Off the Beaten Track
Snaldov, the Baltics and me. We just don’t seem to fit. Since all the trouble, I’ve changed. I know it’s me because I don’t feel part of anything, any more.
It all seems safe here but things aren’t always what they seem.
From where I stand I can see twenty-two bullet holes in the wall of our house. Mrs. Ivanova, across the road, has only fifteen. I counted them.
Yes! That’s thirty-seven bullets that missed.
I came out here for fresh air but there’s no fresh air, only mud. But that’s okay. One day
this mud will be a meadow of tall buttercups. I know it.
Right now though, I have to collect the eggs.
I despise those chickens. I despise the way they’re turning our yard into a grey,
slippery, mess. It’s horrible. Still the eggs are lovely.
When I look out over the huddled rooftops that seem to squash me, I think of
Branimir and my eyes follow the pillars of smoke that drift over the village to the hills.
Branimir is in those hills, with his family. They’re gypsies and no one likes gypsies, except me. I really like Branimir. His smile does it for me. When I’m with him everything seems safe.
I met him last summer, a summer that went on forever. The sun excited the whole hillside until the flowers, the trees, the bushes and the grass, all burst into colour.
Then a bundle of feathers dropped from the roof, startling me.
“Stupid creature!” I shouted.
I want Branimir. I want his life and his freedom. And I want it now.
But this is my life. Chickens, mud and my dad, Konstantin.
I hate my dad.
I didn’t always hate him. A long time ago we used to have great fun together.
He was always laughing, always ready for a game. At bedtime he’d tuck me in and read me this story, the same one every night. It’s like the bible story about the child, Isaac, being given back to God by Abraham, his dad. Only instead of Isaac being saved in this story, the boy gets turned into gold. I don’t trust my dad. I used to love him but that was then.
And this is now.
In our house we only have five rooms for eight of us and my dad fills them all. I share a bedroom with my sister but the boys are really cramped in their room, top to toe in two beds. The front room’s full of dad’s mysterious boxes and we’re not allowed in there. If I so much as touch the door he yells, “You girl. Here! Now,” and I dread that.
I yell back, “I have got a name you know! I’m Yuliya, Yuliya.”
That’s when he gives me a smack round the head.
“Bring it on, Yuliya,” he jeers.
I don’t care what he says. I won’t cry because there’s no point.
So, anyway, I quite enjoy my boiled egg for breakfast, sometimes with fresh bread but not always.
My mum left for work before I was up. It was still dark when I heard the latch of the back door. She does her best. She has lots of jobs. It was freezing cold this morning and I needed to check on her because I wanted to know if dad had done a, ‘Bring it on, Elena,’ on her, too. But she seemed okay. She wasn’t limping, anyway.
For some strange reason she hasn’t given up on my dad, yet, so neither should I.
I get up and put on layers of clothes but as mum’s already filled the stove burner, I warm myself by the oven before heading outside.
I do the chickens and see to the goats. Boring! Luckily, Lala likes to milk them.
Next, I go to Mila our horse. I love Mila. When all that’s done, I come in to get warm again and put some eggs on to boil, making sure I’m washed before I shout the boys. Then I grab my coat quickly before the rush and see how Lala’s doing, poor kid. Lala’s only six, so I help her dress. Lastly, I make sure she gets some breakfast.
“Hurry up, let’s go see the icy cobwebs,” I say and off Lala skips in front of me.
I leave my brothers to sort themselves out. They get to me with their pushing and shoving and all Dragomir hears from them is moaning, “It’s not fair. Stop bossing us about! Who do you think you are?”
Dragomir always says, “I am older than you, that’s what! Now, have you got all your school stuff?”
Even from where we are standing we hear the back door slam and then they’re off.
We can even hear dad yelling, “Some of us are still sleeping! Be quiet now!”
Then the boys, with their bags thrown over their shoulders, come running up behind us.
Well, they get to school eventually, most of the time.
A t school, Mrs. Gamizov, my teacher, fills our heads with dreams of wealth and says, “Work hard, Yuliya, to get into college.”
“Do you mean me?” I ask. “Get into college! Sofia’s miles away and we’ve no money.”
This woman can’t be in her right mind.
She tries again, “It’s not a problem if you find funding, Yuliya.”
What a joke. The only way I could get to college would be if our church paid but they give to us already and I’m not special like the pretty stained glass window that needs repairing. Any spare money goes there first. The bullets caught our beautiful church too and there wasn’t much left inside by the time the police had finished.
But college would be brilliant.
Branimir doesn’t need to go to college. He’s learning on the job. His dad tells him all about horses and how to stay out
of trouble. He can already catch rabbits with the dogs and shoot pheasants. His dad spends hours and hours with him.
It’s Dragomir who tries to show my brothers how to do things properly but sometimes they just copy dad and then I feel sorry for Dragomir.
Weekdays we all have to help out at home. Before dark I collect Lala, get home, dump my bag and pull on old clothes. Then I feed and lock the animals away.
Tonight, dad blocked the fire.
“Dad, guess what?” I say. “I’ve been talking to Mrs.Gamizov and she thinks I could go to college.”
He grinned, “Does she, ha?” I can see he’s not listening to me.
But I plough on, “If I did go, I could get a good job and you wouldn’t have to work for THEM any more.”
I meant his friends, those thugs. Big mistake. Dad’s eyes narrowed. “Who do you think you are, Miss?” he roars, grabbing a log from the stove log pile and throwing it at me. I didn’t see it coming and it hit me.
“Hey!” I cried, “What was that for?” Why did I open my big mouth?
Dad started shouting, “You don’t know you’re born! Where do you think the money comes from round here, stupid?”
I had to admit it was a crack shot but it hurt me. I felt a sharp pain on my cheek bone and then felt a trickle down my face. I put my hand up and it came away covered in blood.
I’d had enough, wiping the blood away. Pulling up my hood I stumbled into the yard where Mila was waiting, her hay net empty. I knew I should fill it but instead, I patted her holding her tight, I could trust Mila. She always lets me get close. I tugged the bailer twine to let some hay tumble into the stable and head down she tucked in, her breath all foggy in the cold night air.
“We deserve better than him.” I raged.
My brother shouted, “Supper time, Yuliya,” so after a while, I went in. As usual Mum was in the kitchen pretending we were normal.
A loud bang on the back door told me Dad’s friends had arrived, bringing a waft of cold air and the smell of cheap vodka with them.
“How can Dad let these creeps in?” I asked Mum.
“Shsh, Yuliya,” Mum said. Then, “Welcome,” and there she was offering them our supper.
But after that Mum ignored them until, “How old is this one?” the guy flashing the gold tooth leered.
“Please, leave the child alone,” my mum snapped. “ Yuliya, it’s late. Put those little ones to bed for me.”
How I wished I could tell that old goat to get out of our house.
My brothers, being streetwise, had already gone upstairs so I tucked Lala up, then read her a quick story, giving her my half-eaten chocolate bar. Next thing we hear is a police siren and chairs crashing below. We all heard the rush for the back door as the police banged on the front, followed by dogs barking.
I can’t stand this.
I knew the police were after the fake C.D.’s Dad was selling off our horse and cart. He was handy and looked so innocent shifting loads. What worried me was the other stuff he was selling. I hoped they all got caught. My dad said, “Those police are fools,” and Dragomir added, “They couldn’t even catch a cold!”
I knew where that came from. It was my Dad talking.
Later, I tiptoed downstairs “Are you alright, mum? Why does Dad keep getting us into trouble?”
“I don’t know,” she said, as she tidied and picked up chairs. “I just don’t know, Yuliya. It’s not fair, it’s one thing or another first, it was the Imperialists messing him about now it’s these black leather mobsters who have their hands on him.”
All I could think was, ‘Someone PLEASE help us.’
Our church had tried to help us, although their sharing of bread and beautifully decorated Easter eggs wasn’t as helpful as getting us away from these men would be. All the same, church prayers had held our family together. So far.
“I’ll go see what’s happening,” I told Mum, but what I hadn’t realised was that the goat was still outside, his gold tooth catching the light. I tried to get out of his way but I was too late. He grabbed me by the throat and caught my sore cheek.
“Ouch!” I yelped.
“Shut it!” he growled.
He got so close to me I could smell his breath. It stank.
“I’m going to have you!” he promised.
“Shove off!” I shouted, and somehow, I wriggled free.
When I got back inside I wanted to be sick so I rushed upstairs. Afterwards I prayed, “Lord, protect me. Please, show me a safe way out.” Mum came up with cooled, recently boiled water scented with her best soap and I scrubbed myself, scrubbing away his touch. It disgusted me. My Mum talked to me about forgiveness but I thought others needed that lesson far more than me. Yet, when I looked in Mum’s eyes I saw a beauty no beating could ever destroy. She must have stayed with me until I managed to drop off to sleep.
After having the worst nightmares, next morning I got up as usual. Dad was keeping a low profile so he insisted I wait for the travellers.
“Go in late today, girl. Stay home whilst the horse’s feet are looked at. My head’s exploding! I’m going back to bed.”
“It serves you right!” I whispered, but luckily he didn’t hear me.
Only Branimir came today. So full of excitement, I went out. I felt guilty but why? This was my life and what I did was up to me.
“How are you today, Yuliya?” Branimir grinned.
“Good thanks, and you? Where’s your dad this morning?” I asked.
“We’re on the move soon,” Branimir said, “so we’ve got lots to do but I am very glad to be here. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family but you can have too much of a good thing! ” He laughed and as he brushed by me a lovely musty smell hovered in the air.
“But what about you, really?” he went on.
“I’m okay.” I lied but Branimir pushed my hood from my face.
“Great. Now, what’s really been happening?”
“Nothing. Honest. Can I get you a hot drink?”
I tried to turn away but he took me in his arms.
“Stop right there, please, Yuliya. I’m so sorry,” he stroked my face, then gently brushed the purple bruise marks on my neck. I hoped they wouldn’t spoil things for us. I remembered my dream of our special day, me in a pure white wedding dress.
It made me realise how bad things had got lately. My friends regularly saw me with a black eye but Branimir hadn’t, not yet. Now his gentle smile made it easy for me to trust him. So why couldn’t I?
“Don’t worry, I must have done it clowning around with Dragomir,” I lied. “His name means peaceful. I wish! Not at my house."
“Really? Well you know what Branimir means, don’t you?”
“No,” I couldn’t help smiling.
“Branimir means protection! So if ever that’s what you need, I’m your man!”
I looked into Branimir’s blue eyes, then shut mine and let him kiss me. He was all I needed and even though I felt a bit wobbly, I kissed him back.
“You know I can’t let this happen to you,” he said. “but what I can’t understand is why you have to lie about it.”
“Oh, Branimir, I didn’t mean to lie to you, it’s just that I dream. I dream and then I hope and I pray. That’s how it works with me. Otherwise, some days, I couldn’t carry on.”
Thoughtfully, he spoke again, “Well when you’re ready, I’ll help you.”
“Thanks. If only it were that easy. These people hang on once they’ve got you in their sights. The old goat has already threatened he’s going to have me. What’s worse is my dad’s going to let him. It’s all a waste of time.” His face went red but I didn’t want to get Branimir into trouble for helping me, so I went on, “Please, I really don’t want to get you mixed up in this business.”
“Well, it’s too late I am already involved,” he said firmly, “so let me do something.” He wanted to help me but I couldn’t let him. I was bad news and so all we actually did was go round in circles. I pushed him away.
“I’ve no time for this now, I’ve got to get to school.”
Branimir shouted me back, but I couldn’t go back. All that he’d said was whirling around my head, especially the, ‘I’m your man,’ part and I just couldn’t say goodbye to him.
Skulking into school, my tutor didn’t see me until that afternoon, when my face looked a bit better. The lessons weren’t the ones I needed like, ‘How to survive,’ and I hardly heard a word the teachers said, I got out as soon as I could.
Arriving early at the primary school gate for Lala, I was met by more stares from the parents. The boys had raced past us off home and Lala’s hand in mine felt good. “Hi, Yuliya,” she frowned. “Was it your turn last night?”
“Well it gave Mum a break!” I joked. “Don’t ever let anyone wallop you, Lala.”
“No way! I’ll .…”
“Shush, we’ll be okay,” I hoped and again, I prayed.
Usually, by home time the fire was lit but this afternoon there was no sign of smoke. Carefully, I pushed open the back door. Mum met us, out of breath. She was rushing to get Lala settled.
She whispered, “You’ve got to get away, Yuliya, the sooner the better. It’s tonight, and it’s all set up. They’re taking you to that Hotel Splendid. A few glamour photos by the pool and then you’re his. You know the one?”
“ You don’t mean the old goat, with the gold tooth, Mum?” I was almost crying. “ What can I do?” I panicked.
Mum went on, “It’s to pay off your dad’s debt. That man will trick you with a job offer because that’s what happened to Mrs. Ivanova’s daughter and Maria ended up in a real sorry state. ”
I put my head in my hands. “Darling, don’t worry,” my mum said. “ No way would I ever let that happen to one of mine. You have to get out of his way but you won’t be alone. I’ve asked Branimir for help. He’s here now. His family know the truth and have agreed to take you with them on the road. Our families go back years , they’ll help you and I know we really can trust them. They’re heading over the mountains to freedom today and you’re going with them.” She hugged me tighter.
“Mum, I can’t…”
“You’ll have a future, Yuliya, you must take it!” Mum insisted.
“I don’t want to leave you, I love you, Mum,” I said. I couldn’t believe there was hope for me, a way to be safe. I heard the back door go and there was Branimir.
“Come on, Yuliya,” Branimir said, hurrying me. “There’s an icy fog coming in, which will give us some good cover, so get your things together.”
“I’ve done that, Yuliya,” my mum said. “Here, take this money it should help. Mum was one step ahead, pushing a roll of notes into my pocket. “It’s what I’ve been saving for your college fund but you need it now. I shall pray for you.”
I grabbed her hand, “I’ll come back one day Mum, I promise. Keep Dragomir out of trouble and Lala and the boys.” Then I gave her a long hug. “And Dad,” I added.
Carefully, wrapping her shawl round me my mum said, “I’ll try. Now go!”
The gypsies decorated carriage was in our road, waiting for me to climb on board. So this was my answered prayer. This was the way out that my mum thought was right and I chose this new life. My stomach was doing somersaults and I was so excited.
Taking Branimir’s hand, I gave thanks for my second chance. For the time being I must not look back.
Finally, I felt safe.
Fiona Linday © 2008