Two friends take a day trip together through the south of Slovakia, quite sure as to where they are going but increasingly perplexed as to the when.
The Bratislava Intruder is a series of short stories written by an Englishman who lives in this Central European city.
I can remember leaving Bratislava, after the train delay was over, after the carriages had emptied and filled up again, the whistle had blown, the steam had billowed, the wheels had slowly begun to turn, the station eventually crawled out of sight, the speed picked up, the cityscape opened up like a map to our right, and finally bid us goodbye with the all too concrete promise to return, to our temporary homes and our temporary jobs and our fleeting fill of crowns in the hand.
But that now seems so long ago. Our beards have grown, the grey has multiplied, and creases deepened since then. Wisdom was scheduled to have settled within us bit by bit as well. Although if it did, I’m not so sure it brought with it the feeling of something gained.
We set off early enough one Saturday morn, Adam and I, forcing ourselves from our beds despite our weary bodies insistently nagging us to let them lie in longer. It was the only way to do it, based on our experience. We had tried to go with our female halves with mixed degrees of success and stress. Punctuality was something half this country seemed to be hip to, and the other half flagrantly ignored. It really did seem a 50/50 split. And you can guess which fifty we were grouped in, and which fifty our partners were grouped in too. So it was either put the ball in the court of the tardy, for it is of course they who always have the final say, or risk demonisation by being virtuous, respectful and responsible enough a callous bastard that you are off on your journey at the agreed upon time.
Soon, or at a reliable hour according to mathematical calculations, we were at Šaľa, the time of our arrival as delayed as our departure from the capital had been. We did not have high hopes of finding the eighth wonder of the world was here, but we both had a healthy enough interest in exploration of the, to us, new.
‘I got a couple of funny looks when I mentioned we would be going to Šaľa this weekend,’ I said to Adam. ‘The general reaction seemed to be ‘’Whatever for???’’ including, predictably enough, from people who had never actually set foot in the town.’
‘Yeah, it’s a funny place in that regard. People tend to be a bit down on the country when it comes to travelling within its borders. It’s like they give the thumbs up to their hometown and the High Tatras – or the part of it that falls inside the Slovak border – and that is about it. They can actually be quite discouraging to people like us, wanting to chart the place and find out what its different corners look and feel like. I heard someone say when I went to Dunajska Streda that they would not even think of going there. I asked them ‘’And have you ever been there?’’, they said ‘’No, but I think I know ‘my own country’ well enough to know it’s not worth visiting.’’.’
‘And was it worth visiting?’
‘But that’s beside the point. All the towns and places they are not proud of are also parts of ‘’their’’ country every bit as much as the places that are.’
We had reached the main stretch that runs through the town. It seemed it was under reconstruction. The road was for the most part out of bounds to traffic, wheeled and foot, and presently largely consisted of fenced off dug up rubble. It was not a film set, it was not prepared for a televised historical documentary, it was not the kind of imagery you expect to see on postcards. But it was also reality, its warts preparing for a fresh covering of cosmetic norm.
‘This is actually a pretty old town. It dates back to the year 1002.’
‘Wow. Can’t see much in the way of buildings having survived that long though.’
‘No, indeed. However, looking at these shopfronts, looking at the condition of the buildings, looking at the clothing on display, both in the fashion boutiques and on the backs of the pedestrians, it reminds me very much of Czechoslovakia in the early nineties, when we first arrived.’
‘A few years after the…um…’’Velvet Revolution’’, yes. No mobile phones, almost no westerners apart from us, a simpler and slower life….’
‘And 6Kcs a beer.’
‘Oh, those halcyon days.’
‘It must be nearly lunchtime now, surely. Let’s see…Just gone eleven.’
‘Suits me and my tummy just fine.’
‘Well, it looks like we’ve just arrived at the Hotel Central. Try this out for size?’
‘What could possibly be better?’
We entered, and were greeted by the sight of a poker-faced receptionist. ‘Hi. Is your restaurant open?’
We were informed it was and trekked through another door, a glass-paned section of wall treating us to the sight of wooden carvings of African animals as we did so. We had absolutely no clue as to why, but why on earth not?
The spacious rectangular saloon looked like it belonged just where it was located geographically and was given further suitability by its charmingly yester-regime appeal. It was clean and yet tired, bright and yet shabby, modern enough for the town and yet anchored in a bygone age. It looked like a time traveler wearing its best and surviving wardrobe and with cobwebs removed and Wi-Fi hurried in. It was just the ticket and exactly what we had been hoping for.
The waitress came obediently to our table, fractionally shy and uncertain at the presence of obvious foreigners. She wore a black-and-white uniform, a sallow complexion, and subtle appeal. We ordered our wine, water and coffee, and perused the menu. By the time the drinks were brought to our table, we had our meals ready to roll off our tongues in our finest accented attempts at the Slovak tongue.
‘We have to get ourselves to Košice one of these weekends. Apparently it’s doable in five hours from the capital.’
‘Absolutely. People tend not to go there because they say it is so far and yet it’s only an hour farther than the train to Prague.’
‘Yeah. It’s funny how people judge distance according to the size of the country they come from. I guess five hours in Canada is about the driving distance of, say, a shopping trip?’
‘Yeah. To buy a taco.’
It was time for a chuckle, followed by a swallow.
‘This place really takes me back. Back to when a Kcs7,000 salary meant you could dine on steak on an almost nightly basis.’
‘And when being a native English speaker was like being in The Rolling Stones.’
‘Instead of being a snagged tumbleweed whose opportunities and chances breezed steadily past.’
‘What I would say, though, is that when I meet people I’ve known who are the same age as us, who’ve concentrated on building themselves a secure future in bricks and mortar and investments, they look about twenty years older than we do half the time.’
‘I know what you mean. I was wondering, as we all do, how I would have lived my life differently if it could start all over again, but then I think of all the colour and adventure and laughs and experience that went into living for the day, and I wonder if I really would have been any richer, if I would have had the same stories to tell my daughter as I do now, if I wouldn’t have become a grey bore with a roof over their heads until the premature end but unable to buy a personality with all the pennies I’d methodically stashed away.’
‘Haha. Could easily be interpreted as sour grapes. I guess we’ll never know. We can only make the most of the time we have and the history we’ve been party to.’
‘Amen to that. One thing I am glad of, one positive legacy of our calendar age, is our reluctance to sour our physical meetings with the thief of time that is the cursed mobile phone.’
‘I’m with you there. Nothing like being in the here and now with the present and correct. Mind you, I guess I’d better send the missus an appeasing text, come to think of it. Let her know we’re here and safe.’
‘And I’ll take that cue to do the self same thing.’
Some short while after, we were tucking into our heavy fayre, then digging into our pockets, then taking ourselves back out onto the streets, then heading for the train station again, then waiting out the delay, then tramping the streets of our next stop on the way back to the capital – the Danubian Lowland dwelling of Galanta.
‘So, any idea which way?’ I asked Adam.
‘I guess this looks like main street. Let’s take ourselves along its length.’
We did so, and although it was a Saturday afternoon, everything was closed, giving it a Sunday feel, as places with religious observance enough to both honour and start the Sabbath early tend to. It was another trip down memory lane for us, another renaissance tingle, an aftertaste of a flavour of a long lost just past past.
‘Certainly takes you back, doesn’t it?’
‘Oh, yes. Mind you, you know what they say?’
‘Nostalgia’s not what it used to be.’
We came to the Gothic castle, apparently once an Esterhazy residence, now not even home to squatters bar the four-legged or two-winged kind. We circled the grounds, taking it in turns to snap each other looking up at its crumbling – though characteristically crumbling – tower, and posing before its ruinous – though atmospherically ruinous – wings. Job and duty done, we headed down the stretch of Esterhazyovcov, in the direction of a ghost of a legend of a shopping mall. The temperature had dropped, as had the alcohol and caffeine levels in the blood. We could do with a roof over our heads and a vessel in the hands for the length of a decent sup.
Finally abandoning this particular direction as a wild goose chase, we veered off to the left and ventured back between rows of panelaky toward the centre again. It was here that we made what was, for us, the most gratifying discovery in the overall design of the town.
Through a gap in a fence we entered what appeared to be a spacious abandoned lot, part cracked and crumbling concrete, part unkempt grass, behind which loomed possibly the most imposing and overbearing tower block we had ever had the good fortune to see. With floors enough to prove a serious challenge to fit within the frame of the camera lens, and being god knows how many times as wide as it was tall, its peeling panels and war-wounded façade both chilled us more than the cold and warmed up our curiosity to further explore. Some of what would have been private balconies, were the building to function as purely residential, had bars where there would have been open space, turning them into cages.
As we got closer, looking up in something like morbid awe, so we noticed faces looking down at us, some smoking, some seemingly gibbering, some simply staring blankly back, all of them belonging to the dressing gown clad. We put it together just as we came to the sign announcing it to be a hospital of one or the other sort. The place would make a perfect location shot for a scene of a Dystopian future, a horror movie mental hospital, or the cover poster for Hostel IV.
‘It’s so grim, it’s beautiful,’ I simply had to state.
‘You’re telling me. Let’s check out those things over there.’
We moved over to where four not quite uniform structures stood waiting, maybe standing as some kind of guardians according to some strain of arcane symbolism in some branch of obscure occultist lore.
‘What. The. Hell. Are. Those?’
‘I haven’t got the faintest idea,’ said Adam. ‘But they’re going up on facebook, whatever on earth they are.’ He started snapping away, about the only thing a person with a camera would be able to do.
They started up from the ground as pillars, though were not arranged in a straight line. The pillars were vertically grooved, as if ribbed. They then branched out in conical fashion, part fungal, part floral, all bizarre. There were square shapes coating the exterior of these cones, and the upper lips were serrated, a curious mix of the organic and synthetic in design. At the corner of each square sat a tubelike protrusion , each with an aperture at its end, as if dozens of bug eyes for the staring, or teats for the suckling. They were grey weathered concrete and irregular in height, seemingly functionless oddities many times our size. Quite what their architect was thinking or how he got permission to construct them, well…I, for one, wanted to clap him on the back and buy him a jar.
We ventured to the edge of the grounds and stumbled upon some disused outbuildings, which had otherwise been put to use as domains for the homeless and storage for filthy junk. It was difficult to imagine a human being could sleep there, but the evidence suggested that at some point recently someone had. ‘Somebody’s fallen on hard times,’ I grimly observed.
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‘Indeed they have. Let’s hope we don’t go out the same way ourselves. Funny how people scorn the homeless as if they were criminals, when they fell into a hole which, for most of us, is not such a deep distance to drop.’
We came away from the makeshift homeless shelter and back through another hole in a fence that took us back out onto another street’s more solid ground. Just as we were through, a police car came idling alongside us, crawling along in close observation, the two occupants doubtless desperate in their desire to serve and protect. They gave us a thorough going over with their eyes, convinced themselves we were not homeless or gypsies or Islamic State, and sped off elsewhere to do their bit for the common good.
‘Well, have we seen enough of this place? I reckon we can squeeze in one more town on the way back home, what do you reckon?’
‘I’m with you there, bud.’
Back on the train, this time on time, Adam showed me the slideshow of snaps we had taken from our trip the weekend before. To Zilina we had been, and both been impressed. For me, it was my favourite city I had seen in the country thus far. Unsurprisingly, this observation met with a lukewarm reception from Slovaks, presumably as neither of us knew anyone among our social circles who hailed from the town itself. The general response was a shrug of the shoulders, comments like ‘‘It’s OK, I guess, a bit small’’ (as if that counted as a comment), and the customary and unimaginative ‘’What can you do there?’’, as if the orator’s preferred hangout was a place of unparalleled opportunities taken advantage of at every turn.
‘Funny how when I criticize something, it can easily attract a sour expression, and the times I have something complimentary to say about something, it can easily attract the same reaction as well.’
‘That’s because you don’t spit at the mention of gypsies, obsess over money, or get a boner over hockey and halusky.’ We both laughed at this, probably private, joke.
‘This is where we journeyed back in time to Čičmany.’ He was scrolling through the dozens of shots we had taken of the folk architecture reserve lived-in village. Here was one of the pair of us stood in front of one of the distinctive timbered houses with the specific white patterns of birds, snowflakes, diamonds and hearts. It looked like a fairy tale cottage, almost as if it were made of gingerbread as well.
‘When you see one of them, the houses look impressive. When you see a hundred looking all but exactly the same, it becomes another sidlisko, like Petrzalka panelaky.’
‘I know what you mean. Hey, looks like we’ve arrived.’
And thus it was Sladkovičovo became the final stepping stone back on the way to our Petrzalka panelaky and far from gingerbread homes.
‘Hmmm…Which way’s the action, d’you think?’ I enquired aloud, as we exited the station along with two others who looked like they knew where they were going and what they were doing.
Adam shrugged. ‘This way?’ It was a road, a path, a way. As good as any other, we figured.
As we walked along, squinting through sunglasses at the afternoon sun’s glare and at the same time trying to ignore the nip in the air, I wondered of a sudden what time it could be. I looked at my phone to check. ‘I can’t believe it,’ I said. ‘Not even three yet. Were we to have been in Bratislava, it would be half past Sunday by now at least.’
‘It does seem to be ticking by slowly, and we’ve squeezed in a reasonable amount so far.’
‘I’ve noticed this time and again. Don’t you think that the passage of time seems to bend in accordance with the size of the place you’re in? I mean, in a capital it always flies past like lightning on the lam. If you spend it in a chata in a village in the middle of nowhere, suddenly your weekend has expanded to the length of two. You must have noticed.’
‘I have. Any sensitive person would have experienced the same. There is also the case that if you’re a night owl, like us, once you pass midnight the rest of the night flows through the hourglass like a bullet.’
As if in agreement, or argument, or simple boredom, dogs to either side of us, peering through garden gates, started barking and yapping and letting us know whose territory we were in. Almost immediately, the dogs of the neighbouring houses followed suit, and thus there began the domino effect. By the time we had reached the street’s end, every canine along its stretch had given us, and the residents, a dutiful earful and gruff warning. Our passage was being mapped by the divisible-by-four-legged version of GPS.
‘Talking of memory, ‘ I said, talking being a habit of mine every bit as pointless as the needless barking of dogs, ‘which is our map of our pasts and measure of time, isn’t it peculiar how the imagined chronology of memories is sometimes at loggerheads with when the remembered events actually occurred?’
‘You mean like you remember something from a decade ago as if it were a far fresher experience than something that occurred half that far back?’
‘Exactly. I used to privately pride myself on the reliability of my memory. I think it was my mother that inspired me in that way.’
‘How did she do that?’
‘By having exactly the opposite kind of memory to the one I wanted to have. She would, for example, mention she had seen a film just the evening before. You would ask her what it was called and she would not have a clue. You asked her who was in it and she would assure you it was someone famous, though upon questioning further, as to whether they were American, British, young, old, alive or dead, was anyone’s guess. Finally you would ask her what this great film was about.’
‘And what did she say to that?’
‘She would say, ‘’I don’t know. But it was really, really good.’’.’
‘Ha. Well, men’s memories tend to work differently to women’s anyway.’
‘How do you figure that?’ I asked.
‘Well, men’s memories tend to be encyclopedic. It has nothing to do with intelligence, education, class, upbringing. Every man is an expert at something with detailed knowledge. It might be Russian history, it might be Manchester United, it might be Harley Davidsons. They will have the details and stats and minutiae in their head, ready to impress the similarly enthused, or bore everyone else to death.’
‘Right, and women tend to see that as men vainly preening their egos and ignoring what really counts in life, yeah?’
‘Oh, we’re on the same track, yet, yet again.’
‘Yeah, anyway, as I was saying, I used to pride myself on my memory. For example, I could watch a film once, then see it again three years later, and tell you word for word what each character’s line of dialogue would be before they said it.’
‘That kind of memory didn’t always make you popular, I bet.’
‘Indeed it didn’t. Especially when it came to lovers’ tiffs. How people like to filter and selectively remember in that particular arena. Anyway, the point is, these days I feel it fragmenting, the cohesion is not what it was, the synapses just don’t seem to want to co-operate the way they always used to love to.’
‘Having difficulty with the names, titles and dates?’
‘You got it.’
‘Welcome to the club. I guess we just got to keep our minds as active as possible, treat them like muscles, keep reading and studying and being creative. Leave out that stuff in lieu of something more ‘important’ or ‘urgent’, the brain literally shrinks.’
We had reached the main thoroughfare through the town. We set off in one direction, not sure what we were looking for, not sure what there was to be found. The conversation took a lull and we surrendered the need to keep the thread of it going, instead just being at one with our own private thoughts, letting them pinwheel as they saw fit or be as dormant as they liked. It was a meditative, quiet, soothing stroll, however uninspiring the scenery and however vacant the street.
We reached the mutual conclusion that we had gone as far as we intended in one direction without anything particularly rock ‘n’ roll happening, so we thought we would turn tail, on the opposing sidewalk for at least a vague shift in perspective. There was no pressure on us to return at any appointed time, we had both the blessings and curses of unmarried existence and unshared abodes.
The only other life we saw of the human kind was a couple of women waiting at a bus stop, bar the cars that seemed, like us, to be passing through. Feeling we had exhausted the fill of the high life Sladkovicovo had to offer, or at least as much as we could handle for one lifetime, we mutually agreed on finding our way back to the train station and the next train back to Blava.
Find the station we did once more, dogs faithfully fanfaring our return journey back up the road of its approach. There was no-one else in the building or on the platform, not a traveller or employee to be seen. There was no computerised timetable on display here, just a few drum timetables that could be rotated by hand to tell one what the schedule was, though neither of us had ever managed to learn quite how these outdated devices worked. The ticket window was closed and a curtain pulled down over its window. It was time to consult Adam’s smartphone once again.
‘Fifty minutes is the next train,’ he informed me, just a hint of scepticism in his voice. The online timetables did not always marry exactly with the arrival and departure times, in our experience. The blessing and the curse of technology.
‘Well, we can’t buy a ticket here. Fifty minutes is a long time to wait in this place. It’s a tad nippy outside, but doable.’ We were glad at that moment we had not taken our Slovak girlfriends with us, for the distance we had today covered on foot and the temperature outdoors would not, we felt quite certain, be ‘doable’ at all.
‘There’s a pub just there,’ remarked Adam. ‘One more vino and kava for the road?’
‘I definitely think that’s doable too.’
‘I could use the john too.’
We found the door to the toilet was locked, a sign informing us it was necessary to ask at the bar for the key. The toilets were located in the entranceway, separated from the pub’s lounge, and by this time we had attracted the looks of the half-dozen or so men sat drinking inside. Each and every one had a provincial ‘lived in’ look about their bodies. Each and every one was holding a smouldering cigarette, the wisps of smoke the only thing moving in their tableau staring back.
‘I don’t fancy that,’ said Adam. ‘It’s a smokehouse. We spend half an hour in there and our clothes and hair will stink.’
‘Yeah, that is a shame. So…?’
‘Let’s just sit it out on the platform benches.’
‘Yeah. Why not?’
We scuttled back over to the station, leaving the wizened locals to return to their drinks and smokes in peace. We checked the ticket window again. ‘Sometimes they only open these up ten or so minutes before the train comes in smaller places,’ Adam informed me. But still no-one was there. We half-wondered if anyone ever was.
‘How much longer now?’ I asked. I had not checked the time when he had announced it was a fifty-minute wait.
‘Forty-eight minutes,’ he informed me with a frown.
‘What?? Only two minutes have passed?’
Adam seemed to be checking his phone was not on the blink. ‘Seems that way, yes.’
‘Talk about time seeming to slow down the smaller the place you are in.’
We sat ourselves down, pulling our too-light-for-the-day jackets tighter around us. We began busying ourselves with our phones, checking and writing and deleting messages. We were going to need to pass the time.
After clearing near on fifty SMSs from my gloriously dated Samsung’s clogged memory, I glanced up from the screen, taking in the existence of a clock hanging from a chain from the station roof. The time it told was 15:41.
‘What time did you say the train was?’
Adam did yet another check of the info online. ’16:15,’ he informed me.
‘Oh dear. Looks like they ought to get that fixed,’ I noted, nodding at the clock hanging above our heads.
‘Actually, it’s the correct time.’
‘What?’ I jumped up off the bench and looked around about me, as if checking I were not in a dream.
‘I know. It’s weird, isn’t it?’
I approached the clock, standing as close to its indifferent face as I could. I strained to hear some ticking but there was none to be heard. I announced I was going to check the ticket window again, then returned a minute later to announce we were still the only people there, so it seemed. I took a long look along both stretches of track. ‘Man, this place is dead.’
‘Let’s hope the train comes before we are too.’
All that happened hours ago, I tell you. Hours ago. I have been so bored, I wrestled a notepad and pen from my rucksack and this is what I have scribbled down of my memoirs so far. I am amazed I have managed to write so much because writing longhand is a long, almost forgotten, art for me now. I am not sure what time it is now, both Adam’s and my phones’ batteries have died. Funny how they both died around the same time. The clock, it appears, must have been broken after all, for it does not appear to have moved since we last read its hands.
The ticket window is still not open. I keep going and checking. There’s still seemingly no-one else here but us.
I’ve noticed some liver spots on the backs of my hands. I never noticed them before. Strange.
The poplar blossom must be in the air. It seems to have got tangled up in Adam’s hair. It looks funny, almost as if he’s got cobwebs there.
I suppose our girlfriends must be missing us. They might even be worried by now. I miss… Jesus, who do I miss? Jesus, what’s her name??
I’d better check on Adam. He’s fallen asleep on the bench over there. He hasn’t said anything or moved a muscle since god knows when.
I’m tired. The clock is still broken. Of course, it’s not going to mend itself.
I just took another look up the tracks. Still nothing coming.
God, my head feels heavy. And I can hardly even lift this pen any more.
Never mind. Time stops for no-one so they say. So it won’t be long now.
It won’t be long now.
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