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The Old Counter

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  The Old Counter
                                                   By Zdravka Evtimova

         “The Old Counter” was a cheap pub. It was dank and narrow, its walls gaped naked, smudged with many winters of acrid cigarette smoke. The guys who frequented “The Old Counter” spoke poor French or most often none at all. Neda cooked for them. She landed in Brussels after tramping all over Belgium looking for a job. She’d been flitting from place to place for months and in the long run she had no doubts: no one wanted her broken stammering French so she ended up washing dishes in “Vieux Comptoir, the old counter as the good-for-nothings had dubbed the place. Quite soon after her first day on the job, perhaps after less than a fortnight, the owner of the joint Abdah, an old man who had settled in the neighborhood thirty years ago, told her, “Listen what.  I think I want to marry you. I can divorce my wife.” 

         Neda thought about it. Abdah was frail, his legs hurt, and constantly complained of sharp pain in his chest. His wife Zeina, a dark woman, all wrinkles and sighs, cut the nails of his toes once a month, muttering to herself in language Neda had never heard.

         “I hate you to work in my pub,” she told Neda. “You are very pretty. Abdah can lose his head. Go away.”

         “Please, Zeina, “Neda said. “Don’t do that. I work hard for you. Men come to your pub because of me. I cook well. I cook your bean soup and you say you like it.”

         Zeina stared at ceiling, her old face thin, unsure.

         “Men are stupid,” she said. “You never know what they’d do for a piece of petticoat. And your petticoat looks good. You must go.”

         It had rained a week, thick pestering rain that didn’t stop for a minute. The men who came to “Vieux Comptoir” were wet and hungry. They could rarely pay for a decent meal. Most of them were sans papiers, men who had no official documents, no valid ID cards, no work permits, a disorderly gang from different places in the world. They had no money and they all flocked to Brussels searching for jobs. They plastered the houses of Abdah’s numerous cousins, aunts and uncles. They washed dishes and cooked meals in circuses, restaurants and nameless pubs. They dug ditches and made roads. They worked three days and stayed out of job for three weeks. They spoke no French, no English and no German. When it rained they gathered around the cracked tables in Vieux Comptoir, their dark clothes steaming like the cauldron of hot soup in the kitchen where Neda worked. A cup of coffee under Abdah’s roof was three times cheaper than everywhere else in Brussels, and although the room was narrow and smelly, it was dry and warm in it. There was always bean soup, too, which was dirt cheap.

         “Why don’t you try the old trick, Neda?” Zeyna suggested one day. “Sometimes the men have money, but and the girls near Gare du Nord are very expensive,” The old woman nodded emphatically. “They’re ready to pay for a piece of petticoat. They’d pay double for yours.”

         Neda didn’t answer. She had been watching the dark rain for months. She knew that in Brussels the night started at noon and she knew her shoes were no good. They leaked and when she cooked in the kitchen she put on Zeina’s old slippers which were too small for her.

         “I don’t like your silences, Neda,” Zeina said gruffly. “I don’t like them at all. And I’ll throw you out if you don’t speak to me.”

         “I don’t want the old trick. I don’t want men,” Neda said. “I’ll cook for you, Zeina. I’ll cook a cabbage soup for you. Your kidneys will take it well. You’ll love it. And I’ll take care of Dogan.”

         Dogan was the Zeina’s younger son. There was something wrong in that guy’s head. He stood in the center of the pub, under the big yellow lamp, and talked to the walls, to customers who were not there and when he felt blue he sobbed on Neda’s shoulder wetting her apron. At a certain point he calmed down and jabbered about the rain, about the buttons on his shirt, or grinned at the child he always saw sitting on the chair by his side.

         The rain made the windows opaque with cold freezing vapors. The bean sans papiers soup bubbled and hissed on the electric plate filling the room, the kitchen and corridors, even the street behind the pub with appetizing smell of a warm dry place. There were no jobs in Brussels for the sans papiers men. They waited in the pub drinking cheap coffee. The luckier ones could still afford a bowl of soup. They shared it with friends. Two, sometimes three men bent over a delicious bowl and slurped the soup hungrily, mixing the thin almost transparent liquid with enormous chunks of stale bread. They bought it dirt cheap from Abdah’s bolangerie, the bakery. There were loaves of bread that Abdah’s elder son Mank had not sold the previous day, and the men bought them for a couple of cents the piece, thinking how lucky they were to lay their hands on something so wonderful.

         “My son Mank said a few words to me about you,” Zeina muttered one evening as she and Neda cut onions to cook a ram stew. The old woman spoke French with a piercing accent which made it easier for Neda to understand her. “Mank said he’ll find a man for you to marry. The man pays Mank six hundred Euros, you marry the man and you roll in money.”

         “Let me think first,” Neda said dully knowing she’d enrage the old woman.  “Listen, Zeina, I want to roll in money, yes. But I want to go back home in Bulgaria and get married there.”

         “With a guy you make money ten times more quickly. No one in Bulgaria will know,” Zeina said. “And I am afraid about Mank. He looks at you.”

         Mank was married and had three children. He was big and quick-tempered.        

         “I have a car,” Mank had said to Neda. “I’ll take you to a good hotel room. Nobody will see.”

         Neda went with him and it turned out that the room was no good at all, and the hotel was far from Vieux Comptoir.  Mank took Dogan, his addle-brained brother, with them and gave him toys to play with. The hole Mank had paid for was narrower and danker than the room with the men sans papiers and their bowls of thin soup. Dogan was all the time on the naked floor, talking to Neda and laughing, but no one paid attention to him. He mumbled he wanted to cry on Neda’s shoulder. He was sad, he told them. Mank threw him a bar of chocolate and ignored him. Neda was embarrassed. Her skin burned as the addle-brained man gurgled and hissed, his big face smirking and sobbing all at once.

        “Relax,” Mank told her. “Never mind him. He doesn’t bite.”

         The second time the hotel was a little better, the walls of the room were not moldy and the sheets were not stained. Mank gave her a present, a big shawl and a leather jacket. Dogan talked to the shawl cheerfully, or may be he was speaking to the child he saw on the chair by his side. It was enough for him to see a chair nearby. Probably that child sat there and kept him company for he didn’t complain he was sad. When Neda was within reach Dogan held the hem of her skirt, his eyes radiant. He readily gave her his toys; he even learnt her name and repeated to the customers of the Vieux Comptoir and shouted it to the walls of the old pub.

         “You are pretty in that jacket I gave you,” Mank told her. “May be it’s not a good idea to wear it. You are too pretty. Somebody else will grab you.”             

Old Zeina noticed that Mank had stopped speaking about finding a wealthy bridegroom for her.

         “I am glad he understood what you want,” the old woman said. “My son has a heart of gold. He is such a good brother.”

Every time after the dank hotel room Mank gave Neda a shawl. She stored the gifts in a crate in the basement where she slept at night, and when the crate was full she went to the brocante, the flea market the municipality organized on Sunday, and sold her collection. She sold the toys that Dogan had thrown in her crate. She made good money and she was quite happy about that. It turned out Brussels was a hospitable town after all.

Neda hoped she could go for a walk to the Grande Place and see the Cathedral. Of course Zeina wouldn’t let her go there by herself, but she took Dogan. She lead him by the hand and the two of them went happily everywhere – to the mannequin Piss, to the sweets shops, to that funny elevator with the transparent walls near Palais de Justice, which Dogan loved so much. They went even to a restaurant – a real glamorous one, where Neda bought a beer for herself and a coke for Dogan. He didn’t know what to do with the coke, and she helped him drink it lifting the glass to his mouth.

  “Where are the shawls I gave you?” Mank asked her once sfyrt the hotel room. This time he had chosen an even better hotel, with a TV set, with oranges, bananas and pears on the table.

         “I sold them,” Neda told him. “I want the money to go back to Bulgaria and get married there.”

         Mank didn’t say anything. This time he didn’t give her anything and he was angry. This time his love bit and hurt her.

       The good hotel was near the expensive Turkish shop “Candan”, which in French meant “From the bottom of my heart”.  In the same neighborhood there was a dentist’s ambulatory, a vet clinic, and an old shop “vente achat voitires”, where second hand automobiles were sold at a very good price. There was a playground where children who spoke different languages played football. They called to one another in Turkish, Arab, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, French, and somehow made themselves understood. The houses in this neighborhood were big, with thick curtains on the windows. There was not a single tree in the street. Women in trousers and bare feet in spite of the rain, their heads veiled in black and brown, gathered in front of the doors to talk or just to keep an eye on the kids. That was the realm of Abdah where the foreigners bought the bread he baked, the Turkish delight he sold and the delicious bean soup his Vieux Comptoir offered to the sans papiers men. Those men said “thank you” in many languages to Zeina who served them the soup. Zeina was horribly angry if Neda showed in the room.

         “Men are dogs,” the old woman grumbled. “They’d do anything. One of them asked me if you’d have him. He said he made a lot of Euros building the train station in Liege.” She sighed angrily. “I’ve never set  foot to Liege. Have you been there?”

         “Yes,” Neda answered.

         “Did you have a man there?” Zeina croaked staring at Neda’s face. “Yes, you had. You are pretty. That’s bad. Abdah looks at you, the old fool. Mank looks at you, the young fool.”
         Neda thought of how angry Mank had been when he learned she had sold the shawls.

         “Why doesn’t Mank bring the wealthy guy for you to marry I wonder,” Zeina drawled. “He’s up to something”.

         “I don’t want guys,” Nead said. “Listen Zeina, I can take good care of Dogan, and you’ll pay me very little for that. It will be cheap for you, very cheap. I’ll go on cooking in the kitchen with you, of course.”

         The old woman thought about it. 

         “I’d rather throw you out,” she said at last. “Abdah told me he wanted to marry you. But he’s got a screw loose. Who’ll let him marry you I wonder,” she said thoughtfully squinting at the window. “I want to throw you out, but I can’t. Abdah’ll kill me. He can’t do nothing without you. His blood pressure gives him hell and his legs are swollen like the mattress he sleeps on. It would be a shame though” the old woman spat.

         “You can give me some money, Zeina,” Neda said. “Give me some money. I’ll go back to Bulgaria and I’ll get married there.”

         “No way,” the old woman grumbled. “You get no money from me. I’ll tell Mank to throw you out.”

         But Mank didn’t throw her out. Mank’s business was flourishing. His duner cebab was cheap and sold like hotcakes. Every morning, he took Neda and his brother to that shiny hotel with the good room. He explained to Zeina they took Dogan to some famous doctor to get a new treatment. Neda wanted to see the skating ring at St. Catherine Place and the Town Hall d’Eevere, but Mank refused to waste any time. He had paid dearly for that posh hotel in which the three of them took always one and the same room. Dogan didn’t mind that his brother put him in the darkest corner in front of the glaring TV set. It was enough there was an empty chair by his side. He spoke to the child he saw there and smiled to the rain.

         “That shawl is for you,” Mank told Neda after he’d finished and the tree of them drank coke, Neda lifting the can to Dogan’s mouth for him. “I don’t want to throw you out as mother says I should. I really should. Dad lost his head on account of you.”

         “You lost your head on account me, too,” she said.

         “No, I haven’t,” he said. “My wife is better than you.”

         Neda took the shawl and folded it carefully. It was a good one, of pure wool. She hoped she could sell it for five Euros at the Sunday brocante.

         ‘You know what?” Mank said looking at her the way he always did when he had mischief on his mind. “We’ll be late but I don’t care.  Let’s give that shawl to Dogan to play with. Come on.”

         Neda didn’t want to but listened to Mank. When the three of them drank another can of coke and Dogan sobbed softly on Neda’s shoulder spilling the coke all over her, Mank said, “I won’t throw you out the way I should.  Know what we’ll do?”

         The rain was a mere drizzle now and the air was silver above the Town Hall d’Evere Neda wanted to see but there was no time for that now. She didn’t much care. She had saved up some money already, enough to buy a ten-year old second hand car. 

         “You know what we’ll do?” Mank said nudging his driveling brother to shut up. “You’ll marry Dogan, Neda. You’ll marry Dogan and I’ll come to see what you two lovebirds are doing. I’ll come often. I’ll come to see the two of you every day.”

         The hotel room was really good and as expensive as a gold mine. In Brussels everything was expensive, especially a nice hotel like this one here, so expensive Mank’s heart bled.

         “You are pretty,” Mank whispered. “You are damned pretty. We’re dreadfully late but I don’t care. Leave Dogan alone. Come here. Come here quick!”


 

 

 

 

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