Who is the suspicious new inhabitant of a Bratislava tower block?
The Bratislava Intruder is a series of short stories written by an Englishman who lives in this Central European city.
When the foreigner moved into the Petrzalka panelak, he was almost immediately looked upon with caution. Maybe it was the forwardness of his politeness, the bright delivery of his accented ‘Dobry den’ or ‘Nech se paci’, or the way he held the elevator door open for those behind him in the queue, causing lone females to think twice before stepping into its confines with him. Maybe it was the shabby straightforwardness of his clothes, his oft perceived of as privileged nationality offset by his wardrobe or lack of, or just his general unguarded openness, his soul searching eyes, the absence of suspicion that rendered him so suspicious.
Of course, there were exceptions. The thirty-something couple in the apartment next door pumped his hand with enthusiasm upon their first meeting, and this genuine exchange of pleasantries compensated for their dog’s mournful howling each time they left it alone in what passed for their home. The blonde middle-aged pickled-livered soak along the corridor was also convivial; one of those nice drunks rendered a friend to all by the bottle. He even exchanged a nod and a ‘Cau’ with members of the block’s only Romani family, which did not help ingratiate him with the building’s tenants at large.
He came and went at odd times during the night and day, sometimes laden down with a rucksack, at others walking burden-free. He was almost exclusively alone, and little to no noise emanated from the garsonka he occupied, the owner of which was living in the States and a virtual stranger to the bytove druzstvo presiding over all like sharp-beaked watchful hawks.
It did not take long for the conspicuous stranger to cause his first upset, although it did take a bit of cajoling until a male occupant of the same eleventh floor was persuaded to make his and his peers’ grievances known. As he was making his way out of the apartment one afternoon, the cudzinec decided to take the stairs down to the ground floor as opposed to the lethargic and temperamental elevator. Making his way to the fire door at the entrance to the stairwell, he encountered a man and woman standing at the open window in the corridor, blowing smoke out into the wind which immediately returned the offering to the corridor at large. After an unreturned ‘Zdravim’ and finding the fire door locked, as he often did and to his consternation, he fumbled with his keychain to locate the appropriate one. As he inserted the key into the lock he caught sight of the woman none-too-discreetly nudging her male counterpart. As the key was turned and the door swung open, a gruff voice accosted him in his tracks. ‘You have to lock the door after you.’
The newcomer looked back, struggling a little to translate the words into his own language, but not helped by a lack of comprehension of the sense of what had just been said. ‘Pardon?’
‘You have to lock the door behind you,’ was repeated, a little more sternly and quickly, it’s deliverer’s tone suggesting he had surprised himself in the daringness of it.
‘This is a safety door,’ the cudzinec returned. ‘A fire door. For emergencies.’
The man started to bumble, unsure of how to continue, and the woman brought up the cavalry. ‘It must be kept locked.’
‘A fire door should never be locked; it defeats its purpose.’
‘You need to lock the door. There are thieves, gypsies, homeless.’ The two sentences were tagged together as if they formed part of a common sense instruction.
The cudzinec looked around him theatrically, casting his glance up and down the stairwell. ‘I don’t see any.’
‘No, because we keep the door locked.’
‘To get into the building it’s necessary to have a chip.’
‘This is Petrzalka. We have to be extra careful. We don’t want criminals getting in here.’
‘But locking this door is illegal. By locking the door, you make yourself a criminal.’
‘I AM NOT A CRIMINAL. YOU MAKING A JOKE OF ME? You hear that, Lubos?’
Lubos puffed out his chest, a little, but to the cudzinec if looked more for the benefit of placating the woman than intimidating him. ‘You keep the door locked.’ He jabbed the air with his forefinger as he stabbed his words in the stranger’s direction. ‘Any undesirables get in here, it will be your fault.’
‘I don’t know what an undesirable is in your world, but I definitely won’t be locking the door. If you have a problem with it, contact the police, but the only people you’ll be incriminating are yourselves and possibly the building’s owner. Dovidenia.’
He turned and continued down the stairs, the woman coming to the top of them to cast down her Parthian shot. ‘You come to our country, you respect our ways. You keep the door locked or you will be in trouble.
What neither of them knew right then was that she was right. He was indeed going to get into deeper trouble in the building, and soon at that.
A few weeks after he moved into the place the newcomer found himself face to face with a fresh obstacle, a further hindrance to his getting in and out of his apartment and the panelak itself. He was not sure if he himself was in part being held responsible for this particular modification of the building, though he assumed his presence and attitude were likely a contributory factor in this, the latest security update.
In addition to the chip necessary to open the doors to the building (which also included opening them from the inside) and for the elevators, and for the door to the stairwell (from either side), plus the fire doors kept locked where they met with each floor, barred gates were installed, two on each floor, each protecting three apartments from thieves, gypsies and homeless, and bandits and dragons and trolls, and common sense and altruism and logic all in one. It was indeed a sturdy and effective barrier. The fresh blockades went up while the oddball from foreign climes was away for a week, likely on business involving some form of nefariousness. It was only the good grace of the couple from next door that saved him being completely prevented from to-ing and fro-ing via this portal.
‘Ahoj. Do you have a key to the gate?’ the male of the couple asked, fortuitously coming out of his apartment to take their dog for a walk at the same moment the misfit exited the elevator on floor eleven.
The misfit was too agog taking in the gate at first to answer. ‘No,’ he said in incredulity. ‘No, I most certainly have not.’
‘You didn’t know it was being put in place today?’
‘I had absolutely no clue.’ The cudzinec couldn’t take his eyes off the prison-like new feature.
‘I am not so surprised. Here, we have a spare.’ He fished in his pocket for his key fob and removed the extra. ‘One gift for you.’
The cudzinec blinked. ‘Thank you. Thank you very much indeed. Without meeting you I would have been barred entry from getting fully home tonight. Quite literally.’
‘Think nothing of it,’ replied the man, and took his four-legged friend for his eagerly anticipated stretch.
All was relatively calm and peaceful in the panelak for a few more months. The cudzinec cum oddball cum misfit cum weirdo cum darebak came and went, virtually unchallenged even when he came and went, even when he left the emergency door to the stairwell unlocked, which he did every time. The gates across the hallways on each floor seemed to allow the former challenging couple to sleep a little easier. He often left the barred gate unlocked too, but seeing as the kind-hearted couple and the agreeable drunk were the only other occupants it offered ‘protection’, no-one voiced a complaint about this either.
Then, one early Tuesday morning, at 03:28 to be precise, there came a serious intruder problem at the Petrzalka address.
The intruder was born of a simple accident involving a drunk woman, a pillow, and a candle. Slumped in a slumber after consuming one and a reasonable portion of another bottles of rum, her bedmate in lieu of the husband whom had left her a month previously, she turned onto her side on the unmade bed, sending her pillow onto the floor beside the candle, where it quickly ignited and succumbed to the flame. The falling pillow also upset the unfinished bottle of rum which acted as an accelerant, helping the fire as it continued its path across the threadbare carpet. It feasted as it did so upon the kindling of litter dropped in the lone female’s depression and the yellowing photos that reminded her so painfully yet so irresistibly of the days she managed to convince herself were halcyon in the final moments of consciousness she experienced. Photos whose yellow quickly turned to brown then a charred black, like her nicotine- cum soot-coated lungs.
The adjoining apartment to one side was vacant at the time of the blaze. The tenant was yet to move in but her father, a pan Varga, whom had purchased the place on her behalf, had zealously and painstakingly gone to lengths to ensure just the right shade of walls, variation of parquet, kitchen tiling, and bathroom suite, not to mention a growing list of minutiae that even a royal palace would be hard pressed to satisfy, were being taken care of.
Pan Varga was by now racing against the clock in the seemingly infinite process of preparing it for his daughter’s apartment warming party, which, as she had insistently informed him, was now a mere three weeks away. The place not having had its prefabricated core altered since its original construction in the sixties, pan Varga had even gone to the discomfort of procuring planning permission to rebuild its walls – his daughter, already on her third smartphone in a year, had a fixation with all things new. It was during the demolition of the threshold wall between the reception hall and living room that a breach had occurred in the wall separating the two properties, damage for which pan Varga had obsequiously apologised to both his daughter and the neighbour, promising to both to get this repaired post haste. As it happened, the neighbour had received the news with markedly less ire than his daughter, the former being as intoxicated with liquor as the latter had been with wrath at the news.
The fire groping its way across the floor of the comatose neighbour located this breach and reached its fingers through to next door, showing no sympathy or concern over the work that had been done to restore the place, but clearly misinterpreting the tenant-to-be’s intended celebration and wishing to be the number one guest to arrive.
Not only did the fire find slecna Vargova’s potential pad to be, it also located the turpentine, paint thinner, and lacquer being used to help make it so presentable. Pan Varga would never later recall if he had properly contained these substances after he had finished using them for the day. But the fire wasted no time in noticing and taking advantage of his haste, distractedness and absent-mindedness.
The neighbour to the other side of the fire’s source apartment, an elderly pan Horvath, was woken by the choking sensation of toxic fumes and heavy smoke filling his bedroom. His eyes smarting and breathing all but impossible, he managed to grope his way to his apartment door and opened it onto the corridor beyond. At this stage, fire itself was not an obstacle preventing him from reaching the emergency stairs, but the barred gate was. Here the smoke was particularly dense and murky, and he slapped at the area of wall he believed the lightswitch should be located, but for some reason it eluded him. Holding his breath, his lungs by now almost as painful as his eyes, he yanked his keys from out of the door lock of his apartment and readied himself to insert the appropriate one into the lock of the barred gate. He found the gate by touch, it being by now shrouded in smoke so thick, that even were he able to open his eyes anymore, he would not have been able to locate the lock by sight.
Finally, dizzy now as he grew increasingly oxygen-starved, his fingers found the lock. Now all he had to do was locate the appropriate key and insert it into said lock. Hands shaking, he tried key after key, trying to marry them with a lock that stubbornly refused to yield to his desperate requirements of it. His jittery hands and rapidly deserting self-control further encumbering him, the keys were suddenly lost with a jangle somewhere on the floor beneath the billowing clouds of smoke.
He did not give up. He got down on his hands and knees to try to find them. He groped and searched and fumbled, and still he did not give up. His determination would be duly but unspokenly noted by those in the fire crew who would find his body where it lay curled beside the impenetrable gate when they went about their business later that night.
The cudzi clovek entered the building, in which the rest of its occupants were almost exclusively asleep, and immediately smelled smoke. Wary of using the elevator, he used his door entry chip to open the fire door at ground floor level and stepped through it. He bounded up the stairs, the smoke growing stronger, confirming what he suspected.
He rushed back down to the ground floor and went in search of a fire alarm. His gaze scoured the walls of the entrance hall. He went to the area where the mailboxes were located. He gave the entire ground floor public space a second sweep with his eyes.
He pulled his phone from his pocket and called the fire service, giving them the address. This done, he went back through the fire door and ascended the stairs again. Where the fire doors were locked, he unlocked them. He also raised the alarm by ringing the doorbells where access was possible and shouting out a warning of what was happening in the building. After doing this for four floors, the smoke grew thick enough that he backed off. He could hear the siren of the fire truck getting closer and he went outdoors to wait with the others assembled there.
That night saw just the two fatalities, but several inhabitants were taken to hospital suffering from smoke inhalation. One of these, a child, would sustain permanent brain damage from the oxygen deprivation he had endured. Others would recover, but a few would have breathing difficulties that would plague them the rest of their lives. The official inspection of the building as part of the inquest into the blaze and its victims would conclude the building’s owner be taken to court and held accountable for causing, amongst other criminal acts, unlawful deaths.
A fortnight later, with the building and tenants as returned to normality as could be, Lubos and his partner were again at the window of the corridor on the eleventh floor, smoking. Another neighbour came to join them, and remarked that the cudzinec had not been spotted since the fire had broken out, in a tone that suggested there might be something juicily suspicious about this.
‘You don’t know?’ exclaimed the already smoking female. ‘The fire investigators wanted to speak to all tenants about what happened, and they tried to locate him but he was nowhere to be found. They got in touch with the apartment’s owner in the States, and it turns out the owner didn’t know anything about any tenant living there. Says he doesn’t know how he got the address and keys in the first place.’
‘You serious? I always thought there was something fishy about him.’
‘We all did. Well, turns out we were right. He was effectively squatting. He shouldn’t even have been here in the first place.’
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