The old man shuffled along the slushy path that cut through Margaret Island, pausing only to rummage in the bins and wait for his limping dog, Orsi. They were dodged by the shimmering red, lime and yellow Lycra of the early evening joggers trailing a circuit round the island, rainbowing the snow in their wake.
‘Almost home, Orsi, girl,’ Laszlo encouraged. ‘Just one more stop.’
Snow had fallen on the city all day. Deep troughs of powder lay where the wind had whipped it through the trees. The salt and grit on the paths turned the snow to mush, no doubt stinging the old dogs cracked pads. Laszlo lurched forward with his head bent against the biting wind, hugging his carrier bags to his chest. Fresh flakes piled on top of his woollen cap and clung to his long grey trench coat as it dragged along the ground.
As Laszlo trudged up the steps onto the road bridge he noticed a pink glow in the heavy sky. Harsh phosphorous lights from the towering office blocks cast their familiar corporate identities, in ghostly hue, upon the murky waters below. A neon display panel on the corner of one building informed Laszlo that it was minus eight degrees. A collar of ice fringing the river’s edge hissed and sang with the undercurrent that swept towards the muck spewing from a factory further downstream; the factory where Laszlo had toiled before it had been sold for western dollars all those years ago.
‘Twenty five years, Orsi, hey. What do you say to that?’
The dog pulled back her ears and looked at him as she crept up the last step.
Twenty five years since he had lost his job? Twenty five years since his Magda had left him taking their babies to a better life. Twenty five years since he had been tossed out of his home to live first in a crowded men’s hostel, then forced onto the city streets when that too had closed. Twenty five years of memories stirred by the girl in the burgundy boots.
Laszlo eased himself down onto the hard cold concrete of the underpass and he wondered if he would see her again tonight.
‘Come Orsi, one more hour,’ Lazslo said patting the blanket beside his cardboard seat. He cradled the old dog’s face in his rough hands, her milky blue eyes smiled up at him as he wiped the tear tracks that matted her grey muzzle.
‘We’ll catch the hotel guests for a few more cents, hey!’
Today had been a good day in their doorway next to the American burger joint. Not too many tourists came around in winter, but the locals gave more these days. He jingled his pocket at Orsi, the handful of coins they had collected gave a satisfied tinkle; she pricked up her ears and thumped her tail twice.
‘Tonight we have some bread and sweet tea, hey!’ Laszlo enthused rustling a carrier bag in her face.
Marianne pulled her coat up around her ears, stuffed her hands deep into her pockets and prayed that none of the staff caught this tram home. Today had been horrible, facing all those wide angry eyes of the bright young managers who’d snatched the opportunities presented to them so few years ago.
“The company can no longer ignore the wage arbitrage between here and other labour markets. The operations in this site will be moved to India. All employees shall be rewarded for their cooperation in a smooth handover.” Marianne had tried to remain detached as the local manager read out her prepared words in their own language and she watched their expressions change. Their initial quizzical looks turned first to disbelief then to anger.
“We will of course try to assist in anyway we can in your search for alternative employment and will issue you with an official statement to deliver to your staff tomorrow.”
They lowered their eyes from her as she left the meeting, but she could smell their hatred.
Why was it always winter here? Marianne rubbed the condensation from the tram window with the back of her leather gloved hand and stared at her reflection. She looked old and tired. She couldn’t believe she was back in this dump. Nothing had changed much since she had migrated four hundred finance jobs here from Glasgow three years ago. A few more high street shops maybe. She had known then the prosperity would be short term, but now wondered if persuading her client to move the jobs again so soon had been too hasty. She stared around the crowded carriage. A woman wearing a brown marl coat clutched her shopping bag and sniffed, men with frowning foreheads studied newspapers, a teenager nodded his head in time to an iPod beat. Office workers dressed in shabby suits stared at nothing, their hard faces set. No one chatted, no one smiled. They looked defeated. She closed her eyes to imagine the warmth of India.
As she stepped off the tram onto the platform she turned her ankle and winced. Her feet were killing her. The powder blue shoes worked well with her blue pinstripe, but were impractical in this place. The grit patched pavements grew more treacherous as she neared the hotel.
She teetered through the underpass towards the welcome lights at the other end, dragging her wheely case behind her. Bile rose in her throat when she noticed snot dripping uncontrolled from the tramp’s nose into his matted beard. A mangy dog lay curled beside him. Marianne remembered them from before. As she hurried past she held her glove up to her nose and mouth. She would need to rush. In half an hour she was meeting with the translator who had flown in last night and had spent the day visiting her relatives.
Laszlo sat motionless to conserve his heat and waited. Week after week they passed him by. The Indian gent with the brown brogues and the sharp clipped step would often drop a cent. The small oriental gentleman with the shiny black moccasins skipped past Monday through Thursday, without a look.
Laszlo heard the trut, trut, trut of the wheely bag and recognised the skinny one, with the unsuitable shoes, from years ago. He felt an unfamiliar sinking in his stomach and wondered why she was back. No hope of a coin from that one.
It was yesterday the girl came. Two beautiful burgundy boots had stopped in front of him, her feet pressed together as she leaned down and handed him tea in a polystyrene cup.
‘This is for you,’ she said in his own tongue. He noticed that her lush coat and gloves matched her boots, then felt his heart race when he looked up into her face. For he looked into the face of his Magda as she was when they had wed. Thick dark hair escaped from under a black fur hat, framing a broad forehead and nose that betrayed Mongolian ancestry. Soft hazel nut eyes narrowed with concern as they peered down at him. A small furrow appeared on her brow before she blushed and rushed towards the hotel, lugging a heavy bag behind her.
But tonight she did not appear.
Laszlo rolled over onto his knees, then placing his hands on the wall pulled up; his bones creaked and cracked like a dying fire. He bent again to lift Orsi to her feet. Her back legs wobbled and Laszlo doubted if she would last this winter. The old pair hobbled towards home setting in motion the hotel’s automatic doors and catching the blast of warm expensive air as they passed.
Ahead loomed large blocks of prefabricated concrete apartments that overlooked the hotel. Along each grey wall, graffiti preached political statements to anyone who cared to notice. A covered walkway beneath the apartments housed inadequate shops and amenities for the locals. The old sofa that crouched in the shadows of the walkway provided a home for Laszlo and Orsi. The pair caused no trouble so they were permitted to stay.
The temperature had dropped in the last week and Laszlo was grateful for the extra blanket left out for him by one of the residents. He spread the blankets over the sofa, arranging them round the sides, ensuring all the edges were tucked in before he prepared their supper.
As Orsi and he huddled together, sharing their warmth he thought again about the girl in the burgundy boots.
‘Maybe tomorrow, Orsi, hey?’
Marianne lathered cream into her body after her shower and glared at the bed. She remembered the state of her skin from the last visit. The strong starchy chemicals they used to launder the sheets had penetrated her delicate skin while she slept leaving it raw and weeping. Thank God she’d come prepared this time.
Although Marianne had never encountered Ildiko before, she knew the young woman sitting at a low table, legs crossed at the ankles, was her translator. Marianne made a mental note to ask her where she found her gorgeous burgundy boots once business was concluded. The girl’s youthful looks and western clothes outshone the brassy painted escorts the hotel tolerated as an additional executive service. Marianne groaned when she remembered her last visit, the hotel walls were thin and these ladies liked to give their money’s worth.
‘I’m not looking forward to tomorrow,’ Ildiko said as soon as the cool introductions were over. Her gentle refined accent took Marianne by surprise.
‘These are my people, my mother was born here,’ she stressed. ‘Her family still work here.’
‘Yes, but the staff don’t need to know that, do they?’ Marianne hoped Ildiko was up to the job. ‘You will be perfect,’ she said ‘You have enough detachment, but can empathise with their plight.’
Marianne began firing up her laptop. ‘Although most of the workforce speak English it is necessary to have a translator present at all meetings to pick up on side remarks and evidence of sabotage.’ Marianne stared earnestly at the translator. ‘We need you Ildiko.’ She patted her arm. ‘Come on I’ll show you the presentation that
explains the economics and convince you it’s the right thing.’
As Marianne settled into her silk sheet sleeping bag she had remembered to pack, she tried to blot out the exuberant grunts and moans filtering from the room next to hers.
There had to be a better hotel in this damned town. Her picked-at green salad and warm glass of Chardonnay lay outside her bedroom door awaiting collection. She shut down her lap top, and attempted to shut down her mind and not think about tomorrow.
It had snowed in the night, leaving the city with another pile of slush to clear from the streets; the pavements would wait.
Lazslo carried Orsi towards the underpass. The old dog was slower in the mornings and he didn’t want to miss the hotel guests as they left for work. As he approached the hotel he noticed a city taxi idling at the door. The skinny one with the impractical shoes came out, handed her wheely bag to the driver and waited, facing the hotel. Laszlo knew who she was waiting for. The girl in the burgundy boots carried her own bag and hoisted it in the trunk as the skinny one jumped in the back seat. The young girl turned and looked at Laszlo with the same regretful eyes Magda cast on him the day she left. As the taxi door closed Laszlo knew he would never see the pair again.
It was still early and he had already caught a good many pennies from the guests. Orsi was curled up beside him at peace for once from her aches. He rubbed her warm ear and she thumped her tail without opening her eye.
‘Maybe we stick to the underpass for a while, hey Orsi. Wait the winter out here.’
Published in Crannog Magazine (October 2010)