The Gevgelija Policemen’s Club
As the Vardar caught the last of the sun in a myriad flashes of light, Grigor crossed Negorci to his own flat with a growing sense of shame. The looks on familiar faces said it all; they had all seen the picture. They called such pictures ‘viral’ for another reason, but Grigor thought that everyone looked like the people had all caught a disease. In a way they had. Some stared, as if fighting the urge to just come up to him and say it to his face: you brought shame to our country! You should have just let them pass, everyone knows they want to to go Europe! He thought he saw a smirk of vindication when he made brief eye contact with Dimitar, the old street sweeper. You are a monster, all cops are monsters. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a man swipe his mobile phone and show it to the woman beside him. Grigor dared not look back, but he felt their eyes bore reprovingly into his back.
Then, mercifully, he was plodding up the stairs to his flat, his good hand fumbling for the key. He found it just as he got to the door. When he opened it, Kaliopi swept him in to her arms, then shrank back in horror back as he winced and raised his bandaged hand for her to see.
“Your hand!” she exclaimed.
“Nothing serious, only cuts,” said Vadar, smiling. “Those barbs on the fencing are sharp! But, I should be fine, although I need help getting out of my shirt.”
Kaliopi walked away from him. He followed her, wondering if they would get right to it or sort of work towards it by him asking how her day at the museum was. She had tried to call him about six times that day, after the picture came out. He hadn’t had the heart to answer her, or anyone else. Hadn’t the heart to reassure them that what they had seen was not what it looked like.
In the kitchen, he circumnavigated her to get to the sink. As he washed his good hand, she muttered to herself, “ If I had known that my husband was going to hurt himself dragging children under barbed wire today, I wouldn’t have made pleskavica.”
“I can eat with one hand, thank you!” said Vardar. She looked up and saw the flash of annoyance on his face. An apologetic look came over hers. “I am sorry, darling. But, it’s on the news, and we haven’t talked about it…..”
“We’ll talk about it over the evening meal, like we normally do with everything that has come our way so far.”
She nodded, understanding and acquiescence in one single gesture.
As they ate, he told her. “There was a stampede, Kaliopi. Our commander was trying to explain to the Syrians that they needed to stay calm, and we would let them in in groups. The message was relayed to the back of the crowd. But, at that precise moment, someone discovered that the fenced area was unattended. They all surged towards it. That girl was dragged under the wire.” He choked, then continued, “There are smears of her blood for at least three metres. When I came across her, she was screaming her head off. I guess that is what attracted the attention of the journalist. I was getting her out of the barbed wire when he took his picture. It was at that precise moment that Kiril appeared. He misread the situation, and tackled the reporter.”[Text Wrapping Break]“What do you mean he misread the situation?” Kaliopi asked.
Grigori shrugged. “He did not know what was happening. He thought I was attacking the girl and the reporter was going to make this known to the world. Put it this way, Kiril did not help. The picture was already online, and is now viral.”
She looked at him and loved him. She reached a hand across the little table and squeezed his. “What are we going to do, Grigori?”
“The public will want a head,” he said, glumly.
“The job,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. They would have to put off having a baby for another year at the least. Unless…..
“We will talk about your sister’s offer later,” he said firmly. “This may all blow over. All the Syrians are at the railway station right now. They will be on the train, off to western Europe.”
“Except for the girl,” said Kaliopi. “She is in hospital”
They continued with their meal in silence. Then, she went to the living room to have a Skype chat with Atina, her sister in the English town of Middlesbrough. Normally, Grigori would do the dishes. Tonight, he was incapacitated. He brushed past her, announcing that he was going to the shops.
They were waiting for him at the new McDonald’s, which watched the Vardar, and fed mostly tourists. In the evening, none of the total strangers he passed recognised him, for which Grigori was immensely grateful.
Goran and Petar, still in uniform, sat at one of three occupied tables in the basement, attended by the remains of what looked like cheeseburgers and chips. Goran nursed a tumbler of Sprite. They acknowledged his entrance with grim nods, Petar moving to allow Grigori room to sit beside him.
“Are you in, now?” Petar liked to get down to business.
“Do I have a choice now?” said Grigori. [Text Wrapping Break]“There are always choices,” said Goran, philosophically. “Do you make this one, Grigori?”
“Life has made it for me,” said Grigori.
Petar leaned closer and put his arm around him. “Don’t look so down, Grigori. Walk away from this with courage, and enter your new life with the knowledge that you will benefit from this mess. You will lose from it if you go like a lamb to the slaughter.”
“What do I have to do now?” Grigori asked.
The other two policemen looked at each other. Goran smiled. “You want to start right away?”
“Might as well,” said Grigori.
“We are moving a family today,” said Petar. “Toše is taking them from the railway station right now.”
“I am afraid you won’t be needed in this one, Grigori,” said Gorin decisively. “But tomorrow, if you are dismissed from the force, as we all know you will, you can join us. Do you mind leaving town, we need someone with your skills to be based in Radoviš for a very important part of our operations. There is already a vacancy at one of the schools for a teacher, I think Kaliopi would find that news most persuasive. For you, I have a cousin who is starting a security company.”
A mobile phone burst into life with a techno loop. With a groan, Gorin stretched so he could retrieve it from his left-trouser pocket. He mumbled a few words, then began to rise. “We have to go,” he said. “I am glad you are coming on board, Grigori. Good night, and say hello to Kaliopi.”
The two men left Grigori to think about the Syrian girl, her face lacerated by barbed wire. He would make it alright for her, for all of them, he pledged. Today, it had been his job to keep them out. His superiors were going to take away his job for doing it properly. Tomorrow, he would have another job, one that would help that Syrian girl and her family. He was now part of a human-trafficking ring.
He looked up as a two men came down the stairs into the basement, their footsteps ponderous on the wooden boards.
Excerpt from a forthcoming novel of the same name