I remember this place, always will. I should have kept my mouth shut. Play with fire, right? But that was years ago. I can walk through Bucharest’s Gara de Nord feeling older and wiser, now.
The big railway station looks so different today – modern, revamped. Shiny kiosks bulge with glossy magazines, rows of chocolate, and stacks of snacks. Men in suits chat on mobile phones. Glamorous girls laugh and joke, swigging Fanta. Ticket collectors amble in smart uniforms, their hats perched at a rakish angle. Not like the old days, when poverty assailed the senses at every step: the stink of vagrants, ragged kids sucking plastic bags, and feral dogs snapping at dust storms down the track.
Today I stand and wait as a shiny train pulls in. Middle-aged passengers climb down lugging heavy bags; lithe young guys skip past toting neat Armani knapsacks, fake or otherwise.
The voice sounds familiar. I spot David through the crowd, rolling towards me like a sailor home from sea. He’s been to Craiova, a hundred and forty miles west, on another charity trip. Now he’s going home to the UK, but first we’ll have a night on the town. We shake hands and hug. He’s still got those Welsh rugby arms.
“Look at you!” he says, as we thread through happy families and tearful lovers. I wonder if David will mention that day. And, yes, he does. As soon as we reach the main concourse, he stops under the big clock, exactly where it happened.
“Hey Mike!” A grin splits his tanned, beery face, “do you remember?”
I nod, and look up at the clock. How could I forget?
In 1994, a big American fellow in sandals stood here, clutching a wad of dollars. Some Romanian lads were pestering him to change money, good rate, Mister, best rate! I had walked past the American and muttered at him, “Don’t do it, friend.” He had peeled away, tailing me like a puppy as I quickly explained the risks. Eventually he wandered off, with a wave and a grateful grin. “Thanks, buddy!”
I was carrying a huge black vase and circled back towards the clock. I stood beneath it, as agreed, waiting for my Welsh friends, due in from Craiova. Soon, a dark Romanian fellow approached. He asked about my vase, but as we chatted, I realized he wasn’t checking that, he was checking me. He turned briefly, as if signaling – but to whom? Then he drifted away, into the crowds, gone. I looked down the platforms, wondering and waiting, increasingly uneasy.
David arrived with his mates – big rugby types – and two chatty Welsh women. We walked away from the clock, heading for the street to find taxis. But on the way, a stocky, middle-aged Romanian man in a leather coat stopped me. He was unshaven, with slicked back hair. Tough-looking too, with dark protruding eyes. Trouble-on-legs. He smiled and asked quietly, “Do you know me, friend?”
I shook my head, with a feeling that our friendship would be brief.
“Did I ever hurt you?” He was smiling at me again, knowing the answer.
“No,” I said, not liking his question. Itseemed to have implications.
He turned slightly sideways, gesturing across the concourse. “So, why did you tell the American, fifteen minutes ago, not to change money with my boys?”
The Welsh visitors stood around, waiting, clearly puzzled. I felt like a lambfacing a lion. My heart thumped as I answered. “Because… I know what you do.”
It was the best I could offer. The Romanian flashed a quick grin, calm and caustic. “Oh, really? Well, now, let me tell you something. You must never–– ”
My world exploded in a flash of light – I was flying backwards in slow motion. Moments later, I hit the ground and watched the big vase shatter into a thousand pieces, nearby. My jaw seemed to have been ripped from my skull, like a horse had kicked it off. I heard yells and screams, far above me, but I couldn’t move, only listen. I felt strong hands pulling me to my feet. Blood was pouring out of my mouth and I watched it trickle down my tweed jacket. I looked up and saw my beefy attacker walking away, flexing his neck and tugging at his leather cuffs.
David held me steady, and gasped in admiration.“What a punch!”
“I think he bust my jaw,” I mumbled.
My pals dusted me down and stuffed tissues into mymouth. They marched me out of the station and into the nearest cab, keen to get away as fast as possible.
I sat on the back seat and as we drove off. Through the window, I saw the big American in sandals, outside the station now, talking to the guy who had just hit me, and brandishing his wad of dollars. I put my head in my hands, to stop it falling off. No good. I leaned back, watching white clouds roll across a blue sky. You fool.
“He pulled a knife,” said David, “he was going to stab you, on the ground.”
“What?” I whispered, with salty blood pooling under my tongue.
“But we yelled at him. We stopped him. And d’you know what he told us, Mike, that guy who thumped you? Tell your friend: next time, not so lucky.”
But that was then. These days, the big men just smile and offer taxis, at twice the price.