Still in Slovakia
Two years before departure
The first rays of a weak grey sun just reached my bed through the iron bars window, when the loud sound of a marching song echoed from the P.A system just above the door.
I opened my eyes and saw two ordered rows of students’ beds with straight grey blankets on. I jumped out of my bed and automatically threw the yesterday clothes on me thinking I am on my summer camp and they call us to raise the red flag and listen to our daily duties.
I rushed out of the door where I banged to a tiny dark girl. Her heavy suitcase full of books spilled on the floor.
“Where are you going, have you seen a ghost in our room or something?” She said annoyingly and bent down to chuck all her stuff back in the suitcase.
I blushed: “I just thought I am back in my primary school’s years, in a holiday camp you know…” I picked one of the books and read the title: “Are you going to study Medicine here?”
She grabbed the book from my hands: “I wish I could, but it is only for you, gadzos (a nickname for non-gypsies),” patting the hardcover gently, she added: “But my boyfriend just starts it now in Bratislava…”
“Are you from Bratislava?” I shouted happily and followed her back to our noisy room: “Me too…”
She chucked the suitcase on the floor and jumped on the wobbly old chair just above the P.A system. She hit the box few times and suddenly there was a silence: “That’s better.”
There was some commotion just outside the door. I peeped outside and saw a fat lady with a huge suitcase entering the next door followed by a seriously looking, middle aged man and two redheads with freckles. “Sweat hearts, I hope you don’t starve here, here are some ‘schnitzels’ for the start and send you more by post next week…” The lady was rattling when I closed the door and we looked at each other.
“I hope you don’t staaarve…” The tiny dark girl mimicked her and we both burst out laughing: “Good that spoiled brats are next door,” she threw me an apple from her bag: “My name is Jarmila, what is yours?”
“But we could have a schnitzel,” I laughed and took a big bite: “Bibi, by the way, nice to meet you.”
She shook her head: “Those types don’t share, anyway, these two top shelves are mine and those are yours,” she opened a tall old wardrobe in the corner and started to pile her books there.
“What about others?” I pointed at four extra empty beds: “And what about sharing?” I laughed.
She chuckled patting gently her precious books: “It’s just a matter of survival, I have seven sisters at home, you know, tall and beautiful, not like me at all,” she sighed: “More lucky with their Fathers I guess…”
“I don’t know my Father,” I said looking out of the window on some old man helping a daughter with a luggage while entering our accommodation.
Jarmila laid an old framed photo of a dark tiny man with a violin on her bedside table:
“Mine is dead, hanged himself before I was born,” she said matter of fact but seeing my shocked expression, she added calmly: “I believe in ghosts, really, he comes to visit me nearly every night.”
“I hope he doesn’t come here,” I shuddered and she just laughed: “Come on, we have only half an hour before our shift starts.”
“It’s good we have a day shift this week,” I added following her out of the door to suddenly crowded corridor full of shrieking and crying girls from every part of Slovakia hugging their family members before their departure.
We looked at each other and I said: “Bet we are the only ones from Bratislava.”
“Why did you leave our capital city full of opportunities?” She looked at me curiously when we entered the corridor filling up with other students in their working clothes.
“There is nothing there for me,” I shrugged my shoulders: “And what about you?”
The factory buses stopped just outside the entry door and students automatically started
to line up orderly, one by one, just as we have been trained to do from the Year One.
When we entered one of the old rusty buses with dusty plastic seats, she turned to me solemnly: “There is everything there for me.”
I looked at her in surprise but she avoided my gaze watching the passing by grey buildings with red flags flying high from our bus window.
“So why then?” I persisted suddenly very curious.
She turned to me with her dark eyes burning like flames: “Because…”
The bus suddenly stopped in front of the run down food processing factory and we all hurried down the steps to be allocated to our places along the factory lines. I end up sorting out tomatoes on a fast moving rubber belt. I looked across the huge dirty factory hall, where the steam from a mash of cooked tomatoes and capsicums rose above the heads of working students. It was the most dangerous job here. Sometimes a minute of absentminded work caused you burns on your hands. I tried to recognize Jarmila’s tiny figure among the group in white plastic aprons filling the jars with a boiling mixture. I was thinking about Mary, who ended up doing jobs like this without any prospect of getting out. What a waste of life.
“Come on, we are not here to daydream, think about your comrades down the lane, you are making their work harder by your laziness,” the factory supervisor stopped besides me and checked the quality of tomatoes I put aside.
I sighed and moved faster. I avoided the stares of students in my group I didn’t know yet.
My feet felt numb already and it was only the start of my first eight hours’ shift. I just wished this month to pass as fast as it could. It was Summer time and outside was beautiful, but not for us…
On our return, approaching the room I heard our new roommates unpacking and getting ready for their first night shift. Jarmila stayed on the reception calling her boyfriend.
I entered with a barely audible: “Hi,” and sat on my bed near the door.
Caroline, a small and round artist from Czech border was the first to speak to me: “How was it?”
I shrugged: “Like any other summer job, just don’t feel like talking, sorry.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, but after a while, girls who have known each other before continued in their preparations and arguments.
“I hate to get dirty,” complained Ildiko with a strong Hungarian accent trying to squeeze her big breasts into one size smaller T-shirt: “Auch,” she screamed suddenly breaking one of her long painted fingernails.
“Maybe you just need to dress comfortable,” Ivana pulled up a pair of oversized jogging pants over her strong muscled legs. She was a captain of our successful volleyball team and behaved accordingly needlessly pulling weights or doing stretching next to her bed.
“Go to UNI gymnasium, we are squeezed here like sardines even without your…hey watch out, I just made my hair,” Lena, a tall bleached blonde from the Ukrainian border tried to pass Ivana, who accidentally hit her while exercising.
“Sorry,” mumbled Ivana, but she didn’t stop: “You better suited to a night club especially with those,” she pointed her head towards Ildiko breathing heavily.
Caroline, who was painting Ildiko’s broken nail looked up: “Who you mean by those?”
Ildiko pulled back her shiny black hair from her eyes and smiled sweetly towards sweating Ivana: “She means those with brains.”
Ivana stopped: “Just because I didn’t need to pass exams to get here and anyway, the only thing you care about are boys, you really don’t need a brain for that.” She picked up her sport jacked and left the room passing me angrily.
Ildiko smiled at me broadly: “She is jealous, because boys like me, anyway they are doing night shifts with us, but…” picking up her jumper she added: “My twin brother will be there as well, it is so annoying.”
They rushed out of the door and suddenly there was a silence. I breathed easily again and stretched comfortably on my bed.
“So what do you think, I just passed them near the entrance?” Jarmila came in and sat on her bed.
I shrugged again: “Don’t know, should come with me and find out.”
“I would be better off, “Jarmila suddenly covered her face with her hands: “His parents disapprove of me and he is so far away…”
I sat next to her patting her shoulder: “But you can call him everyday, can’t you?”
She slowly shook her head: “His Mum said he is not at home.”
I took her hand into mine whispering quietly: ‘There is always tomorrow.”
We joined our roommates for night shifts for the rest of the month. The dusty and dark
factory hall was icy cold during the night expect the line, where girls constantly burnt their fingers. Short breaks we spend in tiny and dirty toilet cubicles full of cobwebs and rattling mice. We smoke cigarettes and shared cheap alcohol with boys from the next door factory hall, who were not afraid to break rules and sneak in.
I found Ildiko’s brother, a tall dark Hungarian boy with a thick brown hair and moustache very handsome but down to earth and pleasant, not like his sister at all. He eyed her disapprovingly when Ildiko flirted with every boy who passed her.
“ Bibi, please take him somewhere, he likes you, I can’t stand his glares any more and he will report everything back home…” She looked at me with a pleading expression on her face.
“ Are you crazy, I don’t even know your brother,” I shook my head and tried to pass her. She followed me down the narrow dark corridor and I speeded up bumping into a kissing couple behind a corner: “Watch where you going.” They shouted angrily behind me.
“I thought you are playmate,” Ildiko caught up with me and spitted the words at me angrily: “But you are ‘sisi’ and boring just like that sickly gypsy.”
“Is Jarmila sick?” I got hold of her arm in panic before she managed to turn back.
“Sick!” She exclaimed angrily: “She sits on this bloody toilet half of our shift and we have to constantly cover up her absence, I am ready to tell our supervisor…”
I rushed back to the crowded toilet cubicle full of smoke and half drunken girls. I saw the back of the last boy climbing out of the toilet window back to their hall. The siren went and the girls washed their mouth and tried hard to groom themselves for the rest of the shift. Suddenly I heard a painful cry from the last toilet cubicle.
“Jarmila, are you there, are you okay?” I banged at the door in panic.
After a while she opened the door and I saw her red burning face. She passed me calmly and washed herself in icy cold water, the only water we had.
I pressed my palm on her forehead in alarm: “You have a fever, you should tell the supervisor, Ildiko told me…”
“That ‘bitch on heat’ can’t keep her mouth shut,” she spitted angrily but suddenly stopped washing her face and clutched her stomach in pain.
“What is it, Jarmila?”
We both stopped talking and quickly moved to a dark corner hearing the footsteps outside.
The supervisor is checking if everyone got back to work.” She whispered to my ear and I nodded.
He passed through the corridor without opening the toilet door and we sighed with a relief.
“We have to go back quickly,” she sighed and opened the door cautiously peeping out.
We hurried through the windy and dark outgrown path towards our factory hall, which loomed in front of us like a huge hungry beast ready to swallow us. The corrugated iron sheets on the roof rattled noisily.
“So what is wrong with you?” I shouted behind her through the whistling wind.
She stopped suddenly facing me: “Just one of those ‘bladder infections’, get them all the time, but…” She pointed a finger at me: “You don’t say a word, I need to finish this bloody university you understand, so I have a degree and then my boyfriend…”
“But Jarmila, you can get worse…”
She waved her hand at me and turned back towards the hall: “Do not worry about me, we have plenty gypsy medicine for everything, just keep your mouth shut.”
I watched her tiny determined figure disappearing in front of me. Breathing on my cold hand for a bit of warm I followed her sheepishly thinking: “ If I will be just like her I do get through everything, don’t I?”
Jarmila managed to finish our first summer work and all others that followed. She even managed to get her degree and the one with distinction on that matter as she was the brightest in our year. Sadly she never managed to marry her sweetheart or work in her profession. She hanged herself. She was just 25.
But I was lucky enough to share with Jarmila many of our best and worst times during our UNI studies, I visited her home and met her seven beautiful sisters and a head of her family – her Mother.
Jarmila died, but Gypsies believe, that until you die three times, you are not dead. First time you die, when your spirit leaves your body. Second time you die, when your bones or ashes turned to dust. And the third time you die, when your name is forgotten. Jarmila is not dead yet, not for me and for you my dear readers…there is more of Jarmila’s legacy I would like to share with you in my future chapters….hope you follow me and help me to keep her alive just for a little longer.