Since my childhood had passed in the company of circus artists travelling across Bulgaria and under the circus dome, at the time I thought that life was a circus. It was important to learn your number and then perform it in front of the audience. I did not wonder then what mine would be.
After my father broke his leg and left the circus, my dreams were over. Tommy the Fakir, Uncle Gosho the Acrobat, the lions, the arena, my platonic love with Mary, wagon travelling, romantic nights in strange towns – it all remained in the past, covered in the moss of oblivion and the tenderness of memories. My life had to start all over again – with a drunkard father, profligate mother, without money or love, and very often without even breakfast, in a strange world. Now I saw my father infrequently and usually very briefly. He did not in any way show that he even remembered me. In those first years after their divorce he became an inveterate drinker, irreversibly, for good. When he came to pick me up from home some Sunday afternoons, he smelled strongly both of booze and of fermented sweat. His clothes were rags – dotted with holes and stains, rumpled up. They betrayed the hopelessness of his situation - one step away from complete degradation. A very small and forthcoming step, which he was soon to make.
At the time my mother’s lover was a trolleybus driver for City Transport from the town of Sandanski. All of a sudden she decided to marry him. The driver’s name was Pavel, but everybody called him Gutsata. I was supposed to call him ‘Dad’. Since Gutsata shared a room with two other trolleybus drivers in a boarding house, obviously he and my mother did not have any other place to carry out their passionate love-making rendezvous but our basement. Sometimes Gutsata brought home his friends from the depot. And again there were wild parties which kept me awake till late at night because everybody spoke loudly, smoked and most of all – because they sat on my bed next to the window. I cuddled somewhere further from my mother's guests - in the basement's corridor, where it was quieter and less smoky. I wrapped a coat around myself and dozed off. Sometimes in the middle of the night when I woke up and saw that it was already quiet and our guests had gone I came back to our basement room - with its messy table littered with empty glasses, the smell of tobacco smoke, cheap rakia and human sweat. My naked mother and the naked Gutsata in bed sleeping in some distorted position, covered or uncovered. The bed she and my father had slept in only a year ago. Their clothes were strewn around. They snored or snorted in their drunken dreams with mouths half-open, breathing alcoholic vapour. I undressed and went to sleep in my bed by the window.
And I fell asleep like a beaten dog.
In my childhood I was constantly hungry. After my alien father had become a drunkard and my mother never had money, I often went to school without breakfast and without money to buy something to eat during the breaks. The long break was the most tragic - then all the children went to the sweet shop opposite our school. They lined up in a queue and then they stuffed themselves full with cheese patties, rolls and doughnuts and swallowed them down with boza* (* traditional Bulgarian drink, a type of millet-ale) or lemonade. They had a good time. I went to the sweet shop also and watched the other kids eat, with the secret hope that I might find a coin dropped in the commotion. I had already found twenty stotinki once, right in front of the entrance of the sweet shop. Then I bought a cheese patty which cost 13 stotinki and boza for 6 stotinki. I stuffed my face.
In addition to the hunger at school, it was also a great torture to walk the streets and see all those sweet shops, restaurants and shops where they sold all kinds of stuff to eat. However, they cost money, and money was the one thing I never had. As if hunger and family problems were not enough, the boys from our class did and suddenly hated me. I think it started because of my rickets-misshapen legs. At first they nicked me Skewy and later, because of the stoicism with which I bore the insults – Vily. They loved gathering together and shouting one or the other nickname at me. Like, when I entered or left the classroom or while I was talking to a girl from another class in the corridor of the school. I was not a physically weak child - I had done acrobatics in the circus after all and then at home I had kept myself fit with various exercises for strength.
But you could not beat up fifteen kids savagely with spite, could you? There was no sense in that too. Besides, separately they did not treat me badly; some of them were even my friends and most of them were real fans because of the various circus skills which I sometimes demonstrated with pleasure in the school gym or in the classroom during the breaks. However, they only had to gather together to get the inspiration:
“Here’s Skewy! Hey, Skewy! Vily!” - There were resounding cries behind my back at all times.
I bore my cross patiently.
Little by little I was getting closer to the Truth.
One day Tommy the Fakir met me with a scowl.
"Get out of the wagon at once,” he told me.
“What's the matter?” said I, surprised.
“I woke up Cundalini,” he told me. “The Snake in Peace.”
“What snake?” said I in fright.
“Come tomorrow and I'll explain.” Tommy chased me out of the wagon.
And red flames started billowing out of his mouth.
I took to my heels.
The finances of my mother and my second father Gutsata were in limited supply. This, together with the typically female vindictiveness of my mother for her life which she stated had been ruined by my father, eventually decided the fate of my alien parent. Since Dad never paid the parent's allowance of twenty levs a month which he was obliged to pay my Mum, she filed a claim with the court to get the money which were her due in another way. My father was arrested and after a short court investigation which led to a punitive sentence he was put first in the Sofia Central Prison and then in a prison in the town of Vratsa. For unpaid allowances. I was sixteen years old. After one of his letters where he begged me to bring him cigarettes and something to eat, I went to see him. It happened one Sunday in the spring. I cannot say I did it with great pleasure. During the whole train trip from Sofia to Vratsa I was imagining that the visit was over and instead of going to the prison I was going back home. Not that I had a home. My mother and Gutsata had got married and had recently got a concrete apartment in the living quarter of Liulin where they let me sleep, but their marriage was not all roses either. The nights were now quieter and less smoky, the smell of lust in the air was scarcely perceptible. Gutsata and I got on well enough to meet in the corridor without flying at each other’s throats, and as for my mother – well enough for her to cook and wash for me. I finally had a little room where I read my books and made Uncle Gosho’s exercises and the conjuring tricks taught to me by Tommy the Fakir. At that time, I had some strange feeling that there was something important in store for me for which I needed to prepare. Something very important and serious. That I was not born to live my life like the ordinary people, the kind every bus of Public Transport in Sofia was teeming with, but in some more special way.
In Gutsata’s apartment I could not even have a cat. Once I tried to break my mother's prohibition – and that of her second husband – and live with one of my dearest creatures. One rainy spring day on the street in front of their block in Liulin I found a little wet kitten. It was shivering with cold. I hugged it, put it in my warm pocket and then I secretly took it to the apartment. To my room. The kitten continued to shiver, I did not know why. Otherwise, it was very obedient during the day and after I fed it generously with fresh milk and bathed it in the bathroom; it blissfully closed its eyes and soon it fell into feline sleep. That filled me with hope. I was already imagining how my mother and Gutsata would not resist the charm of that creature – so wonderful and defenceless, and would agree to have it live with us. Still, I decided not to rush telling them about it. At least not for the first couple of days. I would choose the appropriate time for this purpose later. The following evening, however, reduced all my plans and hopes to dust and ashes. The little kitten woke up in the middle of the night and started mewing pitifully. It mewed like crazy. Miaow, miaow, miaow. Gutsata and my mother rushed to my room immediately and exposed the uninvited guest. They gave me an ultimatum – either I throw out the kitten at once or THEY would do it. I did not doubt that they could do such a thing. I dressed, put my little kitten into an empty cardboard shoe-box and took it up to the attic of our block. It was safe there. I closed the cover of the box, before that I had prudently made breathing holes, I caressed the kitten and said some kind things to it while it continued to mew and to shiver. I decided that I would have to take it to the vet the next day. After that I went down to my room. On the next day as soon as I got up in the morning I poured some milk into a bottle and climbed up to feed it. I ran up the attic stairs in a rush. This time, unlike last night, it was quiet there. Strange. Perhaps the kitten was asleep. I hoped that it had not run away. I opened the shoe-box, which I had pressed down with a stone the night before. And I found in it the dead body of the little kitten.