Photo © Mitch Weiss

Axman

by Matthew Sweeney


Click here for the accompanying song playlist at YouTube, and listen while you read!

   

        It was the guitar that made us stop for him, that and the unmistakable silhouette, in black, of Castle Bran painted on the white guitar case. The black suit and black and white striped shirt also helped. His hair was long and grey – once black? – and he was as tall and skinny as a lamppost. The only incongruous thing about him was the pair of tiny John Lennon glasses perched on his somewhat long nose.

            He was standing at the side of the road, at the end of a straight stretch, just before it turned a corner. He stood facing us, with his right thumb held out at just the correct angle – as an ex-hitchhiker myself, I value a detail like this. Most of the people I pass have no chance at all of my stopping for them. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d been holding his nose with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand – we had just gone by a chemical plant that was emitting the most noxious-looking fumes, and the road we were on was the by-pass round the heavily industrial city of Ploiești.

            I brought the car to a stop by his feet, belatedly wondering if his legs would be too long for the back seat. He had no bag, I noticed, only the guitar, which was just as well, as there was no room in the boot – Elena was never the lightest of travellers, especially when we went anywhere by car, and we’d been two weeks in the tawdry splendour of the Black Sea.

            I turned and opened the back door for him, signalling to Elena that she should speak to him. My Romanian was persistently dire, and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself so early. But he surprised me by sticking his head in and asking in English if we were going to Braşov.

            - We are, I said. Hop in – if you can find room.

            He put the guitar in first, then, holding onto the car roof, he inserted his legs and finally his frame and head followed. It was a tight fit, and our Skoda wasn’t a small car. He’d have the same problem with any vehicle that would stop for him, except maybe a bus.

            I’d noticed a definite accent that didn’t seem Romanian, and when Elena tried to engage him in Romanian conversation, he laughed apologetically.

            - Nu vorbesc româneşte, he said. I do not speak Romanian.

            - Si eu nu vorbesc româneşte, me neither, I added, as Elena sighed loudly.

            - Where are you from, then? I asked, as I pulled the car out into the clear road.

            - I am German, he said. From Berlin.

            Of course, I thought to myself, sneaking a look at him through the car mirror. That was the accent! I ought to have guessed. He looked even older close up – there were lines on his face below the twin glass circles.

            - Where are you coming from now? I asked.

            Elena threw me a glance that I knew meant ‘stop asking questions’, but she was much more private than me always and never curious about anyone. I liked being nosy, liked hearing people’s stories. At least I did up until then.

            - I’m coming from Vama Veche, the last town in Romania, just before Bulgaria.

            Out of the corner of my eye I saw Elena wince slightly, to my puzzlement. What did she have against the place? I couldn’t of course ask her, and anyway I had to concentrate on my driving, as I was trying to pass two back-to-back lorries and the oncoming traffic was relentless.

            Vama veche – I knew enough Romanian to know the words meant ‘old border’. We hadn’t made it down that far, although Aurora, where we’d stayed, could only be twenty kilometres from the border. I had half-seriously suggested crossing it and driving to Varna, where Dracula had set sail for England from, with his coffins filled with Transylvanian soil, but Elena had zapped that idea. She had no wish to visit Bulgaria, she’d said.

            I finally saw clear road ahead of me and put my foot down on the accelerator until I was past the two trucks. Relaxing again, I was about to ask a follow-up question when Elena surprised me by turning round, smiling at the man and asking one of her own.

            - Do you play in a band?

            - I used to, he said, smiling back. Not any more, though.

            - What was it called? she asked.

            - The Vampire Hunters, he said, with a laugh. And I was Renfield.

            He laughed some more at this, and I have to confess I joined in, as if to demonstrate I also knew Stoker’s novel. Elena alone kept her silence. 

            I had realised that her untypical asking of questions was a way of luring the conversation away from what she considered personal stuff. I decided I’d play along with her for a while, although I still intended to find out what had taken him to Vama Veche.

            - Were you successful? I asked, knowing the name meant nothing to me. Did you make albums?

            - We made a couple on a German label, and you could say we had a bit of success there, and elsewhere in Europe. Not in Britain – we did have a following in Ireland, though, and played a good gig once in Dublin.

            - Why did you leave the band? I asked, ignoring Elena’s pinch on my thigh.

            - The band broke up.

            - Was there a lot of drugs?

            - You can’t ask a question like that, Sidney! squeaked Elena.

            - Some, of course, but nowhere enough to sink the ship. No, it was other stuff that ended it.

            I saw him run his bottom teeth over his top lip and look out the window and I decided to cease my interrogation for a while. I could imagine how disappointing it must be set out on an artistic career – and being a rock musician counted as such – and not making it to the top. In my secure academic world I just chugged along. As long as I kept turning up to give lectures and run seminars, and deliver the odd paper at conferences, there would be no disappointments. No excitements either, for that matter, but anyway ... I had the vague hope of one day writing a novel but so far the story had not found me. Maybe this character would provide some stimulus.

            I had to concentrate for a few minutes on timing my acceleration past two horse-drawn carts filled with chopped wood, the last one with a practically naked boy stretched out on top, toothily smiling and waving. I waved back, then seeing a roadside café looming ahead and realising I needed a break and a coffee, I pulled in. With difficulty, I found a parking slot among all the lorries.

            - I hope you don’t mind a short stop, I said belatedly to the face in the mirror. Elena, I knew, always welcomed stops like this, and didn’t need to be asked. She might have been Austrian, such was her liking for Kaffee und Kuchen – not that the cakes here would be anything like Viennese standard.

            Our passenger seemed to welcome the stop – partly, no doubt, because he could get out and stretch his long legs. I knew he’d only just got in the car, but being that lanky, any bit of the journey must be uncomfortable for him. He was first into the café, as well, and attracted a lot of stares from the Romanian truck drivers. He was good at ignoring them.

            I let Elena get on with finding out what the German wanted, and ordering everything. While we waited he asked me if I ever got called Sid.

            - Only my father ever called me that, I said.

            - But people must have wanted to call you that, he persisted.

            - They sometimes do, but I discourage them.

            - So you don’t like the diminutive?

            - No.

            A funny smile came on his face, and he looked away from both of us.

            - Our drummer was called Sid, he said.

            Two coffees and one beer had arrived, and a sad-looking slice of apple cake for Elena. I thought of the apple cake her mother made that was beautifully moist and fresh, and even got me eating some. I wouldn’t have eaten any of this one if I’d been paid to.

            - He died, the German said, swigging from his beer-glass, and smiling even more strangely.

            - Oh, I said. Was it a sudden death?

            - You could say that.

            - That doesn’t help to keep a band together, does it?

            He didn’t respond to this, instead looked straight at Elena.

            - Frau Sid, sorry Sidney, I don’t know your name.

            - Elena.

            - And you are Romanian?

            - Yes. May we have the pleasure of your name?

            - Since the band days all I get is Renfield. That’ll do.

            She had her big eyes locked onto his, as if he and his history fascinated her

completely.

            - I want to hear more about your band, Herr Renfield. I’ve never met a rock musician before.

            - You might be sorry, Frau Elena. Do you listen to rock music?

            - I used to. Sidney buys all the CDs now, and he prefers jazz.

            - Now, that’s not good! You should start again. Anyway, the story of our band … it all happened a long time ago, in the split Berlin. I took up the guitar, and played it a lot. I played it loud in a house in an area called Kreuzberg. Do you know Berlin? It was right on the Wall, and I played so loud I knew it would annoy the Volkspolizei patrolling with their guns on the other side of the Wall. I liked that, liked it very much. I wished I could buy a loudspeaker so powerful I could flood the whole GDR. Sorry, being Eastern European yourself, you mightn’t like talk like this.

            - No, please Herr Renfield, I was never fond of the GDR. And I haven’t lived in Eastern Europe for a long time. Continue, bitte.

            - Well, not surprisingly, word got out about this guitar-playing. One evening three English punks banged on the door until I stopped playing and went to open it. I thought it was the police, sent along by some of the complaining Turkish mothers. I invited the punks in, and they sat and watched me play.

            Next evening they were back with their own guitars and the jamming went on deep into the night. Any knocking and banging this time was ignored.

            We practised a lot, for weeks, months, and gradually I got them away from punk to a punky kind of rhythm and blues. We advertised for a drummer, and quickly broke him in. Eventually we got a gig at a well-known old music pub called the Yorckschlösschen.

            That first gig was brilliant. We were amazed at how much the crowd liked us – I remember we hadn’t enough stuff for the encore. Naturally, we got a regular slot after that, and we threw ourselves into the song-writing. But this can’t really be interesting to you, Frau Elena?

            - Oh it is, it’s fascinating.

            I swallowed the last of my coffee with an exaggerated slurp, and made a point of pulling up my shirt cuff to look at my watch. My wife turned to me for the first time since we’d come in here.

            - Sydney, we’re not in any hurry. I’d like another coffee – would you be so kind as to order it. I’m sure Herr Renfield would like another beer.

            - Would you like some more cake, as well? I asked, acidly, but it was lost on her, as she was already engrossed in the German again.

            - I’ll be quick about the rest of it, as Sydney is keen to get back on the road. The gigs continued, and we got more popular – especially when the Wall came down and the music-starved Ossies found out about us. We kept sending demo tapes off to record companies in the UK, but nothing happened. Eventually we went with a Hamburg company whose agent had been pestering us at our gigs. The first album came out and sold little, the second did a bit better. We chugged along like this until an explosive gig in Munich provoked a gang of Nazis to storm the stage, which resulted in a huge fight breaking out and our drummer being stabbed to death. I enjoyed that fight, I remember, till I realised Sid was dead. Then I nearly killed a couple of fuckers with my guitar. Sorry about the language, Frau Elena. That effectively was the end of the band. So there you have the whole miserable story.

            - I’m sorry about your drummer, and the end you describe, but you must have enjoyed lots along the way. It sounds exciting! Were there many groupies?

            The little laugh she gave here didn’t fool me at all. The way she was acting showed that, given half a chance, she’d have been one herself.

            - Oh, all that’s greatly exaggerated, he said, laughing himself, but looking straight into her eyes.

            - And that picture of Castle Bran on your guitar case, Herr Renfield?

            - Ah, that was taken from the first album cover. We were told to march up to the castle, looking mean. We even went back there to play a free promotional gig in front of it on the day of the album’s release. The record company’s idea!

            - It was not Dracula’s castle, said Elena, laughing. There is no such castle, you know. No such thing as vampires, either.

            - I dunno about that, said our guitarist, grinning, before downing the rest of his beer, then heading off to the toilet.

            It was my turn to look scoldingly at Elena, as we made our way back to the car, to wait for him there.

            - Will you ever give up on this touchiness about Dracula and vampires? Just because Bram Stoker set his book in Transylvania! At least, this time you didn’t eat the guy’s head off. Too busy flirting with him, that’s why. It was quite a performance, Elena!

            - Oh, Sydney, lighten up, would you!

            The German came back and we all got in the car. As I pulled out onto the road again, I caught his eye in the mirror.

            - You might not speak much Romanian, like myself, but your English is excellent.

            - Oh, my mother was English. I was brought up bilingual.

            - You were lucky. That’s the best method of learning a language. By the way, we’re going to Castle Bran after Braşov. If you want to renew acquaintance  with it, we’ll bring you there.

            - I don’t want to see it again. I never wanted to see it in the first place, but thanks anyway.

            I decided to stay silent for a while, hoping the other two would be talked out. It had begun to rain lightly so I switched on the windscreen wipers. I thought of slipping a CD in but remembered I was in the company of a musician.

            There was a lot of traffic on the road now, in both directions. Driving in Romania was always a fraught affair. There were no motorways, apart from a couple of pathetically short stretches, and the one we’d encountered coming from Constanta was closed for roadworks. The norm, therefore, was cowboy driving, cars whizzing past, given the slightest opportunity, and barely avoiding head-on collisions. Many of the offenders, as Elena had pointed out to me, were solo young Italian men racing to the Black Sea, and the Romanian girls holidaying there. On the way down I’d narrowly avoided a collision myself, even though I was if anything a too careful driver – I’d come round a corner to see the road blocked by one horse-drawn cart passing another. How I got the Škoda stopped in time I’ll never know.

            There hadn’t been a word spoken since we’d started. Movement was obviously good for that. Very quickly, though, we ran into a tailback of traffic, and came to a complete standstill. I sighed, and drummed my fingers on the rim of the steering wheel. Behind me, the German cursed quietly. Elena folded her pullover and laid it against the window, then put her head on it in an attempt to sleep. I knew from previous Romanian journeys that when the traffic clogged up like this it could mean sitting here for hours, so a little doze made sense, but I doubted she was sufficiently bored with our companion. I took a glance at him in the mirror. He was lying back with his eyes closed too, but he – despite the two beers – didn’t look like he was sleeping, or trying to. I unbuckled my seat-belt and went to get out.

            Then, abruptly, he laughed. Elena started, looking around at him before settling her head on the pullover again. He continued chuckling to himself.

            - Know what they call a guitarist? he said. Axman. I was the axman.

            Neither of us said anything, but I noticed Elena smile, still with eyes closed. We let his quiet laughter run its course. He had re-opened his eyes, I noticed, and I didn’t like the look I saw in them. I opened the door and got out onto the road. Many of the other drivers were also standing beside their cars. I saw one bald young man stride over to the grassy verge and commence pissing. I walked ahead, listening to the irate voices complaining in Romanian, and I got hardly a single word of it. I’d never master that language!

            There was no evident sign of what had caused the jam, and the line of stopped traffic stretched as far ahead as was visible. I thought I could faintly detect the wah-wahs that would signal an accident, but that could just be my need for neat reasons that Elena was always castigating me about – a typical Western failing, she would always say. And I knew too well that there didn’t have to be any reason for a tailback to form, especially on a road as busy as this.

            I walked back to the car and got in. If Elena wasn’t really asleep she was making a good pretence of it.

            - No sign of movement up ahead, I said. It’s a good job none of us have a ferry to catch.

            There was no chuckle from the rear. Instead, he sat up till his head was right behind mine, and I could feel his breath on my neck.

            - I had an Irish friend in Berlin who’d always quote an old Irish maxim at me, saying the way to shorten a journey was to tell a story. And as we’re likely to be participating in this journey for some time, I’ll tell you both my story. I’ll start where I left off with the band, as you – or Frau Elena, anyway – seemed interested in that.

            I looked over at Elena and rubbed the steering wheel. She made no sign of having heard what he’d said but I felt sure she was listening. The German voice carried on, uninvited.

            - That, really, was the end of it, the band, I mean. Oh, we tried going on for a while – got a new drummer, replaced our smashed instruments – but our hearts weren’t in it. And I, as a German, hated the fact that the Nazis were re-emerging, as if all that stuff had been put in a deepfreeze to thaw out again when the GDR was over. One day, without saying goodbye, I took off. I brought my guitar with me as I didn’t know how to live without it.

            I didn’t know where I was going either, except south. One advantage of the reunified Germany was I could get out of it very quickly – I got a lift to Dresden, then skipped over the border into Czechoslovakia. I spent very little time in Prague, but stayed two nights in a hostel in Bratislava. The next stop after that was Budapest, and for a day or two I considered stopping there, but something was pushing me farther south. It was getting harder to get lifts all the time, but eventually someone always stopped. The Hungarian-Romanian border was a nightmare, and made me feel like a fly in a spider’s web, but I finally got free and arrived in Timişoara. From there I took the night-train to Bucharest, as the fare was cheap and I needed a rest from standing there, hoping cars might stop. I was not tempted to remain in Bucharest, instead resumed my hitchhiking, and an Italian car took me all the way to Constanţa, and the Black Sea, where I decided I’d break my journey for a while.

            The young Italian academic had told me he was making a pilgrimage to Constanţa because it was there – when it was called Tomis – that the great Latin poet, Ovid, had been exiled to. I’d just about heard of Ovid, but had never read anything he’d written. I wanted to when I heard Ovid had been sent into exile because of a poem offering amatory advice to Roman men and women. Some of the band’s songs had been celebrated for their sexual content, so the next day, the first thing I did in Constanţa was track down the statue of Ovid (which the Italian had said the poet was buried beneath). It was big and prominent enough – Ovid stood there, like the lord of the city, in the middle of the road, high up on a plinth, wrapped up in his toga, chin on hand, looking pensive – or as if the next line wasn’t coming to him. I remember, I raised my bottle to him, and told him it was ok, fella, that sometimes the writing was like that. I took a swig from the surprisingly all right Romanian beer, bowed to the maestro, and walked away.

            One week I stayed in Constanţa, no longer, but while I was there I acted like a tourist. I’d never done this before, anywhere. I’d noticed that the cheapest accommodation on offer was rooms rented in people’s houses, so I took one near the harbour for seven days. Apart from getting the key and paying up front I didn’t see the family who lived there, though I heard their rows a couple of times at night. They know how to have good rows, Romanians! I visited the museums and the aquarium, I hung around the harbour, under hundreds of huge cranes, I ate some indifferent food, washed down by beer, or by that very acceptable Murfatlar red wine made not so far away. Anyway, it was a restful week, but I was glad when it was over.

            I headed down the coast, through a string of boring seaside resorts  – ridiculous overblown names like Neptun, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn – very provincial. I come from Berlin, of course. Sorry, Frau Elena. Maybe you like these Black Sea resorts.

            - We always went on holiday there when I was a child. There wasn’t anywhere else to go.

            She’d kept her eyes closed while she’d made this sad little response. I felt a bit slighted on her behalf, so I decided to make a small interjection. Besides, it was time to further break the monotony of his voice.      

            - They’re a good deal livelier, these resorts, in mid season.  Elena and I are just coming from a week in Aurora – which is a nice name, I think.

            I heard a sigh, as if this was the least interesting thing anyone could have told him.

            - Yeah, anyway I came to a bigger town which had more life to it, Mangalia, and I thought I’d spend an hour or two here. I had some meatbally things and a beer in a roadside café/bar, sitting at a window, watching straggler holiday-makers traipse with their towels and rolled-up rubber mats to the beach. I saw a man in a red tee-shirt dancing in front of them as they crossed the road – he was trying to get them to buy his toothbrushes. He was a young fellow, balding, with a fashionable stubble, and I felt sorry for him, as nobody was stopping to buy from him. When I’d last had a dentist she’d always been telling me I never changed my toothbrush often enough, so I finished my beer, walked over to him with the guitar and bought two of his toothbrushes.

            Mangalia has a decent harbour, as is proper for the last serious town in Romania. I remember I stood for a while on the pier, staring at the old lighthouse, then looked out over the bay and on, as far as I could, into the Black Sea. It was there that I decided what I’d do. I’d go a little farther to the last town before the border, Vama Veche. I knew nothing about it except it must be small, which I wanted, and it was a border town. The split Berlin I’d spent years in was the biggest border town that ever existed, and anyone who’d lived in it – in the West part anyway – missed that time still. It had made us all border desperados.

           When I got off the public minibus that took me there, I saw it was hardly a town, at all – just one main street, with houses and shops on either side, a couple of bars, one or two concrete monstrosities of motels, and a long beach, visible between the houses and full of fake palm tree sunshades. Also, weirdly enough, tents – did people live in tents on the beach? And, juxtaposed with this, at one end of the street, some kind of a military barracks. And, somewhere out of view, obviously, the border.

            He paused, as at a natural resting point. It was getting dark now and soon everything would be out of view here, too – the still-stopped cars, my apparently sleeping wife, the man I’d see if I stretched my neck to look in the mirror. His voice, however, showed no sign of shutting down. I found myself, oddly enough, wondering if he’d been the singer in the band, and indeed – given this story of his – what the lyrics he’d written were like. Maybe there was a reason the band hadn’t made it. Undaunted by my thoughts, he went on.

            - I had no interest in a tent, so I went about finding somewhere to stay. I saw plenty of signs for Cazare and picked the house that least needed a coat of paint. The rent we agreed on in finger language was a lot less than I’d paid in Constanţa. At this rate I could stay a long time in Vama Veche. I’d done well, I thought, to carry on this far.

            He laughed so harshly here that I winced, but waited for him to continue.

            - I decided to celebrate, and early that evening I walked into the more welcoming of the bars. It was almost totally empty. I sat down at the farthest table, beside a window through which I could see the beach and the sea. A few stubborn sunbathers were gathering their stuff and beginning to leave. The fake palms looked kitschy, I thought. There weren’t too many tents, but what were there were too many – I remembered a dismal holiday in Brittany once when I was rained out in a tent and had to flee back to Berlin, dripping. And then I noticed her, standing there, waiting to take my order.

            She had black hair and black eyes – short spiky black hair, and the eyes, I  saw later, were not quite black, more blue-black, but she had so much mascara on that I took them as black. Her short dress was black, too, and the long legs that came out from it were almost black from the sun. Her lips were painted the dark red of dried blood. And her face – have you ever seen a face, either of you, that blasted you out of your previous world?

            The weight of this question took me by surprise. He stayed quiet, waiting for one of us to respond, and I knew I was going to disappoint him.

            - I can’t recall such an occasion, I muttered, casting a glance at my now stretching wife. Elena could not be accused of possessing such a face, but who was I to talk?

            - I definitely have never had the pleasure, unfortunately, said Elena, not looking at me. She turned to the German, and smiled.

            - I’m very glad that your story finally accommodates a woman. I’m all ears now.

            - My apologies, Frau Elena. From now on is the story I want to tell. Anyway, she spoke to me again, and I asked for a beer. When she put another question to me I guessed what it was, and said the English word ‘bottle’, making the shape of a bottle in the air with my forefinger. She smiled at this, and I noticed there was a slight gap between her two front teeth. This made her smile intriguing to me.

            I kept my eyes on her as she went to the bar, took a bottle from a glass-fronted fridge, and brought it to me, along with a half-litre glass which she pretended to take my nose off with before putting it down on my table. She then made removing the cap from a beer bottle the sexiest thing I’d ever seen.

            She poured half the bottle carefully, so the foam came only halfway up the glass. This time, as she walked away, her arse swayed from side to side like a model walking up a jetty in San Tropez – although I would be the first to concede she was walking the same way as before. I forced myself to wrench my eyes away from her. I looked out at the now dark sea. There were no boats with lights abroad. Why hundreds of men weren’t flooding to watch her from Turkey, the Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, I had no idea.

            When she brought my third beer I asked her – in English – where she came from. She had some English, not much, but enough to tell me she was from Bulgaria.

            - From Varna? I asked, hopefully.

            - No, she smiled, From Plovdiv – and when I looked blank, she said:

            - In south, just more than hundred kilometres from Sofia, the same from Turkish border. No need to go there.

            I smiled, and took a slug from my new beer. From now on the bar got very busy. I watched how smoothly she did her work, and how all the men liked her and flirted with her. I didn’t blame them. On one occasion, when my glass was empty, a trendily bald male colleague of hers asked if I wanted another beer but I shook my head. Only when she came out again did I hold up my glass.

            I stayed there more than three hours that evening, and eight times she stood in front of me with a beer. By the fifth time I knew her name was Zhulietta, by the seventh I’d discovered she had two nights off in the week. I didn’t go beyond that, not yet, but I got a last smile from her as I went out the door, and that night – I’m sorry, Frau Elena, Sidney – I had the longest, slowest, most explosive wank of my life.     

            - Please keep it clean, Herr Renfield, I muttered. My wife turned to the window, suppressing a grin. I didn’t want her hearing stuff like that. I wished the traffic would get going so we could get rid of this man whose story had to be told, but there was no movement whatsoever. Someone must have been murdered up ahead. I inexplicably started whistling a tune from Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, which was the CD I played most while driving.

            - A nice album, that, although not the sort of songs The Vampire Hunters would have covered, he remarked, with a chuckle. I’m sorry about the explicit language. One sometimes gets carried away by one’s memories. But let me continue.

            And I’ll say to you now – you’re the only ones I’ll ever tell this story to. That’s why I want you to listen to it. I have to tell it once. Anyway, I went back to the pub on the seafront the next evening. She was there again. She was dressed the same and I got the feeling she never wore anything other than black. Nor did I usually.

            She greeted me with that gap-toothed smile and brought me a beer without my having to order it. This time she sat down at the table with me (it was early and the bar was more or less empty), leaned across and stared intently at my first swig.

            - Someone thirsty, she said, laughing.

            - Someone’s hungry, I said, holding her gaze.

            - Yes, see that. Should try catching a fish.

            - I will, I said, as she sashayed away.

            After that first bit of personal attention she ignored me – or at least treated me the same as any other customer – but I saw the little game she was playing. Whenever I caught her eye I gave her a little closed lips smile which she tried not to respond to, but her eyes let her down. I didn’t drink my beers so quickly this night. All the time I watched her – striding about, delivering beers or collecting empty glasses from tables, serving behind the bar, washing glasses, smiling at all the men who were chatting to her. I could hear them, without understanding a word of what they were saying, but I couldn’t miss their tone. Then someone put David Bowie on and the Romanian banter faded to a low background hum, which was better, I felt – let me watch her more privately, as Bowie howled on about a man who changed the world.

            I was the last to leave that night, and there was no pressure to get me to go. It was still warm outside. I slowly made my way to the beach where I had a long piss against one of the pretend palm trees. I sat down on the sand with my back against another, and looked towards the bar. The lights were still on. Presumably they were cleaning up inside. I began humming a speeded up version of the Bowie tune. Then abruptly I stopped and sat up – she and her male colleague were leaving the bar. I saw the lights go off, the goodnight peck, then where did she start walking to but the beach?

            I tried to melt back into the artificial trunk but she didn’t look my way, just walked on, right up to the water’s edge where she stripped off, made sure her clothes would stay dry, waded into the water and began swimming in a strong breaststroke. I watched her head go away from me as I got hard down below.

            After a few minutes of this I got up, my jeans still bulging, and walked slowly down to where her clothes were. She was still swimming out, as if she was escaping back to Bulgaria. It would have been easier to walk there – certainly for me, who was a much poorer swimmer. Still, I undressed and made my way, tentatively, into the water. It was initially cold but after I’d splashed around a bit I began to warm up. My erection was long gone, I noticed with some amusement, given the situation. I continued my clumsy, splashy, pathetic version of a breaststroke, making sure I moved parallel to the beach and stayed within my depth. After ten metres or so I was tired so I stood up for a rest, looking to see where her head was. She had circled around to the left and was still a long way off, but she seemed to be aiming to head back my way. Conscious of some activity down there again, I kicked off back the way I’d come, in a crawl this time. My crawl was stronger, although I wouldn’t have banked on either of the strokes getting me to land from a sinking boat. I didn’t go very far before my feet hit the sand again and I had turned to look at her. She was definitely coming back. I began to swim in her direction.

            It was she who came to me rather than me to her, but soon she was almost upon me and I was standing to greet her – in both meanings of the word. She literally swam into me, smiled, stood up, grabbing my dick, as she did so. Then with her other hand she pulled my head down, and stuck her tongue into my mouth. I’m sorry, but it was all I could do not to come there and then, and I would have turned that stretch of the sea white. But she steered it up into her, after reassuring me it was a safe time – and we fucked, we fucked there in the Black Sea, and the way we came it’s a wonder we both didn’t drown.

            He was silent in reflection, or arousal, now, and I decided I had to speak.

            - Can I ask why you persist in telling us all this ... private stuff, Herr Renfield? Do you think we have the slightest interest in it? Do you think we have any reaction other than embarrassment?

            I looked across at my wife, who avoided my eyes. That smile was playing on her lips, as she turned to look back at the German.

            - Whatever about Sidney, I’m finding it all very interesting, Herr Renfield. Do continue.

            I glared at her, but she ignored me. She was staring straight ahead, still with that smile on her lips. I made a thing of opening the door.

            - I’m going out to check the traffic situation. And to get some clean fresh air.

            I banged the door behind me, knowing neither of them cared that I’d gone. All the German needed was a listener. Oh, it helped that he had a willing female ear – it egged him on to get to the filthy nitty gritty.

            Unbelievably, there was still no sign of the traffic moving. A lot of the drivers were showing signs of irritation by now. I heard couples snapping at each other, children howling, men firing shouts on ahead, as if at a punishing god. Some had begun a staccato beeping of the horn. None of this would do any good, I wanted to tell them, but I understood their frustration. They, at least, didn’t have to listen to an endless smutty story. I was beginning to think this German had cured me of my desire to write a novel.

            I decided I’d walk up the line of cars until I came to the blockage, whatever it was. I wasn’t the only one doing this. Some cars had their radios or CD-players blaring. On one car-roof a naked little girl was fooling about with a puppy. She smiled at me when she caught me staring. 

            Up ahead a group of drivers were standing, talking, as if plotting some kind of insurrection, and I saw that way ahead of them a police-car was pulled across the road, in front of a huge truck, in two sections, that was lying on its side. The police-car didn’t even have its blue light flashing. Two policemen were standing there, doing nothing. There was no sign of a fire engine or anything big enough to haul the truck upright again, or to the side of the road, allowing the built-up traffic to pass. And the way the truck was lying explained why no traffic was coming in the other direction, either – there would be a tailback just as long there too.

            Wonderful, I thought! I walked back despondently, as two motorbikes came up slowly, outside the line of cars. I hated them as they chugged past. I took a couple of deep breaths, thinking of a nice rare steak and a bottle of decent wine. I was in no hurry to get back to the car. With any luck the story would be over.

            As I approached the car I saw that my wife and the German were deep in  conversation. She was fully turned round in her seat. I opened the door almost apologetically.

            - Oh, there you are, Sidney, she said. We thought you’d run out on us – taken a lift with one of the cars at the front of the queue.

            - There are no cars moving anywhere, I said, thinking she might have liked it if I had gone off on them.

            - Now you can continue your story, Herr Renfield. I’m sorry you’ve been interrupted.

            - You mean you haven’t gone on with your story while I’ve been away? I said, wrenching myself round to face the German. He looked at me calmly, with a hint of a smile on his lips.

            - No, Sidney. You’re such a responsive audience. I waited. But Frau Elena and I have had such an interesting discussion in your absence.

            I gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands and banged my forehead off the top of it.

            - Sidney! said my wife. I rubbed my eyes and looked ahead through the windscreen.  

            - Where were we? said the German. Oh yes, after that night I and my Bulgarian woman spent a lot of time together. We had a lot of sex, a lot of fun. She cooked me strange Bulgarian food. I played the guitar for her, wrote her love songs. I even played some of the old Vampire Hunters songs and had the CDs sent from Hamburg. She said she would have been our biggest fan. I moved into her apartment that she shared with a Romanian woman, until our noises drove her out. I was happy. I made fires for her, collected driftwood that I chopped with a small axe that I found in the apartment, singing ‘I am the Axman, I am the Vampire-Hunter’. I even sharpened the axe and carved her a mermaid out of a choice piece of driftwood. I cooked black food – pasta with squid’s ink, mussels, blood-sausage. Weeks blasted by.

            Then one day it all changed. I had no idea what had happened. Overnight she became moody, distant. She didn’t want sex. I wondered was she pregnant – had she got her dates wrong? But at the bar she was her old smiling, flirting self. It was me – but I’d done nothing! We began having rows, shouting matches. She threw pots, tore up my songs, demanded I leave. I refused because by then I knew I loved her, or thought I did. One night, after I’d stormed out of the bar early, she didn’t come home. At 2am I got dressed, went looking for her, ran up and down the beach, trudged home and threw myself on the bed, sobbing.

            He paused there, and I stole a glance across at Elena. She was looking straight ahead now, biting her bottom lip. I returned my gaze to the car in front. There was still no sign of any immanent movement. This was a kind of hell we were in, or I was in.

            - She stayed away, stayed away from the bar, too, for a couple of days, but then she was back and now she wouldn’t look at or talk to me. If I spoke to her or pleaded with her she ignored me. She wouldn’t even serve me drinks. Eventually the manager of the bar – a thick-set, swarthy, chain-smoking Romanian with a full black moustache took me by the arm and asked me to leave and not come back. When I refused, saying I had a full beer and the bar would be closing soon, he squeezed my arm tightly, and whispered:

            - I would, if I were you, Fritz, ok?

            - She was watching this and enjoying it, so I got up and left without looking at her. I went home and broke open the bottle of Schnapps I’d brought with me for emergencies. I poured myself a measure big enough to put a dog to sleep, but I didn’t want to sleep. I wanted her – wanted to grab her and shake her until she was her old self again, the person I’d moved in with. I wanted to find out where she went at night now, who she was with – for she would be with someone, that wildcat. There was no want of would-be lovers in that bar of hers. I threw back another glassful, then taking the bottle with me, went out into the night.

            The moon was almost full, but not quite – it made for good visibility, though. I went back close enough to the bar to see the light was still on. It wouldn’t be for long. I crouched down behind the trunk of a tree, taking a swig from the bottle. Sure enough, after less than five minutes, I heard voices – and her laugh. She was there outside the bar with her male colleague and another man – a balding, stubbled young guy who usually sat at the bar where he could talk easiest to her – I’d always thought he looked familiar, now I recognised him as the man I’d bought the toothbrushes from in Mangalia. He was holding her hand.

            I watched them walk towards the beach. When they were well past me I followed them, at a distance. I knew where they were going and what would happen. Yes, there was the stripping off and the naked wade into the water – simultaneously this time. They didn’t bother with a swim – just began fucking. I held the bottle so tight I thought it would smash, then I swigged some more, and began running back to my place. I was followed by her come-cries that were even louder than any I remembered.

            I burst into the apartment, leaving the door open behind me. I rummaged in the cupboard under the sink in the kitchen. There it was, the small axe. I grabbed it and ran out the door.

            I knew her pattern, you see – after fucking in the sea, she liked to doze on the beach for a while to get her energy back, as she put it. I’d come to like this part, and I knew the new lover would be lying there, eyes closed, too. And that’s how I found them – I didn’t even have to creep up stealthily, although I did anyway. There was no hesitation. I stood over her first, fingering the blade of the little axe – her little axe. Then I did it, first her, then him. And afterwards I rubbed the handle of the axe with sand and went back to the apartment.

            I  took only the guitar, as you will have noticed, and by early morning I was in Constanţa. The next day I was in your car. So it’s very recent, this real story I wanted to tell you, just a month or two’s happenings. Thank you both for hearing me out – you’ll understand I had to tell it just once.

            Neither my wife nor I had anything to say, nor did we turn to look at him.

            He had gone totally quiet. I glanced in the mirror and he was looking fixedly out of his side window, not moving.

            I heard engines turning on, and saw all the drivers who were standing outside their cars getting back inside again. We were going to be released, finally. Some help must have come from the other direction. I switched my own engine on.

            Soon we were inching past the now-righted truck which had been pushed or pulled to the side of the road. A bulldozer-like thing was parked alongside it. Very shortly the traffic was moving smoothly again. I found myself pressing the accelerator a bit further to the floor than I normally did, and for once, Elena said nothing about this. I also found myself thinking – as I always did after being released from a tailback – that it hadn’t happened at all, or hadn’t been for very long. That was until I remembered the story!

            He was still keeping mum. We passed a sign saying Braşov was twenty five kilometres away. I decided to risk putting on a CD. I picked out the African musician, Ali Farke Toure – it wasn’t rock and it wasn’t western, and was practically instrumental. I kept it turned down low, but even so, I soon found the rhythms soothing.

            As we got closer to Braşov, the German leaned forward and spoke quietly into my ear.

            - You should let me out before you leave the main road for the approach to Braşov. I have no wish to go into the city. I want to head on.

            - Kein problem, I said, more cheerfully than I felt, as I accelerated suddenly past what surely was an off-duty hearse.

            - And by the way, we mind our own business, Herr Renfield. Your secret is safe with us. We won’t be passing on to anyone what you told us.

            Elena was looking ahead, as if she’d hadn’t heard me, or was even deaf. All her earlier flirtiness and smiley interest in the German had disappeared. I took a glance at him in the mirror and he looked straight back in my eyes. He did look like a murderer, I thought.

            - Secret? That’s not what I’d call it, Sidney. It’s just a story I made up to shorten the journey – as the Irish like it. I have no interest in women.

            This last comment coaxed a smile from Elena.

            He laughed, and not too long later, I stopped the car and he hauled his long frame out of the back seat, pulling the white guitar case out after him.

            - Goodbye, Sidney, goodbye Elena. Thanks for the lift

            - Goodbye, we both said in unison.

            The last we saw of him was his standing there, the silhouette of Castle Bran prominent beside him, facing the oncoming traffic. I pulled away, and turned my attention to looking for the signpost that would lead us to the centre of Braşov. It arrived soon enough. As I waited for the lights to change, I put my hand on the thigh of my silent wife. She clutched my hand.

            - I’m sorry, Sidney ...

            - Shush! It’s over. He’s gone.

            - Was it just a story, do you think?

            - Who knows? And what does it matter? If it’s not, it isn’t our concern. And anyway we don’t even know his name. We’ll go to that nice restaurant-bar by the Black Church, the Biserica Neag, and we’ll urgently order a bottle of Murfatlar Vin Rosu sec. We’ll doubtlessly get through a second, too – we have a lot to talk about. And I think I’ll need a very rare steak as well – what’s the Romanian word for that again? It’s in Singe, isn’t it – literally ‘in blood? Good, let it come swimming in it.

            - Yes, and let’s find a good hotel tonight.

            - Oh, do you have something in mind?

            I saw her blush slightly but say nothing. We were now in the beautiful old centre of the city and I concentrated on finding a parking-spot. I achieved this with surprising ease, compared with previous visits here. As I got out and went to lock the car I noticed something lying on the back seat. I opened the rear door and reached in for it. As I stood staring at it in my fingers Elena came to see what I had. I handed her a small mermaid carved out of wood.

Born in Donegal in 1952, Matthew Sweeney is based in Cork currently, having previously been resident in Berlin, Timişoara and, for a long time, London. His latest poetry collections are Horse Music (2013), The Night Post (2010), and Black Moon (2007). Several books prior to that include Sanctuary (2004) and Selected Poems (2002). Bilingual collections of Sweeney’s work came out in Germany and Holland in 2008. Earlier translations appeared in Mexico, Romania, Latvia and Slovakia. Death Comes for the Poets, a collaborative novel written with John Hartley Williams, was published in 2013.

Mitch Weiss’ visual language flows from inspiration by Renaissance craftsmen and artists who valued originality and attention to detail.  Weiss’ technical virtuosity allows him to transform images into what he calls viewing windows, acting as a medium to portray the core essence of the subject.  Fully dedicated to visual expression, Weiss devotes much of his time to the study of drawing and painting under Paul Goodnight, to hone his sensibilities and educate his eye ensuring growth as a photographer. mitchweiss.com