Readings — From the January 2014 issue

In Gabrovo

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By Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915–2011), from The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, to be published in March by New York Review Books. Edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, the book is the unfinished final volume of a trilogy describing Fermor’s walk across Europe at the age of eighteen.

The only tangible data that remain from my actual journey are two tattered maps and a thin pencil line marking my itinerary, punctuated by a crossbar for every overnight sojourn. These are largely, but not entirely, unnecessary, as during this walk I pored so often over the various stages of the journey and repeated the place-names that spanned it so often that I can reel them off, even today, almost without a break. The only other contemporary document to survive is the passport trustingly issued in Munich to replace the one that had been stolen. It fixes the date of each frontier crossing. This sparse calendar is augmented by the memory of my whereabouts on important days such as Christmas, Easter, local saints’ days publicly celebrated, and private anniversaries like family birthdays; still further by remembering where I was when I heard the news of some striking political event: the verdict of the Reichstag-fire trial, the June purge, the February Revolution in Vienna, the murder of Dollfuss. (It was a record year for assassinations.) In a year when something new was happening to me nearly every day, either geographically or psychologically and often both, these sparse data help to narrow the field. Undated events can usually be located, by deduction, to within a week of the day when they must have occurred, sometimes even less.

Perhaps the fact that I have already recorded this particular tract of the past in a notebook, even though the records are lost, has helped to fix much of it several strata deep. Tones of voice, moods, lighting, details of landscape or costume, streets, castles, mountain ranges, warts, eyelashes, gold teeth, scars, smells, the arrangement of a room, a line of a song, the taste of food or drink tried for the first time, the name of the book left open on a bench, a newspaper headline, or, quite often, some irrelevant object on sale in a shopwindow that I neither admired nor coveted, a bowler-hatted or trilby-shaded face, under a lamppost or in a bar, that I never met or conversed with or wanted to but merely observed — how distinct from the galaxy of Baudelairean passing strangers I longed to know, like the figure in “À une passante”! — come running or lounging or sidling out of the cobwebby dark that has been harboring them for close on three decades. But there are some gaps that no feat of concentration can fill: the missing piece is lost for good.

There are plenty of these gaps. Gabrovo is one. I remember that it is a textile-manufacturing town on a small scale — did somebody call it “the Bulgarian Manchester”? — but I can’t remember (though there must have been several there) a single factory chimney, or indeed anything about it at all, except — and this is why it is odd: How did I get there, and who led me? — that I was leaning at dusk over a half door, rather like that of a stable, and the top half was open. It was in a back street sloping down to a tree-reflecting river, with the mountains, which I had just crossed, piling up behind. Here I leaned, talking to the occupant of the room. She lay in bed, in the farther corner of the room, under a patchwork quilt, propped up on several pillows in a long-sleeved white cotton nightgown with a wide collar, her long fingers stroking a tabby cat that dozed on her lap. She was an English woman married to a Bulgarian, and from Yorkshire, as her most soft voice soon made clear. She was recovering from some infectious disease: hence my relegation to the threshold. Was it measles? Or scarlet fever? I can’t remember, any more than I can remember who brought me there. She was called Betty and was in her early twenties; her cheeks were hollow from illness and her eyes were the palest blue, her fair hair long and straight. She was as pale as a water sprite or an etiolated Rossetti heroine. How very peculiar it seemed, in the depths of the Balkans, to be listening to these charming Yorkshire syllables through the twilight.

We talked for hours, and exchanged brief autobiographies. She was from a remote farm in the Dales, so far from everywhere that in bad weather they were sometimes snowed up and out of communication with the outside world for a week or a fortnight. She seemed eager for talk. “You get a bit lonely like, only talking Bulgarian for months on end, and I haven’t learnt it properly yet.” Her father sounded a splendid chap: everyone was fond of him for miles around: a great one for racing whippets, expeditions on foot to Wensleydale and Swaledale and Fountains Abbey with other children. I have forgotten how she met her husband (who was away for a few days in Sofia). I think he had been studying the textile industry in the nearest town. Her father was opposed to the marriage at first, but he gave in in the end; and here they were. She liked the Bulgarians; though, she said, they were a funny race: awfully superstitious. An animal terror of illness of any kind haunted them, not only infectious ones.

She had fallen ill twice since settling in Gabrovo, and had felt an outcast both times: shunned, feared, and sent to Coventry. “They’re a daft lot.” Her laugh, coming faint and tired through the half-light, was very attractive, and her conversation, especially about the rainy and misty world she came from, sent sudden waves of homesickness rolling through the darkening room. One by one the details of this interior faded from view: the bookcase with Black Beauty, Pears’ Cyclopaedia, Jock of the Bushveld, Chatterbox, Precious Bane, Angel Pavement, and Rupert Brooke’s collected verse; the upright piano, the sewing machine, the framed print of York Minster, the patchwork quilt and the sleeping tabby cat, until all that remained was the pallor of her nightgown and face and hair and the sound of our voices. It was quite dark when somebody came to lead me back to the lights of Gabrovo. I could just discern the valedictory flutter of a white-sleeved arm raised as she waved goodbye.

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