‘I got this one after I won the national round,’ says Mitko, pulling down his t-shirt to reveal a tattoo of a large Orthodox cross, drawn in thick ornate lines. ‘And tell you what, God knows I’m doing the right thing.’
I’m in a dirty small town near Turkey to interview a man who patrols the border zone to capture refugees trying to cross over. Normally I wouldn’t talk to this psychopath if you paid me, but it’s been a lean few months.
He erupts when I mention the refugees. ‘Jihadists! Every single one of them!’, he bangs his fist against the table, rakia glasses ringing and his neck chain swinging forward. ‘Just like, what do you call them, ferrets — either you catch them, or they gut your chickens.’
I’m looking at him while he speaks, but the words speed past my ears and I only hear them as thin, hazy echoes. I’ve heard his drivel so many times on the news, that I can probably put together an exact list of his phrases.
The TV catches Mitko’s attention for a bit, and as they announce the regional football scores, he seems engaged for a second. He curses loudly and dog barks from the doorway.
A fluffy Pomeranian puppy trots in from the other room and looks up expectantly. He picks it up carefully and completely ignores me for a minute, letting it nibble on his thumb.
‘Is this the guardian of the house?’ I ask, and feel my brow unfurrowing slightly.
He looks up, and his forehead creases.
‘He-e, cracking jokes already, are we?’ His head tilts backwards and four small eyes fixate on me. ‘You should know already. I’m the alpha dog of this house. And our Motherland.’ He bunches his shoulders together and lunges forward like an animal in attack. That makes him laugh.
I nod and pretend to write down something in my notepad. Enlightening this sadistic bastard to how fucked up he is is tempting. I imagine his rubbery face distorting from the sheer force of my words, skin stretching under the power of truth like in a wind tunnel.
I press hard on the full stop, and remind myself to play the part. An open argument will do nothing but undermine his trust and I don’t want my name to hang wet above some generic bosh in a national paper, or I’ll soon have to move in back with my parents.
‘Have you always lived in this house?’ I ask, simulating interest in the plastic double glazing and magnolia painted walls. Nylon net curtains hang either side of the windows, and a wooden shrine of Mary keeps us company from the corner.
‘As a child. Used to be my parents’ house. ‘He runs his hand over the back of his shaved head and adds ‘May earth be light on them’.
‘Ah, sorry to hear that.’ I lower my head, and quickly look up at him again. ‘What were they like?’
‘Good people.’ He leans over the table. I can smell the rakia on his breath. ‘Real patriots. There’s not many of them around these days... but I’m doing my bit.’
He puts the dog down. ‘Let me show you around. Come on!’
I follow him outside through a yard which once must have been covered in lush grapevines, but now is just a large cage of mud and empty metal trellises. He leads me to a double garage and slides the door up. A sensor turns on a harsh light, and he gestures towards the inside. I wait for him to go first.
‘He-e, you newspaper men are such rabbits! I just wanna show you my toys!’
I follow him in, watching his meaty neck twisting from side to side as he explains what’s what. There’s a quad bike, a boxy Soviet 4x4 and a motorbike, all painted ugly matte green. Further into the garage he takes an AK-47 off a wooden shelf, and runs his fingers along the handguard.
‘The most perfect gun ever made. They still make it in Kazanlak.’ he points out proudly, as if he personally had something to do with it.
‘Yeh, they do. I’m from that region you know.’ I add, doing my best not to look disgusted at his affection towards a tool for automated murder.
‘Ahh, you are? I would have thought capital boy. With the accent and that...’, he smirks and slaps me on the shoulder. ‘He-e, good!’
The imprint of his hand lingers on my shoulder, and I feel the sudden urge to wash it away.
‘So what do you need all these for then,’ I ask. ‘I mean, they barely have clothes on their backs when they cross over.’
‘Listen now, that doesn’t matter. We just don’t want them scum over here. Man should always be prepared, as my dad used to say. I show them this beauty and they lie in the mud, face down, no questions asked.’ I feel my throat tighten, but clench my jaws and nod a few times.
The rubble that is Aleppo, the overcrowded dinghies floating like paper boats across the Mediterranean, the poor souls washed up lifeless on off-season beaches. People crawling under lorries and through barbed wire, only to be met by a morally decimated ex-wrestler proud to be hunting them.
‘You know, on his deathbed Kalashnikov said his biggest regret was designing the AK-47.’ I say, and feel my legs growing heavy with the incoming adrenaline. For one drawn out moment, I am certain he’ll whack me with the stock of the rifle.
Instead, he takes a sharp breath through his nose and after a second, sighs out. ‘You know what I’d say to you, I’d say your dad didn’t beat you enough.’
He puts down the gun and looks at me square. My stomach sinks.
‘Why do you think that?’
‘I’ll tell you why. My dad didn’t talk much. But he made sure I don’t grow up a sissy.’ says Mitko, tapping his chest twice with his fingers. ‘When I challenged his word he’d give me such a bashing, I’d have to skip school for the week. But he made me a proper man.’
He lights up a cigarette, and looks around his garage, filling his eyes with the second-hand machinery of his crusade.
My thoughts jump to the fluffy Pomeranian, all on its own back in the house, waiting for the affection of his owner. Then I imagine Mitko as a child, and my throat tightens again.