In September 2002 I rocked up in Bratislava with a couple of bags and just enough cash to last until my first paycheck. And so unfolded one of the great years of my life…
Settling into Bratislava working life turned out to be a piece of cake, largely thanks to my sedate teaching schedule. Although I had to wake up early each day, I gave only two lessons a morning followed by a generous three hour break. Then there were two more classes in the afternoon, one of which was an in-company course at Philip Morris. A one-on-one session with a humorless businessman called Martin who more often than not cancelled at the eleventh hour. The rest of the time he kept me waiting around at reception while he finished off a meeting/conference call/sandwich/crossword. On the rare occasions I made it into his office he pretty much refused to do any work. ‘‘Am tiring and we have not much time’’ he’d say lighting up a cigarette. ‘‘Let’s talk football’’.
My morning classes took place at the school itself on Obchodna Street. Each crowd consisted of five or six Slovaks, half of which were invariably women named Katka. One such class was comprised of three Katkas! It became so confusing I openly labelled them K one, K two and K three, which they didn’t mind at all. This student trio was in addition to Little Katka the school’s assistant director and Big Katka the coquettish, scantily clad boss lady. To make matters even more complicated, Ben had his eye on a pretty Slovak teacher called… yes, you got it. We christened her Middle Katka, shortened to MK soon after.
Although a largely polite and pleasant bunch, my students took their lessons very seriously and didn’t respond too well to jokes, creativity or fun of any kind. Instead they seemed obsessed with asking complicated grammar questions, queries that in my relative inexperience I frequently struggled to answer.
Without exception they all had a hard time with my name. ‘‘Thank you Mr Lignon’’ said Peter one day at the end of class. Unluckily for me, Goldblum was waiting at the door with a knowing smirk, ‘‘come on Mr. Lignon, let’s get some breakfast’’.
And so the name Leighton rapidly became a thing of the past, a defunct word that belonged to a former life. ‘‘Hey Lignon, great result for QPR last night’’ said Irish Mike the next morning as we passed each other at reception. ‘‘Yo Lignon!’’ mock-rapped Myles on the tram. A few days later I ducked into the teacher’s room to discover someone had redecorated my pigeon hole with a new label: LIGNON.
The breakfast that Goldblum had been referring to took place at McDonald’s just across the road from the school. A daily ritual, we were usually joined by Ben and Myles with occasional guest appearances from Rich, Irish Mike and Clockwork Orange Paul. In our defense these visits had nothing to do with a regretful morning burger. McDonald’s just happened to be one of the few places for a cheap, semi-decent cup of coffee. Accompanied more often than not by a round of hot, gooey, deep-fried apple pies. We also went for the banter with the store manager, a friendly Londoner called Roger who was married to a local and spoke fluent Slovak.
Another key factor in our loyalty to Maccie D’s was Roger’s efficient workforce, a diligent group of beautiful McMinxes who greeted us with warm smiles and flirty body language. One or two could even wheel out a few words of English, which they clearly got a kick out of.
‘‘What exactly is a minx?’’ asked my student Peter, who’d decided to join us one morning. ‘‘Well… forget about any dictionary term’’ I replied as he took out his writing pad to take notes. ‘‘With us it just means: beautiful girl’’.
‘‘Lignon, check it out… Adminx!’’ exclaimed Myles, his half-eaten McMuffin temporarily abandoned. Poor old Peter was getting confused, ‘‘Adminx?’’
A tall, voluptuous dark-haired girl in her early twenties, Adminx made only sporadic appearances from the upstairs office. As such her presence was always a keenly observed event. Carrying a clipboard, she’d wander around chatting to her colleagues while making mysterious notes, leading Ben to conclude she worked in the Adminxistration department.
‘‘She’s very minxy’’ muttered Goldblum as Adminx gave us a wave from the back of the kitchen. ‘‘She ****ing is!’’ echoed Ben. ”There she goes… there she goes again” sang Paul in an impressively convincing Liverpudlian accent.
Myles, who still hadn’t resumed eating, seemed virtually comatose. ‘‘Another tragic case of Minxomatosis’’ sighed Ben, ‘‘Alas poor Myles, we knew him well’’.
Taking a break from behind the counter, Roger let out a hearty laugh with a pitying shake of the head. ‘‘Boyfriend’’ he said, with a consolatory pat on Myles’ shoulder. ‘‘Of course’’ retorted Irish Mike as Adminx shimmied by, ‘‘That’s the lay of the land’’.
‘‘You guys and your minx talk’’ chuckled Mary that evening at The Slovak Pub, unequivocally the hotspot for anyone who worked at the school. A dimly-lit cave-like venue with a medieval quality, we’d virtually taken over an entire floor, stretching out across a series of long wooden tables.
‘‘It’s not just talk Mary’’ I joked, tucking into a bowl of cabbage and sausage soup. ‘‘We take this very seriously. We’re like… professors!’’
‘‘Of what?!’’ scoffed Christine, a plump Australian whose nasal accent I always found more than a little grating. “Minxology!’’ I grinned, attempting to keep a straight face. ‘‘Aw come on” she protested, ‘‘I think the way you guys talk is demeaning to women!’’.
A tumbleweed silence fell over the table. A raised eyebrow from Goldblum, Myles straining slightly to avoid choking on his beer. A smirk from Paul, a noncommittal shrug from Sladjana.
‘‘We’re just joking around, no disrespect intended’’ I managed and the subject was thankfully swallowed up thereafter in a crisscrossing of revived communal chatter.
‘‘We may be joking’’ whispered Ben, leaning in with a devilish glint in his eye. ‘‘But I think the real problem is that she knows the joke is on her’’.
‘‘Am I a minx?’’ asked Sladjana one evening, quite out of the blue. We were huddled together on a sofa for a small gathering at Ben’s place. I detected no trace of humour in her voice, nor did she seem particularly bothered about what my answer might be. Although I couldn’t claim to know her that well, this did seem typically Sladj. Quietly self-assured, ambiguous, sexy, impossible to read.
‘‘Of course you are’’ I answered as Ben’s creepy flatmate Troy blatantly sat listening nearby, his beady eyes darting back and forth between us. ‘‘Ok’’ she breathed in her sad way, picking at her fingernails. ‘‘So… are we doing dinner tomorrow night?’’
I had no idea what was going on between Sladjana and I. She wasn’t what one would call a great communicator. We’d hung out a couple of times and had been texting each other a fair bit in between. I’d been instantly attracted to her from the moment we’d met at the welcome party. Behind that ice queen exterior lay a sweet vulnerability, with occasional but effervescent outbreaks of laughter that briefly transformed her into an altogether different creature. But what she really thought of me, and whether or not anything would develop between us… I wasn’t sure.
It was another early morning class on Obchodna Street, my dedicated albeit blurry-eyed students working on a reading comprehension about Princess Diana. ‘‘So according to paragraph five, what kind of woman was she?’’ I asked.
After a momentary pause K one’s hand shot up, as it regularly did. ‘‘She is caring woman! Like help others. Uh… people’s person’’.
‘‘Good’’ I replied, ‘‘She was a caring woman. She liked helping people’’.
I waited for a bit as numerous cogs turned in the row of heads before me. K two whispering to herself as she scanned the text. Pavol gazing out the window, pencil in mouth. Lucia looking totally lost. Finally it was Peter who broke the silence with a cough, shifting himself up in his seat with a raised arm.
‘‘Mr Lignon’’ he said with an earnest expression that gave away not a clue of what he was about to say. ‘‘It is um… not in text. But this Princess Diana… she was a minx!’’.