A Quiet One

Published in “Push” #7, this is the only fiction I’ve written about the 2 years I lived in

Bratislava

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From ten at night until dawn, the gypsy whores sell their cunts along Krizna. That was the first thing Roy told me about this town. You can see knots of them gathering at the broken-down hospital at Americke Namestie from the windows of the 14 tram. Half screened by darkness and bad street lighting, their blank faces reflect in the headlights of Viennese registered Mercs lured over the border by the promise of a cut price fuck. From the Palace of Justice all the way down to the indoor market at Trnavske Myto, angry pimps sit at window tables in dirty pivaren, chaining Sparta and toying with small glasses of Zlatý Bažant. A fortnight is long enough to suss this place out.

Roy had been showing me around; introductions, visits. Slavin Hill, the monument to 30,000 members of the Red Army who’d lost their lives driving out the Nazi puppet government most of the population had voted for, affords the best view of the city; almost panoramic. Fifty yards away there’s a lousy hotel where me and Roy sank a few afternoon beers. Koliba is a leafy municipal park with a massive TV mast, underneath which the country’s second most prolific serial killer Josef Mistrik buried his victims. Me and Roy took refreshments in a bar called VEŽA near there. South of the river is Petrzalka; 200,000 people in high rise blocks that were built in 18 months. Mega City without crime. At the local racecourse, the two of us ended up legless, but never laid a bet. Roy knows the score.

“Sometimes when I’m completely pissed, I get this mad urge to jump off the tram and strike up with one of those tarts you see. Pay whatever it costs for an hour of their time. Not to talk of course. I mean, what would be the fucking point? Eight years I’ve been here. Still can’t master the lingo and they sure as hell don’t know any English. I suppose we could struggle along in pretend German for a minute or so, but I’d rather she used her mouth more constructively, if you get my drift. I reckon each punters earns them about three hours’ wages for a teacher. Not even a tenner in sterling by the way. Cheers. Or na zdravie as the locals put it.”

The bar is like Saigon, April 75. Virginal software engineers from Kentucky and Ohio, ignoring the burnt fat kitchen smell, repeatedly call over the waitress in the red mini skirt, demanding to see the humidor. She smiles dead-eyed; these cunts are good tippers and she needs that bit extra just to get by. Most bars seem to double up as an informal marriage bureau. By closing time one of the technocrat boys will be getting a sex act performed on him by a country girl from out Banska Bystrica way. She’ll be hoping her mouth work, not to mention the homemaker skills needed to rustle up platefuls of domaci klobasa with bryndzove halusky for him the next day, will be enough to get her the diamond ring, green card, pseudo passport out of this fucking shithole. Roy took another pull from a half litre glass and started up again.

“You’ve got to remember that this lot are actually peasants. Central European Tuaregs. Eight hundred years as slaves to the Hungarians, then 50 years with their tongue up the Kremlin’s arse crack does that to a nation. If it hadn’t been for the Czechs, they’d still be living in mud huts and wearing bear skins. The language is a hybrid, the culture’s a joke and only fools like me hang around trying to civilise them. Here’s to the Hapsburgs!! Another?”

My hands rested in a pool of spilled Topvar as I watched him drain his beer, while another mosquito drowned itself in my glass. The Borovickas I’d twinned with the pints were fighting their way back up. Two weeks had been enough to learn that the locals were either total abstainers or incredibly impressed by the social skill of continuing to sink beers long after the house full signs should have been up. I weaved in to the shithouse where 3 leather jackets and mirrored shades Gauneri shared one pisser while a street cleaner threw up in the other. I slashed half on the floor and half down the tapless sink, then waded through lakes of half metabolised booze, leaving a couple of coins in the šatniar’s metal plate for the strip of waxy bog roll I used to wipe down my boiling forehead. Just a quiet one after work Roy had said.

Ever hear of Slovakia? It is the generally disliked Ernie of the Morecambe and Wise arranged marriage of the Warsaw Pact. While the Czechs have Prague, Kafka, Vaclav Havel and the world’s best beer, east of the Morava they can boast a cuisine consisting of pig offal, sheep cheese and cabbage, the less famous model from the Wonderbra adverts and social conservative attitudes that make the Amish seem like Abbie Hoffman. Bratisalava, closed after 10 and all day Sunday, has always been a three way mix. This used to be a city full of creative Magyars, affluent Viennese and servile locals, but now the Austro-Hungarian influence has gone, it’s the locals who split themselves into three groups.

Over 45, they’re hatchet faced and beaten; rooting through rotting vegetables at Mileticova market to make soup for supper. The students and 30 somethings unite in conformism and religious mania. Slovakia builds churches as often as we turn them into Carpet Warehouses, for the benefit of humourless accountancy professionals in yellow ski anoraks who turn their noses up at the concept of drink or fun and let their hair down by going on 6 hour nature rambles. They go to bed each night, praying they’ll one day be allowed to emigrate to Canada. The young ones are like extras from a Guy Ritchie movies. Boys displaying gum-chewing Toytown menace, barking in to phones in Striptiz bars while their burgundy haired girls dance badly to Depeche Mode. The tribes only come together in their hatred of Gypsies and fear of Hungarians.

There’s a million pubs; all dirty and half of them taken from the set of The Ipcress File. The new places are concessions to the expanding English speaking community. Yank computer geeks, snooty Brit diplomats and the language teachers; naïve graduates straight off training courses and pudgy, thirsty-faced losers on the run from fucked up jobs and families. At night we congregate round Hlavne Namestie and drink. Sometimes I find myself in Kelt, the happy house mega pub that could have been transported from Reading or Hull. Wetherspoons by the Danube. Other times I get more authentic in Kolumbus; full of skinheads who listen do Death Metal bands like Greedy Invalid or Appalling Spawn and say sieg heil every time one of them gets up for a piss or even KGB  on Obchodna with its framed photos of Stalin and genuine Dubcek era pissheads.

Most of the time though, I’m in the Irish pub; with Roy and half a dozen other tragic wastes of a university education. The Dubliner’s about as authentic as kangaroo satay; owned by a pair of fucking gobshite, hardnut headcases from Kilbarrack, coining it like lords with their Mafia mates, serving pissed up, charity case expats and local wannabe venture capitalists. The beer’s more expensive, but the staff speak English and sell decent pizzas which, as yet, seems to be the only food I can recognise on menus.

It’s like shadow boxing trying to reach your seat. There’s no dance floor, so people start gyrating at their tables. I get back from the bar with more beers and Borovickas. They do table service here, but it’s quicker and cheaper to do the fetching yourself. Roy’s blagged a smoke from these two blondes I met the second afternoon I was here. They’ve invited themselves to sit down. The one with the Marlboros is Zimbabwean. Her old man owned a tobacco farm, so she can spare a few cigs. Her mate’s a Jock; hard work and hard looking to say the least, unless you’re a 43 year old EFL teacher with a serious drink problem who hasn’t had it in 6 months. That’s why I took to hanging out with Roy straightaway, colleague or not. I actually feel like a success when I compare my life with his.

The women work at the Varsity School out in Kramare and I’m a bit too shitfaced for the polite conversation to go any further than this. Fairly obviously they’re quite fucked as well and Roy, knowing his limitations, starts eyeing up the Scotch one, seemingly oblivious to her unaffected boredom with the whole event. He must have been some bloke in his time; turns off the bile and the swearing like a tap, giving her the exhaustive list of local attractions she needs to see. Offering to loan her maps or ring his friend who’s got a weekend cottage in the High Tatras and get a special rate. Mentioning the forthcoming programme at the Ballet and the National Opera, as if he’s ever been near the place. Smart cunt. He told me first time I met him that there’s nothing to do here at the weekends other than drink, unless you’re the happy wanderer type in to all that outdoor hiking shit.

Zimbabwe is away to get the drinks in and I’m left with no option but to earwig Roy’s shit even more. Scotch’s eyes are rolling back in her head, but probably more from the drink that the flannel. He’s wasting his time trying to impress her with this cultural wank. If he doesn’t get in there quick, she’ll be spark out in quarter of an hour. Harare Lisa is back with a tray of drinks; nice lass. We clink glasses and settle back down. I’m just about to respond to her “how’s the teaching going?” enquiry when her mate falls backwards off the stool, cracking her head on the next table. Roy gets an eyeful of this mid-slurp and brings back a quarter of a litre out of his nose. Lisa’s straight over doing the Good Samaritan bit, Mugabe style; “you fucking idiot Sharon. Get up!”

Scotch Sharon gets to her knees, half stands, then slumps on the stool. We’re mumbling pidgin Slovak apologies as the ones at the other table make a big fucking show of mopping themselves down with paper towels. Tutting unnecessary disapproval. Arseholes. Roy’s away to the bog and I’m apparently about to referee the Zimbabwe v Scotland pub brawling championships. Sharon is snivelling, apologising for being drunk and asking about a taxi home, not knowing if her flat is in Kilmarnock or Karlova Ves, while Lisa’s giving it to her down both barrels. Sharon might be pissed but Lisa’s sober and going nowhere is the bottom line. Roy, experienced groomer he is, offers to escort Scotch to the cab rank. Even bums the fare from me to pay for his chivalry. It must be about a week’s wages he owes me now. I’ll have to work it out tomorrow, whenever that is.

It’s just after 1 on Friday night, Saturday morning and I’ve been drinking 9 hours; the bars don’t shut until 6, but I’m not on top form. In fact, I hate the position Roy’s left me in. Half pissed, a thousand miles from home, in command of the full attention of an attractive, articulate and heavy drinking 22 year old who would ordinarily only pay me this much consideration at knife point. And yet I’m terrified. Shitting myself at the prospect of making intelligent conversation. Intimidated by someone a decade and a bit younger who has travelled halfway round the world three weeks after her graduation ceremony. She’s even asking questions like she cares what my answers are.

I mumble some inane bollocks about coming over here because I needed a new challenge after becoming stale, carefully editing out anything that makes me seem like a cynical, workshy pisshead with zero popularity ratings among former colleagues and students. Trying so fucking hard not to mumble on about the divorce. Who cares? I just can’t keep it buttoned. The beers.

“The real problem with this situation is I just don’t know how to talk to you or any woman. Not chatting you up or any of that bollocks. I just don’t know how to be pleasant or nice or even pass the time of day. I’m only used to arguing with the ex-wife or talking shite to the lads about football or porn or gear. When you’ve wasted a decade being married, you lose tough with how to connect to ordinary women in an ordinary way. Sorry. I must be pissed.”

Lisa looks at me with a combination of pity and tenderness that signifies concerned bemusement or trapped wind that shit actors use in deathbed scenes on soaps. Her right hand’s grasping my left wrist and half rubbing, half massaging it. “Don’t worry mate. That’s all in the past. New job. New country. New you. Wipe the slate clean. Listen, me and Sharon are going up to Trnava tomorrow. Fancy tagging along to give me some company?”

It’s a lovely offer; nice train ride up there, look at some old monuments, civilised drink and a meal. The dilemma is; do I want to change myself and be normal like that? I’d imagined my super Saturday would involve lying round the house, keeping an eye on the football on Czech telly, before getting loaded with Roy again; providing the cunt pays me back what he owes. No excuses. “That’s so nice of you, but I’m expecting the kids to phone me tomorrow afternoon. I really miss them and think they need to talk to me regularly. To maintain the bond, you know. Another time perhaps?”

Lisa gets a serious look on, as if she understands what it’s like to be the world’s biggest cunt of a dad; me. The funny thing is now I realise I’ve stopped worrying about trying to nail her, it’s all getting easier. We’re talking like mates. Like this is normal. “No problem. Come over to ours for something to eat around 7, and then we can go for a drink. The two of us, if possible. Nothing crazy; just a quiet one. I really could do with a break from Sharon. You can show me around as you obviously know the city inside out.”

It’s fairly fucking obvious she’s not chatting me up, but I’m going semi hard anyway. I snap back, slightly too enthusiastically, “Great idea! Another beer?” We slam down a couple more drinks, even getting in to the landfill indie and Italian house that passes for a music policy in this place, then just after 2 there’s a sort of telepathic wave of understanding between us that it’s time to go and we’re on the street again. She’s yawning; young and lost. Shaggable again, but there’s no chance of that tonight. Up by the President’s Palace we say goodbye. She’s off in a taxi and I’m away for the night bus to Ruzinov, lightly fingering the damp patch where her lips brushed my right cheek.

Roy’s at the bus stop, pissing all over the pavement and his strides. He’s got a half bottle of vodka and six cans from the all night shop on Spitalska. Didn’t get his end away though; Sharon crashed out on the bog floor as soon as they got back. “Luckily there was enough in her purse for a taxi back to town and a nightcap. Want one?”

I take a beer from him and lounge back against a street lamp drinking it. The bus is late and soon I’m going to be bursting for a piss.

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