A travelling businessman finds an
Simon saw his first cats outside the Sofia
airport. They were sitting in the pale Bulgarian sunshine, licking and preening
themselves on the tarmac. A kitten looked up at him as he struggled with his
suitcase. It was a brown and white tabby with green eyes and had an ear
Im going to call you One
Ear, he said and bent down to scratch the kitten under its
You want taxi. Hotel? a man
asked in an accent that rolled his rs into ws.
The Balkan. The most
expensive hotel in Sofia but the company was paying.
The kitten meowed as Simon stepped into a
yellow taxi. The driver stowed his suitcase into the boot and closed his door
with a bang. Simon scanned the line of the cats by the terminal for a farewell
wave. One Ear was nowhere to be seen.
Nice cats, Simon said to the
taxi drivers neck.
City cats are nuisance. They make
toilet everywhere and nobody looks after them. We take short cut to the city if
you like. Twenty Lev extra.
Simon nodded in the rear-view mirror and
settled in the back to watch concrete tower blocks pass by, shimmering in the
sun. He wasnt paying.
Simon got his receipt from the taxi
driver, collected his bag from the boot and entered the Hotel Balkan. The lobby
was lined in marble and chandeliers hung from the ceiling.
girl at reception entered his name into a computer without smiling. You
are staying until Sunday? Your conference finishes on Thursday. Two nights only
from today are needed. There was been a mistake with the reservation, she
No mistake. I stay in Sofia for
little holiday, he replied, making pincer movements with his
Very little. You visit churches to
fill your day, the receptionist said, handing him a room key.
Simon began to reply but her attention
had turned to another delegate waiting behind him. Definitely leaving on
Thursday, the delegate stressed.
Inside his room, Simon checked the
furnishings and wondered where to store his underpants. One Ear would have
enjoyed dozing on the pillows, extra-fluffed for the delegates. He felt like a
travelling diplomat without any friends.
The sign above the museum entrance
announced the Electrical Power Generation Summit in curling letters with a
sketch of a power plug and a cord. Inside the museum a string quartet of women
dressed in black evening dresses were playing a melee of Mozart and the Bee
Gees. Delegates in business suits and power dresses circled each other,
assessing their name badges before deciding whether to make contact.
Simons hand went to his own badge. It was wonky on his lapel.
Welcome to Bulgaria, a man
beamed at him. His tie was half done-up and stubble covered his chin. You
are a buyer from England? I am delighted to have you as my extra special
guest, he continued with a glance at his badge, the rs
Simon gave the mans badge a
reverse scan. Mr Angelov, the conference organiser.
An insightful programme,
Simon replied. He remembered reading it a month ago and had discarded it before
the prospect of adventure lured him to join the conference.
In Bulgaria, we have everything to
make you happy in the world of energy generation. You must have glass of our
Bulgarian Chardonnay. Better than the French and half the price, Mr
Angelov said and handed him a glass.
Simon sipped his wine while Mr Angelov
remained by his side, shielding him from other delegates.
I am staying until Sunday for a
holiday. The hotel did not believe me, he said. Already they were
exchanging war stories.
Bulgaria loves you and I will be
your eternal friend. On Saturday, I invite you to see the mountains and our
glorious countryside, Mr Angelov beamed.
Simon remembered his car waiting for him
at Gatwick airport, anonymous among thousands and his darkened one-bedroom
apartment in London. I am open to persuasion, he said.
Business is built on
relationships. Have a top-up, Mr Angelov said, offering him a
The quartet was replaced by a harpist.
She swayed as her fingers danced across the strings, her eyes closed in a
trance. Simon spotted the string players in a corner of the museum, checking
their phones and eating sandwiches. He gulped at his refilled glass and
imagined One Ear lapping milk from a saucer.
You must meet the other delegates.
I will introduce you as my buyer from London, Mr Angelov beamed.
Simon allowed himself to be paraded up a
line of delegates but stopped in his tracks. A woman with jet black hair to her
shoulders and high heels stood alone while she examined a pottery fragment on a
stand. Maria, her badge said, from a company whose name he couldn't
In Italy we would be drinking
Chianti and admiring gladiator helmets, Simon said to her.
I am Albanian but please feel free
to confuse us with Italians. Everybody else does, Maria replied with a
scan of his badge.
You must have taken a flight and
arrived before me. We could have shared my taxi adventure, he guessed,
looking for another war story to trade.
I drove from Tirana. We took seven
hours to the border but the Bulgarians would not let us in. They said we were
not real Europeans.
We English know how you
feel, Simon replied, leaning closer. Her hair smelled of
My London buyer is forgetting to
admire our pottery. Thracian, the earliest civilisation in Europe, Mr
Angelov said, appearing between them.
The trio inspected the brown and red
shards of pottery together.
My kitchenware only breaks if you
throw it over your shoulder, Maria said.
When the reception had finished, the
three skirted across the uneven paving stones outside the museum.
In Albania we have pavements that
do not pretend to be water beds, Maria said to Simon, removing her
Allow me to preserve your
dignity, Simon replied. He removed his jacket and laid it over the paving
stones. From his back he heard a meow. One Ear was staring at him from across
Cute and cuddly, he said,
swaying on his feet.
Stop flirting. Let's be men and
drink vodka. We will compare notes on women we have loved, Mr Angelov
replied, picking up Simon's jacket.
I'm English. We don't do that sort
of thing, Simon said, blushing bright red.
The following morning, Simon sat alone
in the hotel dining room with a headache. A plate of ham and a slice of yellow
melon swam in front of his eyes. The other delegates were sitting at the tables
balancing forks while they responded to emails on their phones. There was no
trace of Maria or Mr Angelov.
waiter reached over his table to take his breakfast away. Simon tugged at the
plate and wrestled it back to the table. He stuffed the ham into his pocket
while the waiter watched open-mouthed.
Im on a rescue
mission, Simon explained. But the bell for the conference rang before he
had a chance to step outside the hotel.
In the hotel ballroom, a girl with a
hair tied in a bun ushered him to a circular table. He searched the heads of
the delegates again for Maria before sitting down. The girl shook her finger
and pointed at a card on the table. Simon read his embossed name.
You have pre-allocated present
bag. No swapping, she said and pulled out his chair.
On the seat a plastic bag decorated with
the sketch of a plug was waiting for him. Simon inspected the contents. A black
and white panda bear was sandwiched between brochures and a miniature glass
model of a power station.
Simon gave the bear a squeeze. Not as
fragile as One Ear, he decided. But there was nobody he could give the bear to
in London. He propped it against the chair leg and examined the power station
instead. But all he could think of was the kitten who had followed him from the
airport and caught his gallantry red-handed, like a betrayal.
Mr Angelov leapt onto the stage to a
round of applause. He had shaved and his neck bulged from his buttoned-up
shirt. Simon strained to look for Maria among the clapping tables. A smudge of
black hair blurred across his vision from the opposite side of the ballroom.
She was surrounded by men he did not recognise.
Love rats, he muttered to himself, and
tried to listen to Mr Angelov's opening remarks on the state of the European
power generation industry.
At the morning coffee break, Simon
waited for Maria to leave the ballroom. But she remained at her table, her
black hair buried in conversation. Simon checked his pocket and left the hotel.
He did not have to be jealous.
An army of cats sat watching the street
from a courtyard, their heads poking through rusty railings. The passers-by
ignored them, cocooned in their jackets against the autumn cold.
He checked the ears of the cats in turn.
One Ear was huddled in the corner of the courtyard, cleaning his brown and
Simon pulled a sliver of ham from his
suit pocket and stretched his hand through the railings. With a frisk of his tail, One Ear
scurried to his fingers and ate the ham in thumb-sized bites. Simon risked
stroking him under his chin. But One Ear slinked away into the shadows. He
sighed and produced a sliver of salami and dangled it through the railings.
tomcat pounced on Simon's outstretched palm and ate the salami in one gulp. His
fur had tufts missing as if he had been a fight.
There's an extra treat if you stop
eating the ears of my friend, Simon said. He pulled out an extra slice of
ham, tore it in two and gave half to the tomcat.
Watching the tomcat with his green eyes,
One Ear padded back to the railings and ate the remaining half of the ham.
Simon tickled the kitten's chest. One Ear arched his back reluctantly and
obliged. Then Simon stuck out his tongue at the tomcat and hurried back to the
hotel. The coffee was certain to be cold.
When he queued to return into the
ballroom, Maria waved her mobile phone at him.
Meet my colleagues while your
Bulgarian minder is not looking, she said.
Two men in shiny black suits read
Simons name badge and held out their business cards.
We must have lunch together to
discuss mutual opportunities while you have your freedom, Maria
continued, glancing over her shoulder.
Shall I book a table for two? I
know just the place, Simon asked. The receptionist was certain to have an
idea. Churches might have restaurants nearby.
My company's delegation will join
us. Dimitri has expertise in renewable energy and Andrei is a marketing
genius, Maria said.
I'm feeling peckish already,
At lunchtime, Simon waited in the queue
with Maria and her two colleagues to be served from steaming bowels of chicken,
rice and salad.
Im going to the mountains on
Saturday. You could delay your return trip to Albania and come with me. Seven
hours in a car will be a nightmare, Simon shuddered at Maria.
Mr Angelov appeared at Simons
shoulder holding a plate already full. My English buyer is avoiding my
attention. There is no need for my friend to demean himself with queuing,
he beamed at Simon.
We were about to discuss the
opportunity for contracts, Maria said, flashing her eyes at Mr
You can email each other when the
conference ends. We have a VIP's stomach to attend to, Mr Angelov
replied, spiriting Simon away.
During the afternoon sessions, Simon
dreamed about Maria. After the mountains they could settle together in London.
His flat would look more homely with a couple to share its silent walls. They
might even consider adopting a pet.
In the evening, Simon checked his bow
tie in his bathroom mirror. He looked at his watch and bolted out of his
bedroom; he was going to be late for the awards dinner.
The hotel ballroom had been converted
into a candlelit restaurant, the delegates faces lit by yellow,
We thought you were having an
English siesta. I've saved you a place on our table. We can complete our
discussions about contracts, Maria said to him, appearing at his
Before he could reply, she pushed him to
a seat and sandwiched him between Dimitri and Andrei. He knocked the table
Are you open to the idea of
sharing our competitor's pricing for benchmarking purposes? Andrei
I'll have to connect you to our
Finance department, Simon replied, parcelling his salmon starter into a
We will begin our awards ceremony
by announcing the energy buyer of the year, Mr Angelov said from the
stage, lit by a single spotlight. He held his hand up for silence and opened an
Simon heard his name called from the
stage. The Albanians clapped in slow unison as he weaved his way through the
Mr Angelov handed him a glass model of a
wind turbine on a plinth. They blinked in the glare from a line of camera
I don't reserve to win an award. I
haven't bought anything from you, Simon said to Mr Angelov from the
corner of his mouth.
Details are secondary to our
friendship. We can sort out the Purchase Order by email, Mr Angelov
photographer mimed a smile at Simon and pointed to his camera.
Be more ecstatic. Anyone would
think youre attending a funeral, Mr Angelov whispered to
When Simon returned to his table, Andrei
nudged him in his side.
About the Finance
department, he said.
Simon tucked the folded napkin of salmon
underneath his award. I need fresh air. My headache has returned. I have
to leave the hotel immediately, he declared.
We cannot trust the locals when an
innocent visitor is walking around town. I will accompany you, Maria
said, rising from her chair.
Perhaps you need a doctor instead
of a walk, she said to George outside the hotel.
My headache appears to have
disappeared but I am feeling chilly. We need to keep warm, he replied,
wrapping his arm around her shoulder.
Simon stopped at the railings by the
courtyard, his arm draped across Maria. One Ear padded to the railings from the
What a beautiful cat, Maria
said as One Ear licked her fingers.
He's not the only beautiful
discovery from visiting Bulgaria. I've experienced a revelation, Simon
I will have to tell me
husband to buy us a cat. He has been insisting for a chance to show how much he
loves me. Now is his opportunity, Maria said.
Simon dropped his hand from her arm.
My head has cleared after all.
We should be getting back to the
hotel. It's the last night and you deserve to party.
There's one task I need to do
first, Simon said. He pulled the napkin from his suit pocket, unwrapped
the salmon and fed the pink slivers to One Ear.
What a responsible man. You should
get a girlfriend to feed, Maria replied and gave him a peck on his
Please forgive me if I go straight
to my room. I need to catch up on my emails. We buyers get inundated with all
sorts of offers, he said with a farewell tickle to One Ear.
At breakfast the following morning, Mr
Angelov shook his room key at Simon. You missed the awards party and I am
the most devastated man in Europe. We will have to catch up on business
tomorrow when we travel to the mountains. You can tell me about the contracts
you want to award and I will be your obedient chauffeur, he
There's been an emergency at the
office. I have to return to London today instead of Sunday, Simon
replied, avoiding Mr Angelov's eyes.
completely. But never forget Bulgaria. We are a country who loves an honest
man, Mr Angelov replied with a wink. Then he hurried to greet another
delegate without a backwards glance.
Simon searched for flights on his
smartphone. The lunchtime departure from Sofia to London had a single space
left. He would be at home by early evening to eat his meal-for-one. As he
finished his booking, he glimpsed Maria trailing a bag across the lobby,
followed by Dimitri and Andrei. Black and white pandas peeked up out from the
tops of their luggage. Simon bent his face towards the phone in case she saw
him. When he looked up, she was gone.
There was one task for him to complete
before he left for the airport. At the railings in front of the courtyard, One
Ear padded up to him and licked his fingers. Tears streamed down Simon's
Goodbye my only friend. Everybody
else deserted me. Mr Angelov only wanted my business and Maria to benchmark my
pricing. They were probably married to each other, he sobbed.
One Ear meowed and tilted his head at
Simon. A passing policeman stopped and asked him if he was ill. Embarrassed,
Simon shook his head and hurried back to the hotel.
The taxi driver nodded his head at Simon
in recognition. You see more cats? They can't stop breeding, he
asked, slipping Simon's bag into the car boot.
I wish I was a cat. I might have
gotten lucky, Simon replied and slumped into the back seat.
When they reached the airport, the taxi
driver slowed down and parked outside the departure lounge. He opened the boot
and handed him his bag.
One Ear jumped out from the car and
rubbed himself against Simons legs.
These cats use us as free taxis
whenever they want an adventure. They never even give a tip, the driver
Simon opened his bag and One Ear jumped
inside. There's been a last minute change of plan. I'll be taking the
train to London instead of the plane. I don't believe they check your luggage
at the railway station, he said, closing the bag with a tug on its