“Building a better future”
By Jan Clampett
‘You have light?’ The man held his cigarette up between his index and third finger. Mitch dug into the pockets of his donkey jacket and pulled out a Zippo.
‘Very nice. Expensive. I had one.’ The man sighed. ‘Not anymore.’
Mitch’s sovereign ring caught the sun as he held up his hand to light the cigarette. ‘Thank you.’ The man held out his hand. ‘Andrei Dragavei.’
They shook hands. ‘Mitch, pleased to meet you… Andrei. What brings you here, you sound a long way from home?’
‘Work. Is not so much back home.’
‘Where is that?’
‘Romania. Little town, near coast.’
He looked at the grey, concrete buildings of the town centre. ‘I miss sea.’
‘Your English is quite good.’
‘No, will get better. I go to classes.’
‘It’s much better than my Romanian.’ They both laughed.
‘I have Russian too.’
‘I can order two beers in Spanish. That’s my lot. What sort of work do you do?’
‘Back home, I farmer. We lost our land. Here, I am builder, labourer, not even that...’
‘Excuse me? I not understand.’
‘Why aren’t you working?’
‘I have no tools. After one week, mine stolen. Gone. Foreman not care. He say, “No tools, no work”. I cannot buy more. I have no money for three weeks.’
‘On behalf of my fellow countrymen, I apologise.’
Andrei looked puzzled.
‘I’m sorry,’ Mitch added. ‘There are bad people in every country.’
Andrei nodded sadly. He looked up at the building they were stood outside. ‘I thought maybe they help me here. Was hard. I not understand forms. Stress.’ He held up his cigarette. ‘I given up. My wife, she angry if she know.’
Mitch put his hand on Andrei’s back. ‘Sounds like you could do with a friend. Let me buy you lunch.’
‘Come with me.’ Mitch started walking away. Andrei did not move. Mitch stopped and waved him on. ‘Lunch. Something to eat.’ He mimed putting food in his mouth.
‘Ah no. I cannot…’
‘My treat. I pay.’ Mitch took out his wallet, which was bulging. ‘Come on. I had a win on the horses. Help me celebrate.’
Andrei laughed and started walking towards Mitch.
‘That’s more like it. There’s a café round the corner.’ Mitch looked around. ‘On second thoughts, it gets a bit busy at this time of day. We’ll go to a place up the road. It’s a bit of a walk but serves the best all-day breakfast in town. You look like you could do with fattening up.’
Mitch was out of breath by the time they reached the café. Andrei had not broken sweat.
‘You are very fit.’
Andrei smiled. ‘I like to keep myself, how you say, in shape.’
Andrei walked towards the table in the window. Mitch beckoned him further in.
‘Can’t stand people gawping at me when I’m eating.’
After sitting at the table Mitch asked ‘Do you go to the gym back home?’
‘Farm keep me fit.’ He took a photo from his wallet and handed it proudly to Mitch. ‘My family.’
‘Your Mrs is gorgeous. No wonder you want to look your best. You’re punching there, mate.’
Mitch pointed to the woman in the photo. ‘Bellisimo! Hey, I know some Italian as well.’
Andrei smiled and looked embarrassed. ‘We much in love. I miss every day. She’s in Romania.
I come first. If I go back, I fail. I learn this word. I very much fail.’
Mitch handed the photo back. ‘Your daughters are beautiful too. You must be very proud.’
‘I very proud man. No more.’
Mitch picked up the menu. ‘Do you want me to order for you?’ Andrei nodded gratefully.
When their breakfasts came Andrei started eating almost as soon as the plate was on the table.
‘Do you mind me asking, how much do you need to buy new tools?’
‘Too much,’ Andrei replied around a mouthful of food.
‘No, really. How much?’
‘It’s not that much.’
‘Is for me. Might as well be £5,000.’
‘I might be able to help you. I know some people in the trade who could get you a good deal.’
Andrei smiled cautiously. ‘For why?’
‘They owe me a favour. I could lend you the money.’
‘Why you do that? You don’t know me.’
Mitch smiled. ‘We’ve all been down on our luck, mate. Let’s say I’d be paying it forward.’
‘I no understand.’
Mitch put his hand on Andrei’s. ‘Think about your family mate. When I needed help, someone helped me and now I want to help you.’
‘O…K. Would be very kind.’
‘We’d do it properly. Business-like. I’d need your passport.’
‘Why you need this?’
‘To be honest, I don’t really understand myself. It’s just how it is. Bureaucracy. Is that a problem?’
‘I get passport back?’
‘Yes, of course, mate. Perhaps we could go back to your place now. Sooner you get the tools the better. Unless you’ve got a better plan to look after your family?’
‘….No.’ Andrei got up decisively. ‘OK. We go now.’
The hallway was strewn with men’s trainers. Mitch held his nose in mock horror.
‘How many men live here?’
‘Eight, I think.’
Andrei led the way upstairs and went into a room that had three beds in it. He opened the window then pulled out a bag from under one of the beds. He took out a passport.
‘I not know why you need this.’
‘Security, mate, security.’
‘Rules. Not mine, the Government.’
Andrei nodded uncertainly and gave Mitch his passport. Mitch put it in his pocket.
‘OK mate.’ Mitch handed Andrei his phone. ‘Put your number in there. I’ll call you. Should have your money tomorrow. I’ll see myself out.’
Mitch joined Andrei at their usual table.
‘Hey, how are you doing, mate? You look worried.’
‘I am, my friend.’
‘I speak to someone new at my house. He say he know you.’
‘Oh yes… What else does he say?’
‘He say…. No, it can’t be you.’
Mitch looked hard into Andrei’s eyes. ‘What did he say?’
‘He say, you bad man. You make money from people. You hurt, if can’t pay. Must be mistake, yes?’
Mitch smiled slowly. ‘What do you think?’
Andrei swallowed. ‘I… You’re my friend. You help me.’
Mitch leant forward, his nose very close to Andrei’s. ‘I am. As long as you keep up your payments, I’m your very good friend.’
‘Yes,’ Andrei said hesitantly. ‘Sorry.’
‘I’m hurt you say this to me.’ He sat back. ‘You have this week’s payment?’
‘Of course, £50. Here it is.’
‘Ah. I’m afraid it’s gone up. It’s £60 now.’
‘But, we agreed…’
‘Did we? Where is this agreement?’
‘I thought, we say…’ Andrei sat up straight in his chair. ‘How much I owe you? I earning good now. I pay you quicker.’
Mitch pulled out a book from inside his coat and consulted it. ‘£1,700.’
‘What! I borrow £500 six weeks ago. Can’t be that much.’
‘Heard of interest? Expenses?’
‘No, it can’t…’ Andrei looked defeated. ‘My new friend. He was right. What can I do?’
‘There is something, now you mention it. Your construction site took delivery of some very interesting supplies yesterday…’
‘No. I honest man.’
‘And a proud one. What would your family say if they knew you’d got into so much debt? They’d be ashamed. Epic fail.’
Andrei got up to go. Mitch grabbed his arm. ‘I’ll call you tomorrow. You’d better answer!’