Welcome to Bulgaria
by Martin David Edwards
A travelling businessman finds an unexpected friend.
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 missing.
Im going to call you One Ear, he said and bent down to scratch the kitten under its chin.
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.
A 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 said.
No mistake. I stay in Sofia for little holiday, he replied, making pincer movements with his forefingers.
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 rolling.
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 bottle.
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 pronounce.
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 roses.
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 high-heeled shoes.
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 the pavement.
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.
A 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 white fur.
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.
A 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, Simon replied.
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 Angelov.
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, flickering orbs.
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 side.
Before he could reply, she pushed him to a seat and sandwiched him between Dimitri and Andrei. He knocked the table absent-mindedly.
Are you open to the idea of sharing our competitor's pricing for benchmarking purposes? Andrei asked.
I'll have to connect you to our Finance department, Simon replied, parcelling his salmon starter into a napkin.
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 envelope.
Simon heard his name called from the stage. The Albanians clapped in slow unison as he weaved his way through the tables.
Mr Angelov handed him a glass model of a wind turbine on a plinth. They blinked in the glare from a line of camera flashes.
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 beamed.
A 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 Simon.
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 shadows.
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 blurted out.
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 cheek.
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 beamed.
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.
I understand 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 face.
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 said.
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 zip.
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