Those in black

The street was neatly lined up with tidy gardens and cosy houses where nothing was moving or had been moved for an indefinite while. Parking spaces were drawn in white paint on the asphalt, well thought out so as to prevent stationary cars from obstructing the occasional by-passing traffic, which would be crawling at the compliantly thirty kmh for a residential zone. The only car in the neighbourhood that had been spotted coming or going was the green Golf VW belonging to a plump, brown-skinned, middle-aged man who seemed to be a Filipino. The other cars were simply in transit. Not that there were no cars in the neighbourhood. But rather mysteriously, they were either parked on their assigned space, or they were gone for the duration of the working day. No car owners except for the Filipino had been seen getting in, or out, driving home or away.

The lawns must have also been mown secretly, as they were in an eternal faultless condition, although no lawn-mower was ever heard rumbling away. One could tell which houses sheltered children by the yellow-or-blue swings set up in the garden, in the middle of the turf. There were several versions of houses: neat cubicles for one family, with a slanted roof split open by windows of the first floor bedrooms; longer cubicles for two or more families, somewhat resembling a stout train, the first floor and the roof looking rather like an extra, flat layer that carefully capped the structure built on the ground. The one-family cubicle came in different models: door on the right, door on the left, door in the middle, with a matching variation in the finishing of the roof above the doorway. Overall, a peaceful residential neighbourhood.

It was just across the street from the Filipino that things were sometimes going on, and being heard. With a bit of luck, even seen. Just opposite his small house stood a building in matching harmony with the style of the neighbourhood, but hosting a Greek restaurant with rooms to let. The restaurant was pretty well visited and Odisseas, the owner, was apparently thriving on selling white-plaster, garlic-smelling illusions of his homeland. Guests were raving about his piles of meat and saucy vegetable plates with Greek names, which no real Greek would actually eat or know about; the salad sauce, just like the house’s speciality, fried octopus, originated from plastic buckets or frozen bags conveniently acquired from the nearest (German, of course) catering wholesaler.

Odisseas was not very tall but pretty skinny, with a mosquito’s face, all angles and edges. Small dark eyes were continually flickering with some double, mean intent, at once welcoming and insolent, bootlicking and grinning, as if just then quickly computing how much he could squeeze out of one. Very young for all that, not yet thirty. He was married to a Turk, contrary to the stereotype that Greeks and Turks can’t stand each other. Or maybe in line with it, who knows. Yasmin always carried her baby in her arms and was just before or after a baby’s meal.  Her pretty face bore a perpetual stamp of withheld strain, which threw the question in the air whether it originated with the kid or with the rest of the world.

The ‘rooms to let’ were let to asylum seekers on a contract basis with the local government, a deal which brought Odisseas ten times as much money per room as he could have ever hoped to get otherwise. He put two immigrants up in each room – with one shared bathroom, shower only, for the eight people – and provided full boarding – conveniently serving what Calypso, the restaurant, already produced, and cashed for all this a handsome fourteen hundred per head, per month. The German state was unaware, apparently, of the going real estate market prices.

There were eight Romanians at Calypso, and they were all more or less celebrating, both their private pending turn of fate and that of Lucy, who was getting married at the end of the week. Lucy was getting married to the German cook in the tavern where she was washing up ‘in black’, or without ‘papers’ as Romanians said, meaning without a work contract. The guy she actually loved, Marian, twelve years younger than her, was packing his bags: at dawn he would head for Hamburg, from where he had paid his one-way ticket in a ship container bound to New York. Also packing her bags was Mrs Ceausescu (a pitiful coincidence of names!), who had finally got her immigration visa to the US, where she was joining her sister. Her husband was to marry a German lady they had found via a mysterious network for ‘fake marriages’, where Germans were willing to marry some immigrant against a handsome sum of money. Mr and Mrs Ceausescu had conveniently divorced and now her imminent departure to America overlapped with his equally close-by appearance at the registry office. The other couple, Chris and Steph, were leaving back to Romania at dawn, in their own, fourth-hand, twenty-year-old VW van, lop-sided with the overload of paraphernalia that Chris had frantically collected over the fourteen months at the Calypso. Diana, the girl-student, Lucy’s room-mate in the past few months, was sitting thoughtful in a corner, not knowing what to do with her hands, nor with her eyes. Her own journey was to start only in five days, with a bus across the continent back to Romania. The only one missing from the big party was Nick, who had applied to be enrolled with the French Legion, but had recently vanished and been inquired after by the police.

 

“Last night I bought you a scarf, la, la-la-la-la-laaa, la-la… Now I see you’re wearing none, la, la-la-la-la-laaa, la-la….Whoever else should buy you scarves, la, la-la-la-la-laaa, la-la, Let him hang himself with one, la, la-la-la-la-laaa, la-la”, Lucy was singing with the tune on  the ancient cassette player, holding her wine glass with one hand, the other arm curled around Marian’s neck. She had obviously been crying loads, and was just about to start again, unburdened by the thought of others watching.

“Ah, Marian, Marian, what you’re doing to me, my love”, she wailed with a twitching smile.

Marian turned his sulky face to her.

“What I’m doing to you? What do you think you’re doing?”

She frowned and her twitching smile vanished like a shadow; she released Marian from her hold and squinted into her glass.

“You know damn well I have no choice. What am I supposed to do, you’re leaving me for your dream America. Or even worse, should we both sit here at the Calypso and wait for the Germans to kick us out? Ah, forget it, we’ve been through this a hundred times! It’s time to party now, tomorrow starts a new life!” and she raised her wine-glass in a self-persuasive gesture of exuberant celebration.

The Ceausescus nodded with an awkward smile, looking each ahead of oneself, into the void. Chris gave his shrill laugh and raised his own glass to Lucy’s.

“To us all, let’s remember these times for ever!”

Marian threw a brief disdainful look at him and gave out a guffaw.

“You think anyone here will be able to forget, or what?” he mumbled.

Lucy forestalled Chris’s attempt to justify his toast,

“At least we’re all moving on, finally. Calypso has been a cosy place just because we’ve been together, but otherwise surrounded by hell. And we’ve all been waiting for a change, for a move forwards, such a long time, chewing each over our dream, over our love – over our hatred, or just grim hopelessness! But Chris is right, we should never forget Calypso, and by that we mean of course – never forget each other! Chris, my respect, as always someone to count on, man!” On these words she stood up leaning over the improvised table and they clinked glasses.

“Hurraaah and bless us all”, cheered Chris. “Be happy, Lucy, girl!”

“I will, yes, don’t worry, I will! When the German guy sees who he’s married, it’ll be way too late for him, ha ha ha!”

“To Germans going to hell!” Marian toasted gloomily, but no one gave a sound in response.

“They aren’t that bad”, Steph put in shyly. “It’s just our own predicament.”

“Oh aren’t they!” Marian retorted sardonically. “Then why are you going back home tail between legs? Why have we been wasting years of our lives here in this damn Calypso?”

“Come, come, love, we’ve been through this a hundred times, people make their choices, you know too well they’re going back home to their daughter, they would anyway, no matter what Germans were like”, Lucy interfered reconciling.

“We’re not going back home tail between legs”, Steph replied faintly but categorically. “That was the plan from the beginning, wasn’t it Chris!”

Her husband nodded irresolutely with his eyes in his lap, the remnants of a smile waving over his face like an embarrassed flag, and his nod gradually turned into a doubtful swing of a pendulum, his eyes rising to the ceiling.

“What?” Steph asked turning to him as if she had only at that instant noticed him.

“Mmmmm, well, honestly… Actually…”

“Honestly and actually, he’d rather have stayed here”, Marian concluded abruptly.

“Here?!”, Steph ejaculated.

“Well not HERE, I don’t mean Calypso, but here, yes, Germany”, Chris hurried to disambiguate.

“Never, if you ask me!”, Steph declared. “I didn’t strain my elbows reading for Medicine to clean German houses – in black, too!”

“Maybe Chris means if only you could have stayed here and live a normal life, you doing your profession, the little one growing up in this world”, Mrs Ceausescu ventured to explain.

Chris nodded in thankfulness.

“If –if – if! The fact is, Germany is fine, I hope I come back one day, but now it’s time to go home!“ Steph retorted unflinching. “I miss my little one, I miss my home, my bed, the view from our living-room window.”

“Sure you do”, Chris assented in a conciliatory tone. “It’s such a lovely view – over concrete blocks of flats ha ha ha” he added with his mouth wide open in his typical loud laughter, glancing around at the others for acknowledgment and echoing laughter. The echo came indeed, from everyone except for a frown from Steph and a sulky ignore from Marian. Chris was not to be heeded most of the time. He just gave out his cascading roars with a grin that could be hooked around his ears, while the rest of the time he worked himself to death washing up in a Biergarten downtown, so as he can deck the walls of his room in Calypso with juice cartons, rundown TV-sets of all sizes collected from the streets, second-hand winter jackets, junk ski equipment and what not. Rumours had it, though, that he was also leaving home with a handsome pile of banknotes, which he had scrupulously set aside and which he was going to continue sparing obstinately at his destination by putting his little but sundry fortune of collected gear to use.

“And tell us, now honestly, we’re all saying goodbye here for the rest of our lives, God knows our paths will never cross again, so you can tell us: what are you planning to do with your money?”, Lucy asked.

Steph glanced at Chris and then looked down, her turn to wear an embarrassed smile, tense too, as if waiting to see how her husband would deal with the open question. Chris kept his grin on, if slightly receding, and hesitantly, avoiding Lucy’s direct gaze,

“Well, yeah… we’re going to erm…. Well yes, we’re buying small flats and renting them”, and here he finally raised his eyes, as if given proper support by the common-sense of the business idea he was explaining. “Flat prices are ridiculously low – still! – in Bucharest, in not very central areas you can get a small flat, two rooms, for the money you can get a second-hand VW here.”

The Ceausescus gave a faint ‘ooooohhhhh’ and Lucy raised her eyebrows nodding in appreciation. Her room-mate kept on gazing ahead of herself absent-minded, while Marian was examining the wine in his glass with a set expression on his face.

“Of course, we’re also going to have to refurbish the flats, but we’re going to do that ourselves, aren’t we, Steph”, Chris said with what was meant to be a motivating enthusiasm, and he dropped his hand on his wife’s knee with a slapping sound. She nodded quietly, then raised her eyes smiling as if wanting to reassure everyone this was her decision too. “But this will also put up the flat’s value if we were to sell it again, so either way one can only gain”, Chris concluded with a shrewd smile.

“I’m sure you will, Chris. Steph, now I understand why you’re so looking forward to getting back home”, Lucy added, as if meaning to be polite and give Steph a turn at the conversation too.

“Ha, sure, she’s been forbidden to buy herself proper cigarettes and has had to roll herself one secretly from cheap tobacco boxes so they can now go back to Bucharest and refurbish flats!” Marian gave out unexpectedly. Chris frowned, Steph blushed.

“What do you mean, she’s been forbidden?” Chris’s voice was shrill again, as before laughing or fighting. “We agreed on it together. A fiver for a damn cigarette pack is outrageous, who can afford that? Not from money made washing up or cleaning houses, that’s for sure!”

“And the tobacco’s really not bad at all”, Steph added reassuringly.

Marian guffawed again and turned his eyes away to a corner of the room.

“Love, just get off their backs, will you, they’ll be gone tomorrow morning and then one might regret any bickering we’ve had tonight”, Lucy said to Marian, stroking his hair motheringly.

“I’m not doing anything on their backs” Marian shrugged. “It’s just this fake cheerfulness that’s getting on my nerves, all of us here, as if there really was anything to celebrate! Look at us, just take a look! Each of us came here with big dreams, tried hard, hoped for the best, pushing it all along, thinking if we were patient enough some big time would come our way, and now? Now? Just take a look! What are we? A bunch of losers I tell you, losers in the proper sense, I’m not offending anyone here, this is a FACT! We’ve simply lost this game and what’s driving me nuts is that everyone seems determined to show themselves off as winners! That’s what we’re celebrating, aren’t we! And it looks like you’re the biggest winner of us all, right?, Lucy? You’re getting married and so you can stay on in lovely Deutschland, can’t you, while the rest of us must see where we can head off to, somewhere we can pick up our dream where we left off! And let it be so then, but for goodness’s sake, at least let’s not fake cheerfulness, OK?, let’s just admit it didn’t work, let’s just admit we would have liked to stay in Deutschland too, but since we have no choice we take the second best. Just don’t come now with things like “I always wanted to go back in fact”, or “the second best IS the best after all” and all that crap…OK? Have I made it clear enough?”

There was more than silence. There was stillness. Marian scrutinized each of them around the small, rundown, once-TV table.  Then he seemed to realise something and resumed in a lower tone, like thunder rumbling in the distance.

“And you, Lucy, you too. That even you should be celebrating. You’re getting married to a German cook who should have long gone to munch off his pension. He’s got a big house, yeah… and whatever else you’re making up just to make us feel awe in front of you – oooh, Lucy’s such a clever girl, she’s set herself the goal and there she is, she’s there! You need that awe, don’t you, so you can get some enthusiasm for yourself too! O, and I’d almost forgotten! There we have another happy groom-to-be”, and he turned to Mr Ceausescu. “I suppose you’re also brimming with pride, aren’t you, especially you Mrs C!”

 

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