This Sort of Thing...


The Targovishte Quandary - Part 1



Shrill calls of cicadas pierced the hot night; the air steamy from a thunderstorm that had raged an hour or two earlier. Dogs barked in the distance, an owl screeched from a perch high in a walnut tree and from inside a dimly lit kitchen the piano playing of Johnny Răducanu crackled from an old Russian Voroshilov Bakelite radio. Sitting at a table on the veranda as rainwater continued to find its way through the old wooden structure that could be loosely described as a roof and on which courageous but half drenched pigeons huddled, we drank treacly Balkan coffee with the motel owner. We declined her regular offers of cigarettes, opting to chew our fingernails instead.

There's a Turkish proverb that east Europeans love to quote. They say, ‘coffee should be black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love.’ Being a hard-core coffee lover I’m totally in agreement with this, but as I sipped from a small hand-beaten copper cup it occurred to me that such similes might also be applied to the impending events of our immediate future.

Natural raven hair cascaded over her high, unwrinkled brow and square shoulders. Fair skinned, she had sharp, geometric cheekbones and eyes as deep and dark as sin. Despite the almost tropical weather she wore a black leather jacket with trousers and boots to match. A large silver crucifix hung on a chain around her neck reminding us that we were in a part of the world beguiled for centuries by superstition and fear. She had introduced herself as Elisabeta. Her appearance and gravelly voice meant she could only be Romanian. The brief and careful smile that brought a sparkle to those severe yet beautiful eyes confirmed this.

‘Please take them,’ she pleaded. ‘They are so young and vulnerable. They will die if they stay here.’

My partner (who I call Priyatelkata) and I had deep reservations about what was being suggested to us. We had always considered ourselves compassionate people but now we faced the acid test of our emotions. Two fragile young lives, our consciences, our reputations and possibly even our freedom were all on the line. A ‘yes’ could get us into big trouble with the authorities on either or both sides of a border and a ‘no’ would surely give us sleepless, guilt-ridden nights for the rest of our own lives.

‘There is evil in the forest. I have much fear for them.’ she continued. ‘Two nights ago their mother was savagely murdered. We found her body by the stream, barely recognisable. She’s buried now with rocks on top of her grave to stop any more of those predators digging her up. I wish them in hell!’

My stomach churned and Priyatelkata was visibly shaken. I knew she was feeling the same way as me, if not worse. She asked, ‘And what if we don’t take them? Why is this pressure on us? There must be someone in this place with a heart. The evil isn’t only in the woods. It’s everywhere.’

Some holiday this was turning out to be.

The Romanian looked at each of us and scowled. It had crossed my mind that we were being subjected to emotional blackmail but the look of horror and sadness on her face soon convinced me that she wasn’t making any of this up. Innocent lives were in great danger and she knew there was something that we could do to help. We had shown that we were sympathetic but also deeply reluctant to get ourselves involved. She knew that she needed to pull out all her persuasive stops to sway us. With a combination of charm and anguish she had already brought many of them into play. She could see that we were struggling. Our feelings were in tatters. Unlike her, we had each benefited from a relatively privileged upbringing in Western Europe which had cushioned us from many of the harsh realities that people experienced in the east. She had been in this situation before, probably many times. Although we had tried to beef up our personas since migrating to start new lives of our own on the other side of the continent, our soft underbellies continued to be exposed. Elisabeta could see this and jumped on our weaknesses, like a jackal with a rabbit or a frontier guard with a refugee.

For a few minutes no one spoke, but I could sense the thoughts of ‘Come on! Come on! Come on you selfish foreign pigs!’ crashing violently against her involuntary composure as a war raged silently inside her head. She looked at one of us and then the other, transmitting inaudible demands that we do the right thing. Tortuous eye contact amplified the deafening silence. Before we had made any sort of a move she had made us feel like criminals. She had cornered us into a position where we had to either confess that we were cowards or prove that we weren’t. I could almost see her dressed in a Stasi officer’s uniform. All that was missing was the hard uncomfortable chair, the handcuffs and the blinding electric light of an interrogation room. Knowing that we were in a place only five kilometres from the gendarmerie where Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena had been executed by firing squad on Christmas Day in 1989 seemed to coagulate the malevolence that hung in the atmosphere.

We had to consider the risks. We had to make a massive decision and quickly. We had never been faced with such a quandary before. Crossing borders between former Eastern Bloc countries was never straightforward so hiding a couple of illegal passengers didn’t immediately strike us as a good idea. We needed time to think and talk alone but the desperation in Elisabeta’s voice and the look of expectation on her face meant that we wouldn’t get the opportunity. Before she had invited us outside into the dark to see the two pitiful creatures in their makeshift shelter she had come across as a very friendly, welcoming woman but as it became clearer to us what she wanted, and as our pathetic indecisiveness manifested itself in front of her, this attitude changed and we felt like she despised us and our way of life.

‘I try to protect them but I can’t be with them all the time,’ she said, clutching my wrist with both hands. ‘Save their little lives. Satan waits for them. I am begging you!’

‘But…’ I stammered, not allowed to finish my sentence.

‘But nothing! You can get them out of here. You can give them good lives. You have everything. They have nothing. By the morning they may not even have a pulse. Their blood will be on the floor of their hut. Their blood will be on our hands… on your hands!’

‘We’ll do it! We’ll take them! How can we say no?’ Priyatelkata retorted, turning her head away partly to avoid a possible disapproving glance from me and partly to hide the tears that ran down her cheek.  

I didn’t disapprove. I fully agreed with what she had said. Those words had been on the tip of my tongue but she had beaten me to it in saying them. I’d hesitated because I was afraid of the awful mess that I would be dragging her into if I’d come out with them myself. We looked at each other in disbelief but with a look that also confirmed that we had always trusted each other. That trust had to stay strong now and for the next day or two, or God only knew how many more days that lay ahead of us until this dreadful ordeal was over. We had made some progress in that we had recognised that we both wanted the same thing. We felt better. Feeling terrified was an improvement on feeling absolutely wretched.

Whether or not to take on such a huge responsibility had been a grim choice to make. I couldn’t remember ever before in all my years having been forced into such an enormous, potentially life-changing decision with so little time to deliberate. But really that had been the easy part of what we had let ourselves in for. A line had been crossed and we couldn’t turn back. Elisabeta had done her bit. With success under her belt, her expression had rapidly changed from that of a woman haunted by worry. Now we could see only the excitement that came with putting the final touches to an escape plan. The early stages had amounted merely to persuading us to become traffickers. She would never have admitted how simple the situation had swiftly become for her, but all that she now needed to do was to get us and our newly acquired dependants off her property and lock the door behind us. Her bottled up sigh of relief was almost palpable. And she would no doubt do a lot of praying. She had been holding and kissing her crucifix throughout our negotiating, if negotiating is the right word for two soft-hearted foreigners being led up a blood-stained garden path.


The Targovishte Quandary - Part 1

Number of comments: 1

25/11/2023 11:48:52 - Elisabeta

There are many more if you want them.

And you left some socks in the drawer in your room.
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