Still in Slovakia
3 years before departure
The Eighties – from the High School to University leaving Bratislava behind
“We are very lucky to live in our great Communist country, where there is nothing…shit everywhere,” shouted George and kicked a huge tin bin overflowing with rubbish in front of his rundown block of flat, where he lived with his aged Mum.
A group of stray’s dogs watched him angrily from the safe distance covered by the blanket of darkness.
“Stop that nonsense, it’s over midnight,” I pulled his sleeve: “Anyway I am not scared,” I pointed towards the silent road: “the tram stop is just around the corner…”
George laughed and put an arm protectively around my shoulders: “No way, look its pitch dark and not a soul around.”
I shook his arm off: “I don’t need your protection, only thing, I need from you is to prepare me for my final Math’s test, but every time we end up on your bed …”
George pretended to play guitar: “I thought you like listening to jazz, did I tell you I am playing now in UNI Club; you have to come to see me…”
I rolled my eyes: “You told me already, but I am not UNI student, they don’t let me in and I will never be because of YOU,” I pointed my finger on his chest and ran away until I reached the deserted and dark tram station. I hid in a corner of a tiny shelter.
Soon George’s bulky and tall figure loomed over me: “When you went with Alex to UNI discos you’ve been what… in the first year of High School?”
I pushed him away: “Alex’s times are over; I just pretended to be UNI student, now I want to be real one.”
“Stop being so difficult, Bibi, I study Math’s at UNI, but I am not a teacher,” he gently touched my hair: “Numbers are just not your strong point but something else is.” He kissed me.
Suddenly an empty light up tram whizzed around us in high speed.
“The last tram today,” I ran out of the shelter and looked behind the disappearing tram:
“What am I going to do?”
“There is only thing we can do,” George bravely started to walk along the long empty road.
I rushed after him suddenly shivering from cold: “Are you crazy, it takes us hours.”
He looked up at the cloudy dark sky with few stars and pulled up the beanie down on his eyes: “Not the most romantic night but it will do, we stop by in a pub on the way and buy something to warm us up on our long journey, we will be okay.” He took my hand and started to sing some of his favorite jazz melodies.
I squeezed his hand tightly suddenly grateful that he is around.
Mary got us together seeing my desperation to improve in Math’s after I dropped from the English on the last minute. Mr. Kustral was kicked out of our school. Renata’s Father apparently complained of his inappropriate behavior towards his daughter. I saw him leaving and he looked at me with the sad eyes of an abandoned puppy that missed his treat but I just averted my eyes. I met him years later when he moved across the street I lived. Early grayed he moved with a caution of a man who doesn’t know right from wrong any more. He never taught again. He waved at me and I ignored him. There was nothing else to talk about.
We stopped in closing in pub with George and bought a bottle of the cheap rum, which we managed to finish before we get to the Danube promenade. City lights dimly reflected on the river’s muddy surface. Suddenly we felt warm and cheerful and we danced all the way down the path lined up with tall trees.
There were few drunkards sleeping on nearby benches and they swore at us. We kept running away from them laughing confident in our youth and strength.
“You know what would I really like to do?” George stopped me and we kissed again: “To be a gynecologist that would be awesome, to see all these women private parts and be paid for it.”
I pulled away from him disgusted: “You are sicko, George, let me be…”
He laughed and took another gulp of alcohol before passing it to me: “Don’t worry, I will be a successful jazz player somewhere in Louisiana, we ran away together and live in open relationship what do you think?”
I took the bottle from his hands: “I am not your girlfriend George, you forgot, you just helping me with Math’s.”
George waved his hand: “Fine, just come for that Sunday lunch my Mum invited you, she is so happy I have finally normal girlfriend, don’t spoil her day.”
“First Mum which likes me,” I added bitterly: “Fine, I’ll be there, but,” I stood in front of him in a threatening pose: “You put your act together and explain me those horrible sums, otherwise…”
He picked me up and put over his shoulder whirling me around: “Otherwise what?”
I shouted at him to let me go and punched him on his back with my fists. He skipped and landed on the grass on the edge of the path. We pretended to wrestle and then he started to kiss me. A faint sound of guitar and gentle singing reached us from the ruin of nearby castle remnants.
“It’s Mary’s catholic youth group, they are meeting secretly somewhere here,” I whispered and waved at him to get of me. We moved towards the sound in the dark parts of alley and found a group of youngsters sitting around a small fire singing about Jesus the rock star. Two seriously looking guitarists with long hairs covering their eyes played a nice catchy tune. Suddenly Mary jumped in front of us and hugged me tightly:
“So you like George after all.” She winked at George who handed her our nearly empty bottle: “We don’t drink here, Georgy, sorry.”
I shrugged: “I need him, that’s for sure.” I moved inside the circle and sat next to her:
Mary looked at me seriously: “My Father just came back from Rome, Pope finances catholic uprising in Poland, when it will happen, we will be ready…”
George pushed in and sat between us: “Ready for what?”
Mary put her hand over his mouth: “You are just too loud.”
“Yes, he is,” I nodded suddenly annoyed with him and his boisterous behavior and then turned back to Mary: “It is dangerous, Mary.”
Mary touched her cross and looked at me victoriously: “My Mum protects me from above,” she looked above on the ruined ceiling: “Just yesterday police found our hideout and they chased us out..”
“Secret Unit?” George suddenly blurred out: “I am out of here, need to finish UNI, sorry.” He shook his head and looked at me.
I shook my head disapprovingly at him: “Don’t be woos, George,” then I turned back to Mary: “What’s happened next, did they catch you and took to police station?”
“Most of them they did, but I just ran and got to this dark alley, you know I wanted to hide but then I changed my mind and soon after a broken bottle threw out of there and some swearing and…”
Guitarists started to pack up and nodded at Mary. She turned us: “Sorry guys, we pack up for tonight, but we are prepared for the biggest protestation ever, on Sunday on the main square, you have to join us.”
George stood up and wave at me to leave: “More important meeting to attend to, my Mum’s lunch, do we Bibi?”
I sighed and kissed Mary on her cheek: “See you at school.”
We walked to my block of flats silently. Somehow we sobered up. It was early morning when we climbed the grey dirty staircase to the third floor and rang the bell. My stepfather opened after a little while. He gave me a disapproving look: “It is late, don’t you think so, this is not a hotel,” then noticing George behind he added with disgust: “Not a brothel either.”
George stepped bravely in front of me: “Sorry Mister, hang on, that is not what you think, and I am Bibi’s tutor in Math’s you know…”
My stepfather stepped out of the door and pushed George towards the stairs: “Tutor he, just like all others, get out of here or I call police.”
George took three steps down and was gone. My stepfather went inside without looking at me and before he managed to close the door behind him I squeezed in.
“He is not my lover, I am not like my MUM,” the last word I spitted into his face and he hit me on my face, hard.
“Sooner you are out of here, better.” He said without looking at me and opened the door on their bedroom.
I followed him holding my cheek. I saw that my Mum’s side of bed was not slept in. She was not at home. Again. I talked to him through my clenched teeth: “I am working on it but I don’t get to UNI with my Father’s dissident background…”
“It is not my problem, anyway my friend from the Secret Police knows about your connection with Mary, you can forget about UNI.”
I looked at him in horror: “I don’t want to end up making coffees for some old communist; I am going to Nitra to study…”
He looked me up and down with a pitiful expression on his face: “Study what, without me you wouldn’t be even on High School.”
I got hold of his arm with a pleading expression: “Whatever is there to study, just not maths or science please, you have contacts…”
He shook off my arm as it was a piece of dirt: “Oh, madam is begging now.”
“You will get rid of me, for good.” I said firmly.
He went inside his bedroom and shut the door in my face: “Stop associating with Mary.”
My eyes filled with tears: “She is in the same class, I can’t avoid her.” I added in shaky voice, but I knew what he meant. The schools finishes in three weeks and there would be no need to meet her after that.
“Okay, I stop, do you hear me, and I stop, if you help me get out of here.” I banged his door with my palms until I got tired. I sat on the floor in front of his door in dark and hated myself for betraying Mary, for becoming someone I didn’t want to be.
It was last day of school before the final exam break. The morning sun tickled me on the cheek when I stretched on the wet school lawn still covered by mildew. The dark school building loomed large and formidable in front of me. I was light headed and somehow full of happiness and laughter.
“One more of these and a gulp of alcohol and you forget about this miserable shit of world we live in,” Emily yawned sleepily next to me and handed me another of her magic tablets. I swallowed it without thinking and drank some white cheap alcohol from the disgusting bottle she passed to me.
“We mixed it just yesterday, it works wonders, I feel like in heaven,” She smiled at me lazily and barely opened her misty eyes: “We are meeting now next to your block of flats in one of the under flats storage rooms. Pity we are running out of tablets.”
The surrounding rose bushes and a path to the main gate swam in front of my eyes. The school building suddenly shined with all colors of rainbow. I giggled happily: “What tablets?”
I heard Emily’s voice coming from a great distance although she sat right next to me: “The one you just had, any with a red triangle on the box, you know antidepressants…”
I giggled again for no reason: “My Mum had a full draw of them, my stepfather’s doctor prescribes it for her all the time, and I don’t why…”
Emily suddenly sat down: “You should pinch some for us; I bet they would not even notice.”
“Whatever,” I managed to reply, my tongue suddenly very heavy in my mouth: “Looks that’s funny,” I giggled crazily and pointed on students’ heads in every window laughing and pointed at us. Soon a shade of principal bulky figure loomed over me and we have been led not very gently to his office. We didn’t dare to protest even in our drunk state.
Once released, we left the school and hoped on the tram to take us home. The tram was unusually empty in these early days’ hours and we luxuriously occupied four seats at the back.
“Why I was so stupid to join you on this lawn,” I sobbed suddenly sober: “Now he will talk to my stepfather and maybe not even let me pass the finals.”
Emily shook her head disapprovingly: “Don’t be silly, our principal is scared of our communist stepfathers and they will do everything to hush, hush this incident,” she stretched confidently over two plastic seats: “At least we have a whole day for ourselves, maybe we find my mate and get a good mix…”
I clutched my stomach suddenly feeling very sick: “I don’t touch this stuff again, Emily.”
Emily shrugged her shoulders: “Whatever, but you bring those tablets tonight, you promised.”
In the evening I took some of the tiny boxes with a bright red triangle on its cover and went to Emily’s hideaway just across the street. I opened the door on the rundown block of flat with broken front door and went down the dark staircase which led to basement.
Few big rats scattered around in the dark. I quickly found the small door at the end and knocked in panic. Someone peered through the tiny crack. I just handed him the boxes and ran out as fast as I could.
I started to study for my exams and decided to leave my unpleasant experience behind, when one evening when I came back from the Math’s tutoring I found police in our flats. Stepfather was pacing up and down the living room, which was in total disarray.
The seriously looking policeman standing next to the open empty draw, where the Mum’s antidepressants used to be asked me: “Do you know something about this?”
I shook my head resolutely. When they left, I helped my stepfather to clean the mess and I said to him: “I gave Emily some of these tablets, I am sorry..”
He looked at me like I was a piece of dirt: “I knew it, what else I could expect of you.”
I suddenly chocked with guilt and embarrassment: “I promise I will never see her again.”
He waved his hand: “I need to change the lock but don’t expect me to give you a key.”
I got hold of his sleeve again: “I don’t want your keys; I want to go to Nitra.”
He sighed with a resignation in his voice: “I talked with a head of Russian University in Nitra on our last Communist meeting.”
I patted his sleeve: “Thank you.”
He shook my hand: “You have to pass your finals and pass the most of entry exams. He checks your results, what you will excel in he enrolls you in.”
“What I have to study for entry exams?”
He shrugged his shoulders: “I don’t know, everything I assume, Russians are good at sport, so expect some races and gymnastics, and also math’s, science…”
“I never pass math’s, not to talk about gymnastics.”
He continued, ignoring my remark: “Russian and Slovak languages and art as well, now it is up to you, don’t bother me with it again,” he turned to leave but added pointing his finger seriously at me:
“The Communist ideology you have to know from back to front because of that shameful act of Father of yours, you know?”
I nodded solemnly.
He left, banging the entry door angrily behind him and I finished cleaning up.
It was just like Emily predicted.
She got through the exam blurting out barely recognizable sentences about our great progress through collectivization, socialization and cooperation with Mother Russia. When the educational committee announced that Emily passed, she did not miss the opportunity to shout abuses at them: ” I knew it, you are with my bullshit, I am just too precious for that bore…that stepfather of mine…especially in bed…”
Short after she was sent to a Mental Institution by her stepfather to cure her mental instability.
Mary, the brightest from us and the only one really prepared for the finals was not allowed to finish High School. Her Father ended up in prison and she
was sent to the countryside to work as a labourer in the local food cooperative because she was branded a class enemy, who sabotaged the idea of building socialism.
Somehow I managed to get through the finals with mostly Bs.
I refused to attend the High School Ball. Mary and Emily were not be there. At the night of the ball I was writing a ‘Farewell poem’ for Mary and Emily on our kitchen table when my Stepfather entered
carrying a bag full of homemade sausages and wursts.
He was surprisingly cheerful and put a long stick of Hungarian salami, hunted after delicacy in Bratislava, in front of my nose: ” Smell, you see, everyone needs me, as a Communist leader I am irreplacable, each member of working class competes with each other to give me gifts, because without me,” he patted proudly his chest: “They can’t do anything, even think…”
I pushed the salami away and continued in my writing.
He stood there looking at my tears rolling down my cheeks: ” Stop that useless dreaming of yours and those your writings about nothing,” taking the paper from my hand and tearing it to pieces he continued: ” Our country need practical people, physically strong, hard workers and with clear and logical mind, you can choose…”
“Give me back my poem, you have no right.” I shouted but he slapped me.
“I have all rights to choose were you end up, you know that…”
I nodded: “I like to write, it’s not a crime.”
He looked at a few words I have written on a torn piece of paper: “Your writing shows how unstable you are emotionally, that is not what we want, poems about our Communist progress, something useful to cheer our working class,yes, but this is useless…” My stepfather whispered threatenly into my ear: “Useless people end up just like your friends, do you want to follow their path?”
I shook my head: “I don’t meet them anymore.”
My stepfather victorously hanged his new meat trophies above the kitchen sink and without looking at me just said: “Stop useless dreaming and start working.”
I had never met Mary and Emily again.
Entry exam was a hurdle, especially math’s and gymnastics, which I barely passed. I memorised by rote learning all that ideological bullshit and repeated it continuosly, just little bit more coherently than Emily. It did not make any sense but fortunatelly it was enough. Surprisingly I was good in running and swimming races, languages and Art. They enrolled me in their swimming team to represent the univesity on local races and that was it.
“You just have to do everything opposite, do you,” mumbled George disapprovingly, when I told him the exciting news about me studying at UNI in Nitra: “Every one rushes to come to study here and you are going to hide in some little town in the middle of nowhere…”
I gave him a farewell kiss: “Come on, George, just move on and send my best wishes to your Mum.”
I packed my suitcase and left for Nitra without looking back. When I get off the bus under the hill dotted with tiny houses, I smiled to myself. I stood In front of a grey tall building with a sing: ‘Russian UNI accommodation – for girls’. It was early in term 1 and the old grey accommodation keeper looked at me curiously from behind the desk:
“You are keen to start; no one else is here yet.”
I smiled broadly: “Yes, I am.”
She chuckled: “Wait when you start to work in the local preserve factory,” she crossed her chest mockingly: “Night shifts are for years ones especially, you loose your smile.”
I shifted the weight from leg to another: “I thought we will do just holiday’s jobs on communist farms, picking potatoes or grapes like on High School.”
“At UNI you work in factories for a month before each term starts. You lucky to stay in Nitra, some of you are moved to nearby villages and town and have to live in factories’ sheds.”
She led me though a long grey dark corridor with doors on each side. Rattling with big keys for a while we entered the dormitory with a big bathroom in the middle fitted with a shower corner, toilet and four enamels washing basins uniformed grey and white. Around the bathroom were four doors to the bedrooms with fours beds along the grey walls.
I was allocated a bed, tiny bedside table and two shelves in one of them.
“ No posters on walls, no rearrangement of room…” she kept informing me while I looked out of the window locked with iron bars on the empty and desolated square in the middle of the grey building.
She pointed at the bars: “They have been fitted in just this holiday to prevent boys from the next door’s accommodation to climb in.”
I sighted and spent my first night in ghostly empty UNI accommodation dreading what to expect tomorrow.
But there is always tomorow and I promised myself to stop useless dreaming and start ‘working on my future’. What else is there to do?