Odeta is learning English, but she hasn’t told Kreshnik. She’ll keep it secret from him until they arrive in London. He’ll be so surprised.
As daylight evaporates, she waits, nursing the bubble of excitement that lodges in her chest whenever she thinks of him. Fidgeting on a wooden kitchen chair, she thumbs through her textbook and glances at the door. It’s a chilly evening, but she’s opened the window to neutralise the smell of the lamb stew they’d eaten for dinner. Her mother had wanted to invite Kreshnik to eat with them, but Odeta made an excuse.
It’s not that she’s ashamed of her family. Her grandparents were peasant farmers, toiling in fields seized from local landowners in Enver Hoxher’s agricultural reforms. But in recent years, her father (who owns the village shop) has prospered.
Odeta worries about her parents’ manners. She doesn’t want Kreshnik to see her dad lighting up one of his disgusting cigars and belching out smoke while he shovels chunks of meat into his gob. She’s afraid her mother might decide to set down her fork and scoop up food from her plate with a chunk of bread. When her mother eats with her hands, she seems not to notice rivulets of tomato gravy dribbling down her chin. So Odeta had told Kreshnik to come after dinner, to drink sugary coffee and a glass of raki with her father.
The book she is using to learn English is about the daily life of a stiff British family. She’d spotted it in a box of cheap novels at the market, and was attracted by the cover picture of a box-shaped house with windows on each side of the front door and a garden with grass and flowers. The page she’s reading has a coloured sketch of a woman and a boy sitting at a table. Their conversation is so stilted. She tries reading it out loud to see if it will make more sense:
“Good morning, Dick,” said Mother.
“Good morning, Mother. Where is the dog, Nip?”
“Nip is in the garden. He is playing.”
She flicks back to the first page. An ink stamp inside the cover reads Woodgate School Library. It’s dated 1959, and a thick black line has been drawn diagonally across the flysheet. So the book is meant for young children – and it’s older than her mother. Working hard to make sense of it, she leans forward and props her chin in her hand, and her dark hair swishes across the book as she turns the pages.
The scrape of a footstep on the back step, followed by a sharp tap on the kitchen door, makes her jump. Odeta hides her book under a corner of the embroidered tablecloth. She’s on her feet, her heart is thumping, and her high heels tap-tapping as she crosses the flagstone floor to open the door. For the two years since her father took her out of school to help him in the shop, her days have been measured out in scoops of tedium. Soon she’ll turn eighteen. She’d always thought nothing interesting would ever happen to her, but then Kreshnik came into her life and everything changed.
“Greetings, Odeta,” he says, handing her a single rose. It’s dusky red, and a thorn pricks her hand as she takes it from him. He’s carrying a much larger bouquet, and she guesses this is for her mother. In the twilight his face appears monochrome and she can’t quite make out his expression, but as he steps inside she sees he is smiling. She exhales and her whole body relaxes. She’s wearing her highest heels, but she has to tip her head back to smile up into his face and mumble thanks for the rose.
“Come.” She holds out her hand and draws him inside, her fingers tingling at his touch. “My father is waiting for you.”
She leads him along the narrow passage. They pass the locked door that opens into the shop where strings of onions and garlic hang from the rafters. And there are carcasses in there too: two of them in the cold store room, freshly-slaughtered and waiting for her father to carve them into chops and joints. On those days, blood and offal will stain the straw-covered floor and the smell of flesh will mingle with the scent of cinnamon pastries.
Shopkeepers in the surrounding villages have set up business in their front rooms, so their families must now retreat to the kitchen as their only living space. Odeta’s father’s vision was bolder. He built his shop on the front of the house: a concrete extension with small windows, as ugly as the thousands of Cold War bunkers that still litter the Albanian countryside. He’s never bothered to render the walls, which are made of concrete blocks sandwiched unevenly together, but at least he’s preserved the sitting room as a place for the family to congregate.
Kreshnik slips his phone into his pocket as Odeta pushes open the door and ushers him inside. Her parents have switched on the central electric light, as well as the table lamp with its olive-green fringed shade. Her father conserves electricity more closely than a miser guards his gold stash. They have made this great sacrifice to welcome Kreshnik.
Her father levers his bulky frame out of his chair and strides across the room.
“Welcome,” he says, greeting the visitor with a solid handshake and a slap on the back. “I am Idriz Lazami, and this is my wife, Besarta.”
“Kreshnik.” His name occupies the room. Odeta doesn’t know his family name. He seems to have no time for old-fashioned formality; it must be his city ways.
She tries to view the familiar sitting room through her guest’s eyes. The upholstered armchairs are lumpy, but the chairbacks are draped with starched linen covers, and the wooden furniture glows with a mellow patina from years of polishing. On the mantelpiece are family photos: her grandmother, stern-faced in a long black skirt and white apron; her parents’ wedding day; her brothers in neat school uniforms and short trousers.
Her mother blushes as she accepts the flowers, and her father pours clear liquid from a decanter into a tumbler, filling it almost to the brim. Kreshnik takes the glass and sips, while Odeta’s father drains his own smaller glass and slams it down on the table with a shout of “Ha!” The men begin a round of toasts – to good health, to happy families, to beautiful Albanian daughters. Idriz doesn’t offer his wife or daughter a drink. Odeta places her rose on the mantelpiece and sits down; Besarta remains standing, cradling her bouquet.
Evidently alerted by the rumble of laughter and the clink of glasses, her young brothers, Leon and Afrim, tumble into the room. They scuffle on the carpet, grappling with each other like puppies in exaggerated play-fight, until Idriz gives them a stern look and they spring apart and stand to attention. Besarta scolds them and gives their backsides a light slap. She hands the flowers to Leon and sends him off with instructions to put them in water.
Kreshnik sets down his glass, clears his throat and glances at Odeta. She nods, and he gives her a warm smile that sets her heart racing. It’s time for him to broach the subject he’s come to discuss. She fiddles with the pearl-and-gold bracelet Kreshnik gave her, and shivers. It isn’t cold, but she notices a pattern of goosebumps running along her arms like embroidery stitching. She should have warned her parents. Perhaps they think he’s come on a mission to ask for her hand in marriage. She flicks back her long black hair, letting it tumble down behind her shoulders, then juts out her chin and straightens her spine. She’s no old-fashioned country girl waiting for a chance to marry, settle down in her village and turn into a brood mare. Perhaps one day in the future she’ll want that, but now she’s restless. She’s been toiling in the shop for too long, and she’s still only seventeen. It’s time to get out and see the world.
Kreshnik takes a gold-plated cigarette case out of his pocket and offers it to her father, who sniffs suspiciously. The cigarettes are unfamiliar: the tipped variety. He takes one and Kreshnik lights it for him. Her father puffs, and Kreshnik begins.
“For two years I’ve been living in England,” he says. “My cousins own a workshop in London, making sample garments for the fashion industry.”
“How long have they lived there?”
“Ten years. My cousin and his wife will help me find work opportunities for Odeta.”
“But Odeta doesn’t sew.” Her father frowns, and his bushy eyebrows knit together.
She glares at him, humiliated. Everyone’s eyes are still on Kreshnik. A cold draught whips across the room as ten-year-old Leon sneaks back in and squats down on the floor next to his brother.
Kreshnik shakes his head and laughs. “She wouldn’t need to sew. My cousins are looking for models. Fashion models to feature in their clothing catalogues. Girls with a fresh look and style are always in demand.”
Odeta doesn’t look up as he says these words, but feels her cheeks turning scarlet.
“Odeta has that elusive something,” he tells them. “Exotic cheekbones, moonshine eyes and a shy smile. She could be the face of the future.”
Idriz gawps at her, and then turns back to Kreshnik. Her father’s cheeks are glowing, ruddy under the harsh electric light. Is he going to criticise her appearance? Destroy the fragile confidence Kreshnik has given her?
Then Kreshnik plays his ace card. He tells Idriz how much she could earn each month.
The older man’s Adam’s apple begins to quiver, his jaw slackens, his mouth drops open, and a bead of saliva stretches across from his lower lip to his chin. She can tell his businessman instincts have taken over. Usually his head is full of numbers that don’t add up to much.
Besarta gets to her feet, and her full skirt makes a swishing noise as she crosses the room and places her hand on Kreshnik’s arm. She fingers the sleeve of his jacket, and the softness of the cloth seems to tell her all she needs to know. “Go well, my Odeta,” she harrumphs, making the sign of the cross on her upper chest. “Remember your old parents and your brothers. Many mouths to feed in this family.”
Odeta squirms in her chair and looks down at the floor. Her brothers are sprawling on their stomachs, digging their elbows into the carpet and propping their chins up on their hands. They’ve been listening to every word, goggle-eyed. Leon nudges his brother in the ribs. Afrim topples closer to the floor and buries his giggles in the hearthrug.
A frisson of fear travels up Odeta’s spine and tickles her neck. She feels the weight of family expectations descend on her slim shoulders. What if she doesn’t get modelling work straight away? Perhaps she’ll work in a shop, like she does at home?
The air in the room smells of stale cigarette smoke. Her parents look at Odeta, exchange glances, and sit with dreamy stares and slim smiles on their faces. Even fidgety Afrim stays still.
Kreshnik gets slowly to his feet and prepares to leave. He looks down on them all from his considerable height.
“Ponder on it for a few days,” he says. “Then we’ll speak again.”
He bows his head to show respect to her parents, then swivels sideways and flashes Odeta a quick smile. She senses his eyes lingering on her, scorching her, making her burn up inside. Like the day he took those photographs…
She shivers again. Best not to think about those pictures.
The sickly aroma of over-ripe fruit wafts up from a box of plums on the table outside the shop. Odeta picks out a couple of squashed ones sprouting grey mildew moustaches, and with a deft aim pitches them under the thorny hedge that runs along the boundary of their property. A cloud of dust billows up as they hit the ground.
The sun has dipped below the horizon and the sky is a pinkish-orange; it’s time to shut up the shop. She’s still wearing her work apron, soiled with earth after a day spent shovelling potatoes out of sacks into customers’ baskets. They had few fresh vegetables in the shop today; only some tomatoes and wilting salad. The customers weren’t happy, but even if there had been vegetables they couldn’t have afforded them. Three people asked for credit, and her father backed away into the storeroom, leaving her to deal with them as usual. He knows Odeta is more hard-headed, less connected to the old days and unmoved by sob-stories.
She picks up the wooden box and tucks it under her arm, wincing as a splinter snags her forearm. Back inside the shop she removes her dusty apron, folds it and places it under the counter. Her father is up at the school watching her brothers play an early evening football match; her mother is away visiting her sick sister in the next village and won’t return until tomorrow. Odeta will have to make supper for her father and brothers.
She goes back outside and unfastens the hooks that hold the blue-painted shutters flush against the front wall of the shop, letting them swing free. How many times has she done this over the last two years, and how many more days to come? The tedium of opening and closing the shop; the strain of dragging sacks of vegetables into position; the boredom of standing all day behind the counter. But perhaps it won’t be for much longer? Soon she will escape with Kreshnik to England.
Her father built the shop on shallow foundations, and the walls have gradually nestled deeper into the earth. The shutters no longer line up with the windows, and she has to force them into the alcove before she can draw the iron bar across and padlock it. She breathes heavily, and lets out a mild curse as she leans her full weight against them and pushes.
The light pressure of a hand descends on her shoulder. “Here, let me help.”
She spins round. “Kreshnik!” Her face breaks into a smile, but her heart is racing. Thank goodness she’s taken off her grimy apron.
She gratefully steps aside and lets him take over. He has height and strength, but he doesn’t approach the task with brute force. He stands back, examines the angle of slippage, slides his hand beneath one shutter and lifts it above the level of the sill. She watches him ease the shutters into place, making it look effortless.
He nods. There’s not a mark on his white short-sleeved shirt, and the tempo of his breathing is unaltered. “I have something to show you. Can we go inside and have coffee?”
She hesitates. Her mother wouldn’t like her to invite a man inside the house when no one else is there, but Besarta doesn’t know that she has already been alone with Kreshnik on several occasions at his uncle’s house. Somehow, inviting him into her family home seems different. Taboo. It’s not as if they’re engaged. Her parents haven’t yet said if she can go to England. Her mother is probably discussing it with her aunt this very day.
“Go around to the back door,” she says, disappearing into the shop to lock the door from the inside. She decides not to take Kreshnik through the shop because she hasn’t closed the cold store. She doesn’t want him to see the stains on the floor and the fragments of bone left behind from her father’s butchery session. It’s her job to clear those up. Later, she will don her earth-stained apron, pour soapy water from a bucket across the floor and sweep it towards the hole in the wall that leads to an outside drain. When the floor of the cold store is dry, she’ll scatter fresh straw on top of the old.
She glances at her reflection in the shop window, wishing Kreshnik wouldn’t turn up without warning. She doesn’t feel at all glamorous, but in the dingy glass she can see her eyes are sparkling. Did he mean it when he said they shone like the moon? Her hair smells clean, but it’s a mess. She doesn’t have a comb so it’ll have to do. She can hear the back door rattling and quickens her pace to reach the kitchen. Although the back door isn’t locked, it sticks when she tries to pull it open. That’s strange, because there’s been no recent rain to cause the wood to buckle and swell. For a fleeting moment, she senses the house is trying to protect her from something. But from what? Damage to her reputation? Huh! She laughs. She’s not superstitious. Or scared.
“Parents not around?” Kreshnik asks, placing a fat brown envelope on the kitchen table.
She shakes her head.
“Good.” Kreshnik grasps her around the waist and pulls her towards him, pressing her so close that she can feel his ribs and every contour of his body. He rests his chin on top of her head, trapping her face against his upper chest. Other men she knows reek of tobacco and sweat, but Kreshnik smells of pine forests. It’s clean and pleasant, but she’s suffocating and twists her head sideways to gulp in some air. Kreshnik takes hold of a hank of her hair from near the crown and winds it around his fingers. He eases her head back so she stares up into his face. She tries to read his expression. Is it desire, or could it be love? He bends and covers her mouth with his, kissing her until her lips part and he can push his tongue between them. When he finally lets her go, her head is whirling and she puts out her hand to grasp a chair-back for support.
“Coffee,” he says. It sounds more like an order than a question.
She nods and fills the kettle, then takes the metal pot and scrapes out the coffee grounds left over from breakfast.
Kreshnik sits at the table, one hand resting on the splodged oilskin tablecloth. With an index finger, he slits open the envelope and draws out a swatch of paperwork. A slim booklet, with the double-headed eagle crest on the cover, tumbles out onto the table. He picks it up and examines it, flicking through the pages. Odeta is curious, but she busies herself with making the coffee and pretends she’s not watching. He dangles the notebook between his thumb and forefinger, waving it in front of her, whipping it away until he seems to tire of teasing and hands it to her.
“Your passport,” he says, flipping it open at the photo page. The solemn face of a young dark-haired woman, eyes open slightly wider than usual, stares out at her.
He nods, smiling and showing off two rows of ivory-white, even teeth. No one in Albania has teeth that good.
“You took the photograph of me on that day?”
“Let me see.” She reaches out to take the passport from his hand. On the stove, the kettle hisses and the kitchen clouds with steam. She ignores it, leafs through the pages and begins to read.
“It says here Marije Kaleci. Born 1995. That’s not me.”
He shrugs. “It’s the best I could do.”
“But I don’t understand. That’s my picture but some other girl’s name.”
“Listen, Odeta.” His voice is steely. “A passport costs over seven thousand lek. Do you have that money?”