A lone woman has an unforgettable journey through the Slovak capital’s nightlife.
The Bratislava Intruder is a series of short stories written by an Englishman who lives in this Central European city.
Tina left the gathering at Prasna Basta just after midnight, the thirty head reservation having ensured the staff keep the drinks flowing and atmosphere going past the witching hour. This year’s Christmas shindig had really caught the company in a winning mood; sales were up, salaries had increased, production was rocketing in an economic climate that had most hanging onto their jobs, counting their pennies, and distracting themselves from brooding too much on their decreasingly distant futures in order to get them through the festive season.
Tina herself had been lauded at the party, her know how, efficiency and organizational skills as well as troubleshooting expertise, had pulled the company from a sticky patch since she had joined them four years previously to the model for its European competitors it was today. Her methods had been unorthodox to begin with and feathers had been ruffled by those who perceived themselves harder workers but were in fact less productive, but she was now at a stage where she could do almost no wrong and her superiors were determined to hang onto her at any cost.
Thus it had come as a surprise and a disappointment when she announced she was going home, insisting she was alright, that she did not require a taxi, that she could negotiate her way via public transport and was guaranteed to arrive safe and sound back with her husband and two children in their well-maintained Ruzinov house within the hour.
After the obligatory ensuring and double-checking that, yes, she really was going home unescorted, and no, she sincerely did not require a taxi, she was left to depart the Zamocnicka establishment after the also obligatory theatrically affectionate goodbyes. All but dismissed from the remaining gathered’s minds once she was out of sight, it was almost a natural assumption that, yes, she really would be home at the appointed hour, danger-free and unharmed, and that she would be among their ranks Monday morning recounting how good a time they all had had.
All of them could be forgiven for assuming what was to turn out to be so far from the truth.
Tina headed toward Frantiskanska, a trio of homeless drunks slumped on the steps of an entranceway to the right. Half-heartedly, one of them called out at the elegantly dressed attractive woman as she hurried by, a vague request for coin laboured by a tongue thickened by alcohol. She hesitated for a beat, glanced back, and then carried on, unsure whether her strong sense of moral obligation should spare a little change or be deterred by their inebriation.
And then the moment was lost and she sailed around the corner and into Ursulinska, nearly colliding with a lone male drunk whose attire suggested he at least had a bed somewhere to crash out on, whether or not he could remember where it was or was capable of making it there in his current sorry state. Circumnavigating him with difficulty as he swayed left and right, resisting his hand which either reached out to grab her or steady himself, she all but stepped into the path of a car as she beelined for the junction at the Slovak National Uprising Square. Here, a gentle flurry of foot traffic blurred past in either direction in bubbles of drunken haze.
Voices carried back and forth, some from groups brazenly addressing those on the opposite side of the street. Testosterone and posturing and catcalling coloured the air, issuing from her fellow countrypeople in uncharacteristic style, like ill-fitting clothes worn en masse as if that would somehow make it unnoticeable how badly they suited them. Her sister, now spending her twelfth year in the South of France and returning every Christmas, told her how she noticed the difference almost annually, the anti-social behaviour growing ever bold as West ever insinuated its influence on their increasingly immodest hometown.
Tina headed in the direction of Kamenne namestie, occasionally sidestepping swaying clumps of tipsy strangers, feeling challenge of territory coming from the young women whose beauty was paled by her own, and leering stares from men operating on herd instinct. Shards of a broken bottle littered the path, causing her to watch her well-heeled court shoes, out of season all but for the blessing of climate change. When she levelled with the Old Market, she shivered at the sight of the benches bearing homeless daring sleep there, despite the unusually high temperature.
A police car cruised slowly by as she used the pedestrian crossing to the far side of the square and then again across Spitalska, to where Tesco insinuated its artless bulk upon the town centre. Tina’s husband was a police officer – in fact, a colonel – and she knew better than most the true crime statistics, risks and dangers in Bratislavan life. As far as violent crime was concerned, including sexual assault, the numbers were very low indeed. The only crimes of any real prevalence in the Slovak capital were theft and petty vandalism which usually meant graffitiing.
Tina had never regarded herself as being in any danger walking the city streets, including alone at night, and she welcomed the chance to get some air and collect her thoughts before reaching home. She wasn’t interested in using night transport or a taxi, she wasn’t in a hurry and she preferred walking. There were precious few occasions she could enjoy a walk on her own these days – work and family made their demands in return for their flesh, blood, bricks and mortar security. Tonight at least she had a half hour or so trek ahead of her, and she welcomed it even if her shoes were hardly tailor made for the purpose of travelling any distance on foot.
As she continued along Spitalska, she gave a trio of drunk men a decent berth, despite one of them at least being unable to right himself on his feet and vainly being assisted by his two compatriots, their efforts oiled and greased by a liberal application of nonchalant invective. The breeze picked up, sending yesterday’s news down the street in her direction, which she sidestepped before it snagged against a bed of bushes, flapping like a bird as it struggled for further flight.
Of course, she had no reason to be flippant about her personal safety, and above all else, she had two young children who needed her, they alone were reason enough to exercise a healthy attitude toward self-preservation. The best and worst things in life, she firmly believed, always blindsided us. What we desperately hoped for rarely if ever bore fruit, and likewise what we deeply feared usually proved to be little more than a phantom shadow that never really materialised into a fully-fledged boogeyman. Our finest and worst moments usually presented themselves as a surprise.
A colleague had mentioned to her an incident that had befallen one of her friends, and the news of such a thing happening in her hometown had filled Tina with, above all else, anger at the sheer indignation and cowardice of it.
The incident had occurred when said woman had been waiting for a tram at a stop in the small hours. A cluster of men had come along, drink having given them both its trademark bravado and spinelessness, and they had set about trying to ply the woman with kisses, with her holding them at arm’s length to resist their aggressive advances. After managing to avoid their lips whilst being subjected to their space and peace invading nastiness, they eventually moved off, leaving the poor woman shaken and badly in need of the awaited tram.
But before the vehicle came along, another male, one whom had been standing across the street witnessing the harassment, marched over to take over where the others had left off. This one, maybe capitalising on the lone female’s shock, pushed her back against the tram shelter itself and basically performed an exaggerated version of what the first group had been up to. The tram promptly appeared, likely thwarting further assault, and the woman boarded it, tailed by her attacker. She took a seat while the man remained standing close behind her. As the tram reached her stop, she bounded for the door, the man bounded after her, and she leaped back on at the next door, the doors closing on the stalker.
Tina was frustrated to hear the victim had failed to call the police nor had she called out for assistance to the other passengers on the tram. Of course, she realized how undignified and scared she must have felt, but even to shout out that the guy was hassling or even attempting to steal from her might well have worked in her favour and brought the creep to some form of justice. It also might have prevented or dissuaded him from trying something similar on someone else. But of course, especially where men causing women distress is concerned, she believed in the adage that everyone is a general after the battle and had even modified it to include the notion that everyone is a soldier too, when they themselves are not on the battlefield.
To the left, on the corner with Marianska, a man and woman exited a casino, or slots dive, glancing over at Tina as they did so. They had a furtive calculating look about them; in the instant it took for Tina to notice them she had already surmised there be no good reason to trust the two, and yet they clung to each other as they purposefully strode back toward the centre, maybe co-facilitators as much or more so than partners in crime.
A tram trundled past in the direction she was walking, its confines full enough to ensure half the passengers stood. As she watched it pass, a youth made a diamond shape with his fingers and stuck out his tongue in the middle of it whilst staring at her, a crude representation of cunnilingus. The moment was punctuated by a sharp blast of wind that indicated the temperature had dropped, and she shuddered and pulled her jacket further closed around her.
Tina reached the corner with the entrance to the Medici Gardens, now locked, and continued along 29. augusta, walking alongside the green space’s railings. She was not taking a direct route, not really planning her way much at all, just letting her feet steer her in the direction they saw fit and not putting up an argument. The wind continued to pick up, whistling and jostling what lay in its path, issuing its barren lonely groan as it enveloped the world in its invisible self. Tina continued along, the relative busyness of Spitalska increasingly lost behind her now, knowing she was likely not taking the most prudent of routes or methods of getting herself homeward bound, but throwing caution to the wind on a whim, said wind snatching and making off with said caution the moment she had let it go. While others might be afraid to venture the streets so boldly, she continued to feel little or no fear of anyone that might not bode her well lying in wait anywhere along her path.
Its railings less than a metre to her left, the gardens rustled and whispered, swathed in an impenetrable darkness. Should she so wish, she could tease herself with the notion she was being watched from the other side of the railings’ divide, maybe even tracked as she made her way along. She could even imagine, if she really allowed herself to succumb to imagination’s masochistic wont, an arm shooting out and seizing her or grabbing for her handbag as her heels gave away her whereabouts to anyone in earshot with dark intent.
Tina took the shadowy lane of Polna between the park and St Andrew’s cemetery, daring her nerves as the rapidly increasing cold of the night goosepimpled her overexposed flesh. The ghostly frames of market stalls made ideal concealment for imagined fears. Leaves and debris rustled along with her, desperate to keep pace. Something skittered in her wake, rushing up to her heels, and she found herself turning almost involuntarily to find it was a discarded flier.
The police station plodded past on her left and she became sandwiched between the cemetery and the dog training and play-ground. Trees, undergrowth and breeze colluded in a susurrus of conspiratorial whisperings, plotting and scheming along with her every step.
She gasped and took a step back, recoiling from a pair of luminescent eyes peering over the cemetery wall. A black cat, as still as a statue and almost lost in the engulfing dark, held her in its cold unwavering glare from atop the stone divide. Refusing to think of it as an omen good or bad, Tina purposefully strode to the crossing of Karadzicova.
At this hour, the pedestrian crossing lights were off duty. A few cars rocketed past, flagrantly ignoring the woman waiting at the kerb, save for one leering tooting of a horn. Once on the opposite side of the street, she followed the road northward, past the business blocks and skirting alongside the scrub of wasteground, waiting, like much of the town, all too patiently for its behind schedule development. A couple hurried past in the opposite direction, the telltale emaciated faces, sunken eyes, and wasted fervent forms betraying an IV lifestyle. Junkies, it seemed to Tina, seemed ever in a rush and having business to attend to more urgent than any Wall Street trader.
To the end of Karadzicova where it met a crossroads, Tina’s thoughts went increasingly to her children, by now for sure tucked up in bed and fast asleep. Except possibly for her eldest, whom had begun rising at times during the nocturnal hours, often after wetting his bed. Poor Matej. The first thing she intended to do once she arrived home was to check on them, ensure they were asleep and properly covered up, and lightly kiss their small slumbering heads.
Tina turned into Krizna, heading toward Trnavske myto, the pleasure of the night walk giving way to that of wanting to see and to touch her children. A man shouting himself hoarse at seemingly no-one and nothing had her cross the street to avoid him. She passed a non-stop casino to her left, its neon signage unceasingly attracting addicted gamblers and moths alike. A taxi slowed almost to a halt as it passed, the driver either hoping for a fare or urging her to get off the street and safely on her way.
The shouting man started an erratic path across the street in her loose direction. She was not sure whether or not he had spotted her or, even if he had, had taken the vaguest interest, but she felt the need to get herself out of sight of this bellowing vessel of undirected rage. She deftly took the stairs down to the circular underpass that stretched to each exit of this junction, her heels clacking on the stairs, the acoustics carrying the sound far more than she had intended.
Despite having used the underpass countless times before, Tina could not recall using it in the small hours. It immediately became clear this might not have been her shrewdest piece of navigation on her intended journey home. For, to almost all whom have braved such a short cut at this time of night, it is apparent that a blatant lawlessness pervades here, an underground in the underground.
As Tina made her way toward the exit at Trnavska cesta that would take her up to the entrance to the Central shopping centre, denizens of the underpass peeled away from the peripheries like characters in the graffitied murals magically coming to life. Doubtless the invisibility from street level and the proximity of the casino attracted pushers, addicts, slotheads and smack whores alike. His face a mask of grim determination, a resentful-looking and doubtless prematurely-ageing man pushed a hypodermic into his exposed groin. What appeared to be a couple of emaciated prostitutes were animatedly arguing with what might have been their pimp. A furtive grouping of hooded men and coarse young women looked half-interestedly from their covert huddle. A near toothless gypsy homed in on Tina, begging her for a non-existent cigarette.
Tina’s pace hastened dramatically, as, to her chagrin, did the noise of her heels, echoing around the unsavoury confines that suddenly felt like a bunker cum prison cum coffin. To her rear there came a shrill whistle, and Tina felt certain it was designed as a signal to someone in the direction she was headed. Confirming this, a hostile-looking weasel of a human stepped into her path, ‘Cau, kocko!’ issuing from his tight lips with a serpent hiss. Buoyed by the first, an accomplice brought up his rear, wolf whistling at a pitch that made her ears ring. She jumped, cursing herself at her show of fear, and turned a sharp left, determined to make the stairs that would lead to the exit before the cultural centre, Istropolis.
There is hardly any violent crime in Bratislava, her police colonel husband had assured her. A virtually negligible amount. At least as far as that that went reported was concerned.
But a negligible amount was not the same as none at all. And now she had run herself into what threatened to be a trap, foolishly in her recklessness stumbling upon one of the few places it was prudent to avoid. Dressed in a manner that spoke of material comfort and revealed her knockout looks. As if she had been looking, nay begging, for trouble, she lamely chided herself.
‘Co je, pico!’ translatable as ‘What’s up, cunt!?’ exited the voice box of a female with more menace than almost any man she had ever met. The woman in question was swaggering toward her from her would be escape route. Shit.
Tina considered trying to use her phone, but it was somewhere inside her handbag, itself adding to the magnet she was proving to be for this gathering of lost souls, flocking like carrion. Her heels too provided poor traction; if she broke out into a full scale run, it would surely trigger the instinct to bolt right after her in those in her surroundings, and she needed to keep her balance and appear as unfazed as she could. Then, on the heels of that thought, her mind clutched at the pepper spray in her bag her husband insisted she carry with her. Tina had always regarded this legally bought and sold item on the Slovak market as rather devoid of logic, as if such a weapon could be used for self-defence, what was then preventing it from being used to facilitate a mugging or attack?
Tina decided to turn back the way she had sought to escape; the two men appeared much less of a handful than this banshee from hell. She could hardly believe the switch from relative civilization, a slumbering city, just thirty or so steps above her, to this seedy abandon in which lurked opportunist vermin, a microcosm of miscreants like Victorian London’s fabled fogbound fiends.
Tina approached the male duo with her own determined gait, determined not to break her stride. The men wore faux casually amused looks on their faces – she felt sure they were uncertain of their own next move. She deftly unfastened the clip on the bag, remembering one more item kept there, one more accoutrement she maintained upon her person at the sheer insistence of her police officer husband. She would have to fumble for it, she dared not take her eyes off the two men she attempted to pin with her glare. Their eyes took in her hand’s reaching for something and their street smarts told them to be alert.
Tina’s hand snagged her keychain. As deftly as she was able she pulled it free of her bag, careful not to upset the rest of the contents, then immediately fastened the bag closed again. The two men looked at the keychain blankly, keeping their counsel. A glance behind her told Tina the woman was within a few strides of physical contact. She had to act now.
Pushing a button at one end of the keychain, a powerful LED light shone into the faces of the two men, momentarily blinding them. Then, with a sharp tug, the chain came free of its heavy duty plastic fob and immediately a shrill pulsating cacophony filled the underpass, reverberating decibels that caused all to hold their hands to their ears bar Tina.
As fate would have it, two women came down the steps from ground level, their own ears guarded, curiosity getting the better of them. Tina capitalized on the moment, bolted for the exit, ramming one shoulder hard into one of the menacing male pair and sending him off balance, almost running into the two women freshly arrived, and pumping her legs hard as she sprinted up the steps to Trnavska cesta and relative safety. She left the alarm to caterwaul a moment longer, satisfying herself she was out of visible danger’s way, then quickly deactivated it, running as fast as her heels would allow down the length of the street, listening and looking all along lest one of the thwarted terrorisers, especially the one she had sent spinning off balance, should decide to pursue.
Tina slowed to a fast walk as she drew level with Slovnaft Arena, a building she thought of as a way for perhaps the greatest polluter in the city to popularize their poisoning the population’s bodies. It was now less than five minutes to her door and Tina walked it on autopilot, focusing on the goal of her children. There was no point in reporting what had just happened, or even mentioning it to her husband. Nothing actually had happened, of course. Maybe intent, but that was anything but provable. She knew what attitude her fellow countrypeople were likely to entertain. It was her own stupid fault, they would charitably think.
No-one else bothered her between the arena and her address in Drienova. Well, one guy walked past in the opposite direction, but the look on her face would have persuaded Jack the Ripper to stay the hell away.
Finally, Tina put the key in the lock of her front door, quietly slipped inside, and went to check on her children. First Mirka, with her cute baby snores, clutching her cuddly Krtek. Then to Matej, whom, she was pleased to note, was also sleeping soundly beneath his Transformers duvet.
As she turned to leave his room, she was startled by her husband standing there, thinking he would have been asleep himself by now as his was an early shift in the morning.
‘So late?’ he asked, frowning at her as if detecting her recent upset.
‘Late? I was one of the first to leave the party.’
‘Did something happen to you? You don’t look yourself.’
Tina hesitated, carefully weighing her response.
There is hardly any violent crime in Bratislava. A virtually negligible amount.
‘Nothing happened. I’m fine.’ She quickly dropped her eyes.
At least as far as that that went reported was concerned.
‘Lying bitch.’ The fist hit her abdomen with force enough to double her up, leaving her struggling to catch her breath, foetal on the floor.
As she lay there, she was dimly aware of her husband checking Matej was asleep, then carefully closing his door.
Then returning to his wife. The same way he had done time and time again.
With his fists clenched.
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