Prudence and the Red Baron extract


My first entrance


“Pru-dence Box” The grey uniformed immigration officer pronounced my name slowly, paying close attention to each of the three syllables.

“Yes,” I replied.

Satisfied with his ability to decipher Latin script, he murmured my name in a sing song voice as he leafed through my passport.  He sat in a lit booth and I looked down on him through the glass window.  His face was shaded by his peaked hat and he looked up at me only once, to confirm my resemblance to my photograph. He paused over a Moroccan stamp.  Did he suspect dissolute living? Was this confirmed by the solitary Dutch stamp? –  It was the only one I had acquired on numerous visits to Amsterdam.  When he came to my three month Russian visa, he was not moved to raise his head in brotherly solidarity. Rather, as I suspected from his indrawn shoulders, he was considering how a woman of my tender age could have been involved in espionage so early. At last he came to my entry visa stamp which had taken the Bulgarian embassy in London four weeks to issue. After a long silence, he spoke to the passport.

“You come to Bulgaria to work?”

“Yes,” I said and pushed the letters from The British Council and the Bulgarian Education Ministry through the narrow slot at the bottom of the glass.  Without looking up he reached for them and began to scan each printed paragraph of each page carefully, holding the papers close to his face.  Minutes passed. Finally, he carefully folded the letters and placed them beside my open passport.  His fingers drummed on the desk.  Was it from a frustration that he could find no reason to question my entry?  Suddenly, his hand shot out to seize a stamp.  Bang!  Passport and documents were passed up to me and his hand waved me in the direction of baggage claim.

I was now truly on Bulgarian soil and, as the last passenger through Passport Control, I was relieved to see my bulging suitcase revolving in splendid isolation on the luggage belt.  A plump woman in a crimson suit stepped forward to meet me.

“Miss Box, at last!  Goodness you have taken so much time! The Ministry of Education welcomes you finally to the People’s Republic of Bulgaria!”  The welcome was tempered by frustration. But she forced a smile and continued:   “My name is Vera Goleminova – I have been expecting you for the last three weeks and so much time you spent in passport control!”  Vera sighed.  She looked at the ceiling as I struggled with my suitcase and rucksack.  “Do hurry now!  We have an internal flight waiting for you to take you straight to Vardez. If you would just go through customs.  Don’t worry, there will be someone waiting for you in your destination.”

Struggling with my luggage, I was hurried into a curtained brightly lit area with a table in the middle.  A perspiring bald uniformed man motioned me to put my suitcase on the table and open it up.

“Do hurry, Miss Box.  The plane will not wait for ever.”  I heaved the bag up and unlocked the small padlocks on the zips.  The customs officer plunged his plastic gloved hands into the mess of hastily packed clothes.  Sensible knickers were pushed aside, but my few new sets of sexier underwear were lingered over as object lessons for the Ministry.  Un-ironed skirts and slacks were hoisted into the air, then dropped to hang over the edge of the table. Then one by one, my books were taken out and placed on the table.  I had plundered my father’s bookshelves for world classics I had not read.

The plump brow furrowed with concern.  The Customs officer held up a book that featured a naked woman on the front.  He riffled through the pages to check that there were no further pictures inside.  He looked grimly at Vera Goleminova.  He barked out a sentence in which I detected the word pornography.  This was ridiculous.

Luckily the Ministry of Education had heard of Emil Zola and its representative launched such a flurry of angry words that customs officer flushed and bowed, repacked my bag with careful silent speed.

“I am sorry, Miss Box,” Vera said, as she smoothed down her ruffled crimson creases.  “But we have to observe the formalities.”

“Oh of course.”  I retrieved my bag from a now apologetic looking official. The rucksack, that contained my radio cassette player, would escape his attention. With a blush I remembered it also contained numerous packets of condoms Dad had pushed into its pockets at the last minute, not brooking any argument. Supplies sufficient for Casanova – it just showed how much Dad and I talked about anything. – how much he knew of my enforced celibacy.

“Now, you have to rush, Miss Box.  There are important people on the plane and you are keeping them waiting. “Goodbye Miss Box and enjoy your time at Vardez.”

And Vera Goleminova., her duty done, stood and watched as I struggled with my heavy bags towards a door, whence a stewardess followed my progress with growingly evident impatience.  As I reached her, she took my rucksack and we stumbled out into the dark night towards a distant aeroplane that reminded me of a Humphrey Bogart movie I had seen, but whose title I had forgotten.  A man appeared and whisked my bag away towards the still open cargo hold and I followed the stewardess who was still carrying my rucksack. She only passed it to me when we reached what looked like an adapted stepladder by the tail; and with one final effort, I pushed myself and it into the plane.  The compartment was crowded and all turned to glare at the cause of the plane’s delay.  I was seated on my own on a canvas chair and almost immediately the propellers roared into life.

I was disappointed.  I had expected to spend some time in the capital city of Sofia, then travel overland to Valdez in a car or by train.  Instead, I was being flown at ten to midnight through the dark sky to a destination now just an hour away. I would pass over mountains but I would not see them.  I would not even see the sea.

I looked at my reflection in the dark glass of the window. I felt so tired and unsure.  “Can’t wait to get out of this shit-hole of a country – can’t say I blame you!” had been my father’s first response when I told him of my successful application.  “Straight out of University! They must be desperate!”  This became his more considered and often repeated conclusion.  My Dad knew about Communist countries – having been on a Union delegation to Poland ten years before.  “If they’re building Socialism, they seem to have forgotten the cement” had been his comment at the time.  Suddenly the cabin lights went out, with only guide lights glimmering down the aisle.  The two men in front of me grunted comfortably in their creaking seats and prepared to sleep.

So I would arrive in Vardez just after one o’clock in the morning.  I hoped there would be someone there to meet me.  As yet, I had no Bulgarian money – just the address and telephone number of the Deputy Director of the school – a Comrade Vassileva. It was too dark to read my Bulgarian text-book. And so I passed the time in reviewing all that I had learnt at the British Council Orientation day. There were only two of us going out but there had been plenty of experts to give advice, including a grey haired man who could had come straight out off the set of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

I was to beware of honey traps – actually this advice had been more pointedly directed at Richard who was to teach in Sofia. All sexual encounters were likely to be the beginning of a blackmailing strategy, to gain vital state or industrial secrets.  Out on the streets, I was to avoid the temptation of selling my British pounds on the black market. I was told about currency shops. In the classroom, I should be suspicious of my least able pupils.  It was usually they who would have been given the task of reporting to the school authorities whatever they thought I had said in any given lesson. One English teacher had stunned a Biology class by telling them that Bulgaria was a colony of the Soviet Union. He had come very close to being instantly deported.

.Many male teachers had married Bulgarian girls and almost gone native. Richard was warned during the coffee break by Ruth, a former teacher, invited for the briefing. Bulgarian girls – even if they were not working for the Bulgarian Secret service – were utterly ruthless in their pursuit of western men.  Looking across at tall gangly me, Ruth told me not to worry about Bulgarian men.  They were too spoilt to attract me and too lazy to pursue me. Well that’s all right then I told myself with my usual smile, that some acquaintances misinterpreted as bitter.

I learnt in the afternoon that there had been some particular problems at Vardez English Language School. The deputy director there could be very suspicious and demanding. One teacher had described her as a bully. There had been complaints.  The suggestion was that Vardez was a town where the police and military were very powerful and the English Language School continually had to prove that its students and teachers were not being corrupted by the decadent capitalist language they were being forced to use. Perhaps this was why I had been chosen for this school. The grey man had revealed over tea that he knew I had been to Russia.  He knew about my father’s Trade Union activities. “You will have your head screwed on better than that one!” He had jerked a thumb in Richard’s direction.  “Don’t worry; we can keep an eye on him in Sofia.”

I had exchanged telephone numbers with Richard.  He rang me week later to say his visa had come through.  So I assumed he had preceded me two weeks earlier.

The plane began to descend through cloud and at once rain spattered on the cabin window.  I looked out, expecting to see lights, but all was dark. The plane lurched, dropped and lurched again and then the wheels screeched on the runway.  There was an outburst of applause.

Shouldering my rucksack, I was the first to exit the plane.  I carefully negotiated the stepladder, scanning the dark buildings in the distance for any sign of a welcoming party. A single airport official pointed me towards an open gate in the perimeter fence and I set my face into the driving rain.  My fellow passengers raced past me.  As I got closer to the gate, I saw it opened out on to the car park where a bus was waiting, presumably to take the passengers to town. I huddled with others under the shelter of an open shed to wait for our luggage.  A few passengers had been met; one was important enough to be met by the driver of a large black limousine, who carried an umbrella. Once he had deposited his precious guest in the car, the driver joined us to wait for his patron’s luggage.

Fifteen minutes passed with no sign of luggage or welcoming committee.  The bus revved its engine.  I wondered if I should take it.  But then I had no money for a ticket.  Better to try to take a taxi to Comrade Vassileva’s address. But there seemed to be no taxis.  A tractor appeared from the direction of the runway and behind, piled up on a trailer, I could see bundles, bags and cases.  Even before it had stopped my fellow passengers had stripped the trailer of its contents, except for my case, and were running towards the bus. Finally, as I was dragging my luggage towards the gate, the bus departed with a merry toot-toot.

Lit by a single glaring lamp, I looked back at the dark airport building.  The tractor driver motioned me out into the car-park so he could lock the gate. As he fastened the padlock he observed me with some curiosity through the iron bars.

I fished in my bag for my official Ministry Invitation.  “I am English woman – here for school.”  I spoke slowly in Lesson 3 Bulgarian for Beginner and proffered the letter through the bars.  “Not one comes,” I ended bravely. He shrugged and turned to go.

“Taxi?” I shouted hopefully at his retreating back.

Whatever he muttered was lost in the wind and rain.  He mounted his tractor and, with a juddering rattle, drove off.

I felt lonely and scared.  Beyond the bright light by the fence gate, all was dark but noisy with crickets and frogs rejoicing in the penetrating rain.  There was no shelter. Perhaps if I walked towards the building, I would find somebody or at least the shelter of a doorway. Airports were strategic places. There should be armed guards constantly on the alert.  But first, I was desperate to pee. On the edge of light and the car park, there were bushes.  I dropped my bags and made for one, loosening my trousers on the way. Just as I had crouched down and was feeling a gush of relief with the rustle of leaves beneath me, I heard the noise of a distressed engine approaching from behind me and all at once I was illuminated in car headlights. I was transfixed, unable to move, caught in the act, presenting my bare arse to whoever was driving the car.

He or she had the tact to extinguish the lights and the car came to a coughing halt beside my luggage.  I was hidden in darkness but from the gate light was able to observe first a young man, then a young woman get out of the car.

“Miss Box?”  the man called out tentatively.  Never had my name sounded so sweet.  I pulled up knickers and trousers and emerged into the light.

The apologies were profuse.  The woman rushed to give me a hug, leaving the man to grunt over the weight of first my suitcase, then my rucksack.

“Oh dear, dear!  My name is Maria.  You are so soaked!  We are so sorry!! Bloody no-feed-your-mother car! We only heared an hour ago! Comrade Vassileva rang on the phone.  New English teacher, Miss Prudence Box is arriving at last one week after the school has started!  Don’t worry!  You haven’t missed much.  The students are on brigade, picking grapes. Please, you sit in the front, out of the rain.  That’s Tony, my husband.  Don’t worry he will find a way to get your luggage in the car.  If necessary, he’ll fix the boot with wire!.”

I could not care less.  I sank into the warm upholstery.  Soon I would be in my new abode and sleeping in a bed. Maria and Tony struggled with what looked like boxes of tomatoes that filled the back seat.  Eventually Maria was able to perch behind me. 

“Just come from what you would call the allotment.  No time to unload the car.  Urgent, urgent, go to airport, but then the bloody car won’t start.  Tony’s cousin have to come all the way from across town to fix it. Anyway – we get you home soon. Everything is ready.  Bed made up and everything.  No food though.  I’ll come round tomorrow – get you some breakfast things.  Are you hungry now?”

“No just tired!”


 There was a jolt from the back and then Tony thrust himself into the driver’s seat. “So sorry for keeping you waiting,” he said.

“Yes, Tony, yes, but we already said that.  Miss Box is tired.  She wants to sleep.  I want to sleep!”

“Please!” I interrupted.  “Call me Pru.”

“Pru?  Pru?  I like it. Sounds good.  The colleagues will like it too.”

Fifteen minutes later, the car stopped by a low dark block of flats.  Maria led me into the first darkened entrance and with Tony puffing after us with my luggage, we climbed to the second floor.  Still in the dark, Maria found the key, opened the door, switched on a harsh unshaded hall light and ushered me into my new home. Tony dropped my case and rucksack in the far room, as I noted with relief that in the first room a bed was waiting all ready made for me.  Maria pointed out kitchen and bathroom, then again with apologies for the delay at the airport and a promise to see me in the morning, she and Tony left.

Unpacking could wait.  I got undressed, brushed my teeth in the cell block bathroom and flopped into bed.



First Day


I was woken by the doorbell.  I looked at my watch. It was seven o’clock and I had slept for just five hours.  I rose carefully from the bed.  I had noticed the previous night that one of its legs had been replaced by a pile of books and so caution was advisable.  I pulled on a dressing gown, retrieved from my half unpacked suitcase and shuffled into the hall where the bare concrete floor made me jog on the spot.

Maria came in with a shopping bag, followed almost reluctantly by a long haired young woman with wide staring eyes. They came into my bedroom and Maria exclaimed when she saw the bed. 

“This just not good enough!”  She knelt down to examine the books on which the bed was supported.  “Might have known it,” she cried.  “Medical books – probably supplied by all the nurses he used to entertain here! And of course, they managed to break the bed.”

“Maria!” Her younger colleague looked embarrassed.  “Lies, Maria!” she murmured.

“Well, I’ll have some many things to say when we get back to school!”  Maria grumbled then turned to me. “Sorry for the early waking up call but as we were on a break, we have been sent to bring you to school this morning. This is my colleague, Katya Kalimanova.  Both of us teach the preparatory classes, so we’ll have a lot to do with each other.”

Katya swept back the hair from her flushed excited face.  “So looking forward to working with you!  So many questions to ask!  Happy, happy pupils, so impatient to see you.”

“You don’t expect me to start teaching right away?” I asked, desperately searching for a dress that did not appear too creased.  The light from the curtains told me it would be a hot sunny day. I found my white cheesecloth dress with the blue rose pattern and held it up. Katya gasped in excitement.  Well, it would do as long as I had pale underwear.

Maria started unpacking her shopping bag and Katya disappeared into the kitchen.  Both seemed very familiar with the layout of the flat. I heard the clink of plates and a kettle being filled. Seizing bra and knickers, the dress and a towel I made my excuses and walked to the bathroom, in which I had unpacked my wash things last night.  The room had not improved.  Four bare grey concrete walls enclosed me with only a high shower head, a boiler tank, a toilet, a cracked basin, a tiny mirror and a drainage hole in the floor to keep me company.  I then realised that the boiler had not been switched on. I had to make do with a very brisk rub down with a flannel!

Three minutes later, I reappeared, dressed and combed, every inch the outdoors farm girl, I used to see pictured in my grandmother’s magazines. On a low table, my future colleagues had laid out a bowl of grapes, some pastries and cups of steaming yellow liquid. 

Katya pushed a cup towards me.  “Bulgaria is proud of its herbal teas. All English teachers love them! This is Laika – I don’t know how you say it in English.”

I took a sip.  It was insipid and vaguely medical. Maria read my thoughts.  “So sorry – no sugar in the flat or any coffee. I hoped at least your person-before- you would have left some sugar.”

Katya frowned “Mr Allen Wriggly– you know him?”

I shook my head.  He had not been at the briefing.

Katya shook her head in dismay.  “We were not very happy with him, I am afraid. Not the perfect English gentleman!  A little – how would you say – not good mannered.”

Maria laughed abruptly and I noted the reproachful look Katya sent her.

The pastries were filled with white cheese and were so nice!  I covered my lap with crumbs.

“Banitsa!” breathed Katya, glowing with pride.  “Fresh from Bulgarian bakery.  You have to get up early before they all finish.”

I ate quickly, then retreated to the second room, where I was able to scan myself critically in the full length mirror on the wardrobe drawer. My makeup was sparing.  I had noticed that my new colleagues used a lot.  Well, let me play the windswept out-doorsy northern girl.  I gave my hair a final comb.

“Are you ready?” Maria asked.  “Don’t worry.  We are just going to the school.  You’ll meet the colleagues, meet the Director and Comrade Vassileva, perhaps meet your pupils, and get the textbook so you can start teaching tomorrow.  I’ll introduce you to Stefanka, the school secretary.  She’ll sort you out with some Bulgarian money and I’ll make sure she gets that bed replaced.” She looked at Katya.  “That brigand Alan Wriggly!!”

I locked the door behind us with the key Maria had given me the night before and we made our way down the four flights of stairs.  In the daylight I saw that I was living in a modest block of flats with two entrances.  I nodded to the three old women, who sat on a bench.  They were feeding themselves with roasted sunflower seeds and spitting out the husks on to the pavement.  Our passing occasioned a flurry of conversation. We turned up a large boulevard lined with ancient trees. On either side heavy buildings gaped over crumbling flights of steps. Supermarket, greengrocer and bakery were pointed out to me.  The greengrocer’s had a long queue and I saw large women coming out of the shop, their beefy arms supporting crates of tomatoes, peppers and aubergines.

“It’s conserve time.  You make conserves in England? You know, for the winter?” Katya asked.

I shook my head.

Maria laughed.  “Of course she doesn’t.  You have everything the whole year round don’t you – privileged English woman.”  She nudged me playfully. “Just you wait.  In a month’s time that greengrocer will have nothing in his shop, except for bottles of green peas.”

I was concentrating on the pavement.  The paving stones were uneven and even unstable. Katya, alarmed that I might have taken offence launched into a patriotic defence of Bulgarian fruit and vegetables.  “It is the sun, Miss Box, the wonderful Bulgarian sun, that makes our tomatoes so rich tasting.  If you like, I’ll get my mother to teach you how to make liutenitza.  You know what is liutenitza?”

The explanation took us beyond the Post Office, where I was told I could make phone calls and across a busy intersection where long bendy buses belched black diesel fumes.

We were nearly there.  Maria pointed out a door in the back of a large grey block building.  “Student canteen – I recommend it.  You can eat there every day. Very cheap!”  We rounded the corner and entered a gate at the front. Asphalt playing areas were occupied by students playing basketball and football.  We ascended the stone steps and underneath a banner proclaiming endless brotherhood with the Soviet Union we entered the vast dark space of the lower corridor.

Wide stone stairs led us to the second floor. Again we were in a long corridor lined with classroom doors from which could be heard the concentrated murmur of pupils learning broken only by the occasional harsh voice of an older teacher. On the walls of the corridor were portraits of grim disapproval – mostly male, but even more terrifying when female. As I walked past I could feel their eyes following me.  Who is this reactionary force?  Who does she think she is – decadent hussy?

Katya followed my eyes and sighed with pride.  “Our glorious Central Committee!”

They look so …” I searched for a diplomatic word.  “Concerned?” I ended feebly.

“Yes, yes so right, Miss Box!  They work so hard, care so much for our welfare!”  I was almost sure I heard Maria snort.

“Please call me Pru.” I insisted.

“Pru? Are you sure!?” Katya seemed troubled. So short a name!”

“All my friends call me Pru,” I added helpfully.

“Oh, your friends, then I…. Oh thank you!” she gushed, thrilled at her new status.

At the end of the corridor sat as if in judgement a tribunal of older women, dressed in overalls. The large window behind them and the heavy desk at which they sat added to their authority. Another banner was draped across the desk and fell to the floor. It read “Glory to the April Plenum”. The chief judge did not need a gavel. She barked out a hoarse question. Katya approached the bench answered in a trembling voice.  I looked enquiringly at Maria.

“The aunts!” she whispered – then seeing this answer confused me – “The cleaners.  They sit here on duty all day, waiting for something to clean; and as they are rarely called upon to do anything, they know everything about the staff and pupils.”

I looked up at a larger portrait – a man who looked as if he had just eaten a tasty lunch and was looking forward to an agreeable snooze.  “He doesn’t look so concerned,” I observed.

“That’s our glorious leader and President, Todor Zhivkov.  Please don’t ask Katya about him.  We have wasted enough time already and she will consider it her patriotic duty to lecture us both for an hour.”

Katya had disappeared meanwhile through a padded leather door, which I supposed led to the Director’s study. That door soon opened and I was beckoned inside.

I was faced by a tall woman of about forty, dyed black hair gathered in an imposing beehive, pale face, accentuated by a slash of pillar box lipstick, her full figure scarcely contained in a tight black suit over a frilled white blouse, fastened with an onyx brooch.  So imposing was this figure standing by the bookcase that I scarcely noticed the shorter grey haired man, who stood behind the desk in an ill fitting pin stripe suit.

Katya left, closing the door and it was the man who broke the silence.

“Welcome, Miss Box,” he started in slow Bulgarian.  “I am Comrade Dancho Gunev, the director of the Nikola Vapsarov English Gymnasium.” He sat down and motioned me towards a vacant chair.

My eyes turned to the woman for the rest of the interview, for she took charge.

“I imagine you understood that – you have studied Russian, I believe – and that is some way to understanding the Bulgarian.”  She dared me to deny it. “Well, I will talk English, so there will be no misunderstandings.  First Comrade Director Gunev” – she waved in his direction – “Welcomes you to the school, as of course I too.  I am Comrade Radka Vassileva, the Deputy Director.”  She spoke carefully in a sing-song intonation.  She paused to check my understanding.

I nodded mesmerised.

“Well, Miss Box! We have had to wait such a long time for you!  Term has started.” She looked at her watch.  “You should be teaching right now.”

“It wasn’t…” I began.

“I know what you say – not your fault – but, I tell you – we know whose fault it was. Anyway – I see from your file you are not very experienced – just a short teaching course.  But our students are very keen.  You will be teaching beginners’ classes – very easy and just a couple of Eighth class lessons with Maria – you’ve met her. Tell her I will talk to her about her car.”

“It wasn’t,” I began again but she brushed my protest aside.

“Not very good to keep you waiting last night. Anyway, I want you to know that I will be looking after you, like a mother.”  Her bosom swelled.  “Any problem and you must come to me straight away.  No-one else!”  She fixed me with a far from maternal glare and I nodded helplessly.

“I am sure you will be more sensible than some of your predecessors.”  She muttered something in Bulgarian to the Director.  I only picked up the name Wriggly, at which Comrade Gunev sighed deeply.  “But if you show good respect to us and our country, our democracy and our school, I am sure we won’t have any problems.

She took a step towards me.  “Now I will take you to the store cupboard and issue you with two textbooks, that you must take great care of.  You will begin teaching tomorrow – Thursday.  It is a Beginner’s lesson.  You will teach the material for Lesson 1 B to four classes, same on Friday.  Next week Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday – Lesson 2B and so on.  Wednesday and Saturday you teach Eighth class B lessons.  School starts at half past seven for the rest of this month and half past one in October.”

I would need an alarm clock.  She led me up another staircase and through a door on the left. We were in a narrow long room, lined with bookshelves.  Apart from the textbooks, I was surprised to see a large collection of modern British and American fiction.

“The School library!”

I nodded, impressed.  “So students can borrow these books?”  I asked.

She looked at me narrowly.  “With my special permission, of course.  But they seldom do – quite enough homework they have.” She handed me the textbooks and pointed to the B lessons I was to teach.  “This is my office” – she pointed to a cluttered room at the end of the library. From her desk she would command a view of the entire library.  “Of course, if you wish to borrow a book, you only have to come and ask me. And now,” she took my arm in a steely grip.  “I will take you to the school secretary to sort out your payment details and show you the staffroom, so you may meet your colleagues.”

I met some more of my new colleagues, but could not remember their names. I was given an advance in Bulgarian leva.  I ate quite an impressive three course meal in the school canteen. Then Katya, anxious that I might get lost, insisted on accompanying me most of the way home.  I visited the supermarket.  It had huge freezers which were full of tins of tomatoes.  I bought some spaghetti and some sunflower oil. I stood for half an hour at the greengrocer’s to point at onions, peppers and grapes.

Half way through cooking a frugal meal the doorbell rang and Maria and some aunties burst in. Despite my protestations, I and all my luggage, packed or unpacked, was moved to the next block along.  That night I stood on a new balcony of a new flat – identical to the old one except that the bed stood on sturdy metal legs.  I listened to the murmur of voices from the ground below and breathed in the sweet scent of roasted peppers.  Here and there I could see little groups gathered round braziers or even using blow-torches.  This is going to be all right, I told myself.



Comrade Teacher


I sat on the loo, feeling like Tom Jones in the last verse of The Green, Green Grass of Home.   Last night’s optimism had indeed contracted to the four grey walls that surround me – to say nothing of the floor which was still wet from my shower.  This was the second time I had been forced by my nervous bowels to sit here.  One hour away from my first lesson and my hastily sketched cartoons on the coffee table seemed inadequate.  They could not possibly fill a whole fifty minutes. Then the B lesson seemed so short.  It was supposed to give me four lesson’s worth of material.  Still, it would take me much of the first lesson to get used to the new names.

I thought of the cavernous school, its cold dark stone corridors, its staff room of hard backed chairs and tables arranged the whole length of the room as if for a meeting. Comrade Vassileva scared me.  She had meant to scare me. The staff had mostly seemed overjoyed to see me, but quickly returned to their particular preoccupations.  I remembered few names, but many faces.  I had met the four Preparatory Class teachers with whom I would have to co-operate closely; there was Maria, of course; then a tall young man with floppy fair hair, who stammered out a succession of synonymous welcoming phrases before Maria could steer me away; a cool self contained young woman who barely nodded; and a woman of enormous girth who seemed to bear the weight of the world in invisible carrier bags. I had met friendly Maths, Physics and Chemistry teachers, all middle aged women.  In the tiny smoking room, I had met the history teacher, an old man whose bright starling eyes rejoiced amid the deeply etched lines of his face. I had met the aristocratic fine featured teacher of the final year.  I remembered her name.  It was Irena Draganska.

As I rose and pulled the chain on the product of my first day nerves, there was an ominous gurgle from the drain hole in the centre of the floor.  Surely the shower and toilet drains could not be connected!?

Half an hour later at 7.15 I entered the courtyard of the school. The students were all lined up and were performing exercises under the command of a Sports teacher with a megaphone. Maria was standing by the main door and beckoned to me. I quickly ran up the steps.

“You don’t have to be here.  Only form teachers –  to check the pupils’ uniforms and hair as they come in.”  I looked across to Katya who was an eighth year form teacher.  She waved happily then froze as she caught a glare from Comrade Vassileva, who had suddenly appeared beside me.

“Well Miss Box, are you prepared?”

I nodded.

I felt her inspect the length of my body from my brushed short hair, past my plain beige blouse and ironed long summer skirt to my flat plain sandals.  Not sufficiently dissatisfied to pass comment, she turned to walk back towards the Director who had now taken the megaphone and was addressing the students in a harsh high pitched voice. Dismissed, I hurried up to the staffroom.

All too soon, the hubbub in the corridors outside told me that my first lesson was minutes away. Maria led me towards my large unhappy colleague who was in the middle of a long complaint.  She broke off when she saw me and her face broke into an attractive smile.

“Miss Box, you are waiting to be guided to my class?  Let me take you, but after just a few minutes, so they will all be in place.”  She stroked my arm.  “So young – they will like you.  I expect you forgot my name,” she added sadly.  “It is Ginka,  Ginka Gorcheva.”

“Lessons all shipshape and was it Portsmouth fashion?” the young man with floppy hair covering his eyes joined us.  “You’ve got my class, my jolly crew after Ginka’s in the next room along. Top floor, Top classes, eh Ginche?”

Ginka sighed. “I wish you would not call me Ginche, Tosho.”

Tosho waved this away as he pushed his hair back.  “No formalities here, Miss Box. Just straightforward, salt of the earth, down to the ground colleagues.” He began to make his way to the door.  “See you at break!  Good luck and don’t break an ankle as they say in the circus.”

Ginka led me up two flights of stairs to the top corridor and under the baleful eyes of four more aunts, she pointed out the closed door of my classroom, from which I could hear a subdued murmur.

Well this was it.  Taking a deep breath and tightening my buttocks, I opened the door.

The hum of conversation stopped on an instant to be replaced by the screeching noise of chairs being pushed back as twelve pairs of pupils stood up. A fourteen year old girl stepped out smartly with more assurance than I felt.

“Comrade Teacher!” she saluted me.  “The class is ready for your lesson!” I saw that on the desk were neatly arranged chalk, duster and register.

The four lessons passed quickly, mostly taken up with my mastering all the new names and transcribing them into English characters.  By the end of the second lesson and the long break, I was hungry and Maria led me to a café where I ate a Turkish pastry covered with syrup and drank some brown sludge.

“If you want proper coffee, you have to go to Corecom.  It’s in the centre – just ten minutes from here. You know Corecom?”  Maria lowered her voice.  “It means “correction of communism” – ha, ha!. You can buy stuff for hard currency there.  It is supposed to be for foreigners and Bulgarians who work abroad, but you’ll be amazed how many people shop there.”

My last class finished at twelve and I felt like the hockey player who scored the winning goal.  The students were so attentive, so well behaved, so motivated.  They copied everything that I wrote on the blackboard.

I ate at the canteen and resolved to explore the town. Outside on the pavement, I met Tosho.  “No time to stop! No time to stop!” he shouted over his shoulder.  “I have a class in the Police Academy.”

I walked without a plan, just determined to follow wherever my feet led.  I only hoped that I would see the sea at some point.  It was a hot afternoon. I stepped from a cobbled side road into a huge square dominated by a tall column.  At its top, I recognised the shape of a Russian soldier, his saluting hand providing a perch for a seagull.  The square was divided by flowerbeds of carnations and red lilies. Old men and women sat in segregated benches and argued across their walking sticks.

The square led out into a broad pedestrianised shopping street, lined with trees.  At its corner was a large restaurant with tables out on the pavement.  I noted it for a possible Sunday treat. Shop windows contained the same visionary dummies with the same box shaped clothes of dark materials. I spent some time in the Russian Bookshop, handling beautifully printed art books.  Very soon I came to a new square surrounding a towering hotel.  To my left was what must I guessed be the town hall with imposing marble façade.  As I stood at its front, a handsome tall young man in a dark red silk suit and fluttering white silk scarf came running down the steps and was directed to the open door of a waiting black limousine.  It caused me to reflect that up till this point I had not thought much of the male talent.  Everyone, apart from Tosho – he with the unmanageable hair and tongue – was too short.  

Still I was a woman, schooled over my seven years since puberty to have low expectations. There had been times when I had submitted to urgent fumbling even initiated some clumsy fumbling of my own.   It wasn’t as if I had not enjoyed some brief moments – particularly with an art student called Josh.  But he had found a shorter bouncier model and I had accepted rejection with a face saving grace.  As my father once said to me in his only sex talk, It’s natural but don’t expect too much and don’t get pregnant.  That was why he had slipped the multiple packets of condoms down the side of my bag.  My mother was too ill to participate in the packing and I doubted she would know what a condom was.   Anyway it showed he knew more about Bulgarian shortages than he did about his daughter’s chances of getting laid.

Ahead in the distance I could see cranes.  I turned left down another boulevard and it proved a happy turn for at its end I discovered what was to be my favourite place in Vardez: the seaside park.

Old beech, lime and birch trees shaded inviting paths to right and left. At this time in the afternoon, benches were occupied by mothers and grandparents with prams and pushchairs. But I walked on down the main path towards the opening expanse of sky.  In the distance I could see a stone balustrade and from there I knew I would see the sea.

I stood, enjoying the cool breeze, looking at the bay, the port to my left, the ships queuing to enter the length of beach below me where soft breakers rolled in a mesmerising rhythm.  Here and there were swimmers – but surprisingly few, despite the heat. But what eventually held my gaze was the near imperceptible margin where sea met sky. I saw infinity in the afternoon.

I am a creature of impulse and, to the astonishment of those about me – a soldier and his girl, a couple of grandmothers with their toddlers and a sunflower seed seller – I gave out a little whoop and did a short dance shuffle. I was going to like this place.  Seeing the expressions of my near neighbours, I pulled myself together.  These people might know Comrade Vassileva!



Testing hedgehogs


A month had passed, the school had changed to the afternoon shift and Comrade Vassileva made me jump. There I was, standing outside the Corecom, wondering about going in and buying a jar of Maxwell House Instant Coffee, feeling guilty as always, and suddenly a strong arm inserted itself under mine and I was gently tugged backwards and away towards the main street.

“Miss Box, why don’t you come and drink a cup of coffee with me?”

Why don’t I? – well a number of reasons – starting with what passed for coffee in most cafes – a brown sludge that depended on some  mysterious combination of Vietnamese coffee and acorns.  But with Radka Vassileva’s strong hand now encircling my wrist and her almost hypnotic power over me, I had little choice and so soon found myself sitting opposite the Deputy Director in the smoking interior of the Hotel Bulgaria coffee bar.

“Well, what are you doing with yourself these days?”  Comrade Vassileva took out a pack of BT cigarettes and having offered me one, knowing I did not smoke, she lit her own.

This pause was meant for me to feel uncomfortable.  What was I meant to have been doing? I had my lessons prepared for the week.  My search for fresh meat continued to be unsuccessful. I walked everyday in the seaside park. I found I now understood the gist of most Bulgarian conversation around me.  I was going out for a meal with Maria and Tony tonight.

The eyes lined in Egyptian style bored into me.  The jet black hair swayed gently.  Her bright red lips twitched into what was meant to be a smile.

“You are liking your flat?” Comrade Vassileva moved to an easier question and I nodded enthusiastically.

“Yes, it’s fine.”  I had finally got the television to work and I was enjoying the songs of folk artists. Full breasted ladies in extravagant costumes jumped out unexpectedly from behind combine harvesters or factory looms and sang vibrating soulful disharmonies to reward workers who had met their five year targets. I had even watched a few TV plays – mostly centred on the ethical problems faced by young party workers

“Everything is in good order?”


Comrade Vassileva paused to order two coffees. “Cake?” she asked. “They make very nice cakes in this café.”

I shook my head.

“Two cakes then!”  And as I slumped, resigned, back into my chair, Comrade Vassileva conducted a staccato interrogation of the waitress.  Satisfied, she took three aggressive final puffs from her cigarette before stubbing it out.

She looked at me critically.  “We have very good cosmeticians here.  You should try them.  Not at all expensive.”

Aware now that my attempt to cover a pimple on my chin had been unsuccessful, I attempted to change the subject.

“The pupils here are such a pleasure to teach.”

She lit another cigarette and scarcely nodded – as if my remark was unnecessary.

“Especially in comparison with pupils in England.”

“Aaah.”  She paused as if judging whether to press the ideological conclusion.  But the moment passed.  The coffee arrived with two moist slabs of chocolate layer cake.

I sipped the lukewarm liquid, careful not to draw the dregs from the bottom.  My every conversation with Comrade Vassileva seemed like a fencing match – behind every thrust was an unspoken I know what you are really thinking.  But I did not know what I really thought.

“So,” she began again. “You are enjoying teaching our students – very intelligent, Bulgarian students, very hard working.”

“Yes,” I said, attempting the first piece of the very sweet cake.

“But Miss Box!” Why are you not testing them?”

“Testing them?”

“Yes, everyday.  You must test them, Miss Box.  Give them marks – two to six.  No-one tell you this?”

My silence gave her the answer.

“Someone must have explained you.  You probably not listened.  So much for you to comprehend!  I’ll tell Maria to explain it again to you.”  She stubbed out her cigarette and pushed her untouched cake towards me.  “You eat mine.  It’s very nice cake.  But I’m looking after my figure.”  She called for the bill and paid it.  “I’ll see you in the school this afternoon.” She left.

As soon as she was out of sight, I left too.  I had to get back to the flat to collect my books and papers for the afternoon shift. It was too late to go to the school canteen.  It was even too late for the Corecom.  I would have to keep my promise to myself not to use precious currency and continue to live as a native.

On the bus, I punched my six stotinka ticket and perched next to a woman on whose enormous thigh was balanced a large sack filled to the top with cotton scraps, which fluttered at every jolt of the bus. The driver was a reckless soul – no doubt looking forward to a romantic assignation at the terminus.  Every approaching hole or bump in the road deserved an extra push on the accelerator, and by the time I reached my stop, I had gained some understanding of the advantages of my neighbour’s well padded bottom.  With every jolt she grunted but her body rolled with hydraulic ease.  With every bump my bony body juddered from skinny rump to clenched teeth.

On benches in front of Entrance A of Block 25, the old women gathered to knit and exchange gossip. As usual my appearance brought a wary silence as they once again stared at the tall angular English woman.

Lesson 1 of Bulgarian for Foreign Students did not include greetings.  It prioritised more useful phrases like international co-operation and united students of the world proletariat. With my two years of Russian study, I mastered these fairly quickly, but understood why most of my predecessors had not persevered with learning Bulgarian. I, however, was picking up the language very quickly.  I smiled, put a spring in my step and barked out a Good day. I provoked smiles and indulgent laughter and they chorused their reply.

Unlocking the door, I entered the small hallway. On my left the concrete cubicle bathroom exhaled a dark chill. I would have to check for dead cockroaches, since I had put down the poison in the morning.  They crawled up the shower drain and up through the hole in the floor.  I understood now the link between this hole and the lavatory waist pipe.  This had been demonstrated by an unusually effective scientific experiment, probably financed by the government, which involved an unwitting English girl stooge (me) using lavatory paper over a period of weeks and flushing it down the toilet.  After the bathroom floor had been flooded by dark smelly liquid, I understood the purpose of the plastic waste bin and why it had been placed by the toilet.  I also had come to understand why the two items left by my predecessor were a rubber plunger and a half empty container of cockroach poison.

I passed through the small breakfast room that also served as my bedroom into the narrow kitchen. There I retrieved the remains of a spaghetti meal from the fridge and put it to heat up on the stove.  Stirring it, I went over this afternoon’s lesson in my mind.  We were revising the difference between the present simple and the present continuous.  I had prepared some two sided cartoon flash cards. The question, What does he do? was accompanied by a man in a chef’s hat.  He cooks food was the chorused response I expected.  Flip the card and the chef, still in his identifying hat, was relaxing in a bath. What is he doing?  Unsure of political sensibilities, I had withdrawn the picture of a man in a policeman’s helmet kissing his girlfriend.

Comrade Vassileva had impressed upon me the need to show utmost respect for the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and for all who past and present strove to build its golden socialist future.  The appalling example of my predecessor, Mr Wriggly – his clumsy explanation of the word colony – was drawn again to my attention:  “The students were scandalised, Miss Box. They ran out of the classroom with fingers in their ears. The Komsomol held an urgent meeting and a spontaneous protest telegram was sent to the Ministry of Education.”

I ate the lukewarm spaghetti- just warm enough to burn the bottom of the saucepan. Who are you?  I’m Miss Box. What do you do? I teach English to Bulgarian pupils. What are you doing?  That is the big question. I am now on the balcony checking to see if the clothes are dry.  I am looking up and down the broad sweep of Freedom Boulevard, The greengrocer is unloading and storing crates of vegetables from the back of a lorry.  I can imagine his anguished expression, the sweat pouring down his fat chest.  There is a queue for beer.  But what am I doing here?  The voice is almost my father’s.  And the answer is his definitely.  You are running away.

I re-entered the flat and flung the clothes on my bed. I sprayed the bottom of the saucepan with liquid soap and left it with dirty cup and fork in the sink.  I would enrol myself into the Slut of the year competition.  In the hall I did some hasty repairs on my face before packing my bag.  Twenty two years of single woman stared back at me. Fuck that!

I turned on my heel and left the flat.  Below I measured my stride to the cracks in the pavement.  Fifteen minutes from the eternal friendship poster to the big crossroads and traffic lights. The speed of my walk and the sun on my face dispelled my temporary gloom, and soon I was walking amid blue uniforms – pupils scurrying into line in the yard, to hear the day’s announcements before queuing to have their uniforms and hair length checked at the door.

There, waiting in grim intensity was of course Comrade Vassileva. She nodded to me, then cast a speculative – and I felt not altogether supportive – eye at her Director – whose shrill voice had reached the limit prescribed by any voice coach or throat surgeon. I waited with a group of teachers for the speech on Proper respect for the Working Class to finish before escaping with them past Comrade Vassileva’s searching eyes into the cavernous entrance hallway.

Up in the corridor of portraits I heard a quickening shuffle behind me.

“Aha!  Miss Box, Prudence, I mean to say, Pru – over here if you please, if you would be so kind.”  Like the milk in the saucepan boiling out over the oven and kitchen floor, my colleague Tosho Pishev was a man whose command of any language was out of control. “Pru,” he continued, not allowing me to respond. “You have come in the nick, not a moment too soon or late, I mean to say.  I have been lying in wait, counting the seconds. You can help me; fly to my aid before the bell rings.”

Tosho was an assiduous collector of English phrases and would never use one where three could be used for greater effect. As I turned back towards him I saw Maria pull a pitying face.  Poor Pru trapped again!  Still, this was what I was being paid for – to spread English culture and language.

We entered the staff room together.  “Ah just so! Present and correct!”  Tosho waved me towards a mess of paper fragments.  “Now – just a simple question, problem of translation, you know the pupils, always trying to catch me out – do you say:  pull a quick one?  Pull the wool over my eyes – so I don’t feel properly prepared. Now see here!”  All this while Tosho had been rummaging and at last he found the piece of paper he had been looking for.

“I know some impudent clever dick will ask me this. I have a lesson tomorrow morning in the Tourist school.  So we have a common Bulgarian phrase in a conversation and it must be translated.  Ok – it’s a tourist guide explaining to an English tourist – you know eccentric, wants to be independent traveller.  He has read something in some old guide book – not one of ours of course – and so he wants to visit a town to see some ruins.  Usually no problem – but this town is in the forbidden border zone but we don’t want to tell tourist this.  It gives wrong impression of Freedom loving Bulgaria.  So Tourist guide says: Unfortunately we have no organised tours to this town. But the English man replies Ah but I could hire a car. The tourist guide then uses a Bulgarian phrase and they have translated it literally.  But sir, you would be putting a hedgehog in your underpants. And then goes on about driving on the wrong side of the road, the possible landslides and snowdrifts, the dangerous lorries and the packs of wolves.”

I looked at my watch.  Classes would start in five minutes and I needed to get my books together.

“You don’t have such a phrase – hedgehogs in underpants, do you?”

I shook my head.

“So what would you say – give me a phrase, a saying for someone who is making unnecessary difficulties for himself. We say: don’t put a hedgehog in your underpants.

I grimaced.  Nothing came to mind except the phrase: cutting off your nose to spite your face.  It wasn’t quite the same thing but Tosho seized on it.  “Ah, that’s it.  Splendid!  That will shut them up – the clever Dicks the know-it-alls!”  He sat to write furiously on a new page.

Freed, I gathered my things together and looked for Maria.  She was in the smoking room.

“Hiya Pru – still OK for tonight?”


“Great,” she sucked her cigarette then blew a smoke ring.

I told her about Comrade Vassileva’s ambush and my need to test the pupils and she promised to explain all in the half hour break.



The Baron


We sat at a corner table of the Hotel Bulgaria Restaurant – Maria sitting next to me; opposite were her husband, Tony and an old school-mate of his, Chavdar. I felt cross that Maria had not mentioned that we were to be a foursome.  Chavdar was extremely good-looking but I suspected he knew this. If he had been invited to pay me attention, he had not as yet found sufficient enthusiasm to rise to the task.  He did gaze at me but in a distant superior way that left me flustered and irritated. After the introductions, he remained silent, while the conversation – in Bulgarian, slowed down for my sake, veered from recent experiences in the school to Tony’s job.

Tony was an accountant.  He had just started working for the State Taxi company.  He began to complain about the extent of unauthorised car use.  “I’ve been checking the kilometres.  The drivers have been taking the cars and using them for personal reasons and private deals.”

“Why don’t you hide behind the bushes in the taxi park, Tony?  You could jump out and check their kilometres, when they bring their taxis back.” Maria winked at me.

“Because that is not my work.”   Tony paused. “I am very sorry to say this…”  he looked over his shoulder as if to make sure there was no state functionary listening.  “But,” he continued in a whisper.  “There is no proper order in the place.  Drivers come and go at different times.  They even swap cars outside out on the road.  The guards on the car-park turn a blind eye – and I’m sure they have found a way to fix the taxi gas pump. I work Monday to Friday – but I bet you that if you drop in the taxi car-park tomorrow or Sunday, it will be empty.  Drivers would be doing private jobs or taking their families out to the country place to do some weeding or digging.  Nothing will appear on the books.  And they won’t even bother to fix the kilometres because there will be no record as to who took the car.”  Tony sighed.  “Maria and I – we wait five years to get our little car.”

Chavdar laughed and stretched.  “Oh envy! Envy!  And envy mixed with high principles is a dangerous mix. I always said that accountancy would be a thorny path for you.”  His tone was measured and his accent aristocratic.  I turned towards him in surprise. “The trouble with our friend,” he continued smoothly, “is that he cares. Most of us just shrug our shoulders.”

“Why put a hedgehog in your underpants?” I suggested.

They looked at me in astonishment and Maria burst out laughing.  “You have learnt a Bulgarian phrase, Pru.  And you are using it exactly right.  You have no idea how many hedgehogs I have to take out of Tony’s underpants.”

I explained how I had come by the phrase.

“Tosho Pishev!  Of course!  What a teacher!”  I could never be sure of Maria’s levels of sincerity or irony. “He knows so much, speaks so fast.  He just…just overwhelms the kids.  It is good he says everything about ten times, so they get the chance to catch up.”

“Of course, I knew him at University.”  Chavdar leant back in his chair. “Exams were never a problem for Tosho.  The Professors were lined up like prisoners before a firing squad.  They asked the question and Tosho would just mow them down with words.  For most other students, it was the other way round.”

“He does have a phenomenal vocabulary.” I said.

“Phenomenal vocabulary – yes!” Maria conceded.  “But the students end up like your professors – as if they have been hit by a hurricane.  And as for all this outside work he does! – It’s a bit like your Taxi drivers, Tony.  He just skips from the school to these sessions he runs for the Police, the Customs and goodness knows who else. Comrade Vassileva keeps saying we must not take work outside the school.  Of course we all have the odd private pupil for maybe an hour a week but that is different.  Tosho seems to spend every minute of his day teaching and so he often is not at teachers’ meetings.  But Comrade Vassileva never seems to say anything.”

Chavdar gave let out a short laugh and raised a fine eyebrow.  “You surely know the reason.”

Maria flushed and looked uncomfortable.  Chavdar saw my questioning look.  “Let us just say,” he continued.  “Tosho has some interesting connexions and your otherwise formidable deputy director has to treat him with some caution.”

I looked at Maria.  I realised that no-one had said what Chavdar did for a living. I looked back at him.  He was lean and looked agile.  He had dark hair and full lips which often formed into a sardonic smile.  I realised with a shock that he was the young man in the white silk scarf I had seen on my first teaching day, coming out of the town hall.

Tony looked relieved to see the salads arrive.  The waitress set out three Shopska salads of tomatoes, cucumbers and roast pepper covered with grated white cheese and, for me, my favourite milk salad – a combination of cucumber, grated walnut and crushed garlic shaped into a mould of thick sieved yoghurt and sprinkled with fennel. Four glasses of rakia appeared – two large ones for the men; two small ones for Maria and me, though I didn’t remember anyone asking me how much I wanted. 

I raised my glass.  “Nazdravie!”  I would have had to skip to lesson 15 in my textbook for this word!  Clearly students of Bulgarian were a sober lot.

“Well Pru,” I was being addressed again by Chavdar.  “Give us your first impressions of the Bulgarian education system.”

By now I was used to this kind of question and trotted out the usual fairly sincere response:  how impressed I had been on my first classroom entrance; the students’ politeness and eagerness to learn – especially in comparison with English pupils and their attitudes to foreign language learning.

Maria looked pleased.  Tony smiled and nodded. Chavdar sighed.

“So complimentary!  So reassuring! We produce students who can swallow whole text books.  There are no arguments, no issues, because Comrade Teacher has drummed into them how to interpret every sentence. So we have an education system like an endless washing machine, recycling the same old knowledge. Then – irony of ironies -we pay lots of currency to have the honour of western teachers in our midst for them to tell us how superior our education is. Of course we don’t trust them.  We watch them like hawks.  But we drink in their praise, like Melnik wine.”

“Oh  Baron!  Baron!” Maria protested.  “You know how intelligent our pupils are. They leave our school, able to read Dickens and Shakespeare.”  I looked questioningly at Tony.  I didn’t think Bulgaria had an aristocracy. But he was listening to Chavdar’s reply.

“…Are they capable of original thought?  Our country needs original thought if it is to survive.”  He turned to me. Has Maria explained the testing system to you – the way we assess pupils?”

“Today” – This followed on from my meeting with the Deputy Director.  “She explained it to me today.”

“It makes teachers very powerful – don’t you think?  You teach one day and test the next.  Everything depends on the marks you give.  The students tremble every time you open the mark book – Will it be them you pick on?  And on those marks depend their entire future.”

“But there must be state exams!”

“No need for exams for those who get good marks.”

Maria frowned “Barone, you forget there are University Entrance exams.”

“Oh yes, of course… But with the right marks, it makes it a sure thing – your entry into University.  So in the English Language School you will find our future doctors, engineers, architects, writers, even politicians.  Quite a responsibility on all your shoulders, don’t you think?”  He paused and winked at Maria.  “You have to make sure the right students get the right marks.”

Maria flushed.  “Oh, you cynic!”  She kicked Chavdar under the table.

“Why are you calling him Baron?” I asked.

Tony laughed.  “Just a nick name from school!  Don’t you think he looks Baron-like?”

I looked at him.  “I always imagined Barons to be a bit on the plump side and rather pleased with themselves.”

Over in the far corner, the band struck an opening chord and over a drum roll an accordionist wished us good evening.  The drum roll progressed into a jazzed up version of what I took to be a folk tune.  The waitress collected the salad plates and distributed the main meal.  Mine was a pork stew bubbling in a small casserole.  Tony had recommended it after I had complained that every restaurant meal I had eaten so far had consisted of some kind of over-grilled meat, that was so dry that I feared for my teeth.

The sauce was delicious, but very hot.  I laid down my fork.

Chavdar and Maria were eating yellow cheese, deep fried in batter.  It looked very filling.  Tony was struggling with a skewer of burnt meat gobbets.  Chavdar tossed his head to the waitress who was at his side in an instant.  Without consulting the rest of us, he ordered two bottles of wine.

“Well,” he said after the waitress had been dispatched.  “I can tell from Maria’s secret under-table signs that we are not to talk about Bulgarian matters any more. Tell us something about England, Pru.  All the fog swirling around London Town, the street urchins, the beggars, the hippies, the pesky striking workers – have they all been swept away by mighty Margaret? What’s the Iron Lady’s next move?”

My fork was half way to my mouth.  I allowed myself some thinking time as I blew on the glistening meat and transferred it to my mouth and found it fulfilled the promise of tasty succulence. In England I could be the Olympic contender for moaning about Margaret Thatcher.  My father had trained me well.  I swallowed the meat and took a sip of water, feeling expectant eyes on me.

“Let’s not spoil the evening talking about her,” was my disappointing proposal.

“But she is the heroine of your working class.”

I was not…not…going to rise to the bait. Eventually after swallowing another mouthful I managed the thought that the miners would not have agreed with him.

“Well,” Chavdar sighed.  He looked at his watch.  “We will have to put a temporary stop to our fascinating differences of opinion.  I have to make a phone call.”  He rose and walked towards the hallway.

As soon as he had gone, I looked questioningly at Maria.  “Is he some kind of dissident?”  I asked.

Maria looked at Tony and burst out laughing.  Tony frowned.  “The Baron a dissident?  No!  But then of course, you don’t know who his father is.”

I waited, but no further enlightenment was to be forthcoming. I half guessed though.  A Baron should be the son of a Baron. And I supposed a Baron could say whatever he liked in front of the serfs.

Chavdar and the wine arrived simultaneously.  The conversation turned to literature.  Chavdar had obtained books by Martin Amis, Graham Swift and Ian McKewan.  He sought my opinion.  He got it.  Later he proposed a dance, but I was not disposed to wreck an otherwise fairly successful evening.  However with the combined persuasion of Maria and Tony, I was at length prevailed upon to dance as a foursome. I did my usual self contained thing in one corner of the square, while Tony and Maria gyrated and crossed.  Opposite me, unflurried by Tony’s flailing arms, Chavdar was at once graceful and observant. I noted that he was almost my height and very fanciable but I continued to fear that closer attention would only prove my perception of his detached superiority.

With nothing risked, I was happy to be seen home by the three of them.  My final thought, as I prepared for bed, was that I had met someone interesting but that I was a strong enough girl not to expect the meeting to be repeated.