The wind can kill.
against the stone garden wall for shelter.
Winter was around the corner. The east wind was beginning to turn
cold. Soon, she would need to take a chance and wait inside the house
for the factory bus to arrive. In a few short weeks the winds from the
certain death to wait in the street for the six o’clock pick-up.
gathering wood to see them through to the following spring. One day,
have to rely on mother for hand-me-down clothes.
One day … with luck, she would find a new life.
herself as small and as tight as possible.
approach of the bus. Miss the bus, no ride. Miss the ride, no job. Miss
the job, go hungry.
Romania, near the border with Moldova. She was now seventeen and
had spent the previous day with the men, cutting logs. Huge piles were
yards at the rear of their houses. Most of the harvest had been sold.
summer maize crop. With the income, they would buy salted meats that
would be eaten once a week with potatoes and root soup.
On their return from the market, the men would be drunk. It was
their release. They would meet friends, gossip, moan about the harvest,
play cards and drink. Sorrows would be drowned with home-distilled
ţuică. Relia’s father made his own from a family recipe using apples
and plums. The women said it was the work of the devil, for the rage it
sometimes brought out in the men.
Father was a hard-working man, a good man. But the drink would
release his pent-up frustrations and anger. Mother would always bear
the brunt of his wrath. The children just kept out of the way. This was
the way of men; they had to vent their rage, and using the women
stopped them from killing each other. This was the way of things, as it
always had been.
But now, Relia had a plan.
Every month or so, the factory would host men from the city. Men
from Brasov and Bucharest. Men who wore suits, drove Mercedes cars
and talked of incredible adventures.
A friend who was a house servant to the wife of the factory owner
told her the men came looking for girls. Relia could barely contain her
excitement on learning these girls secured work in places in the city,
in kitchens or waiting on tables. They had jobs, proper jobs, and they
made enough money to keep some for themselves and send the rest
home for their families.
The men would choose the best-looking girls. To each they would
give a small, yellow ticket. It was their approval to ride in the warm van
on its way to the city – their passport to a better life. The men were due
t o d ay.
Beneath her worn clothing, Relia was possessed of unusual beauty,
and yet they had not noticed her. She was determined that would
change. She was slim, pale skinned, and was blessed with shiny, raven-
black hair that a woman in the village had recently cut into a neat bob.
She had bought a little make-up, and her friend, the servant, had loaned
her a dress that would show off her figure. The next time the men came
to the factory, Relia was to help serve their drinks.
The bus arrived. It was late, as always, and, as he always did, the
driver drove fast to get the workers to the factory by seven o’clock. Relia
snoozed on the journey. She didn’t mind the potholes, the tight bends,
the heavy braking or the driver swearing. The bus was warm. For nearly
forty minutes she could drift into a world where there was no cold, no
When they arrived at the factory gates, Relia looked across to the
owner’s house. On the drive she saw his car – a big four-wheel drive.
Then she saw the Mercedes, a black one, and behind it, a black van. The
city men had arrived.
She checked her pocket, fearing she may have forgotten the powder
and lipstick. It was there. As the factory gate opened, she saw her friend.
There was a smile, then a wink. Today was the day. Today she was to
have her chance.
The day on the factory line passed slowly. Relia was a glue mixer. The
factory made shoes. Leather imported from Mongolia was cut, shaped
and stitched together by hand. Relia helped make the adhesive that
would bind the upper parts of the shoe to the sole. It was easy work.
Day after day she simply poured ingredients into containers in the pre-
scribed measures and mixed them for the correct amount of time and
at the right temperature. It was the heat of the glue room that made the
job sought after in the winter and hated in the summer.
Due to the constituents of the glue, all the workers in the glue section
smelled of fish, a fact that earned them the nickname pesti. Relia knew
that as soon as she finished, she would have to sneak over to the owner’s
house, use her friend’s bath and clean herself. Only then would she be
ready to serve the city men and, hopefully, her freshly scrubbed skin
and hair would be perfumed well enough to mask the fishy smell.
During the day, four girls were interviewed by the city men. Three of
them were selected for employment, given their tickets and instructed
to send messages to their families that they would not be home that
night. In fact, they might never be home again. With one exception,
Relia could not recall selected girls having ever returned to the villages.
Who could blame them? With a new life in the city, money in their
purses and, probably, husbands, there was no reason to come back to
such a lowly life. Some would write, many would send small amounts of
money, but none came back to the poverty of the villages.
The one that had returned had been the wife of one of the city men.
She had spoken of having made her fortune, of the bright lights and
excitement of the city, of girls marrying American soldiers and of the
opportunities available to those willing to leave the villages. As she
spoke, she held the young factory girls spellbound. The older women
weren’t convinced. ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,’ they
would mutter. But the young women wanted their chance and it was
them the city men came to see.
That evening, Relia avoided the queue for the homeward-bound bus
and crept slowly around the back of the factory. Here, she knew she
could find the gate to the owner’s house. It was locked, as always. The
owners thought all the workers were thieves.
At the arranged time, six o’clock, her friend Elisabeta was waiting.
Elisabeta unlocked the gate from the inside and the two girls then
scurried along the concrete path towards the house. In the half-light
from the windows of the house she could see the garden was green
and luxurious, nothing like the sun-parched yards of the village. It was
the first time she had seen behind the high walls into this secret place.
Only the owners and selected house staff were allowed such a privilege.
Relia had heard the stories and now, with her own eyes, she could see
it was as beautiful as they said. To one side there was even a swing and
Relia paused for a moment to stare. It was just like she had seen in
the well-thumbed magazines that sometimes appeared in the factory
for the workers to look at during their breaks.
Voices came from the house – male voices – laughter.
‘Hurry,’ her friend whispered. ‘We mustn’t be seen here.’
Relia understood. If they were caught, it would be assumed they
were stealing. They would be dismissed if they were lucky, jailed if the
owner called the police. The politia locale were good men, in the main,
but they would always believe a respected factory owner over a poor
Elisabeta stopped as they reached the small door that led to the
servants’ quarters. She pressed a single finger to her lips then gently
opened the door.
The first thing that struck Relia was the heat. Even in this part of
the house, it was warm and comfortable. In the village they could only
afford to heat one room. Here, there were radiators in all the rooms, and
even in the corridors.
That evening, Relia enjoyed the longest, hottest bath she had ever
experienced. She scrubbed her hands, her feet, her face, all the while
sniffing herself to check the smell of fish was fading. She washed her
hair four times before she was satisfied the aroma was gone.
Elisabeta sprayed her sparingly with a body perfume. Relia would
have liked a little more but her friend was insistent. The owner’s wife
gave it to all the female staff so they wouldn’t carry their body odours
into the main rooms. There was one spray-can each per month, and
they were expected to make it last.
When Relia saw the dress Elisabeta had prepared for her, she nearly
wept. It was thin, silk-like and hugged her figure. Although blue, it was
such a dark shade as to almost appear black. The design was sleeveless
and reminded Relia of pictures she had seen of film stars like Marilyn
Monroe. It was sexy.
The dress was a colour all the household staff wore to serve dinner.
But for Relia it had a different purpose. Skin tight, it emphasised her
curves and suggested hidden treasures. On this night, it was to lure the
At eight o’clock, the head girl sounded the brass gong in the hallway
to signal dinner was prepared. Elisabeta served at table and had
arranged that Relia would support her. The girl who normally filled that
role had agreed to hide in her room for the evening. Elisabeta was sure
her absence would not be noticed, especially when the men saw Relia.
The plan worked. The men fell silent the moment they set eyes on
the new girl in the dark-blue dress. Smiling, the owner asked who she
was, and while Elisabeta explained, the oldest of the city men beckoned
Relia closer. . When the owner had grunted his approval, the old man
immediately asked Relia if she would take up a chance to be his per-
sonal assistant in Brasov.
Relia nodded and then backed away as the men negotiated a price
to secure her services. She heard the figure of two thousand lei being
argued over, before the owner and the elder city man shook hands. The
deal was done. There was much laughter and the men returned to eating
That evening, as the chosen girls waited for the city men’s van to be
made ready, they wrote letters to their families. The factory owner’s wife
had suggested it, and even helped them with the wording.
‘Are you excited?’ one of the girls asked Relia, as the owner’s wife
collected their envelopes and left the room.
But Relia didn’t answer. The owner’s wife had left the door ajar and,
through the gap, Relia could now see her dropping the little stack of
letters into one of the sacks they used for rubbish in the factory.
‘Relia?’ asked her companion, a tiny frown knitting her brow.
Relia shook herself and smiled, but a gnawing sense of worry
‘Yes,’ she replied. Then, trying to sound more certain: ‘Yes, I can’t