I chose to live in another country and it was still a challenge even though it was my own free choice. So many people have to decide on a life change to be able to help their families or just survive. My story was inspired by people I have met who have had change in their lives, not necessarily through choice....
The lorry park was already full when Vladimir arrived. He had forgotten about the Italian public holiday and would have to wait until Sunday evening before he could set off again.
Vladimir skillfully eased his lorry into a space between the picnic tables and an oleander bush. He jumped out of his cab and felt intense relief as he stretched his body into an upright position. The constant stream of tourists going home had ceased and the lorry drivers had the service station to themselves.
A waft of cloying scent drifted past and out of the corner of his eye. Vladimir glimpsed a female form, hovering expectantly. Many times he had been grateful for the comfort such a woman gave. The warm presence of another human being, passing by like him, wanting the illusion of another's care.
On the journey home, though, he was a husband, a father, a son. He was going to a place where he would be welcomed with open arms. Everyone would rejoice at his return and the whole village would be invited to share the roast pig. The women would already be making vast quantities of potato salad and the children would be helping to taste the rich creamy cakes and biscuits.
Vladimir thought of his wife,Inga. Had he imagined that her face hadn't lit up quite so much with the joy of seeing him last time he went home? Had he imagined that his cousin, Vassili, had touched her on the arm a bit too often? He shook himself. He would go into the cafè and buy her a special gift, just like the tourists who wandered around looking for last-minute souvenirs.
The outward journey was getting more difficult for Vladimir. He found it hard to resist the pleading eyes and desperate looks from those who saw his lorry as a bridge to freedom. This time, he had nearly got caught. The custom's official at Calais had taken note of his number plate and he knew that next time they wouldn't play so dumb.They would be searching and shining their torches under his lorry.
Vladimir didn't want to think about what his life would be like without this job. The money he took home meant that his family were able to stay together in the village where he and Inga had grown up. His grandmothers had both told him to keep his family together. It was the most important thing he could do for them. When his mother's mother, Lucica, was a young girl, just fifteen, she had been forced to marry his grandfather, Tomas. Many times she had tried to run away to go back home, but in the end she had been made to accept her destiny.
Lucica was one of the lucky ones. Tomas was a hardworking and loyal husband. He did all he could to make his wife happy. Vladimir's other grandmother had a different challenge. When Vladimir's father was born, restrictions were placed on the people, and she was never allowed back to see her family. She cried so many tears and her heart broke knowing she would never see her younger brothers or her parents again. As the years went by her sadness increased and even now tears would fall at the mere mention of her long lost relatives.
A fellow driver, a Ukrainian who Vladimir recognized as Andras, came out of the cafè and slapped Vladimir on the back.
'Have you seen the view from over there? There's Monte Carlo with the casino and the palace and the most enormous cruise ships. I'm going to take some photos while the sun goes down.'
This was Vladimir's first visit to the Aire du Beausoleil and he went to stand for awhile admiring the view and lost in thought.
Being a long distance lorry driver made Vladimir feel free. While he was on the road he felt safe. His cab was like a private universe where no harm could come to him. He kept his passport and all his papers in a pocket that Inga had made specially. He knew how important they were.
On his outward bound journey he was a man, taking a load of goods to one place and then bringing another load back. On his way home though, he was a hero, a provider and a protector. With his warm nature, Vladimir had made a lot of friends among his fellow drivers. Many took the same routes and would try to share the same overnight stops. He was always happy to see Salvatore, an effervescent Sicilian driver who entertained everybody with stories about his family and sang Sicilian songs. He would ring him when he went back to his cab.
Vladimir waved at Andras and then walked towards the bright lights of the café, pushed open the door and breathed in the welcoming smell of strong coffee. The café was almost empty. There was just a couple sitting near the window, watching the sunset. The man was shaking sugar into his companion's coffee and giving it a stir while she smiled at him and stroked his knee.
Vladimir felt his heart ache. He wished it was him and Inga. He would love to take her on a journey and show her all the places he had been. He walked up to the till and ordered his coffee.
He sat near the couple and relaxed as the strong, hot liquid hit his throat. The young woman had a bag with the name of a city that he had driven past many times. To him, it was just a name on a signpost. He could hear them discussing a party that they were planning. He caught some of the words, party, welcome home, happy. He imagined his family planning the same for him, then he remembered Vassili and the way he looked at Inga.
He needed to go home. He needed to see her more than ever. If he set off the moment the lorry ban was lifted he could be home by Monday night.
Vladimir walked through the shopping area. He chose some sweets for his little daughter and a soft toy for his baby son. Then he saw a handbag like the woman's. He took his gifts to the till and on impulse added a second bag. The woman at the till smiled at him. 'Great choice, someone's going to be happy'.
Just as he arrived at his cab door, Vladimir smelt the perfume again and saw a flash of long hair and a short skirt. He solemnly reached towards the girl, the bag in his outstretched hand. She started to unbutton her shirt with an automatic action.
Vladimir waved his hand dismissively, 'Nyet, nyet, no, no.' As she took the bag her questioning look turned to a delighted smile that made his heart swell. Oh please let Inga greet him so.
Vladimir walked all round the lorry checking his tarpaulin and tightening the ropes then he jumped up into his cab. He drew the curtains and took a swig from the vodka bottle that he kept under his seat. There would be time for the alcohol to be out of his bloodstream by Sunday evening and he knew it would help him sleep. He heard a noise from behind his lorry and was about to investigate when his phone rang. It must have fallen out of his pocket before he went into the Cafè. He scrambled around on the floor till he found it then pressed answer. It was Salvatore, his Sicilian friend. It was harder for Vladimir to understand the torrent of Italian without his friend's incredibly expressive gestures. He caught the key words, hotel on the Black sea, terracotta, Monday evening, Serbian border. Salvatore wanted to know if they could meet there and then go on to the Black sea together. Vladimir did some quick calculations.
'Si, si, da, da, See you there Salvo.'
Vladimir then saw he had six missed calls from Inga and two from his mother. He rang his mother first and was greeted as always with a host of recommendations.
'Make sure you get enough sleep, eat properly, never drive for more than eight hours, we all miss you.'
Then almost as an afterthought she told him that Vassili had found a bicycle for Aline. He'd painted it bright pink and she rode it round the yard blowing him kisses and ringing the little bell he had attached to it.
Vladimir threw the phone onto the passenger seat. He had another swig of vodka and rubbed his eyes, then he rang Inga. She sounded angry.
'Where have you been? Why didn't you answer ? Is there anyone else there?'
Vladimir was taken aback. Inga was always complaining that he asked too many questions. He held the phone away from his ear until her shrieking stopped. He told her he would be home On Tuesday and he had something for her. She giggled then and sounded more like his Inga.
Vladimir tried to sleep thinking of his mother's advice but woke from a dream of Aline looking at him as though he was a stranger and Inga turning away from him.
'Come to my cab, Vladi, and I'll give you the best Sicilian food in the world.'
As the two men feasted on salami, olives, sausage, Arancini, cannoli and almond cakes, Salvatore explained his mission. He was on his way to a new hotel on the Black sea in Bulgaria with a lorry load of terracotta vases from Tuscany. The hotel needed local staff and he wondered if Vladimir would be interested.
'You know, Vladi, you've got a gift for communication and people warm to you. You can get by in Italian, English, German. You'd be great and I know how much you miss your kids. Maybe it's time for a change.'
Vladimir had been holding his breath, entranced by a vision of waking up beside Inga every day, teaching Aline to ride her bike, watching little Viktor take his first steps. A lump came to his throat and he had a job to speak.
'Salvo, I think the time is right. Thank you, I'd like to give it a try.'
They agreed to set off together after their sleep. Salvatore jumped out, then after a few minutes tapped on the window.
'Vladi, your tarpaulin's loose, better check it.'
Vladimir walked to the back of his lorry and lifted the flaps. He gasped as he saw a pair of frightened eyes and the handbag that he'd bought at the autogrill.
He knelt down and smiled reassuringly.
'Hello there, it's ok. Where do you think you're going?'.
Encouraged by his tone the girl slowly sat up. In Bulgarian she told him that she'd seen the name of the town on his lorry and hoped she'd be able to get there without him noticing. Vladimir silently handed her one of Salvatore's almond cakes and listened to her story. It was one he had heard many times.
Vladimir waited until the girl had finished telling her tale of being lured away from home with false promises of work and had found herself with no papers and a long way from home.
At that moment Salvatore appeared to see what had happened to his friend. He cupped his hand and shook it up and down in a typical Italian gesture, meaning 'What's going on?' The girl looked at him.
'I am Ester, I want to go home.'
The two men exchanged glances as she broke down into violent sobs.
'Both of you come to my cab'. Salvatore propelled them up into his lorry and poured glasses of his homemade Marsala. Ester stopped crying and Salvatore handed her a rough towel. The three of them sat in an uneasy silence staring at the many chillis and horns dangling from the windscreen.
'My Concettina puts them there to protect me'. Salvatore yawned loudly. Vladimir drained his glass and turned to Ester.
'Come to my lorry and we'll get some sleep. We can decide what to do in the morning.'
Ester nodded and gave her glass back to Salvatore.
'Thank you, you are both very kind.'
She followed Vladimir back to his lorry and he settled her down with a blanket. Just as he had got comfortable, his phone rang. It was Inga.
'What is going on Vladi? You never answer your phone. Tell me the truth, are you with someone? Tell me! I need to know! I'm always stuck here on my own while you travel all over the place.'
Vladimir was speechless. Inga had never spoken like this before. He was always the jealous one. He glanced at Ester, sleeping peacefully and still clutching her handbag. He felt guilty and didn't know what to say. Inga took his silence to mean he was hiding something from her.
'It's just as well Vassili looks after me'.
The line went dead.
The next morning after a fitful sleep, Vladimir was woken by Salvatore rapping on the window and bearing three cups of tea and some rolls of bread. As Vladimir and Ester gratefully took them, Salvatore leant on the cab door and spoke through the window, blowing on his tea.
'Last night I asked Concettina. At first she didn't believe me and then very angry. Then she said what to do.' he gulped his tea and carried on. 'Ester must come with me in my lorry and we follow you to your depot. Then you come with us and I take you to your town. I'll ask my friend Egidio if Ester can work in the hotel. Is perfect plan no?'
Vladimir nodded dumbly. It seemed like there'd be a lot of explaining to do to Inga.
As if reading his thoughts Salvatore carried on.
'Just be natural, Vladi, smile and kiss and hug her. Keep telling her how much you love her. Believe me, I am Italian. We know what is important to women.'
When they were all back on the road with Ester sitting up beside Salvo and tucking into Arancini, Vladimir called Inga. When he told her that he would be bringing two friends with him and could she please make up some beds, there was silence. He softly told her how much he wanted her.
Inga was confused. So many couples in their small town had been torn apart by one of them having to leave to find work. Just now, hearing Vladimir using their special words for love she knew that he was the only man she ever wanted. He was her true love. She must not give Vassili the wrong message. She went to the kitchen to do the finishing touches for Vladimir's welcome home party.
Everywhere he went Salvatore took the sunshine, vitality and passion of his native island and soon he was part of the family, singing songs and dancing. There was one awkward moment when Aline pointed to Inga and Ester and their handbags. 'Look they are the same.'
Vladimir grabbed Inga and twirled her round to the music, kissing her and spinning her round till she was laughing and giddy with happiness. Later, Vassili held out his hand for Ester to dance with him. Someone shouted out a toast, glasses were filled and raised, all was well.
Salvatore, Vladimir and Vassili talked late into the night. Egidio was investing in the hotel. It was a big resort backed by a well-known German group. They had already opened one in Macedonia and it was a great success. The warm climate,the sandy beaches, the beer and the fresh fish would attract people from Northern Europe. There would be work for them all. Salvatore would be coming back regularly. He might bring Concettina next time.
Salvatore picked up his phone. 'Mi manchi amuri, I miss you my love, Ti amo, I love you.'
|The view from the Beausoleil service station|