Cover photo courtesy of Nate Robert http://www.yomadic.com/
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…
‘‘No, this one also doesn’t work’’ said Zuzana, beating her gloved hands together. ‘‘Oh well… we keep on looking’’.
It was a chilly October afternoon and I was accompanying a beleaguered Goldblum on what was fast becoming a wild goose chase. ‘‘Vadim…’’ barked Zuzana, rattling the metal handle on yet another locked door, “Choď skontrolovať tamtie červené dvere”.
“You ok?’’ I asked as we stood shivering helplessly in the cold. It must have been the fiftieth time I’d asked, I really didn’t know what else to say. ‘‘Yah’’ rasped Goldblum quietly, eyes to the ground. I tried not to look too concerned, but in truth he was clearly far from ok. It had been just a couple of hours since I’d learned of the attack and his recollections remained hazy. Late night, waiting at a bus stop. Footsteps from behind. A swift, vicious blow to the face from an indeterminate weapon. Watery vision, streaming blood, a brief blackout.
‘‘It’s here!’’ sang Zuzana happily, ‘‘This way!’’ The four of us entered what appeared to be a disused building, certainly nothing that resembled a hospital of any kind. Zuzana led the way with long purposeful strides, Vadim dragging his feet from the rear in his hunched shoulders Hammer Horror way. Where the **** are we? I longed to ask but held back, not wanting to sink Goldblum’s spirits any lower.
We came into a hall with a large metal desk, cold stone bench and overflowing wastepaper basket. A beaky girl behind the desk exchanged a few short sentences with Zuzana before leading us down a musty corridor to an X-ray room.
Zuzana and Goldblum disappeared inside while I waited in the corridor with Vadim, who instantly lit up yet another cigarette. He silently offered me one but I declined and we just stood there in silence, cut adrift by our incompatible tongues. Inwardly cursing the fact that there was nowhere to sit, I’d just begun to wonder what was going on when they re-emerged. Peering in through the open door, I spied a stout balding doctor bundling Goldblum’s money into a rusty old till.
‘‘Well…?’’ I asked Goldblum as we made our way out. ‘‘Broken nose’’ he croaked with a sardonic smile. ‘‘We need to see dentist next!’’ chipped in Zuzana, ‘‘but maybe not possible today. I will make appointment for tomorrow’’.
Thankfully the dentist’s turned out to be much less ghetto. Housed in a sad-looking two hundred year old building, the initial signs were not good. But once inside it was all shiny white surfaces, modern equipment and actual chairs to sit on while you waited. So unexpected was this that I felt Goldblum palpably perk up; not least when the curvy receptionist waltzed over to take down his details on her crisp white form. ‘‘Minx’’ said his sideways glance to me as she flitted back to her station.
‘‘Broken jaw’’ mumbled Goldblum as we left, ‘‘New place tomorrow’’. Christ, this is turning into musical hospitals I thought as Zuzana cheerfully chatted away about logistics. ‘‘Damn, I gotta teach’’ I realized, glancing at my watch. So off I went, catching a lift with Vadim back to Obchodna Street.
Back at school and Goldblum’s absence was naturally big news. ‘‘What the **** happened?’’ asked Myles over a McDonald’s coffee. ‘‘Lignon, how’s Jon?’’ inquired Irish Mike between classes. That night at The Slovak Pub the atmosphere was subdued. Our first weeks in the city had been all fun and games, an ever-accelerating treadmill of new faces and fresh experiences. We were young, far from home, virtually commitment free and making more money than we could possibly spend. We’d been having a blast!
But Goldblum’s attack served as a stark reminder that we were outsiders in an unfamiliar land. That we needed to keep our eyes open; look out for each other. We’d been told about Bratislava’s dodgy neighbourhoods and the gangs of skinheads who targeted ethnics and foreigners, or simply anyone they didn’t like the look of. Was this what had happened to Jon? I thought on the tram back to Dlhé diely.
‘‘Broken nose, broken jaw two places and fractured skull’’ confirmed Dr. Hirjak, his finger hovering around a series of x-rays. The latest stop on our tour of Bratislava’s medical establishments was Univerzitna nemocnina, another gloomy facility located right in the centre of town. Goldblum didn’t flinch when he heard the skull part; which like myself he hadn’t seen coming. Even Zuzana had stopped smiling.
Dr. Hirjak explained that he would operate on the jaw later that day, but that the nose and skull injuries had to heal naturally. A handsome man with a prominent nose and kind eyes, he went some way in reassuring everyone that ‘‘Mr. Jon’’ was in good hands.
‘‘Keep your phone and passport with you at all times’’ explained Zuzana with an urgency that made me feel uneasy again. Then came a brief whispered conference with Dr. Hirjak. ‘‘Oh yes’’ she stammered with a nervous laugh and flushed cheeks. ‘‘Sorry… but you have to buy your own toilet paper’’. Goldblum and I looked at each other, ‘‘Bring your own bog roll eh?’’ he mused and off we went in search of a store.
When my friend finally emerged from the operating theatre I wasn’t even surprised to see him brought out on an actual stretcher, an orderly at one end, Dr. Hirjak himself at the other wearing a stained wife beater. If I hadn’t been so terrified for Goldblum I could have burst out laughing.
They carried him outside across a shabby courtyard towards a dormitory building where I imagined we’d find rows of wailing soldiers, a pretty nurse, flickering candles and a gramophone playing Vera Lynn. Instead we arrived at a small nondescript room with a forlorn potted plant drooping away in the corner. Dimly lit and utterly silent, there was an eerie feel to the place; a sense that we’d been dropped into an outtake of Don Corleone’s hospital scene from The Godfather. Which I suppose put me in the role of a concerned Michael, on the lookout for the man with the flowers.
Goldblum blinked groggily as they lowered him onto a bed across from another man, a corpse-like figure who remained hidden under layers of blankets whenever I came to visit. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing him move. “Jon has two plates in jaw’’ whispered Zuzana as we watched him doze off. ‘‘Maybe six weeks before he can eat’’.
‘‘Time to go now’’ said Dr. Hirjak, placing a fatherly hand on my shoulder. ‘‘Your friend need rest. Will already feel better tomorrow’’.
‘‘Porn! Just what I was hoping for’’ joked Goldblum, slurring through his wired jaw. ‘‘I’ve been assured it’s Slovakia’s finest rag’’ replied Citizen Kovacs, an affable Canadian with a desert-dry sense of humour. It was a few days after the operation and Kovacs was the latest in a steady procession of well-wishers. Ben had been in and out, bringing cigarettes that he and Goldblum smoked through the bars of the corridor window. Sladjana and her flatmate Carol came bearing flowers, while Big Katka’s clicking high heels and overwhelming perfume proved so conspicuous the mystery man in the other bed allegedly rose from his cocoon to check her out.
When Rich swung by it struck me that I’d never seen him so downbeat, his trademark zeal dampened by the hospital’s overriding grimness. Sitting quietly on the guest stool, there were no ‘‘faaantastics’’ and nothing even approaching ‘‘Good times!’’. Back on the hill that night and I presented Rich with something that had been on my mind. ‘‘Maybe we should ask Jon if he wants to move in. You know, when he gets out of hospital’’. Rich, working through one of his famous veggie stir-fries, didn’t hesitate for a second. ‘‘Dude, I don’t see why not’’.
The third bedroom in our apartment still hadn’t been claimed, despite playing host to several visitors. First up was James, the school’s Canadian head teacher, who’d shacked up with us for a week while he and his Slovak girlfriend looked for a joint of their own. Then came a one night stay from an ex teacher known as Crazy Jason, whose rapping on the door late at night woke us both up. Sadly sleep was not to be reclaimed as I lay there listening to him stumbling around doing god knows what.
Knowing it was just a matter of time before the room was taken, and well aware of what a lottery such a placement was, I put it to Goldblum the next day at the hospital. ‘‘I appreciate that kid’’ he said, looking up from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. ‘‘I’ll give it some thought’’.
Later that evening we were in the corridor, Goldblum smoking out the window with an amused smile as I gave him the latest news from Roger, Adminx and the morning McDonald’s crew. After a while a hush fell between us, so we stood listening to the city traffic, the wind rattling against the shutters. ‘‘I still don’t remember much’’ he said suddenly, stubbing out his cigarette in the little silver tray he kept on the ledge. ‘‘But I do recall hitting the floor and bracing myself for a pretty harsh kicking. You know, the kind you don’t get up from’’. I nodded as it suddenly dawned on me how much worse this could have been for him, a premature end to the party for everyone that year. Goldblum sensed it too, and for just a moment I felt his resolve waver, though I couldn’t be sure whether he was damp around the eyes or if it was just the light playing tricks.
“Anyhow, it never came’’ he continued, closing the window and making his way back towards the room. ‘‘I lay there for a while and when I finally sat up and cleared the blood from my eyes they were gone’’.
Settling into bed, Goldblum switched on the light and let out a sigh. The flowers on the table had begun to wilt, while he was also down to the last few sheets of bog roll. Through one of the half-open drawers I caught sight of the busty blond from the cover of the adult magazine, grinning at me psychotically with her pearly white teeth.
It was approaching midnight and I had to be up in seven hours for my Obchodna morning classes. In the neighbouring bed my friend’s mannequin neighbour lay as dormant as ever. ‘‘Well… I’m heading back to the hill’’ I yawned, stretching my arms as I made for the door. ‘‘Night’’ he said with a raised hand. Grabbing his book, Goldblum flicked through the pages to his hospital card bookmark, before diving back into the soothing escapism of Catch 22.
‘Bring Your Own Bog Roll’ is the fifth chapter of my short story series The Slovak Files.
You can also check out my bite sized travel reports from around Slovakia.