1. APARTMENT INTERIOR/MORNING/BELYAYEVO, MOCKBA, ROSSIJSKAJA FEDERACIJA…
There is a T-shirt on the desk in front of him.
Plain white. Fruit of the Loom.
He scrawls across its front with a fine-tipped Sharpie.
The desk is from a former jam factory, although he doesn’t know this – in fact, it pre-dates his birth, which he’s also unaware of. He dragged it here from an apartment on the ground floor in the block opposite, which had been broken into and vandalised once the old man who lived there had been ambulanced off to hospital, to cough out the last of his wretched days.
They had dragged it – the desk, not the old man – across the parched grass that dissects the housing blocks, across the spaces where it is always great to be six, always boring to be sixteen, into what he laughingly calls home.
Home sweet home, homie.
He could be in Malmö, Belleville, or Detroit.
But he isn’t.
He could be a barista, a real-estate agent, or a code programmer.
He is none of these.
He wears tracksuit pants, tucked into Reebok socks, a pair of Adidas pool-sliders, and a string vest coloured in the red, green and gold of the followers of His Most Imperial Majesty Jah Rastafari!
King of Kings!
Lion of Judah!
He likes the story – no! – he loves the story about Hailie Selassie.
The story, so he was told – in a bar near the sports stadia, on the outskirts of Moscow, near the river, that’s where you always hear these sort of stories; either there, or in a graffiti-tagged pedestrian underpass; or very early one morning in a half-empty Metro carriage; even, perhaps, after midnight, shouted over the BPMs of the Ceephax Acid Crew at the Solyanka Club; hell, just about anywhere – but the story he heard in that bar, before the derby between Spartak and CSKA at the Luzhniki Stadium, a football match that he wasn’t going to attend, was this:
That after the King of Kings was cremated, along with a greyhound, and a chicken – the ashes of all three were then mixed together and thrown onto the winds.
He thought that was so cool – just so fucking cool.
He isn’t thinking about the Lion of Judah today, though.
He is thinking about his hangover – about how the jackhammer from the road workers four floors beneath isn’t helping. Isn’t helping at all.
His hair is shaven close to his skull, he rasps a palm across it, and turns up the volume on the stereo – Yellowman’s voice fills the small, overheated room:
Nobody get hurt.’
His iPhone vibrates. He ignores it. He concentrates on the rolling rhythms.
He draws the shape of a flag on the fresh T-shirt he has just torn from its packaging, and colours in the horizontal tricolour of the Russian Federation – from the ensigns on fleets of merchant ships in the 17th Century, to the Tsarist flag, then after the collapse of the Soviets reinvented as the emblem for a brave, new Russia, and now on a Fruit of the Loom T-shirt laid out on a green Mapac cutting mat in a social-housing flat in Belyayevo.
Nobody get hurt.’
He stands, yawns – he looks out of the window at the tower blocks that, he knows, were built during the times of the Soviet; but he is too young to remember this. Much too young.
He is 26 years old.
He turns back to the T-shirt, and idly blocks in his initials beneath the flag of the Russian Federation.
Two solid, black Cyrillic letters.
He looks out of the window one more time, at the housing blocks that mirror his, goes to the fridge and cracks open a can of Baltika beer – he slurps it down, while he scrolls through his phone messages.
Beer splashes onto his hairless chest.
Nobody get hurt.’
2. EXTERIOR/AFTERNOON/GARMENT FACTORY/ISTANBUL, TÜRKIYE…
‘Fuck this! Fuck you all! Up the arse! You think I’m going to take this fucking shit lying down? Think I can put up with another second of this cuntfucking madness? You think that, do you? Well? Do you?
‘Is. That. What. You. Think?’
Talia is paralysed with anger, has had enough.
‘You. Can’t. Just. FIRE. ME!’ she shouts at the locked door.
Talia stands there, while the rain slashes across the car park; the sound of the sewing machines, a perpetual whine, mixes with Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ from the factory’s Tannoy system.
‘Good Girl Gone Bad …’
The words are snatched by a gust of wind, and sent scudding over the corrugated roofs of the outhouses.
Her scream joins Rihanna’s tune, both are scattered across the grey sky as if they were just bloated grains of rice.
She shivers in the rain, it’s done – there’s no going back now.
No-one inside the factory can hear Talia – if facts are faced (and they have to be at some point) no-one inside the factory cares about Talia. It is, you see, what they call a family business in this part of the world.
If, that is, your definition of a family encompasses a mean and sorry collection of women between sixteen and sixty who happen to share a predisposition to spend twelve hours a-day labouring in what used to be an automotive shed; and joined, more recently, by the cheaper and more expendable Syrians fleeing their civil war, with their sad eyes and sadder stories.
Some kind of family.
And if, by business, you mean one run by a dough-faced matriarch who, ten years ago, invested her dead husband’s life insurance in 24 Pfaff sewing-machines, installed them in the abandoned shed on the edge of the industrial estate, and then corralled the most nimble-fingered women from the neighbourhood to work them; and then added the endlessly exploitable Syrians to the mix.
Some kind of business
All the same, that is what the high-street chains from Madrid, the club-wear designers from Berlin, the surf-wear specialists from Biarritz call this shithole on the outskirts of Istanbul’s suburbs when they’re asked where their T–shirts are manufactured.
‘Oh!’ they exclaim, as they smirk at their reflections in the plate-glass window of an out-of-town shopping mall, or the champagne flute on a bar, or the smartphone screen in their hand, ‘just a little family business we found in Turkey.’
Talia looks at the sky, and screams an oath – complicated, strewn with curses; that concerns Mama Sema, farmyard livestock, and Mama’s dead husband – with such force that, she swears, she can hear a pause in the perpetual whine of the 24 Pfaff sewing machines.
Or did she imagine it?
It doesn’t stop her smiling at the thought of it, though – and Mama Sema’s face whiplashing with fury.
‘Bitch!’ Talia spits on the door handle, turns her back, and walks across the patch of broken, rutted tarmac they laughingly call the car park towards the Osmangazi tram stop.
Scrunched in her hand is a black plastic sack of pale-blue T-shirts, embroidered on them a small representation of the flag of the Russian Federation; beneath which are two Cyrillic letters – unfortunately they are both upside down.
Which is why she is standing in the rain at a tram stop on the outskirts of Istanbul’s suburbs in the rain.
Without a job.
Without a salary to pay the rent on the one-bedroomed apartment she shares with two girls who work the bars at night in the tourist districts.
A tram rattles through the rain towards Talia.
She fumbles in her pocket for change.
Enough for a ticket – a one-way ticket.
3. EXTERIOR/MORNING/CONCOURSE/TRAIN STATION/BUCARESTI NORD, RÔMANIA…
Artur has been working the Romanian train network since he ran away from the archipelago of orphanages secreted throughout the folds of the Carpathian Mountains.
Which was, what? Maybe twelve? Maybe fifteen years ago?
When he jumped from the second floor balcony of Placement Centre No. 6 in Comănești, ran all the way to the local railway station, slept the first of many nights on a platform bench, by the ventilation systems of cafés, in waiting rooms, and in the cubicles of unattended toilets.
Until he graduated – to the train system, and existed on the network.
How long ago was this?
That Artur was forced to live like a vagrant?
Hours, and days, and months, and years?
What were they?
He knew what they were – just marks on the calendar.
Time, he sometimes thought – when he had the time to think – was nothing more than the unavoidable future.
You can’t avoid the unavoidable
Why mark its passing?
His new life, his new way of existing, began by chance, really. An old dame, burdened with produce from a local market; a carrier bag full of root vegetables, cheap cuts of meat, and bread; had sat down next to him on a station bench.
Hell! She had effectively sat on his bed.
Her handbag had yawned open as she massaged her aching, varicosed calves, purse tantalisingly within reach. He didn’t even think about it; just plucked it from the bag, walked off towards the restrooms. Job done.
Artur moves through the throng on the concourse at Bucaresti Nord. Not working – not yet – but working out the crowd; breaking it down into possibilities, checking the constituent parts, assessing their pros and cons. He knows to avoid the local travellers, those that are just going about their day-to-day, their business – their faces pinched, worried, or distracted; their hands busy with mobile phones, tickets, or sandwiches; the businessmen who think a fat knot on their tie makes them look like they’ve just shipped in from Milano, the women in their boxy-shouldered red jackets, or the clerks in their too-tight suits and too-pointed shoes. He knows to avoid them.
Instead he looks for the tourist.
The tourist has the money.
The money that he doesn’t have.
Dollars, Euros, Sterling.
That’s all he wants.
Not too much to ask.
He is dressed in what Westerners might call Normcore; although here, in front of McDonalds, munching on an apple, a sly look to his eye, he just looks like any other Romanian in his twenties – difficult to say, for the foreigner that is, whether he is up to no good or not. He could be a taxi tout. Could be a dental student from the Carol Davila University of Medicine and Pharmacy. He might offer to sell you a suspiciously cheap mobile phone. Or he could be waiting for his mother to arrive on the train from Ruse.
Artur doesn’t warrant a second look.
In his green fleece jacket, loose acid-wash jeans, and scuffed, black shoes.
Crunching on the apple with his sharp little teeth.
He scans the movement across the concourse, and sees her for the first time – obviously a tourist, he can just tell – they don’t need to be carrying a map, or weighed down with a Nikon or a Canon, scratching their heads at a sign in an unfamiliar language, or miscalculating the change for a tip in banknotes that are foreign, and – to the tourist – strangely dirty.
What is it? He wonders, as the girl moves through the crowd. Heads towards the McDonalds like a homing pigeon. A muffin-spill of flesh between her cropped top and tight jeans. Carrying an overnight bag and a black plastic refuse sack. Why does he just know that she is what she is? That she is this morning’s target? Something, there’s something about her that just doesn’t belong. It is, of course, the way she moves. The way they all move – the tourists, the travellers, the visitors. Even when walking from the taxi rank to the McDonalds, or from the ticket office to the news kiosk, they always appear unsure of their footing, as if they’re livestock approaching a cattle grid – it’s not the way they dress, the colour of their hair, or their make-up; it’s the way they walk.
She orders a Sausage and Egg McMuffin with a Caramel Cappuccino, and grabs a spot outside the franchise – her bags at her feet.
Artur walks into the McDonalds, pays for a Filet-o-Fish, sits down next to the girl, and smiles at her.
‘Hi!’ Innocuously international, means the same in any language – just like whoops, or taxi, or huh, or abracadabra, or OK.
‘Hi?’ Talia turns towards the boy, wiping ketchup from her mouth, she smiles, slightly surprised. ‘Hello?’
A Turk. She would be fucking Turkish. A Turk travelling by rail – hardly the definition of rich pickings. Not what the doctor ordered.
Could be as much a runaway as he is – as he was.
Could be on her way to visit her gastarbeiter father in Deutschland.
Could be going back to her sick mother in Ankara.
‘Waiting for the train?’ Artur asks. ‘Confusing station here, huh? Confusing country, really!’
She smiles, hesitantly.
‘Yes!’ Artur takes a bite of his Filet-o-Fish, chews on it thoughtfully, as if he has exhausted the conversation.
‘Er? Yes?’ She agrees.
‘Holiday?’ Artur hazards.
‘North? Going north? Austria? France?’ He knows that no one comes to holiday in Romania, he knows that for a fact – they all just pass through, on their InterRail tickets, with their backpacks.
‘Almanya?’ She says, after a slow suck on her Caramel Cappuccino. ‘Frankfurt?’
‘You have ticket?’
‘Listen! It can be confusing. Here’s an idea!’ Artur finishes his fish sandwich, wipes his fingers on a serviette. ‘Listen. My train doesn’t leave for about twenty minutes. I’ve got time. Why don’t I go and buy your ticket for you? Eh? They only accept Romanian Leu here. No Euros. Just Leu. You have Euros, yes? We can make good exchange rate. You wait here. Ticket to Frankfurt? Yeah? Is easy for me. Listen! Stay here. Keep on eye on this for me, will you?’ He places a nondescript knapsack on the chair in front of him – bulky, obviously heavy. ‘My stuff.’ He explains. ‘Be back in a moment.’
Just another tourist, just another currency shuffle for Artur.
Just another dumb tourist.
He buys a ticket to Brasov for sixty Leu, and hurries back to the McDonalds.
She sits there, her bags at her feet – one hand on his knapsack, as if it holds anything of any value, apart from a house brick wrapped in an assortment of unwashed socks.
‘Lucky! You’re lucky!’ He tells her, feigning breathlessness. ‘Connecting train in five minutes. Come! Platform seven.’ Artur lets her pick up her overnight bag, and scoops up the black refuse-sack and his knapsack. ‘Come! Platform seven!’
He marches her along the length of the train, until they find a carriage that is almost empty.
‘Change at Brasov. You change trains there!’
‘Thank you! But! Wait! I have to pay you for ticket!’
‘Of course!’ Artur feigns a moment of distraction. ‘In Euros? Yes! In Euros!’ Around them more passengers start to clamber aboard, the moment of departure is imminent. There is shouting, whistles are blown, doors are slammed. ‘It comes to fifty Euros. Yes! Fifty. Bit more, really. To Frankfurt, yes? But we say fifty, yes? Only fifty.’
He watches her as she peels ten-Euro notes from her wallet, accepts them with a rueful grin – a grin that tells her she has managed to make money out of him, as the train starts to pull out of Bucharesti Nord.
He has made thirty Euro out of her. The train pulls out, towards Brasov.
Artur stands on the platform, her black refuse-sack in one hand.
He runs alongside the train, brandishing it.
The Turkish girl smiles though the window, and shrugs.
Ah well, Artur thinks, must be worth something.
Everything is worth something.
4. INTERIOR/EVENING/TRUCK/AUTOBHAN/OUTSKIRTS OF MÜNCHEN, DEUTSCHLAND…
Jean-Paul sees the hitch-hiker, and starts to slow down before he even realises it’s a woman.
Now, Jean-Paul is a family man, he has a wife and four-year-old twins – daughters; on the dashboard of the DAF lorry he’s driving is a photograph taken last summer of him with Marie and the two girls, they are at a funfair in Genève– the sky is overcast, Sophia and Louisa clutch at his legs, laughing; he is wearing a sheepskin coat; it is obviously winter, a Christmas fair; Marie is pretending to scold him.
In the background, the Lake.
As happy as a family gets.
Because of this, Jean-Paul feels that he understands women, he recognises their importance, their place in the scheme of things – he would call himself a feminist, although, if the truth be told, he’s not the sort of man who could define what a feminist is; but all the same, he feels he understands them.
Also, he knows men – he’s a trucker, for Christ’s sake, always has been, ever since he finished his schooling at the College du Marais, and that summer signed on with the Safram trucking company, at their HQ on the Route des Moulières; and he knows that if a woman is hitching a ride by herself, on the outskirts of München, carrying a small backpack, that she is obviously desperate to get somewhere, or away from something.
He eases the DAF onto the hard shoulder, sips water from a flask covered in camouflage webbing, and leans across to the passenger door.
‘I’m going to Paris.’ He tells the woman, who must be in her early twenties, perhaps late teens, even – young, though, that’s for sure.
Her hair is dyed a dirty blonde, the roots are starting to show.
Her clothes are functional, rather than fashionable.
Combat trousers, an old army Parka.
One piece of luggage, a small nylon rucksack.
A runaway, Jean-Paul surmises.
Just another runaway.
Standing in the rain on the hard shoulder.
She shoots him a lopsided smile.
‘Fine, that’s just fine.’ She tells him, as he flips the lock on the passenger door. As if everything truly is … fine.
‘Up you jump, then.’
He eases the DAF back into the traffic, and heads towards Stuttgart.
‘Come far?’ He asks.
‘’Spose so.’ She says. ‘Slavonice. You know it? Moravia?’
‘Yeah, Czech Republic.’ She’s shivering, her clothes are soaked through. ‘On the border with Austria,’ she adds, and wipes the rain from her hair.
‘Oh yeah? You’re right. Never heard of it!’
‘Nothing to write home about, really. Even if it is your home.’
‘Home, eh? Parents?’
‘It happens, girl. It happens.’
‘You’re right. It happens.’
The autobahn stretches in front of them – elastic. They’re in the slow lane, to the left of the lorry the boy-racers flash by, in their Audi Quattros, their BMW series 3, their Mercedes-Benzos; it’s gone eleven o’clock at night, and they’re off to parties in the suburbs of Ausburg, late-night bars in Günsburg.
A signpost flashes by.
‘Paris? You’re heading for Paris?’
‘Paris? Yeah! Friends, I’ve got friends there.’
Jean-Paul supresses a yawn. The only reason he had stopped for the hitch-hiker was to help combat the fatigue that had him in its grip since he had left Vienna. When he had first seen the figure he had expected a young man, a scrawny kid who could talk about girls, and football. Not this girl, who shivers in his cab despite the heating being on full tilt, with her Parka pulled around her like a sleeping bag.
‘Here!’ He says. ‘See that bag? By your feet?’
He had bought the bag from a rat-faced youth in Bucharest, wouldn’t be able to single him out in a line-up now. Just another whey-skinned hustler who haunted the lorry parks across Europe – in the Ukraine they sold you buck-teethed girls, in Bratislava counterfeit cigarettes, and in Bucharest? A bag of fucking T-shirts.
Jean-Paul had given Artur a fistful of Euro for the T-shirts. He can’t remember how much, it had been change scooped off his dashboard. Three Euros? Five? What did it matter? A derisory amount, money that you would throw to a street person, a beggar, which was what Jean-Paul knew this boy was.
It was, really, an act of kindness on his part. Artur’s weak smile, as he held the black sack open, as if the light-blue T-shirts were some sort of treasure, had tweaked the last vestiges of pity from Jean-Paul. Had made him think of his nephews back home, hunched over their schoolbooks, desperately drilling themselves with information that they’re promised will make their lives better, but which – at this point in time – only makes them see the future as one long test.
This boy had obviously failed the test.
She pulls T-shirts out of the refuse sack, and laughs.
‘These? What are these?’
‘They’re dry, and your clothes are wet. They’re dry is what they are. Keep them. They’re no good to me. They’re just T-shirts.’
5. EXTERIOR/NOON/GAGOSIAN GALLERY/AVENUE DE L’EUROPE, L’AÉROPORT DE PARIS-LE BOURGET, FRANCE…
He checks his reflection in the smeared plate-glass windows of Landmark Aviation opposite the Gagosian Gallery; strangely enough he can hear the sound of a brass band rehearsing in a prefabricated unit further down the Avenue – though to call it an Avenue makes it sound, well, shall we say grand? Like it’s lined with Cypress trees, perhaps has a gravel driveway to one side, leads up to a Chateau, or somesuch?
This is not what it is.
A freeway on an industrial estate in the suburbs of Paris.
Low-slung buildings, the hum of machinery, the hiss of passing traffic.
And the sound of the amateur brass band.
He looks down the Avenue de l’Europe, and begins to unbutton his FedEx coverall – it contravenes company rules, of course, but he has had enough of rules, company or otherwise. He ties the arms of the coverall around his waist, in the style of a makeshift belt, and plucks at the T-shirt that is sticking to his torso in the heatwave. He brushes off a piece of cotton just above where some sort of a logo is on the light-blue material:
What sort of logo is that?
The package in his hand is addressed to a ‘BRICE MARDEN’.
What kind of a name is that?
The reserved parking spaces outside the gallery, each boldly stencilled with ‘GAGOSIAN’, are all empty; Jacques curses his luck, and checks the time. He’s on schedule, no problem there – just like Pinkertons always got their man, FedEx always gets the package delivered on time; he smiles, scratches away a rivulet of sweat, and presses the buzzer.
In the van he tells Serge about the receptionist.
‘Dangerous! Boy, she is like the weather – hot! Hot! Hot!’
‘Only ten minutes ago you were telling me about that Austrian girl.’ Serge points out.
‘This one’s a Yanqui – and dangerous! Big teeth, skin like ice cream – vanilla ice-cream! – kooky clothes …’
‘Kookai? Like, department store?’
‘Kooky! You shit! Like, wacky, crazy, top-end bag-lady shit – you shit. It’s a high-end fashion look. Like, expensive. Like you’d know …’
‘And the Austrian?’
‘She’s not Austrian. She’s Czech, or Slovak, or something.’
Serge consults their delivery list – their itinerary – swigs water from a 0.5litre bottle of Vittel.
‘And the Czech, then? Or the Slovak, or the something?’
Jacques pictures her on his mattress, white pants stretched across her bush, her large breasts spilling over her crossed arms. He can see her there, yawning as he left his squat in Clichy-sous-Bois, a sleepy smile, a lascivious wink. The girl he had met at the Sonar Festival in Barcelona last summer.
Crazy for MDMA, she was.
And like a tiger in the sack.
He gently massages the scratches across his shoulders.
‘Irena? You know? She hitched here! Trucks and vans and travelling salesmen! Man! Got to have guts to do that shit. Hitch across Europe. A girl, alone. Fuck, she must have wanted out of whatever town she comes from.’
‘Hitchhiked?’ Serge laughs. ‘To you!’
‘You saying what?’
‘Dan-ger-ous!’ Serge lengthens the syllables, and starts up the van. Laughing.
‘We all got to dream.’ Jacques tells him.
‘Fantasy, more like.’
‘Dream. The American dream …’
‘What? You meet some Yanqui bitch and suddenly you’ve come down with a bad case of The American dream? And what? What does this dream mean? How’s it … I mean, what you gonna do? In your dream? Your American dream? I know! I know what it is! You going to swap your FedEx uniform for UPS! That’s it, eh! Maybe TNT if you’re lucky. Hey! Just thought of it! DHL! They must work those wide open spaces. Must be a route for you there. From a depot in Tucson, or Des Moines, delivering parcels in Tucson or Des Moines. Same shit, man. It’s the same shit.’
Jacques bites the quick of his thumb, he can’t begin to tell Serge how he wants out – how much he wants to get out of here.
‘Visa!’ He tells Serge. ‘An American visa …’
They drive through Le Bourget.
‘Her hair.’ He tells Serge. ‘Was slick, understand? So slick!’
‘I wanted to lick it.’ He looks at Serge, who isn’t listening.
6. EXTERIOR/NIGHT/CLUB HEIMAT/ROTTERDAM, NEDERLANDS…
‘What?’ She can’t hear what he’s saying.
‘Discotheater!’ He shouts at her. Cars and scooters in front of the nightclub, their engines revving; shouts, screams, laughter; the haze of exhaust fumes and skunk weed – just another Thursday night.
She frowns at him.
‘Is Discotheater, no? This is what this is!’ The young man windmills his arms at the horde of youth milling around, he has a glowstick as a necklace and his pupils are chemically large – some might say comically so. He looks like he’s entering a Friesian gurning competition, or is just chewing out the inside of his cheeks.
Sweat pops across his acned forehead.
He has, Irena reckons, peaked too early.
Pre-loaded on pills, and will be on a come-down by the time the sun comes up.
‘Discotheater?’ She laughs. ‘If you say so.’
‘Bueno! Bueno! Bueno! BUENO!’ He chants into the cauldron of noise outside The Heimat.
‘You Spanish?’ Irena asks.
‘Spanish? Italian? Dutch? European? Fuck it, man!’
‘Yeah!’ She laughs. ‘Fuck it!’
‘What you got there? What is this?’
‘This? T-shirts is what this is. For sale. One-offs. Special design. One-offs.’
He picks one up from the pile on the kerb in front of Irena, a breeze catches the light-blue material, a logo twists under the street lights.
‘And the point is?’
‘The point is no-one else is Rotterdam will have one. That is the point.’
‘Cool!’ His head is rocking to a beat that only he can hear.
‘Cool? Yeah!’ Irena agrees. ‘And exclusive!’
‘If you say so.’ Irena starts to tire of his drugged nothingness; the way he makes somewhere – in this instance the back entrance of a disused supermarket off Rotterdam’s Teilingerstraat – seem like the very epicentre of nowhere; the manner in which his pop-eyed gaze swivels across the Gabberbitches in their Nike Air Max, their branded and logoed track-pants, and their mesh sports-bras – hair shaven at the sides, and scrapped back into ponytails, their fingers a mess of market jewellery.
‘Gabber! Gabber! Gabber!’ He shouts at the girls, who ignore him.
‘Forty Euro.’ She tells him.
‘For a T-shirt?’
‘Exclusive! I told you. Exclusive.’
He makes as if to lunge at Irena, she flinches, his meat-red hands are bunched around the T-shirt – he twists and turns it in a spasm of rage, and stands there shaking. Irena stays still, she has been here before, has witnessed situations like this before, when a man can’t express himself, finds out that he just doesn’t have the words, all he has are half-remembered primeval acts of violence. She knows this boy has reached that point.
She steels herself, prepares herself for it.
Here it comes …
He stumbles towards her, the T-shirt now wrapped around one clenched fist, as if it were some sort of boxing glove.
Here it comes …
An African stands in an oblique shadow; he waves his arms at his pilled-up friend.
Kurt doesn’t move, looks at Irena, notes the feral look in her eyes. He sneers, throws the T-shirt at her.
‘My arse!’ he repeats, and shambles off into the shadows.
Irena sits there, and slowly re-folds the T-shirt. A phone vibrates in the pocket of her Parka. She knows who it is; he’s the only one who’s got her number. Her father. And she knows what he’s calling about, then he’ll text her about it when she doesn’t answer the call. It’s been this way since she left. The text will come through in about ten minutes, it takes that long for his arthritic thumbs to fumble out a text message and hit ‘Send’. He will be sitting on one of the two wooden benches by the war memorial.
She still doesn’t know what it says.
Of course, she knows roughly what it says.
Something about … The Dead of the Homeland and the Sacrifice of the Displaced.
Or something like that.
In June 1945.
Sometime like that.
The vibration of an incoming text, which she ignores.
She sits there, on the kerb of a backstreet off the Teilingerstraat, she gathers up the ten T-shirts she has left – which she could sell for forty Euro each, she could make four-hundred Euro with these fucking T-shirts – and tries to remember the last time she cried.
She stuffs the T-shirts into the battered refuse sack.
She can’t. She can’t remember how easy it used to be to shed a tear.
7. EXTERIOR/MORNING/ FRARTRES-SLAVONICE/ÖSTEREICH- ČESKÀ REPUBLIKA BORDER, MORAVIA…
He takes a deep breath, and sits down on the bench. A plain brown package in his lap. He knows the handwriting on the package, he knows it so well – it is still a schoolgirl scrawl, even though she is nearly 28 years-old now, but it still tugs at his heartstrings like she used to tug at his hand.
When she was a child, when he used to bring her out here, before the walls came tumbling down, in the days when he always felt there was something certain about the world, he loved her like nothing else on earth.
All gone – he shrugs.
He looks out across the fields, at what used to mark his horizon, beyond which there is another world, another reality.
He fumbles at the brown paper wrapping, tears at it, and pulls out a crumpled black refuse sack.
His arthritic fingers pull at the plastic, anxious to discover what’s inside.
And a light-blue T-shirt.
He takes another breath.
Inserts the stub of his forefinger beneath the flap of the envelope, opens it.
hope you & mum are well.
all buzy here.
got a job – at last!
working for a design company! here is one of their t-shirts.
will write again soon as i can
love to mum.
& love to you.
ps … xoxoxox’
He doesn’t bother with a breath this time, he can hardly bring himself to breathe anymore.
His chest constricts, his throat is dry.
He buried Irena’s mother this morning.
He unfolds the T-shirt.
He snorts at the flag of the Russian Federation.
He holds the T-shirt to his face, and sniffs long and hard; desperate for …
some sense of Irena from the piece of cloth – some scent, or sweat, or just …
Nothing, all he has is nothing.
He looks at the scrawl of her name, she has dotted the i with a smiley-face.
He knows he will never see Irena again.
As if he had buried her this morning along with her mother.