South for the Winter
by J. Bassett
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I never stay in one country for a long time. It gets boring. I like to move on, see new places, meet different people. It’s a good life, most of the time. When I need money, I get a job. I can do most things — hotel and restaurant work, building work, picking fruit.
I like to go south in the winter — Cyprus, or perhaps North Africa. Life is easier in the sun, and Northern Europe can get very cold in the winter. Last year I was in Venice for October. I did some work in a hotel for three weeks, then I began slowly to move south. I always go by train when I can. I like trains. You can walk about on a train, and you meet a lot of people.
I left Venice and went on to Trieste. There I got a cheap ticket for the slow train to Sofia, in Bulgaria. It takes a day and a half, but the express was too expensive.
The train left Trieste at nine o’clock on a Thursday morning. There weren’t many people on it at first, but at Zagreb more people got on. Two girls went along the corridor, past my compartment. They looked through the door, but they didn’t come in. The train left Zagreb and I looked out of the window for about ten minutes, then I went to sleep.
When I opened my eyes again, the two girls were in the compartment.
‘Hi!’ they said.
‘You’re American,’ I said. ‘Or Canadian. Right?’
‘American,’ the taller girl said. She smiled. ‘And you’re twenty-three, your name is Tom Walsh, you’ve got blue eyes, and your mum lives in Burnham-on-Sea, UK. Right?
‘How did you know all that?’ I asked.
The second girl laughed. ‘She looked at your passport. It’s in your coat pocket.’
‘Oh. Right.’ My coat was on the seat next to me. I took my passport out of my pocket and put it in my bag in the luggage rack.
‘Who are you, then?’ I asked.
They told me. Melanie and Carol from Los Angeles, USA. They liked Europe, they said. They knew a lot of places — Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece…
They seemed like nice girls. They were older than me, perhaps twenty-seven or twenty-eight, but I liked them. We talked and laughed for hours. I told them a lot of stories about my life. Some of the stories were true, some weren’t. But the girls laughed anyway, and said I was a great guy. I asked them about Bulgaria, because I didn’t know the country. They knew Sofia well, they said.
‘Hey, Carol,’ Melanie said. ‘We’re staying in Bela Palanka for a day or two. But let’s go over Sofia this weekend and meet Tom there. We can meet him on Saturday night at the Marmara Hotel.’
‘Great!’ I said. ‘ Let’s do that.’
The train got to Belgrade at six o’clock in the evening, and a lot of people got off. There were only me and the girls in the carriage then. The guard came, checked our tickets, and went away again.
Carol looked at Melanie. ‘Hey, Mel,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you and Tom go along the restaurant car? I’m not hungry, and I want to sleep for an hour.’
‘Er… Food’s very expensive on the train,’ I said. ‘I haven’t got much money just now. I’m going to get a job in Sofia.’
‘Oh Tom!’ Melanie said. ‘Why didn’t you tell us? Look, you’re a nice guy, right? We’re OK for money this week. We can buy you a meal.’
What could I say? I was hungry. They had money, I didn’t. So Melanie and I went to the restaurant car and had a meal. When we came back, Carol was still asleep in the compartment.
‘Why are you getting off at Bela Palanka?’ I asked. ‘What are you going to do there?’
Melanie smiled. ‘Find a cheap hotel, meet people, take a look around the town… you know.’
‘But there’s nothing there!’
‘Oh well, you never know,’ Melanie laughed. She put her feet on the seat and went to sleep.
A few hours later the train came into Bela Palanka station and stopped. The two girls got off and stood on the platform. They smiled at me through the window.
‘See you in Sofia, OK? The Marmara Hotel — eight o’clock.’ Carol said, ‘We’ll take you to the best restaurant in town.’
Then they picked up their bags and walked away. Nice girls. We’ll have a great time in Sofia, I thought.
The train crossed into Bulgaria at two o’clock in the morning. Then it stopped and suddenly there were a lot of policemen on the train.
‘What’s happening?’ I said in Italian to the old man next to me.
‘I don’t know,’ he said.
Then two policemen came into our carriage, a tall thin one and a short fat one. They looked at everybody carefully… and then they looked at me again.
‘Come with us, please,’ the fat policeman said in English.
‘What? Me? Why? What’s the matter?’
‘Is this your bag?’ the tall policeman asked.
I began to ask a question, but policemen never like questions from young men. So I stayed quiet and went with them.
In the station building there were a lot more policemen, and some people from the train. They were all young people, I saw. Some were afraid, some were bored. The police looked in everybody’s bags, and then the people went back to the train. My two policemen took me to a table. ‘Your passport, please,’ the fat policeman said, ‘and open your bag.’
They looked at my passport, and began to look through my bag.
‘Aha!’ the tall policeman said suddenly. All my dirty shirts and clothes were out on the table.
The policeman picked up my bag and turned it over. Onto the table, out of my bag, fell packet after packet of American dollars. Fifty dollar notes in big packets. A lot of money.
My mouth opened, and stayed open.
‘50,000… 100,000… 150 000… there’s 200,000 dollars here,’ the tall policeman said. ‘What an interesting bag, Mr Tom Walsh.’
‘But it’s not my bag!’ I shouted.
There was a big, happy smile on that policeman’s face. ‘Well,’ he said, it’s got your name on it. Look!’ So I looked, and of course there was my name, and yes, of course it was my bag. So how did 200,000 American dollars get in my bag?
‘You cannot bring US dollars into the country,’ the fat policeman said.
‘But I didn’t bring them,’ I said quickly. ‘They’re not my dollars. I never saw them before in my life, and…’
There was a lot of noise in the station. I looked out of the window and saw my train. Slowly, it began to move.
‘Hey!’ I shouted. ‘That’s my train…’
The tall policeman laughed.
‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘You’re not getting back on that train. You’re staying here with us, in our beautiful country,’ he smiled, happily.
So I never got to Sofia on Saturday. I was very unhappy about that. I wanted to have a little talk with Melanie and Carol, ask them one or two questions, you know. You’re a nice guy, Tom. See you in Sofia, OK? Take you to the best restaurant in town. Yeah. Great.
And I never got down to Cyprus or North Africa that winter. Oh well, you live and learn. It’s not an easy life in prison. But it’s warm in winter, and the food’s not bad. And I’m meeting some interesting people. There’s a man from Georgia — Boris, his name is. He comes from a place by the Black Sea. He’s a great guy. When we get out of here, he and I are going down to Australia… Brisbane perhaps, or Sydney. Get a job on a ship, start a new life. Yeah, next year will be OK.
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