Short Stories Galina

We’ve met, you and I. I remember it. Not vividly, but well enough. I was coming out of my room and you passed by, a towel wrapped around you. You’d obviously just visited the same shower that I was headed for. You smiled, a nice smile, and I smiled back. And that was it, the only interaction we were ever to have in life.

A friend of mine tells me that we all know each other, all of humanity, through, at most, six degrees of separation. I met a man who knows a woman who met another woman who once met the President of the United States of America. That sort of thing. My only question is this: Does a brief exchange of smiles in a hotel corridor even constitute a connection? Remind me to ask him next time we meet.

And then I heard what happened to you. Several months later in a Facebook message, that preferred news medium of the early 21st century, another friend told me. He was upset, distraught even. “Really grieving” were the words that he used. And he told me that you were found near the opera house.

Aside from him, bizarrely, the only message of condolence I saw was from the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland. You had no connection with Ireland; you’d probably never even been there. Yet they bothered.

My friend was your friend. We both met him whilst staying in that hotel. I was just a casual visitor but he, like you, was a long-termer. It is much cheaper to rent a room there than an apartment in Central Oslo. You both lived on the same floor and you talked and hugged often. He says that you were always beaming, cheerful and radiant. That explains our exchange of smiles. Then he says something that I don’t anticipate: “If you even feel like writing a novel, short story or blog post about Galina’s utterly sad and unnecessary demise, you can contact me for info.”

I agree to do it. Foolishly perhaps. Why do I? Is it because I want to help him in his grief or is it because I think that someone like you, someone who smiles at a stranger in the corridor and talks and hugs other residents of a cheap hotel shouldn’t be forgotten? Or at least, they should be remembered for who they really were, remembered beyond that one word which clouds out all others.


Yet how can I write about you? I who never knew you? But I have promised now and promises matter. I must try. I need some information.

He sends me newspaper articles. You were queen for a day of the Norwegian tabloids. Yet none of them help me. They tell me that you were brutally beaten to death in your car in Bispekaia near the opera house. The police spokesperson reckons that you may have been with a customer and that they are now looking for the culprit. They tell me the facts of your murder; they give a glimpse of your harrowing final moments on this earth, but that is all. They are all about the crime, not the person.

I tell him that I need more.

Around two weeks later he provides more articles. They’ve caught your killer! Our friend is relieved. His – and it is always a he – behaviour and act have made him restless and angry. He yearned for justice. He tells me the guy’s name but I’m not interested. That man doesn’t even deserve such basic recognition. He is an irrelevance. I don’t even read articles, they are of no interest. Catching the culprit does not bring back the victim. And in the newspaper articles that is all you ever are: a victim. But I am not interested in victims. I care about people.

Last year I saw a play at the local theatre. It was put on to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day yet it never once mentioned the Holocaust. Instead it told the story of a young Jewish couple in Poland before the war. It told of their hopes and dreams, their daily routine, their friends, their community. It ended years before they were both bundled onto a train to Buchenwald. The idea is that unless you know what is destroyed in a Holocaust, you can never comprehend the loss.

And your death too was a Holocaust. A Holocaust of one.

So instead he tells me what he knows. That you are joyful and positive yet also vulnerable and so light that he can pick you up with one arm. That you love life and enjoy it. And that you have a close friend who had travelled with you to Oslo from home a year ago, who was as radiant and energetic as you but who then found your corpse and is now in a deep depression, crushed and hiding in her room a thousand miles away in your hometown, scared to death and swearing never to return to Norway.

Did that irrelevance murder one soul or two? I pray that it is only one.

But where is that home where Zhivka now sits slumped in tears? Dobrich our friend tells me. Apparently it is in Bulgaria somewhere.

You are Bulgarian! It’s a breakthrough! I speak your language! And I know where your hometown is! In fact, I’ve been there; it’s only fifty kilometres from where I used to live! And now I know why you left, why you risked all to travel hundreds of miles to the cold climes of Norway. For Dobrich is a sorry town, one of the sorriest in a land of sorry provincial towns. It is a town devoid of hope, a place where anyone with any courage or get-up-and-go has left.

And you certainly have both.

I tell our friend all this and he sends me another newspaper article. “It’s in Bulgarian but maybe you can understand it,” he says. I can. It’s from the Dobrich local paper and it’s all about your funeral. It says that you are buried already in the most remote part of the town cemetery, the part where the Muslims are interred.

Muslim! You never told me that you are Muslim! How can that be? Galina Sandeva is a Christian name.

Your headstone, the article continues, is inscribed with your nickname ‘Dji-Dji’ and your Turkish name ‘Djumazie Asan Sali’.

So your name isn’t even Galina! All this time and we weren’t even calling you by your real name! I read more:

‘Nearly two hundred people lamented and wailed as is the Muslim custom in one of the houses of the Roma quarter “Sunrise”.’

You are Roma! I never knew! I’d never have guessed from the photos!

But now so much makes sense. What future would you have had – does anyone like you have – if you had not left? A member of the most deprived and despised group in Bulgarian society, hailing from a town that everyone looks down on, adhering to a religion that the world seems to blame for all of its failings?

Yet for every question answered, another forms. Your name. Why have two names? Which one is really you and which is the illusion?

Of course, I know why you have two names. Back in the 1980s Todor Zhivkov, then omnipotent monarch of the republic, decreed that all the Muslims in his realm were really Christian Bulgarians in disguise; poor oppressed people whom the evil Turks had stripped of their real identities. And so, with one magnanimous gesture he ordered you all adopt new names and thus, with the stroke of a pen, Djumazie could become Galina.

But that was all a long time ago, when you were but a baby. Why have two names now?

By a stroke of luck, I have a friend who is an expert in these matters, a scholar of Muslim communities in Bulgaria. So I email her about you. I hope you don’t mind. What she says surprises me: “Oh yes, many Muslims have retained their Bulgarian names whilst having a Muslim name that is used in their village and family.” And this is particularly the case amongst your people, the Roma. And the reason: prejudice.

What kind of life did you have that you had to leave your home and family and even your name, and cross an entire continent to start afresh, as a prostitute in a Nordic capital? How I wished we had talked about these things in that hotel corridor. I could have told you about my visit to your town; you could have told me that you are Muslim and then I would have told you about my friend who is the expert on such things and then gone onto my favourite spot in all Bulgaria, the Muslim shrine in your district that I so love to visit and that is always popular with Roma families and you may have replied, “Oh yes, we went there every Ilenden and we would all have a picnic in the woods before descending the steep steps to the ancient tekke of creamy stone where the holy man’s tomb is housed and where people pray for health, wealth and a million other things besides.”

I wonder: Did you pay Demir Baba a visit before you set off for a new life in the north?

And did the saint intercede for you when you left this world and entered the next? I hope he did.

No, I am sure he did.

So, one friend was able to answer my question about your name, but what about the other question that burns in my breast? Prostitution, street-walking, sex working, call it what you will… why? I’m a pretty open-minded guy but even I still view your profession with a degree of distaste. Others are far more judgemental.

Another friend of mine works with prostitutes in my home city. I go to their office, a small room crammed with warnings of batches of dodgy heroin, STDs and dangerous customers. She sits me down and I ask her why. Why did you choose the profession that killed you?

“The thing to remember is this,” she tells me. “No one whatsoever wakes up one morning and thinks, ‘D’you know what; I want to go into prostitution! Yeah, selling sex on the street; that’s a great line of work to get into!’ No. No one chooses it; there is always a factor, something that pushed them into a situation where a profession that previously would have repelled them suddenly seems bearable.”

So, what was yours? What was it that made you wake up one morning and decide to sell yourself for a fee? What were your dreams when you first left Dobrich for the wide world of opportunity? And what was the factor that made those dreams change?

I talk to our friend, but this time he has no answer to give. You never talked to him about this. Did you talk about it to anyone? I wish that we could have talked about it that night in the corridor. Perhaps if we had I may have suggested something that could have altered your fate. Perhaps so, probably not. The faith of your fathers tells us that our fates are written before we are born, that Death always comes at a prearranged time and place. It is as God wills.

But how can any God have willed such a senseless waste of life?

And so we are at the end you and I. Well, almost. I can go no further in my investigations. In these pages I have done what I can to remember you as the person you were and not the label they gave you. I would have like to have known that person better, to find out your favourite colour, food or TV show, but it is not possible now and I suppose, it is not necessary either. However, what I can do is make another promise: a promise that I shall make more of the next chance meeting that I have with a stranger. That is the only gift that I can offer you now.

That and this flower.

The day is hot and dusty and the road to Dobrich is lined with sunflowers. Our taxi driver knows where the municipal cemetery is which is good because I’d have struggled to find it on my own. I tell him your story and show him your picture from the newspaper. He remarks that you are very pretty, he almost seems surprised that you are.

We find your grave easily. The Muslim section is clearly distinguished as all the tombs are topped by crescents. All the graves are arranged chronologically. Yours is one of the newest. It is smart and adorned with flowers. I add this flower with a note from our friend and then share a silent moment with you.

The sun shines and the crickets chirp. A couple of gravediggers watch with interest. What are three foreigners doing going to your final resting place? I smile at them as you once smiled at me.

Then I turn and leave and the silence resumes.

With thanks to:

Alf-Erik Øritsland
Fatme Myuhtar-May
Samantha Lawrence
Lindsay Stonehewer
Paul Daly

For those interested in issues affecting sex workers, please visit this site (English) or this site (Norwegian). If a death can be prevented then Galina’s life was not in vain.

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