Oana walks through the old town like she owns it. Hair piled up on the top of her head, tight, leather jacket, black jeans tucked into knee high boots. She sways her hips as she walks past the Saturday shoppers and laughs when she hears them tut.
She knows she’s outstayed her welcome here and that even the town’s ancient buildings disapprove of her. They mimic a tolerance they don’t actually feel and Oana reckons that the very boats on the river shrink closer to the bank as she crosses the bridge.
The family have been here over two years now – coming originally to pick the fruit in the summer, Oana with her uncle and aunt. She’d been sad to begin with when her mother couldn’t come, but Oana knew she had no choice but to stay and look after her own mother.
They’d been lucky to be able to live in one of the small, farm workers’ cottages on the edge of the fruit farm, rather than the crappy caravans most of the pickers stayed in. They worked hard and paid their rent, sending money back home as and when they could. What they hadn’t been able to afford was to go back to Romania in winter, so they stayed where they were, scraping cold weather work in the local shops as and if it came up.
Today, Oana’s feeling lucky. It’s October and the town’s old bones are being warmed by unexpected, golden sunlight. She’s going to call into the three or four charity shops along Bridge Street to see if there’s any paid work going. It’s not a dead cert at all, but Oana has chutzpah and hope - and that can carry you a long way.
The need to get some money is more pressing than ever for the next few months as it’s nearing the end for her grandmother, and her aunt has used what little money they had to go home to be with her. Oana feels the pull of what’s left of her grandmother’s spirit, the tug of poor soil in her home country. Soil so very different to the fertile, unfriendly soil of this town. What Oana is certain of though is that any chance of income comes from her and not from her shiftless uncle, Claudiu.
She happens across him now, sitting on a bench outside The Barley Mow, with a group of his friends. His tracksuit is gaudy yellow, his slicked back hair and black sunglasses incongruous. A gangster football manager, Oana thinks. “Hey sweetheart”, he calls to her, alcohol fumes drifting on the autumn currents, “Come and sit with us. The world turns fast, so you just have to stop sometimes. Come on baby girl, have a drink with your uncle.” Oana doesn’t break stride as she continues up the road.
In a side street, she stops by the window display of one of the shops. It’s often the shop window displays that make Oana feel the most at home here – they’re sparse, grouping together disparate items, selling little that anyone ever really needs. Poverty knows no international borders, she thinks, and grimaces at the un-profound truth of this.
There’s something about this display that fascinates her. It’s for an antique shop/coffee shop and the window itself is very dirty. There’s a crocheted net handing at the top of it and various pink and blue, mismatched tea cups and milk jugs. To the side of these are a number of dark, unappealing pictures of landscapes, peeling price-tags hiding their cost. In the centre of the display are two, porcelain lamps – one broken – with dust motes dancing in the modest heat of the bulbs.
In its dark homeliness, Oana is reminded of her grandmother’s kitchen. The smell of garlic and storceag, chicken ciorba and sweet placinta. A childhood place of steam rising from pots and stories. “You know why your mother has six fingers on her left hand, Oana? When I was pregnant with her, I was down in the root cellar and I swear I saw a witch on a horse. They were standing very still in the corner of the cellar; but when they saw me, the horse reared up and nearly threw the witch off its back. Well, of course the witch wanted revenge and she pointed her bony finger at my stomach. ‘Any child you carry to term’ shall be born with an extra finger’, she said. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Oana walks on and before she reaches the first charity shop she’s planning to go into, she bumps into her friend, Ada. It doesn’t take much to make Ada happy, and today the autumn sun and the jingle and clink of the jewellery on Ada’s arms and round her neck is enough. Lighting a cigarette to share, they crouch by the Polish supermarket, exchanging secrets. The town’s old buildings lean away from them - these shrieking, wild girls - as though the strength of their laughter might finally topple them if they get too close.
Oana knows ultimately they’re screwed and no amount of laughter can cover that, but what can she do? They haven’t paid any rent in months and there’s no money coming in. Uncle Claudiu says why should they pay? The bastard farmer should let us stay for free, we’ve worked hard enough for him. Oana has tried to tell him on any number of occasions that that’s not the way things work. That’s never the way things work.
Later, when she gets home, the cottage is cold and there’s only a half a pizza left in the fridge. The dog looks at her disconsolately. Oana considers taking out the letters she’s stuffed behind the mirror and re-reading them. The letters that shout about county court judgements and missed payments and evictions, but ultimately she decides against it. She leaves them where they are – a bulge between the back of the mirror and the wall that means the reflection of the room is slightly askew, slightly wrong.
Uncle Claudiu is unlikely to be back for hours, so when the men come to the door in their policemen-like uniform, Oana will be on her own. They will ring the bell for a good few minutes and she’ll ignore them, but after a while Oana will give in and have little choice but to open the door.
Dane’s seen some funny things in his life, that’s the nature of the beast; but he’s never been on a job where the client has also been the defendant.
As usual, he’s working with his one-time colleague, now mate, Pete. They understand each other, have got their schtick off pat. Sympathy where necessary (and it isn’t usually necessary), get the debts paid and the people out of the houses/flats/other shit-holes a.s.a.p.
Today, they’re in Evesham to evict a Romanian family from the cottage a farmer has been renting to them; but weirdly they’re also chasing the same farmer for non-payment of about ten grand to a machinery supplier. Anyway, both cases have ended up in the high court and that’s where it stops. Nowhere else to go – only big bastards like him on your doorstep with a writ in one hand and a wireless card machine just in case you can pay in the other. They’ve tossed a coin and Dane will lead on the eviction and Pete on chasing the farmer for his money. They’ve decided to get the eviction out of the way first as it always leaves a bitter taste in their mouths, however easy it goes.
There’s always a dog at these kind of places – skinny and sad, looking out from under some dirty net curtain. Pete’s parking the van just down the lane and Dane’s ringing the doorbell, but no-one’s answering yet. It’s early evening which is a good time to catch people in, but even so he’s not sure anyone is actually there.
When Pete gets to the door too, Dane leaves him at the front and walks round the back of the cottage to see if there’s a door been left open. And as is the case about seventy per cent of the time, there has been. How stupid are people, Dane thinks and within the allowed remit of his job, he makes peaceful entry.
Inside, the kitchen looks like they all do – dirty washing piled on the floor, a sink full of dishes, shelves gritty with spilled rice and cereal. The girl appears from the door on the right and the silence of her entrance makes Dane jump. “You can’t just walk in here”, she says to him.
She’s pretty in that hard, over made-up way a lot of these girls are pretty, Dane thinks. He’s embarrassed at how close he’s standing to her in the kitchen’s tight confines as he explains that yes, he can come in without being invited, that yes, they’ve had plenty of warnings about the eviction and that no – when it gets to the high court there’s no warning at all. Only the likes of him in the house and half an hour max to pack up your life.
The girl’s English is good and she’s pleading with Dane and now Pete, who’s also let himself in around the back. “We have nowhere to go. My uncle’s not even here. We knew nothing. Nothing. You have to believe me.” But Dane doesn’t believe anything, he’s heard it all before. It’s bluff and bluster only that he has to ride until it subsides - and then what’s left is the packing up only.
When the girl starts crying, Dane has to admit to himself that he’s maybe a little touched. Sitting on the stool by the kitchen counter, she looks so young – her feet not reaching the floor, slow tears wiping away her eye makeup. “How can you live with yourself?”, she says. “How do you sleep at night? Look in the mirror. Can’t you see yourself?” Dane pulls himself together and tells her he sleeps very well at night, thank you very much. Tells her that the thirty minutes she had to get out is now down to fifteen.
Another ten minutes go by as she starts looking for money. Somewhere, anywhere. In coffee jars, under beds, in the airing cupboard. Frantic, futile activity. Nothing – not even full payment of what they owe – is going to change anything now. The die is cast. The deal is done.
In the end, the girl appears at the bottom of the stairs with a sports bag, which she proceeds to fill with what looks like random shit from right through the house. The dog sits watching her unhappily and all in all, it takes about fifty minutes before she tells them she’s ready to go.
As she walks to the front door with her bag and the dog, she turns around and looks Dane in the eye. She says nothing to him and he doesn’t respond when she spits, quickly and viciously, on his boots.
Later, when the farmer pays the ten grand in full from his bank account (“Sorry about that, guys. Must have just forgotten. And thanks again for getting those lazy bastards out of my house”), Dane is still thinking about the girl. He wonders where she’ll go. He can’t see her and the dog sleeping, wrapped in part of one of the poly-tunnels behind one of the farmer’s barns, soft fruit bleeding from the plastic on to her hoodie. He can’t see her dreams of the vampires her grandmother would tell her about as a little girl. The vampires who when they came back, only wanted to continue working quietly and without fuss on their family’s farm. The industrious, diligent undead.
Dane can’t see the girl or her dreams because he has no imagination – just the rectitude of an eviction notice posted on the door of a fruit picker’s cottage. His certain evidence of a job well done.