This is the twenty-fourth part of a fiction serial, in 845 words.
After thinking about what Roman had said for a moment, I explained to him that I was not at all bothered about sex, whether with other men, or women.
I assured him that I was not offended by his own sexuality, or his offer, and that now we were sharing a room he should know my feelings. He thought that was highly amusing, chuckling away and talking in his own language. As he turned over to settle down to sleep, he called back to me. “You try it sometime, Ricky. Very good, you will see”.
He woke me the next morning, holding a small thermos flask containing coffee that was already sweetened, and a plastic box in which there was a piping hot substantial omelette and two slices of buttered toast. “Eat quick now, Ricky. Work start in twenty minutes”.
There was no time for anything other than a cursory wash, before getting dressed to report to Anton. He assigned us to a group with four others, and told us in English that we would be picking cucumbers in the second greenhouse. I watched my colleagues as they went inside, stripping off any warm or heavy clothing as they entered the humid interior. I followed their example, and Roman gave me a small knife and a bottle of mineral water. “No crooked ones or too small. Only the long straight ones. Fill the box and place it on the trolley in the centre, get another box.”
That seemed to be the extent of my training, and I took my place at one of the rows, opposite a dark-skinned woman who looked like a gypsy. I watched her work for a few minutes and quickly got the idea. It wasn’t as difficult or as frantic as I had expected, but it was mind-numbingly dull. With Roman working across the other side, and the gypsy woman appearing to speak no English, I just got on with the job. Lunch was a bauguette containing something resembling salami, with spicy pickles inside. We ate it leaning against the trolleys in the greenhouse, sweat dripping down our faces from the humidity.
When all the boxes were full, some other workers arrived to wheel them out, and bring fresh empty ones. The gypsy woman looked at me, and startled me by speaking in perfect English. “They take them to the sheds at the back, for the machine that wraps them in plastic.” As we carried on that day, I spoke to the woman, finding out more about her. Her name was Marta, and she was from a city called Craiova in Romania. Despite her appearance, she was well-educated and had once worked as a teacher. But the regime change in 1989 had left her unemployed and unpopular, and she had moved to Britain as an illegal immigrant with no work permit in 1990. Since then, she had drifted around doing casual work all over the country. And she was older than she looked, stating her age to me as ‘over sixty’.
Over the next few days, I spent some time in her company after work, sitting in her static home with the three other Romanian women she shared with, listening to them talk about their hard lives in that country, and how they had hoped for better things in Britain, but were little more than slaves to Anton and his company. They told me that they were charged a lot of money for the food and accomodation, the bottled water, even the overalls they had to wear. On Sundays, Anton would open his ‘shop’ in one of the storage sheds, and allow them to buy things like sweets and cigarettes, toiletries and other essentials. They were not allowed to go into town, and were moved around from job to job in minibuses. All of them owed Anton money, so received no actual pay for the work done, just an allowance against the ever-increasing debt.
Each night when I got back to my room, Roman would laugh. “You been with that old lady girlfriend again, Ricky?”
That Sunday morning, I went with Roman to Anton’s shop. I was surprised to see some new faces, tough-looking older men that appeared to be in charge of Anton. They were arguing with him in a foreign language, and as the queue of workers waited patiently in the cold morning, the argument erupted into a fight, with Anton punching an older man very hard. The man got up off the floor and walked over to a black-painted van, returning with a fierce large dog that was snarling at everyone and pulling hard at the strong chain around its neck. As it got close to Anton, it jumped up, jaws snapping. We all backed away, in case the old man released it.
With his back against the wall of the shed, Anton scrabbled around inside the chest pocket of his coat, and handed over a large wad of money to the man holding the dog. In that moment, I clearly saw the terror on Anton’s face.
And I knew he was afraid of dogs.