, did he give up because I wasn't there talking to him anymore? You understand? Maybe I was his crutch. It's perfectly possible that, having not heard my voice for a number of hours, that he decided that he would just succumb to this... darkness. And he just let go.

Well, then. What to do.? I had to say, yes, turn it off. I held him in my arms. He died in my arms.

Arpad sat forward and began rocking gently, almost imperceptibly, back and forth.

I didn't know what the fuck to do. Ummm. I realised that... I can't give him away to some commercial concern. For packing in a wooden box. So I decided that, that I should...

It is an agonising thing to watch a man collapse, which is what Arpad did at this moment, as if all the ballast and blood in him had suddenly been turned to ash and air. His loud sobs blotted out the persistent crows of cockerels from somewhere outside. And I, too, began to cry, while still trying to frame questions, a pale echo of a grief so intense it could hardly be witnessed. I felt suddenly ashamed of myself and my unforgiving curiosity.

Eventually collecting himself, he told me how he set about building his son's final resting place.

I had to get everything at very short notice.

I called on any friends who would help me lay blocks and pour concrete. It was cold. The ground was so hard. We couldn't wait. The hospital wanted to free up the bed.

We bundled him up in his quilt and brought him back here. We took his hand prints. We took his footprints. You are so desperate to have something to hold on to. We bathed him. It was awful. The thing was, the room wasn't quite ready. We needed two more days. So... You have no idea how quickly... We slept with him, those two nights. But people deteriorate. Astonishing. By Monday morning, we couldn't wait another minute.

Wilfred was laid to rest without the consolation, the transitional rite, of religious ceremony.

By then, if there had been a God, I totally rejected that... arsehole. By then, all deals were off. By then, we realised there weren't any deals to be had.

Arpad's voice had by now returned to normal and become matter of fact. But it was hard to meet his naked gaze.

I still intend to take my life. Although I'm frightened, of course. There are some things I've got to finish first. I need to own outright the land in which Chimpy is buried. There is a mortgage, like the sword of Damocles above my head. There's always the threat of repossession. That's the only way anyone could still hurt me. Nothing else can touch me now. Then, after that's settled - when I own the land outright - and when and if I pluck up courage, I want to be down there with him.

I ask him what this would achieve and he looks, for the first time, slightly lost for an answer. Then he gathers himself:.

It's making a gesture. Sometimes that's all there is in life. Only gestures. It's a gesture of solidarity. Anything he can suffer, I can suffer.

He pauses and lights maybe the 30th cigarette he has smoked since we have started talking.

There's another thing. I've never failed. I'm not used to failing. When Wilfred died, that was a big failure.

He closed his eyes momentarily.

I have such an enormous sense of failure.

Arpad Toth opens his bleached-out eyes and I look away, thinking only this: that he is, in a way - or was once, or can be again - a kind of hero, who has bravely tried to fight off the twin dragons that inhabit the slipstream of hurt children throughout their lives - the hunger for self-proof, and the terror of their own nothingness.

He has tried, titanically, to carve something out of the raw material of his life, an offering that this time would not be glanced at and then cast aside with scorn. And, knowing this, and of his most awful loss, can anyone be his judge?

Yet to take his own life would be an Heroic fallacy; it would lead not to what he imagines to be vindication, but only to what the writer Richard Price has called, in cruder language, the Cycle of Shit. The Heroic fallacy is to Arpad the absolute proof of his worth, of his freedom through the power of his will, and now lies in his own death. The Cycle of Shit is that the consequences of harm repeat indefinitely down the years. Should the future take shape around Arpad's martyrdom, the cycle will continue; it will continue because Arpad is still bound to the vow he made at a boarding school, on a mountain top, 30 years ago.

I will not break. I will never break.

Yet to break can be in the order of things, and then it must not be refused. And in such a surrender, there is a heroism equal - greater than - that imagined by those who see their life as an act of will.

In Arpad's favourite film, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, there is a scene where McMurphy tries with his bare hands to uproot the base of a stone faucet. He takes bets on it, fails dramatically, and then, as he hands out the money for the lost bets, turns to the gloating inmates and says, "But at least I tried. Goddamit, at least I tried."

It would be this gesture in the film that would most impress Arpad; it would, I suspect, be for him the climax and the central meaning of the film. But the real climax of Cuckoo's Nest is the final scene, enacted this time by "the Chief", a long-term inmate, a physically massive native American. The Chief says nothing; he endures, watches, gives way to fate. He is the mirror of Nicholson's character, his polar opposite, and his power lies in submission.

At the end of the film, it is the Chief, having as an act of mercy suffocated McMurphy with a pillow - all of whose efforts at romantic wilfulness have left him lobotomised and destroyed - it is the Chief, who for years has bent his head and suffered without a word, who goes to the faucet and lifts it, degree by tiny degree, entirely from the ground. And energy, once enclosed, is freed. And water, no long trapped, defies the force of gravity

Tim Lott's book, `The Scent of Dried Roses', about his mother, is published by Viking at pounds 16

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