Bones in the Air

The year was 1991, I was a few years out of my licence by the courts that meant that I couldn’t leave the city and also had a curfew. It was difficult to leave the darkness where I once existed behind, as instructed, when legally forced to remain in those very same shadows. However things were different in 1991. I no longer had to punch in a time card, like a factory worker, to prove I was in my licence hostel apartment each night. My bed-sit, a one room with a cooker and a bed that I had to return to by 10pm. A giant house full of crackheads and thieves, who were forced to live together and so would steal everything you owned, rendering possessions pointless.

1991 I could stay out as late as I liked, sweet freedom. So I took work in the only thing I was qualified in, thuggery. I took a job as a doorman at a night club near the docks in the city of Plymouth. Cash money in your hand at the close of every night. Clean legal money, that was of course padded out often by the discrete movement of ecstasy and amphetamines stuffed into pockets of jackets and cargo jeans within laundry sacks. Dirty clothes destined to never get washed, existing only to act as vehicle between the club where I worked and the laundry, owned by the Greeks that brought in the ‘gear’ to the city. Things were going well. I had my own flat and a tatty car that got me to the beach.

The pendulum had swung from hard times, to good. The problem with momentum is that pendulum can swing wildly from victim and end up in the domain of asshole and you can become an asshole so fast you don’t even notice it. Greed, selfishness and a nefarious approach to my interaction with people quickly became a default. Maybe it was because the only influences I had thus far, were also assholes, but even when being civic and charitable, I had an ulterior motive. Lucky then that I happened upon experiences in life that was like an intervention, grabbing that selfishness by the scruff and drowning it in a bucket of harsh reality before that particular cancer took hold.

One particular experience and one that I want to share is about an elderly gent called Pavi. For about a year I thought was Polish. He was in his seventies, but he was an old seventies, not the young seventies of the modern mature. Pavi as it turned out was Czech. I got to know Pavi through his daughter who was stunning and whom I fancied like crazy. She had pale Eastern European skin, emerald eyes and long mocha hair. I used to go to the corner shop when ever she did, and spent a small fortune buying shit I didn’t need just to try and bump into her and flirt. We became acquaintances and it soon became clear that I should abandon all flirting, as she, like most pretty girls, liked handsome men. You can imagine my surprise when she knocked on my door one Sunday morning.

“Please can you help? Can you drive a car?” She asked.

“Yes, I can drive. What’s the problem?”

“Oh, the guy who drives dads car has been caught drink driving and got banned, we have nobody to drive the car.” She said.

“Wait, what?” I said, “you have a driver?”

“Not exactly,” She said, “It is hard to explain.”

Of course, I said yes. She was hot, and helping out was an excuse for a further failed attempt at flirting. This is how I got to know Pavi. I lived in a flat atop a house that had been converted to flats, directly opposite the identical house that wasn’t converted to flats, that was Pavi’s home. He shared his home with his wife Maria, and the oh so beautiful Rula. I walked to the back of the house, to the garage with Pavi, and that took an age as Pavi was older than his years. I opened the garage and inside was a pristine, showroom condition Mk 2 Ford Cortina. It was beautiful, a bonefide classic. On inspection it had only had 19,000 miles on the clock. It even retained its new car smell.

Unblemished brown coachwork that had grown more beautiful over its 26 year life and a beige interior that still had the plastic covers from the factory. On the first Sunday of every month, Pavi had a guy come over, check the oil, check the water, and then take it for a drive with Pavi in the passenger seat. Pavi didn’t like to drive, because as he said, there were too many cars on the road.

I wanted that car. If I took over the driving duties under the guise of charity and employing false friendship, the ultimate goal of my efforts would be ownership. If I could convince them that the car was worthless junk, old, unreliable, I could steal it right from under their nose. I could offer next to nothing, mug them off and get myself a classic ride. All I needed was patience like a confidence trickster – the Cortina would be mine. So for the next two years, every Month I would check the oil, the water, plugs for soot etc. Unlike the previous guy, I never accepted a penny for my time. I replaced things that perished due to time rather than wear. Even took to cleaning and waxing the Cortina, as some point I would be it’s rightful owner. The effort I made and the fact it was done for free, made it more comfortable to live with that I was trying to steal it. As now to some degree, it felt like I had earned it. Pavi became a friend, we would talk on out Sunday drives. I even looked forward to them, finding new places to go. Our favourite being the seafront at Plymouth, a place called the Hoe. I would have coffee and dinner with Pavi, Maria and the beautiful Rula.

I was a fraud, a liar, but the car was worth it.

Then, one day It happened. Rula knocked on the door and asked if she could speak to me in confidence. She had distress painted over her ceramic dolls face.

“Yes.” I said, “What’s wrong?”

“It is Dad and that car. He spends a fortune on it, keeping it MOT’d and taxed, maintaining it. He never uses it. It is such a waste of money and to tell you the truth, we don’t think he even likes the thing.” She said.

“Oh. What would you want me to do?” I asked flushed with excitement. The car so close to being mine.

“Can you speak to him? Get him to sell it? Talk to him because he won’t listen to us and you are his only real friend. We could do with the money and besides, we all ride the bus.”

His only real friend.

Right then I hated myself, but I so wanted that car.

The following Sunday, we went for our drive. I had hours of dialogue built up from the sleepless night, thinking of how I should pitch a theft shrouded in a request by a wife and daughter.

We went to our favourite place and parked up on the Hoe. I noticed more than usual the admiring glances for the gleaming classic ford and it prickled my guilt. I left Pavi with the car and practised my pitch while buying two coffees. On my return, I handed a coffee to Pavi and attempted my theft. Because it would be so easy.

“Pav,” I said, “we need to talk.”

“Oh? This doesn’t sound good.” he chided with an accent that had faded little over the years.

“Maria, well Maria and Rula, they want you to get rid of this old car.”

“No.” Pavi said abruptly. He opened the window and turned away.

“But you don’t use it. It is a waste of money, you ride the bus.”

“NO!” Pavi screamed. A shrill scream, that came from a place deeper and more painful than anything I had encountered.

I tried to calm him, “It is just a car.” I said.

And then tears came. Pavi screamed again and again, “No!” until his screams trailed off to a whisper and he buried his face in his sleeve and sobbed.

The sound of undiluted grief.

I sat, in that car at a loss about what just happened, yet felt obligated to wait for a time comfortable enough to apologise and explain.

In silence we sat, and eventually I talked Pavi into Drinking his coffee.

“It’s okay, you can keep the car if you want you know. It was just a suggestion.” I lied.

“You don’t understand,” Pavi said, rolling up his sleeve, revealing a long blurred and faded tattoo on the inside of his forearm. Six scruffy hand inked numbers.

Then Pavi explained.

He was a child born in 1926 near Prague. A Jew. He was thirteen when the Nazi army invaded  Czechoslovakia. In 1941 they burned down his father’s shop and they were interned in the Terezin Ghetto. On discovery they were Jewish, one cold winters day they became of 5000 people deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was about to turn sixteen when they took his mother and father to the gas chamber. He too was then marked for extermination and told to expect to be in ‘the chamber’ within a month. He told of how when the snow thawed and the ground turned to sludge, the week fell and stayed there. Others flung themselves on to the electrified barbed wire that encircled the camp.“Sometimes when it rained,” He said, “the smoke from the crematorium sat low and the stench,” he flinched, “the stink of the bones in the air.”

A twist of fate saw that Pavi became one of  86 child prisoners marked for death that were diverted to a nearby camp, ‘the D lager’, eventually ending up at Buchenwald. Thirty-two of them, now known as “the Birkenau boys” lived to be liberated by the Allies while on a death march to the chamber.

Pavi kept the car in pristine condition so that if it ever happened again, he would be able to escape with his wife and daughter. The car meant survival, safety and escape.  Pavi was a man who lived his entire life in fear. A fear that at any moment, everything you hold dear can be taken.

The first thing I did on my return was to get the car valued, and showed Pavi its real value. The result was a shiny two-year old compact car with an automatic gearbox, so the following Month I could get Pavi driving again. Nothing is ever what it seems.

They say everyone has a story in them, just some have a story that is too difficult to tell. 


6 thoughts on “Bones in the Air

  1. At first, I found the writing a little rough, but it has a certain simple beauty about it that really won me over. Very touching story.

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