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…
‘‘I’m cold’’ grumbled Sladjana, drawing on her cigarette. ‘‘Why is this place empty? Shouldn’t there be people here?’’
‘‘You get more of a crowd down at my local team back home’’ added Irish Mike, as yet another misplaced pass dribbled out of play. ‘‘******* dreadful!’’ muttered Ben.
‘‘I’m gonna go talk to other people’’ whispered Sladj, with a theatrical shiver. ‘‘I don’t want them to think we’re… you know’’.
It was a cool October evening and a bunch of us had taken the trip to Štadión Pasienky to see a football match between ŠK Slovan Bratislava and Košice. Nestled among a half-hearted scattering of home fans, the remaining three sides of the stadium were deserted.
Thankfully the flourishing camaraderie between us more than made up for the lack of on-pitch entertainment. Just weeks into my Bratislava experience and it was already clear that fate had thrown together a really special bunch of people.
Every evening there was something different going on with an alternating lineup of expats. There were quiz nights at The Slovak Pub and visits to Zimný štadión to see Bratislava’s ice hockey team, while Fridays were set aside for karaoke at The Dubliner. Highly discouraged by yet another floppy-haired narcissist doing Robbie Williams’ Angels, one night Rich and I got up and belted out Don’t Let Me Down by The Beatles. Against all the odds it was a smash hit! Not because we were great singers (far from it!) but rather due to our no-nonsense delivery, which was simultaneously heartfelt and tongue-in-cheek. ‘‘Now THAT’S karaoke!’’ announced an inebriated local. ‘‘Faaantastic!’’ exclaimed Rich as we exited the stage to euphoric, Shea Stadium like shrieks. In fact, so enriching was the experience that the two of us would go on to perform the song countless times. No matter how much of a crappy day I’d had, I could always be cheered up by Don’t Let Me Down Friday.
A fair chunk of time was also spent hanging out at Aupark, Bratislava’s biggest shopping mall. A movie with Sladj, food court lunches with Ben after our weekly sessions of afternoon squash. We also set up a school bowling league there, convening once a week for an evening of beery competitiveness. A decidedly average bowler, I found myself drafted into The Pin Monkeys along with an elfin Slovak teacher named Martina, an English guy known as Andrew the Bear and an eccentric Canadian called John who looked like Dustin Hoffman.
Our main rivals were The Delvita Dogs, featuring Minnesota Jordan and Clockwork Orange Paul. Occasionally turning up in fancy dress, Jordan might appear as a prohibition era gangster, Paul a Bowie-flavored fashionista. Whatever the outfit, Jordan and Paul were always good value.
Group activities aside, my closest allies were Ben and Goldblum, the three of us regularly getting together to chew the fat over beers and bites. It was a curious dynamic, Ben the pragmatic but easily riled Englishman with his dry northern wit; Goldblum the laid-back chain-smoking American with the Tennessee drawl.
In late October the three of us spontaneously decided on a weekend trip to Vienna. Taking the train over from Hlavná Stanica, Bratislava’s dump of a train station, we checked into a creepy hostel that used to be a mental asylum. Goldblum drew the short straw and ended up with the top bunk, a berth Ben and I were quick to label The Death Bed. Unfortunately, it almost turned out to be a prophetic title. That first night we returned to our room at an ungodly hour, swaying from the effects of the evening’s merrymaking. Having awkwardly clambered up to the summit of his crib, Goldblum lost his footing and came crashing down with an earthquake-like force that had me instantly wondering how many bones he’d broken. Luckily his injuries were merely cosmetic, but all the same he was sure to transfer his bedding down to the floor for the remainder of the stay.
Hostel accidents notwithstanding, it was a great weekend that even a persistent barrage of slanting rainfall couldn’t ruin. We took in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, dropped by Mozart’s House and got suitably lost in the Bermuda Triangle District. In between we sought shelter from the downpour, kicking back to prolonged lunches and dinners, endless rounds of beers.
Both Ben and Goldblum were big drinkers and my attempts to keep up proved futile. Nevertheless, it was during these bouts that the basis of our friendships were formed. We discussed politics, quoted our favourite movies, handpicked our choice records and reminisced over ex-girlfriends. We watched England’s 2-1 victory over Slovakia in the European Championship qualifiers, Ben and I enlightening Goldblum to some of the rules of ‘‘soccer’’ along the way.
Late into our final night, we learned that both of Goldblum’s parents had recently passed away and that Ben wasn’t getting anywhere with Alice, a teacher he’d started seeing back in Bratislava.
‘‘She’s made it perfectly clear there won’t be any sex’’ he laughed, downing the last of his Stiegl. ‘‘What about you and Sladj, kid?’’ enquired Goldblum. ‘‘Oh man… I don’t know’’ I conceded, the room beginning to revolve around me. ‘‘I think she might be complicated’’.
On the way back to the hostel there was singing, hugs with Austrian strangers and a spell where Goldblum wheeled Ben about in a shopping trolley. Had Rich been there, the verdict would have been unanimous: ‘‘Good times!’’.
Back in Bratislava and it was a typical Tuesday morning at McDonald’s with Ben, Myles and I flirting with the McMinxes over coffee and fried apple pies. ‘‘Where the hell is Goldblum?’’ I complained, trying his phone again. No answer. ‘‘Maybe he got lucky!’’ smirked Myles.
Upon entering the lobby at school, I knew something was wrong the moment I spotted Veronika, the sweet mousey receptionist. ‘‘Lignon!’’ she called, beckoning me over with a furrowed brow. Wordlessly she handed me a crumpled piece of paper, a hastily handwritten note from Goldblum with such appalling penmanship it was barely legible. Still I could pick out the words ‘‘accident’’, ‘‘sorry’’ and ‘‘cancel my classes’’. Scattered haphazardly across the paper were blobs of… surely not?
‘‘Um… I think that’s blood’’ said Troy, a fellow teacher who’d appeared at my side and was now scanning the letter for himself. ‘‘Yes’’ said Veronika, her wide eyes darting back and forth between us, ‘‘on my desk and on floor… I clean it’’.
‘‘Has anyone actually seen him?’’ I asked, alarm bells clanging within me. ‘‘No’’ she replied, arms folded across her chest, ‘‘and he not pick up phone. Little Katka angry. Maybe she think he is drunk, I don’t know’’.
I looked at Troy. Troy looked back. ‘‘Do you have his roommate’s phone number?’’ I asked Veronika. ‘‘It’s Neal Armstrong’’.
‘‘Hmm, it’s still pretty early and I think it’s Neal’s day off’’ mumbled Troy, scratching his chin. ‘‘Excuse the pun, but he may not be over the moon to be woken up’’.
Veronika tried calling Neal, but to no avail. ‘‘I think we should go over there’’ I decided. On our way out we grabbed Ben who was smoking in the courtyard. Filling him in on what little we knew, the three of us took a taxi out to the godforsaken borough of Dubravka. I’d never understood why the school had placed Goldblum and Neal so far away from all the other teachers, in a run down area with few services. Pulling up in front of his apartment block, I realised his neighbourhood was even grimmer than he’d described.
‘‘Nobody home’’ muttered Troy as I rang the bell for the fifth time. ‘‘He could be anywhere’’ said Ben, shifting his feet nervously. It was freezing cold in that depressing gray corridor and through my frustration I began beating the door with my fists. Suddenly, just when we were about to leave, there was a low rustling sound from the other side. A moment later came a metallic click and the door inched open, a spear of corridor light piercing the blackness inside.
I stepped in to see a ragged-looking Goldblum in his trusty brown leather jacket, one arm leaning against the wall for support. Motionless, he stared through me with bloodshot eyes, a purple-black bruise pooling out from his mouth and up to his right cheek. He attempted a smile, but his twisted jaw seemed immobile. ‘‘Hey kid’’ he slurred, trudging off towards the living room sofa.
‘‘******* hell’’ breathed Ben over my shoulder. Troy was already on the phone to the school as we joined Goldblum in the living room. Tentatively sitting down next to him, I glanced up at Ben who was standing a few feet away, hands stuffed in his pockets. He looked as though he was going to be sick.
‘‘Do you think you can drink something?’’ I asked. Goldblum gave me a non-committal shrug as I headed for the kitchen. Having secured a glass of water and three cups of tea, I returned to my spot on the sofa where the three of us exchanged cagey Mexican standoff looks. Thankfully, Troy returned and broke the silence. ‘‘I spoke to the school’’ he said in his mumbly way. ‘‘They understand the situation and Zuzana’s coming right over’’.
‘‘Good’’ said Ben. There was no reaction from Goldblum who was now slumped back, eyes closed, labored breathing. I let a minute or two pass until I could bear the suffocating silence no longer. ‘‘Jon’’ I said, turning to face him. ‘‘What happened?’’