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The Targovishte Quandary - Part 2



‘Do they have documents?’ I don’t know why I asked this because the answer was obvious, but it might have made things a bit easier if they had.

‘No, they have nothing. Other than their pathetic little bodies, there is absolutely nothing in this world to show that they have ever existed. If they perish they will quickly be forgotten. But I have a few lei I can offer you if that will help,’ Elisabeta remarked lamely, aware that only a generous helping of good fortune could reduce the enormity of the danger they were in and of our attempt to get them out of it.

‘Oh, just keep the money’ I told her, ‘that isn’t really the problem.’ As we would be leaving Romania within a few hours the local currency would be of no use to us. East European banknotes, we had learnt from experience, were only ever of interest or value to the people of the countries from which they originated or of people wanting to buy a tiny plastic hotel on Mayfair. What she had suggested giving us would have barely scratched the surface of any police fine or bribe we might have needed to pay if we had been caught. And it was highly unlikely that we would be stopping along the way for a snack or to buy last minute souvenirs.

Before we had managed to sleep, the time came to wake up and get our two distressed orphans away from where they were sheltering in the derelict shack near to our motel in Targovishte, a town that had been the former home of Vlad Țepeș (more commonly known as Vlad the Impaler) in the historical and cultural region of Transylvania. We had embarked upon our holiday two weeks earlier anticipating a little tongue-in-cheek suspense and dread put on for tourists, but our expectations had been exceeded to a monstrous extent. The people at Tripadvisor were certainly in for a surprise if we ever got round to sharing our travel experiences on their web page. ‘On a scale of one to five, how likely are you to recommend illegal cross-border activities to a friend?’ their online questionnaire might ask.

An hour or two before daybreak seemed to us to be the best time set off; before our route got busy and before the bridge that crossed the Dunav (Danube) river into Bulgaria became congested with cars and those colossal trucks carrying cargo to the ports on the Black Sea or further south, down to the next international border. Elisabeta disagreed. She thought we were more likely to be stopped if the roads were empty and the police had nothing to do. A pair of aliens trying to look sweet and innocent would be easy pickings for them. We’d be the basis of something for them to write in their daily report to prove to their boss that they’d been concentrating on the job, a bit of interaction with us might provide them with a break in their monotony and two timid looking travellers such as ourselves might offer a little cash in return for them making our passage through their territory a little smoother. She had a point, so we decided to head off immediately after the breakfast that our tattered nerves and agitated insides wouldn’t allow us to eat.

‘Hush! Don’t make a single sound, little ones,’ I said softly and Priyatelkata blew them a silent kiss as we lifted two skinny little bodies to settle them in a crate in the back of our vehicle. This had been donated by Elisabeta’s neighbour, Bogdan; a poor but kind and sympathetic old man unable to help in any other way. Years ago, when it stood in a corner of his farmyard, the crude construction had been a cramped place where his working dogs took refuge from the elements, but more recently only a few chickens had shown any interest. A threadbare piece of carpet covering the floor stank of animals and the rotting wood that the mobile prison cell was made from. I felt cruel shutting them in there but it would have been even more cruel not to, and I was sure that countless escapes had been made in far worse conditions in the past. The worry and discomfort, if we were successful, would last for less than a day. It would be worth it but I had no way of reassuring them so. In despair I shook my head, determined to extinguish the merest flicker of any thoughts of what might happen if we weren’t successful.   

‘Nobody must know you’re in there.’ But they wouldn’t have understood a single word of what I was saying because they knew neither English nor Bulgarian.

Priyatelkata speaks very good English but in traumatic situations she expresses herself better in her native French. ‘Ne vous inquiétez pas, mes bébés,’ she whispered ‘Don't worry, my babies.’ Hidden away in the dark for so long they had no idea if it was day or night and they were so afraid that when they opened their mouths they were unable to make a noise.

We had deprived them of food and water throughout the night and the same would apply for the journey to the border during the day. We didn’t want them to need to use a toilet. We needed to appear as if they weren’t there at all. I’ll never forget those scared little eyes looking up at us, possibly for the final time, as we covered the crate with musty blankets. Their only luxury was a few holes cut in the sides to enable them to breathe, hopefully.

‘Thanks to God you came here’ said Elisabeta, hugging us. ‘Forever you will be my friend’.

Gulping, shaking, not knowing what to think, we said our goodbyes to her, promising that we would all meet again on a happier day. I turned the key to start the engine and we embarked upon a journey that we could only guess the outcome of. We knew that none of us would die but we couldn’t be certain how soon we would complete the trip or if we would be able to stay together.    

As we pulled away from the front of the building into that darkest of darknesses just before dawn, I saw Elisabeta rubbing out a cigarette on the road with her boot, a little over zealously, as if her mind was engaged elsewhere. While we were on her veranda preparing to leave she had appeared calm and confident but now that we were almost out of sight I could see that her face had whitened and had taken on a look of dread akin, to that on the faces of our living cargo. She had told us that she had a history of working in the export industry, mostly in airports on the poorer side of Europe, so she knew the score when it came to getting things across borders, including things that in the eyes of the law shouldn’t have been crossing borders. I was sure that she was much more aware of the possibilities than we were so this fear that she couldn’t completely conceal instilled fear in me too, and in Priyatelkata.

We drove something like eight or ten kilometres along the deserted road that led south away from the town before either of us could find words to break the silence. ‘I could have done with that cigarette that she stubbed out’ said Priyatelka. ‘She’d only taken a couple of drags from it.’

‘But you’ve given up’ I replied whilst secretly agreeing with her in my mind and wishing I had some sort of sedative myself, even though I’d only ever smoked one cigarette previously, about forty years earlier when I was in my early teens. The tension we felt was immense and anything that we could have got our hands on to calm our nerves would have been welcome. Alcohol was out of the question as the slightest smell of it on our breath would have resulted in all sorts of interrogation and maybe even searching if we had been stopped by the police for any reason at all. And besides, we were law-abiding citizens so we didn’t drink and drive. Smuggling anything, alive or otherwise, was totally out of character for us. Lacking the confidence of the professional smugglers, we were gripped with fear like never before. We had an important job to do and we just wanted to get on with it. So even a coffee wasn’t worth stopping for.

We tried to concentrate on how happy we would be when we arrived at our destination and how much joy these two new additions to our household could bring if they were allowed to stay with us. Think positive! That’s always the answer, we told ourselves. So we relaxed a bit until we reached the motorway. But as a watery sun rose to peer beneath the rain clouds in the eastern sky we could see a little more clearly how much busier this road was than the one we had started out on and it soon became apparent that we had run out of reasons for relaxation.

Approaching Bucharest there were two, sometimes three lanes overflowing with heavy traffic travelling in both directions. Trucks, mostly with Turkish or Hungarian number plates and with drivers holding mobile phones to their ears probably in an attempt to stay awake, overtook us at alarming speeds as rain from dark thunderclouds began to beat down on the worn and crumbling asphalt. Even without the contraband that we had concealed behind us, this part of the trip would have been nothing short of precarious.

At the junction with the road signposted for Chişinău in Moldova there had been an accident. A couple of cars and a van were scattered in hundreds of pieces across the carriageway as shaken drivers looked on. In the battered remains of the van a man, bleeding from a wound on his head, sat slumped forwards across the steering wheel. Despite the dawn, the day had suddenly become darker. The stream of traffic had slowed to a trickle to avoid the debris and there were blue flashing lights and police officers everywhere, smoking cigarettes and shouting instructions, but mostly smoking cigarettes.

We were stopped abruptly, winding down a window to let in an unwelcome billow of cigarette smoke and to have our instructions shouted at us in Romanian, a language that we knew barely a dozen words of. Not knowing their language is sometimes a blessing. When people in positions of authority are busy, they haven’t the time to waste struggling to converse with foreigners like us in a muddled attempt to get misunderstood answers to misunderstood questions, so these awkward situations can often evaporate rapidly. At home in Bulgaria I’ve sometimes pretended not to understand for this reason, and I’ve had the impression that my opposite number in such exchanges has done exactly the same. My goal in life is to convince British tax office employees that I don’t understand English and then hopefully they’ll just brush me under their fiscal carpet.

Observing what the vehicles in the queue in front of us were doing, it dawned on us that the transport policeman was pointing out that the road was closed and we would have to follow another route but, as sweat trickled down to the small of my back, my mind was telling me that he wanted us to stand with our feet apart and hands against a roadside wall and wait to be shot. It was telling me that he knew what we had unlawfully hidden beneath the blankets and we were in deep trouble. This wasn’t the end to our summer holiday touring the Carpathians that we had hoped for. Originally I had imagined that we might arrive home with a couple of tacky fridge magnets and a tourist tee shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Vampires Suck!’ or ‘I Heart Virgins’ but the thought of a bullet entering my head hadn’t entered my head until that point. However, no questions were asked, which would have come as a great relief to us sooner than it did had we had even the faintest clue about what he was saying. I wound up the car window quickly so that I could resume using my lungs and sweating profusely.

Eventually we were waved on by a swarthy, uniformed man with a gun. But it wasn’t his gun that he used to wave us on with. Instead he fluttered a little plastic flag contraption that looked a bit effeminate and not at all authoritarian to me. I didn’t tell him this. I wanted to say ‘mulțumesc’, the Romanian for thank you, but on second thoughts I didn’t want to appear too grateful as he may have wondered why.

More heavy rain and roadworks slowed our progress towards the southern edge of the country. A country that we couldn’t wait to get out of despite the fact that we’d had such a wonderful time on holiday there. We saw more police cars and riot-proof vans as uniformed men questioned foreign truck drivers about their consignments. This is something that happens all the time in the countries that are not in Europe’s Schengen Zone. We must have seen it a hundred times before but not taken any heed of it as we had never had anything to hide. The cars marked ‘Border Police’ were the ones that really made us sit up and pay attention. They were no doubt specialists in dealing with the likes of us. Some of them had trained dogs which I would have expected to be Border Collies, but they were of a breed that I could only describe as ferocious.  

I was a relieved, but at that point not to a celebratory extent, to see the road signs suggesting that we were approaching the Bridge of Friendship: a vast steel truss carrying the road and railway lines to connect the Romanian and Bulgarian cities of Giurgiu and Ruse on either side of the mighty Dunav. Inappropriately named, it was designed by Soviet engineers in the 1950s to bring together the people of two nations who didn’t like each other one little bit. Few wanted to cross it in either direction and even those who did were often refused as their reason for travel and their papers didn’t satisfy the military border guards.

Many tried to cross the river by other means in other places, usually from north to south en route to a distant border with a non-Communist country, without having to satisfy the requirements of two totalitarian regimes. The majority failed in their attempts and suffered unbelievably harsh punishment imprisoned in a Gulag, or worse. Some had been successful here only to lose their lives in the mountainous region that straddled Bulgaria’s borders with Turkey and Greece. Bloodied bodies found ripped and tangled in coils of barbed wire or frozen in the snow were not uncommon. More than three decades after the drawing back of the Iron Curtain stories are still told about these heroes and villains.

And here we were, two vulnerable and ignorant foreigners showing blatant disregard for the immigration regulations of our adopted home and its neighbours.


The Targovishte Quandary - 2

Number of comments: 1

26/11/2023 15:54:44 - Sergeant Răducanu

There's nothing wrong with my little flag. At least I've got a little flag. Where's yours?
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