It wasn’t March. It was May. May 31st 2019. The Ides of March; mid March brings the bad juju, but there was no full moon. Bad luck or a bullet dodged? Eeeny meeny miney moe………or just another day.
Ben and I were in Bratislava, seated at a cafe that wanted to be a bar. We were not well versed in the art of war. Ben was analysing the grain in the table, and I was eyeing a young lady suspiciously. She had moved slowly and stiffly past the counter in a hidden skeletons kind of way. We downed two beers in a fashion Guy Ritchie would have approved of, then downed two coffees like shots. Sometimes it’s the placebo effect of makeshift drugs such as alcohol and caffeine that satisfies more than the drink itself. A young man entered with a black backpack, also looking shady. He seemed very deliberate in his actions. It made me nervous. I wasn’t jumpy at things as I assumed I would be. I was just freakin’ suspicious of everyone.
An hour earlier, or thereabouts, two female pharmacy assistants were crouched down and whimpering in a small closet-like room behind the pharmacy counter. A senior female pharmacist pushed past me and entered a code to initiate closing the glass entrance door. The outside world became inaudible. Strangely the silence brought on a realisation that we were all female except for Ben. Seven females, ranging in age, and Ben. No relevance just noted. A younger girl, perhaps early twenties, who was a browsing customer a moment ago, was now quietly sobbing. I’m not exactly sure what the custom is in Slovakia, none of the local women beside her offered her any comfort, and I was furthest away from her. I offered her comforting glances and tried to communicate that it was going to be okay with my eyebrows, hoping that was enough. In truth, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. At this point, I dare not step toward the window. I probably should have been processing something useful in my head like exit locations, what items I could dive under for protection, maybe even an accurate headcount. Instead, I was noticing that we were all female. Prior to the door being closed, two elderly women in our now trapped flock, I’m guessing in their 60s, had decided to stand in target range in the doorway of the pharmacy. My own curiosity was persistent, but I know it killed a cat or somesuch, so I held steadfast to an out-of-view corner. Sometimes it’s the moments between the moments, the seemingly inert decisions that can dramatically alter your course. From calm to chaos or chaos to calm in an instant. Due to the fact that I am chronicling this event, I was obviously not going to die that day. Ben was not going to die that day. In light of how it felt at that point in time, the carnage would be relatively small. Small in number, not significance.
For some, in highly tense moments, the exact time of the occurrence is etched into their memory. Looking back now, I have no idea what the clock hands were up to. I know that Ben and I had arrived in Bratislava only about an hour ago. I remember feeling anxious as Ben drove onto tram tracks on the main street of Bratislava. It felt very counter-intuitive as the pedestrian walkway was raised from the tram section. I was trying to focus on my task — spotting the narrow wooden gateway that was the entrance to our accommodation. Armed with Alice in Wonderland type instructions: a hidden latch, an adjacent sign, a mystery keypad later, we realised the glaring blue door was open anyway. Our hired station wagon squished through the tight gothic castle-like entranceway minus the castle. Ben skillfully reversed into a tight space which could easily justify a 300 point turn, and we settled into our accommodation on Obchodna Street.
We took a stroll down Obchodna’s well-trodden cobblestone. I was holding excess Hungarian Forint. We weren’t in Hungary anymore, so money exchange was required. Seedy looking alleyways with illegible exchange signs, the snake oil salesman kind. Dry eyes and contacts that were hugging my eyeballs too tightly. Saline desperately needed. In Europe, a pharmacy isn’t a pharmacy; it’s an Apotheke — a much cooler name. I spotted an Apotheke just opposite the tram stop. Sweet. We walked in, deciding to pursue a bank later for money exchange. Ben wandered outside again. I was pointlessly attempting to read Slovakian labels. The pictures were helping a little. An image of a male who appears to have had a hard night on the liquor — headache tablets? A lady singing or perhaps dry wretching, oh yes, throat gargle. A single bang sound punched in from the outside. Quite loud, quite close. Must be a car backfiring. For a moment, Ben was a contradiction; he strolled in from the outside, the Sunday kind, but looked at me, and said ‘Jesus’. His eyes coated in shock. I was perplexed. Three more bangs in quick succession.
At that moment I didn’t ask Ben what he saw, and he didn’t tell me. I moved to the very far end of the store to a vantage point where I could catch a glimpse yet remain as undetectable as possible. Whatever was going on, we were currently right in the hot zone; police car parked to the left, police officers and police dog to the right, a very enraged police dog. Several other police were crouched down. I quickly moved out of sight again, confused as hell. Aside from some quiet sobbing, everyone in the store was quite calm. Is this a regular occurrence here? Jesus. There were sirens.
A policeman wrapped on the glass door and the senior chemist pressed the button to allow it to open. He communicated something abruptly in Slovakian and walked briskly back onto the street. I was confused. It seemed quite important. With my eyes moving to each woman present, I asked what he said and mentioned that we only knew English. One of the female customers responded and explained that he had told us to remain here for now. Police tape was now being rolled out on the street to the store’s left and right, both sides only partially visible.
Another 10 minutes past, or perhaps it was 5 minutes, Lord, who knows, it could have been 30 minutes. It simultaneously feels like a second and an hour ago that I had walked into the Apotheke. They’re not pharmacies here. The same police officer returned, the door was opened, something in Slovakian. Women began cautiously moving out onto the street. Ben and I followed suit. A part of my brain reminded me to buy saline; ever reliant on being inappropriate. Saline really not important now. As we stepped out, the street scene finally visible, revealing all its frightful. Three policemen were crouched down around a body to our right with two very bloodied ambulance officers. A calm but macabrely curious crowd had gathered. The odd person was sheepishly holding their phone up to capture an image. We moved warily across the street, simultaneously feeling like moving targets and bystanders. We ducked under the police tape and stood to absorb the aftermath of the fragmented scene of chaos that had played out just moments ago.
We stood and watched for a while. Partly a sense of kinship, partly numbing shock and the same reason as the rest of the ogling crowd. There was yelling. The ambulance officers were frantic. A young female ambulance officer, yelling desperately in Slovakian, her hands and arms covered in blood ran to the other body near the police car, then ran back to the first body near the tram stop. Wait, the other body? God, there was someone else. From our side of the street behind the tape, all that was visible were hunched officers over a shadowed mass. I couldn’t discern sex or approximate age. How many shots were fired? I can’t remember. There was a bunch. It seemed as though the ambulance officers perhaps needed something they didn’t have at their disposal to treat the severity of the wounds. Never in my life did I think I would ever desperately want to know Slovakian. Krvný , panika, revať, hľadanie očí, bezmocnosť……..
A surreal feeling leaching in, we made our way down the edge of the street behind the crowds toward our accommodation. Numb and confused, we weren’t really sure what to do. Our nerves were shot. Some stiff liquor was required, and quickly, before heading back to the veil of safety our accommodation would provide. A potentially stupid decision but one we were going to honour for the sake of our sanity. We weren’t the ones that needed to repent. We tried to digest the event more easily with a quick beer and words. Okay, so the liquor of choice wasn’t so hard.
A few nudges to the left and the bullet could have easily hit Ben. The obstructing tram acting almost like a metal blanket. No shots hit the tram, but in that moment it became a security blanket. Likewise, a group of outdoor diners sat to the right of the line of fire, just across from where the 15-year-old went down. It is astounding there were no more casualties. Ben conceded his slow movement into the store was primarily from shock and confusion. He had heard a male shouting, walked out, and then witnessed a policeman fire the first shot. A tram then obstructed his view. The reason for all the chaos was still unknown to us. My mind felt opaque. Were both the bodies vigilantes? Had the police gotten their target? Was it a lovestruck Pulp fiction couple? Was anyone still on the run? Our ‘release’ from the store and the final actions of the police would dictate no. What was the motive though? Drugs? Probably drugs. PCP? What the hell just happened? Penny Dreadfuls. Real Penny Dreadfuls.
Rightly or wrongly I view our brush with these events as minor. I have experienced other events of turbulence both in my hometown and while travelling, some more intimate in its clasp, but none quite so dramatic. It is unpredictable how an event like that changes your psyche. I wasn’t rendered jumpy from what happened; a cliched yet completely reasonable reaction. I was left with an overdose of suspicion. Alertness with the dial turned to maximum and a new understanding of how easily one could acquire PTSD. Paranoia and all its cousins move in once the shock has subsided — a new mental ballpark. Your brain attempts to process the events and inadvertently spirals out of control. Not me and not now, but I now understand the why of this. Life often depends on what side of the looking glass you are on.
Incessant scrolling through Slovakian news sites and Twitter feeds revealed patches of information over time. A man had stabbed a security guard and then made his way to Obchodna street, causing a scene and threatening people with a knife. He was shot by the police. This was the body we saw to the left near the tram stop. There was an innocent 15-year-old female who also got shot. This was the body to the right. It was a gruelling few hours into the night before news reports revealed that the shot the girl endured was a leg wound. Thankfully no more. No less traumatic for her but at least it looked likely she would survive.
Questions remain, blanketed in naivety. The formula was a little odd; Slovakian police, a man armed with a knife, busy street, guns, guns firing multiple shots. Hmmm, tazers do exist. Maybe the man potentially had a gun. Perhaps Bratislavian law enforcement have reached their wits end. In 2018, ex-pat Henry Acorda was murdered on this street and a 22-year-old deaf man was attacked on nearby Hurbanovo square a day after the events we witnessed. This is trouble of the dirty kind. The perpetrators aren’t Al Capones or Bonnie Parkers. The motivation appears to be undistilled malevolence, at times possibly fuelled by substance; arbitrary and cold. Or is the animosity not so arbitrary. The Sputnik Spectator reported that the municipal police would be opening a police station on Obchodna street and a dedicated task force will be allocated.
Something else gnaws at me……the target. The target was a security guard at the Finance Ministry. It could be a cut and dry case of drug abuse and uncontrolled random violence. A random vigilante who needed to be taken down. There appears to be an infrequent yet frequent occurrence of brutality here. But maybe it was a man pushed to the edge. A more heartbreaking do unto others — a Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Societal pressures brimming over. A sorrowful and desperate being. Perhaps he could only see through the glass darkly. Reportedly after receiving the bullet wounds inflicted by the police, the man stabbed himself. It’s not March. It is Máj. A day in May on Obchodna street, Bratislava.