This Sort of Thing...


The Targovishte Quandary - Part 3 



Looking back, there was little need for us to have been so concerned about the security on the Romanian side of the bridge. Border guards are paid to stop illegal shipments coming into their country so they tend not to care all that much about what leaves. In a number of cases it’s seen as passing a problem on to the neighbours without resolving or worsening it, so turning a blind eye cuts out a lot of fuss and bother. Nevertheless, in their khaki gun-holstered uniforms, those forbidding faces beckoning us forward didn’t look like the sort of people we’d want to be falling out with and we didn’t relish the thought of either us or our little travelling companions spending any more time with them than was absolutely necessary.

It was thinking about the possibilities of what might happen on the Bulgarian side of the river that filled us with dread. What would be the consequences if we were found out? A hefty fine and maybe deportation for us? Our passengers taken into custody or returned to the terror that they had fled? We couldn’t wait to get to the opposite bank and have this ordeal completely over and done with. We could see the country of our destination. We could almost smell the yoghurt and the rakia that it is famous for. Only a kilometre or two separated us from it, but it seemed like a million.

Progress through the final, nail-biting stretch was sluggish. There were road works on the bridge reducing movement to a single lane. Temporary traffic lights seemed to be permanently on red at the points where new asphalt was being laid. Work was slower than usual because of the wet weather but luckily for us this wet weather made the border guards reluctant to step outside of their cosy little administrative cocoons. On a rainy day, sitting in a hut smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and drooling over photographs of a scantily clad Alina Pușcău on mobile phones takes on much greater importance than controlling a country’s borders.

At the passport control kiosk, a flimsy but strangely intimidating barrier stopped us. Usually at this stage of a crossing we would be calmer because we’d feel that we had one foot in Bulgaria so we’d be able to understand a lot of the language spoken by the Republic’s welcoming committee. However, considering today’s unusual circumstances, we felt completely the opposite. A small window opened and a gruff voice demanded ‘Passports!’ We handed them over, they were inspected, we were stared at, they were inspected again. None of the occupants of other vehicles seemed to have been stared at as much as we were. I felt as though someone had written the words ‘Interpol’s Most Wanted’ with a big black marker pen on my forehead. Crossing international boundaries in our Bulgarian registered car, with our Irish and French passports and our English conversation had always caused a stir amongst immigration control staff but which usually culminated with a bit of laughter and a convivial ‘have a nice holiday!’ We were frantic in our hope for the same outcome today but everything was taking so long. The tension that had gripped us since the moment we decided to embark on this foolhardy mission of mercy was reaching a climax, and gut-wrenchingly so. The gruff voice handed the passports to another equally gruff voice, but female this time, and our fear level momentarily soared to panic as we wondered why a second opinion was required in respect of their validity. It subsided a little only when we saw them being electronically scanned, which was normal, and then a little further as the weakest suggestion of a smile appeared on the heavily made up face beneath the peak of a Republic of Bulgaria military cap. A final sinister stare took place for good measure before they were handed back to us and we were waved on.

The barrier wasn’t raised. We were invited to drive a couple of metres nearer to it and then turn off our engine. Another reel of red tape in yet another gruff voice but an octave lower (no doubt an old campaigner in terms of irrational bureaucracy) rattled from another window. A pane of glass was broken at the top and the rain was getting in but it didn’t seem to dampen the gruffness. Its owner was bound to be in a bad mood so we gulped and hoped for the best. This time ‘Documents for transport!’ was the demand. They were inspected briefly and we were only fleetingly stared at but another border guard, seemingly with no voice at all, walked full circle around us, closely examining every nut, bolt, wheel and rust encrustation on our vehicle before nods of officialdom were exchanged and our standard bulky wallet of automotive paperwork was handed back to us.

Our trusty old jalopy wasn’t, and still isn’t, in great shape. The advantage of this is that we’ve never had to worry about it being stolen by joyriders. When it’s being scrutinised by someone in a position of authority I sometimes say ‘It’s yours for five hundred euro’ in an attempt to take some of the sting out of a serious situation. But on this occasion, in the shadow of the Soviet-built bridge, joking didn’t seem like a good idea. Even if it had, my uneasiness had made my mouth so dry I could barely speak.

Our spirits rose in direct proportion to the speed at which the barrier rose. I had an almost uncontrollable urge to kiss the owners of the gruff voices but instead I started the engine and we drove off. Behind us the barrier returned to its original position to block and interrogate the next angst-filled travellers, but our spirits continued to soar. As we rolled down the ramp on the southern side of the bridge we knew that we had made it but we still didn’t dare show any sign of celebration. There was no whooping of voices, no high fives, no bottle of full-bodied Mavrud that had been laid down in a dusty Thracian cellar for decades in anticipation of a special occasion such as this. We smiled a little as Priyatelka put her hand on mine and squeezed, but we didn’t dare risk a laugh or even a grin. There may have been more barriers ahead of us that we were unaware of. There may have been paid informers, each a legacy from darker times in the past, watching us from hidden cameras or from behind newspapers with eye holes cut in them. The road we were driving along may have been leading us directly into a Gulag. Walls have ears, as they say, and gruff voices.

Ruse is a charming city. Its beautiful old buildings and Danubian riverside location earning it the epithet ‘The little Vienna in Bulgaria’. We had been several times before to enjoy the lush leafy parks, the tree-lined boulevards, the pavement cafés and the exquisite fish restaurants. But today we had absolutely no intention of stopping there. On its peripheral road we pulled into a petrol station to buy much needed coffee that we knew would be served up in much despised (but handy if you’re in a hurry) cardboard cups to drink in the secluded safety of our vehicle. Many hours and many hair-raising incidents had taken place since our last fix on Elisabeta’s veranda. We imagined her still standing there; a nervous wreck, knee-deep in cigarette butts with psychedelic caffeine-loaded eyes whirling and gyrating in their sockets like nuclear-powered kaleidoscopes.  

On the almost empty forecourt a police car sat in a parking space close to the automatic car wash. A policewoman on the passenger side was concentrating on her phone while her colleague seated at the wheel seemed to be in a deep sleep; his bowed head and his belly rising and falling in unison. They were completely unaware of what a threat they posed to our success at this late stage in the operation. We hoped they hadn’t noticed us so that we could drive off again without getting out of our vehicle. But if they had seen us at all our change of mind would have made them suspicious. So we parked up and Priyatelka walked nonchalantly into the shop where she bought a single bottle of mineral water. That seemed a quicker and easier option than waiting for the girl in the oil company uniform to go faffing about with the espresso machine and asking which free Italian-style biscuit did we want, even though that was what our brains and bodies yearned for.

Back in the car I opened the bottle and between us we drank it, slowly so as not to arouse suspicion. In the films on the television the criminals always sweat a lot and drink their water so quickly that they spill much of it on themselves, attracting attention and inevitably getting arrested. We had been law breakers for nearly four hours so we had learned how to look cool.

Priyatelkata tossed the empty plastic bottle to join countless used cardboard coffee cups and Italian-style biscuit wrappers in the space behind her seat and we made a careful, but not conspicuously careful, move back into the traffic. Meanwhile the policewoman was adjusting her hair in her rear view mirror while her driver companion, with his face pressed hard against the window, appeared to be comatose. In a brief moment of humour, we nicknamed him Officer Dribble. The pair were so relaxed in their work, or lack of it, that we probably could have held up the cashier at gunpoint and pocketed the contents of the till without them noticing. But we still had a bigger task to complete so, ‘Next time!’ we said, and grinned. This unexpected hurdle had been successfully crossed but it had come as a bit of a shock and thankfully we had avoided the complacency that could so easily have blown our cover.

Ten or fifteen kilometres into Bulgaria we turned off the main road and onto a potholed lane that meandered and bumped its way into the countryside. We were growing impatient in our need to stop in a place hidden from view where we could release our little passengers from their travelling jail, but finding the right spot was difficult because the road was very narrow with many sharp bends. Whenever we came across a straighter section it seemed to be at the approach to a village and there would be people around buying groceries in the local shop, gossiping with their neighbours or watching out for suspicious looking foreigners who were up to no good, even though we considered what we were doing to be something that was very good, even if not very legal. In village communities the world over everyone is suspicious or at least a bit nosey. We needed to finish our job in a place where we wouldn’t be seen, so we had to fight the frustration and drive further than we had expected to.

Eventually we came across an open gateway through which a track led into a small but fairly dense area of woodland. It was exactly what we needed. The wet leaves on the ground appeared not to have been disturbed and there were no footprints in the mud, suggesting that it was unlikely that there’d been anyone around for a day or two. We luxuriated in our first post-operative belly laugh as we congratulated ourselves on how proficient we had become at this illicit trafficking business. We stopped, killed the engine, sat for a few minutes in case someone was approaching us with questions or just to pass the time of day. No one appeared so we opened the doors and we both got out, constantly looking over our shoulders to survey the scene for anyone who might have been surveying us.

Still there was nobody around. No farm workers, no people out for a walk with their dog, no committee members from neighbourhood watch schemes, no human life whatsoever and best of all, no one who worked for the authorities. We agreed that we had found a safe location to liberate our illegal immigrants.

The only sounds were those of a thousand crows cawing above us in the trees and our own excited heavy breathing. We had been praying that our Romanian friends would remain silent throughout the journey, and they had done, but now that we had come to a halt and opened the back of the vehicle we still couldn’t hear them. We exchanged worried glances, both of us wondering if the poor mites inside were still alive. Had all the worry and anxiety been a total waste of time? The thought of what we would do with the bodies if they had perished entered and left my mind in seconds. It was a thought of something that would have finally been too much for me to bear.

Struggling to remove the heavy crate from the boot of the car we heard and felt a little movement inside, and then again as we placed it on the back seat. Removing Bogdan’s filthy old blankets, we could see some movement. Then, as we fumbled to untie the frayed and knotted length of bailing twine that held the metal grill door closed we heard a little cry. We peered inside to see four tiny eyes looking back at us and then more cries, a little louder this time.

Our two new baby cats had survived the journey across Romania and the mighty Dunav river to become part of our family. Unable to contain the enormous feeling of elation, we cried too. We had saved them from their crude shelter where no one was able to adequately care for them and where they were at constant risk from the wild animals that lived in the nearby forest. We had saved them from inevitable death.

Vlad and Dracul (the most obvious names for two Transylvanian kittens) really came to life once they were introduced to daylight (unlike their folklore compatriots) and after a little food and water they played together and slept contentedly on the back seat for the remaining hundred kilometres to our home in a village near Veliko Tarnovo. They were totally oblivious to the danger they had been in during those first few weeks of their lives but Priyatelkata and I certainly weren’t and we knew that we would never forget it.

We sent a message (encrypted, of course) to Elisabeta, the owner of the Targovishte guest house where we had been staying and where the cats had lived the first few weeks of their lives. Her reply read, ‘Thanks to God, and thanks to you. Tonight I will drink rakia to celebrate their arrival at a safe house.’ She had loved those kittens while they had lived near her but she had been unable to take them in herself as she kept a pack of large dogs that didn’t appear as cat-friendly as they needed to be.

This is a true story which I admit I have embellished a bit, in fact, quite a lot. But even without the embellishments, it was an absolutely exhilarating adventure with a suggestion of risk for me and for Priyatelkata, and significantly more so for the cats. Thankfully it had a happy ending.

It saddens me to think, however, that similar hazardous journeys are repeated every day in countries all over the world, in situations where the migrants are not baby cats but human babies, children and adults. Thinking back to what we encountered on our trip and comparing it to the journeys that human refugees make across continents and oceans, through hell and high water, in their attempts to stay alive absolutely horrifies me. The mere fact that their living conditions are such that they need to do this horrifies me. Their stories contain an infinitely greater element of risk and rarely have happy endings. Whenever I look at those two cats, who have now grown into adults, I remember how cruel this world can be for a vast proportion of its inhabitants and consider myself lucky to live the life that I do and to have been able to tell this tale… phenomenally lucky!

So going back to that Turkish proverb that east Europeans love to quote, ‘Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love.’ At times on that trip from Elisabeta’s motel in Romania the world seemed as black as hell and our determination needed to be as strong as death but the outcome was as sweet as love.


The Targovishte Quandary - Part 3

Number of comments: 2

28/11/2023 11:09:02 - John le Carré

I would have called it 'The Cats Who Came in from the Cold'.

22/12/2023 20:35:08

I can imagine myself and Dave doing just this..and yes the connection between kitten smuggling and migrants trying to find a place to live free from danger and death..
:) :( :D ;) :| :P |-) (inlove) :O ;( :@ 8-) :S (flower) (heart) (star)