Olga stood in her bedroom, swaying from side to side as she admired herself in the full length mirror. She turned and looked back at her reflection over each shoulder. Yes, it was a lovely dress and the fabric shimmered wonderfully against her body as she swished and swayed.
At forty seven, she could easily pass for ten years younger and her figure had hardly altered since her youth. She was only five feet tall but her legs were long and shapely, her waist trim and her breasts were small and perfect orbs.
It would be marvellous to be wearing something soft and feminine for a change. Olga’s usual attire consisted of tight tee shirts and hip-hugging jeans. Her squat, square feet were habitually clad in open-toed sandals, displaying beautifully shaped toenails that were painted pillar-box red. Her skin was the colour of weak coffee and she wore her jet-black hair in a plaited ponytail like a girl, with a severe fringe lined above arched eyebrows. High cheekbones and thin lips underlined her Balkan heritage.
The bedroom was a tiny box, barely providing enough space for her meagre furnishings consisting of a Queen-size bed, a wicker chair and the Cheval mirror. A narrow built-in wardrobe had to suffice to accommodate her clothes, shoes, towels and bed linen and she could only access this by dragging the mirror halfway across the carpet to enable her to part-way open the wardrobe door and stretch awkwardly to reach one arm inside.
The whole bungalow was built with the proportions of a dolls house. The bathroom was too small for a bath so instead was fitted with an electric shower, a feeble and rickety contraption that emitted a noise like a jet engine but only managed to produce a miserly trickle of lukewarm water. The unit was housed within a flimsy narrow plastic cabinet with a see-through plastic door that had a tendency to open of its own volition or sometimes refuse to open at all until she had given it a Bruce Lee kick.
In her kitchen she could stand in the centre of the linoleum floor and easily reach out to any appliance, sink, fridge, cooker, toaster, kettle or microwave, without the need to move. The living room was just large enough for a two-seater sofa, a narrow coffee table and her sixteen inch TV. If she had any visitors more than two people completely overran the place.
Nevertheless, Olga was happy and content with her abode and had fashioned a comfortable nest for herself.
On the plus side the place was cheap, the housing association from which she rented it unable to charge more due to the bungalows’ general poor state of repair and minute proportions. There was no gas plumbed in, just electricity, but even in the depths of winter she could keep the temperature at a comfortable level with only the tiny two element fire. The electricity meter took one pound coins and she seldom had to feed it more than seven or eight each week, even in the iciest of conditions.
What was euphemistically called the garden at the rear of the property was in fact a pocket handkerchief of grassed area enclosed by wooden fences on three sides and measuring – she knew this because she had used the tape measure from her needlework basket to check – twelve feet wide by six feet deep. But it was just enough to enable her to hang her washing and, in the summer for a couple of hours a day when the sun was directly overhead, she could stretch out on a towel and sunbathe in her bikini.
Olga had lived in the bungalow for the past eight years and she felt herself fortunate. Before moving there she had lived in the Lancashire town of Accrington with her husband, Ronald, a man thirty years her senior.
She had met Ronald when he visited her home village in Romania. Ostensibly, he was on holiday. Unknown to Olga – certainly at the outset – was that he was actually seeking a new wife, his own having died some four months previously.
He had begun a conversation with her one evening in the tavern where she worked by day as a cleaner and by night as a waitress. As Ronald had no Romanian and she had only a thin grasp of English their exchanges were stilted at best, but he had made her understand that he wanted to go on an excursion into the countryside and he would appreciate her company and local knowledge. She had agreed and they then saw each other every day for the remaining twelve days of his holiday.
She was under no illusions. Ronald was kindly, attentive and affable, but not what she would have called a ‘catch’. But in her small Transylvanian village in the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains, there were no ‘catches’ to be found. In her mid-thirties, Olga was all too aware that she was becoming an old maid and her options were limited.
Although things were better now, she had spent the first sixteen years of her existence on this earth under the yoke of the Ceausescu regime and had always longed for more, longed for a better life.
At the end of his stay, before returning to the UK, Ronald had asked if he could write to her and she received the first of his many letters just two weeks later. She then got at least one letter a week from him. He wrote to her about his life in Lancashire, mainly repeating what he had already told her in person during their brief time together. The letters were not easy for Olga to decipher and so she had borrowed a phrase book from one of the other waitresses to help her. She wrote back as best she could, having little to report but always trying to ask him one or two questions to indicate a reply was anticipated. He did not disappoint and wrote to her about his bowls club, his trips to the supermarket, the darts league he was captain of, even what he had cooked for himself for dinner that day. Although the information was far from scintillating, to Olga life in Accrington took on the dimensions of a magical world, exotic and abundant with luxuries.
Increasingly, Ronald’s letters became more and more intimate and he had started signing off with ‘All my love, always.’ The letter containing the marriage proposal was one of his briefest. He simply stated that he missed her company and, if she was agreeable, he would book her a flight for the following week and collect her at Manchester airport.
The wedding was a somewhat perfunctory affair at Accrington registry office and there were no guests. After the ceremony, he took her across the road to a cafe where they had cups of tea and Lancashire hotpot followed by apple crumble and custard.
For the next year and a half, Olga’s life was one of dull but comfortable routine. Ronald lived in a small terraced house in a row of identical dwellings, the furnishings outdated and the interior decorations untouched from the seventies. As Ronald was now retired from his job at the local wallpaper factory, he had adopted a practiced discipline to occupy his time which involved a stroll each morning to the paper shop, the remainder of the morning spent reading the paper, a sandwich of either cheese and pickle or ham and mustard for his lunch and then three or four hours at the Accrington Working Men’s Club before returning home at around five or six when he expected his evening meal to be on the table. Together they watched television for the remainder of the evening until he would switch it off after the ten o’clock news and they would retire to bed. On Saturday mornings he would take Olga in his Toyota Yaris to Tesco’s where they would buy almost exactly the same items each week from a list that Ronald had written.
As a lover, Ronald proved to be dependable but robotic. After an initial two weeks of novelty and experimentation, he had settled into an expectation of once per week and always on a Sunday night, in bed and with the lights out.
Ronald’s two daughters had visited only once. Both a little older than Olga, their disdain was apparent from the outset and it was a relief when they had finished the tea and cakes that Olga had prepared and Ronald had escorted them to the front door. What Olga was able to comprehend of the teatime conversation – largely between father and daughters as she was only briefly included, the three of them treating her more like an inanimate ornament than a new family member – seemed to consist of talk about others (children, husbands) of whom Olga knew nothing and of whom nothing was explained.
As she cleared away the tea cups, she could hear Ronald talking in a whisper to his children in the hallway. Her English was improving rapidly and she clearly heard one of the daughters say, “Well, it’s your life dad. As long as you’re happy, then so be it.”
Weeks and months went by and each was a replica of the last. And then . . .
Although the first heart attack began whilst he was at Accrington Working Men’s Club at three o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, Ronald then suffered two more attacks at the hospital and the doctors had to pronounce him dead by seven that evening.
The reading of the will was attended by Olga and her two step daughters. The terraced house, long free from the encumbrance of a mortgage and valued at one hundred and sixty five thousand pounds, was left to the daughters, together with all household belongings and chattels. The solicitor reading from the document then announced that Ronald had left Olga the contents of both his current and savings bank accounts, containing seven hundred pounds and four thousand pounds, respectively.
The daughters had the house on the market within a week, accepting an offer from a cash buyer two weeks later, and instructing the solicitor to write to Olga to inform her she was to vacate the property within thirty days. The solicitor, Mr. Willoughby, a kindly man who was simply following his clients’ instructions, had put a P.S. at the bottom of the formal letter, in his own hand, inviting her not to hesitate to contact him if she needed any help or advice.
She had taken him up on his offer and Mr. Willoughby had helped her to apply for social housing. He also advised her that she should apply for social benefits at the same time, needlessly reminding her that four thousand pounds would not take her very far in England. Tempted that four thousand pounds would go very far indeed back in Romania, Olga had toyed with the idea of returning to her native land, but eventually decided that it would be a backward step she would inevitably come to regret. Life with Ronald had been no bed of roses, but life in England could still be the better option than retreating back to what she had sought so long to escape from.
The following months had not been easy and the six weeks she had spent at the homeless refuge in Burnley had nearly persuaded her to throw in the towel. But she quickly realised that the British benefits system was prepared to step in and help. Although her English had improved greatly, she was canny enough to appreciate that there were more opportunities for assistance when she wept occasionally and said things like “I not understand. My English, it only a little.”
Now, ten years later, she had a good job working as a cleaner at a local pub in the mornings and at the solicitors’ office each evening, had formed a group of girlfriends she had met through her weekly visits to the Gala Bingo, and she had this cosy little house to return to where she could close the door to the world each evening feeling safe and secure.
And today she was accompanying Mr. Willoughby on the occasion of his nieces’ wedding. Oh yes, over the years Mr. Willoughby had become a dear and cherished friend and now that his poor wife had died they were beginning to see each other more and more often.
Olga smoothed down the front of her lime green dress and carefully placed the matching hat on her head. Liking what she saw in the mirror she did a pirouette and then blew herself a kiss.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
All names, people portrayed and incidents within the short story ‘Romanian Holiday’ are entirely a work of fiction and come from the writer’s imagination.
Steven Elvy has had a varied working life as a film librarian, a cook, a barman, a labourer, a plastics-recycler, a salesman and a recruitment consultant. He grew up in North London then lived in East Sussex, The Midlands and The Lake District and now in a village in the Ribble Valley in Lancashire. Always passionate about art and literature, he has published four novels. He has been married ‘a few times’.