A man’s daily quest for purpose found in the unlikeliest of habits.
The Bratislava Intruder is a series of short stories written by Englishman who moved to this Central European city.
Slavo was on a mission. Slavo was on a quest. Slavo had plans, and plans demanded action.
Slavo worked hard, though almost everyone who knew him by sight would readily disagree. Slavo was a creature of habit, a man of routine, regular as clockwork and dependable as the rising of the sun. Well, almost. For Slavo’s putting in his appearance at his places of employment each day was in itself every bit the miracle the dawn is to both the religiously devout and the unshakably atheistic alike. You could set your watch by Slavo, not to mention count your lucky stars.
Slavo’s day began at the Apollo Business Centre, bright and early, and despite his carriage there being his feet, he arrived before a great many of the polished chrome alloy-wheeled cum deskbound had turned up for their morning coffee and tentative first glance at their awaiting e-mails galore.
From Apollo, his next appointment was at Karadzicova and the towering edifices of the CBC and VUB. Banks were important to Slavo and many a time he had acted as an adviser and mentor to those employed at such an establishment, often helping them arrive at the most agreeable decisions of their professional lives.
The shopping centres were high priority too, especially Eurovea, and his engagements took him to the finer hotels in addition to many business establishments before his work was finally over for the day. And then, of course, there were bus stops, so many bus stops, and even the new laws surrounding them did not stop them being the bounty they so often were. Even then, Slavo was an opportunist investor, a man with a nose for fortune and opportunity, and a tireless devotee to making each day pay. He was ever on the lookout for the next chance to come his way.
He was well-recognised as he went about his daily business. Sometimes this recognition even earned him a bonus. A few regulars with a similar habit as him – in one sense, at least – would donate to his cache, others would be so disturbed by what they saw that they would immediately be forthcoming with examples of what he was after, though it never succeeded in stopping him going though all the motions that bought their disgust in the first place. Time to time people might even say something to him like ‘Have you any idea what you could catch from doing that?’ But Slavo reasoned that if he was doing what he was doing then the kind of thing they were warning him about was dwarfed by other dangers and risks.
As he sidled up to the Crowne Plaza, he saw a golden opportunity suddenly present itself and he homed in quick to take full advantage before anyone could thwart his plans. A suited important-looking businessman of one sorry kind or another (Slavo had never noticed a happy-looking one) was engaged in a conversation on his cell phone that was clearly raising his temperature and further spoiling his mood.
Impatiently spitting vexations into the mouthpiece, along with smoke he no longer noticed he was inhaling or exhaling, he exhibited an impatience which all so often served Slavo well. Almost literally stamping his feet, the suit cast his final staccato aspersions, terminated the call, threw the still smouldering half-smoked tab into the free-standing ashtray outside the hotel’s entrance, and stormed into the lobby ready to punch the free market world on the nose.
He did not even catch a peripheral glimpse of Slavo, who might as well have not existed as far as the suit was concerned, but Slavo picked up his spat-spittle-wet half-spent black lung from where it landed and immediately took a long firm drag, checking the brand as he did so. Unbelievable. Gitanes. Strong, French and expensive. This was a real find. Slavo held the smoke in his lungs, its relative strength causing him to hack, and involuntarily coughed the grey-white plumes out into the air.
Managing to regain enough composure to finish the cigarette, he did so in as savouring a manner as he could manage, tasting, inhaling deeply, holding the smoke in his ravaged lungs. But all too soon, as it always was with even the full virginal unstarted offerings he too seldomly came across, the lung dart had burned down to the filter, to become something that actually truly belonged in an ashtray and no good whatsoever to the likes of Slavo anymore. He tossed it onto the ashtray’s holed lid where it disappeared through one of the openings. Then he lifted the lid off the ashtray’s bowl, seeing what it had to offer forth in its fertile environment beneath.
Disappointingly, after a good sift through the lipstick-stained and crumpled remnants of gaspers sitting in clumps of ash, he managed to salvage only two butts with enough meat left on them to be turned into refries. Cursing under his breath, he slid the holed lid back into place just at the moment a managerial looking employee came shambling toward him intimidatingly.
‘Clear off, you’ve been told! I warned you I didn’t want to see you back here again!’
Slavo looked at the pressed-trousered and tailored jacket wrapped cloud of thunder quickly closing the distance between them. Yet he did not flinch or take a step away from the oncoming wannabe evictor. Slavo had not bathed in what must have been a year. The clothes he wore, which were filthy when he found them, had never been washed. His grime-encrusted features and aggressive hum acted as protection, as they often did for the homeless, ensuring the hotelier pulled up short and kept a prudent distance out of fear of contamination, not to mention disgust. ‘Can’t say I ever want to see your face again either,’ he responded, and pocketed his findings as he slouched off under his own steam.
His next port of call was the bus stop at the technicka univerzita. Students were invariably smokers, at least at some point in their academic lives. And students were rebellious enough and determined to impress their peers enough that they disregarded the smoking ban now imposed at bus stops. And when the student’s bus came and he was not done with his cancer stick, what was he supposed to do but toss it onto the ground by where he waited?
After a good rooting around like a sniffer dog picking up scent, Slavo struck gold with a halfie, as well as three butts with long enough stubs to render them worthy of collection.
People might wonder why Slavo did not just ask for cigarettes or beg and scrimp his takings enough to buy a pouch of the cheapest rolling weed he could find. But, although he had been known to err as far as the first method was concerned, begging or buying his smokes were not really his style. For one, plenty refused to give up one of their stogies and this did not make him feel any better about his situation. He preferred the non human engagement method of mining smokers’ oases and feeling the sense of satisfaction and achievement the times he did come up with the goods. Also, Slavo’s history and future prospects were such that he chose to spend as little time as possible thinking about either.
He was a man who lived in the moment in a world obsessed by anything but the present, unless it was fleeting vacuous fads. Slavo needed to keep busy, to focus, to occupy himself as the hunter he was, this was his way of being in the zone, keeping the demons that had been and would come at bay.
As the day wound its way though its cycle, and the workers and shoppers of Bratislava treadmilled their repetitive way through theirs, Slavo’s path took him across the Danube to Aupark, where he took it upon himself to help the staff of McDonalds pick up around the outdoor seating what their diners had left behind. Sitting at one of the tables there, wiping the ketchup smears from their faces and wanting a nicotine fix to destroy what scant vitamins their meal had contained as they washed it down with plastic cups of arabica, Matej and Lenka discovered they only had but one cigarette between them. ‘I’ll go inside to the tabak and buy some fresh ones,’ announced Matej.
As he was doing that, leaving Lenka to sip her coffee and wait in the sunshine, she spotted Slavo with a small handful of part-smoked cigarette ends in one grimy hand. As she continued her morbid appraisal, she saw him spy another, smile to himself, then deposit the saliva-dampened, semi-smoked fag ends he had picked up off the ground in his filthy jacket pocket. She half expected him to come over and ask her for a whole smoke or some spare coins, but he disappeared in the direction of the park, possibly to smoke the bounty he had just found.
Matej returned, fresh from having handed over his money to Philip Morris, a regular sponsor of the tobacco giant and the untold death and suffering they caused every day. As he reclaimed his seat, he noticed a shiver pass down Lenka’s spine.
‘You are cold?’ he asked, incredulously.
‘No, no. It’s just that I saw this guy.’
‘What guy?’ asked Matej, as he handed Lenka a Marlboro which she promptly put in her mouth.
‘A guy picking up cigarette ends off the ground,’ she spoke around the cigarette.
Matej leaned forward and gave her a light.
’And then he put them in his pocket.’
Matej lit his own Marlboro. ‘In his pocket?’ he asked. He took a swallow of coffee, leaned his head back, and exhaled a white lingering cloud. ‘Man,’ he said, ‘some people are disgusting.’