It took a long time to get back to Freedom Square and the road that led to Mariam’s shed. On the way, I walked down an alley to a kebab shop that specialised in Iranian and Afghan dishes. I sat at a table near the door and ordered a “chicken on the bone kebab” when a fight broke out. Two large men burst into the restaurant, yelling and baying for blood. One of them looked like a Viking in a blue puffer jacket, the other was equally broad and had a red pug nose. A Georgian man finishing his meal looked at them and shook his head. The other customers looked on nervously.
A scrum formed and the restaurant staff – five or six Arabic men with large bellies, making up in weight what they lacked in height - slowly pushed the pair backwards towards the sliding glass door. The shouting went on for several minutes and finally the intruders were pushed out of the restaurant. The owner locked the door. “Georgia!” he said. The waiter returned to finish my order and made an apologetic gesture about the noise.
The dish came in an unnervingly quick time to cook chicken on the bone. There were bony pieces from the back of the chicken, and a couple of wings and drumsticks. The meat looked nicely cooked on the outside, but was red and jelly-like close to the bone, and had the gamey smell of pheasant. I figured they’d had too bad a night already to complain. I ate the salad and the naan bread and then thought what the hell and ate some of the whiter chicken meat. I paid and headed off to Mariam’s shed. It was 1.20am. I’d arrived at a similar time the night before and the iron portcullis that led to the courtyard garden and noticeboard of compliments had been open, but this time it was shut. I pushed a few times but it was definitely locked.
I began to think about all sorts of horrible possibilities, knowing my bag and passport were inside. I knocked a few more times and pressed my ear to the gate but there was no sound from within. Next door was a basement bar. Three customers came out to smoke. I asked one of them for help. He was an olive-skinned man in his early 20s and spoke good English. I asked if he could see a buzzer on the gate. “A bell?” he said. I nodded and in our drunken state we felt round the gate. He turned on the light on his phone. But there was no bell or knocker, only the name Hostel Mariam with a phone number underneath. It was printed on A4 paper and stuck to the door with sticky tape.
“You live here?” he asked. “How long?” I told him it was my second night. “You have your clothes here?” He shook his head and clicked his throat in disgust. We both knocked again on the iron gate. My knuckles were getting raw and the banging made very little sound. I shoved the door a few more times. The night before, the gate had been wedged open with a brick and I was wondering whether the brick had become wedged under it, but it was definitely locked.
I started getting a horrible anxious feeling, and the winter air seemed to bite much harder. The thought of spending a night on the street wasn’t a pleasant one. The man blearily examined the gate again, then typed the number on the wall into his phone. I thanked him a couple more times. The phone kept ringing and cutting off as he made disgusted shakes of his head. He was definitely on my side.
Suddenly there was an answer and he started babbling away in Georgian. His tone slowly got aggressive. It wasn’t a good sound to hear. After a minute, there was a pause while he flicked away at his cigarette. There was a barrage at the other end. It sounded like a dragon breathing fire. “Is it a woman?” I asked. “Yes, it’s an old woman,” he said. “But I don’t know what she do. I think she’s lying. She says you only have a small bag there and you move out.”
He dialled the number again, crushed his cigarette with his foot, and then lit another one. A voice came back on the phone, and his tone got more aggressive. He checked with me again. “You sleep there?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “You have your clothes there?” “Yes,” I said. Then the phone went dead. He swore and began to redial. “What happened?” I asked. “She says you check out. She not come to the door. She has a bad heart – it’s hard for her to get up. I think she’s lazy.” He tried the number again but there was no answer. I was already thinking about the park bench I’d sleep on. Without my passport, it would be very difficult getting a hotel. Then I thought about Babar’s hostel and whether there might be a spare bed there. Did they still keep the door open when Babar wasn’t turning up in the middle of the night?
My new friend, and I really don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t been there, tried the number a few more times and finally got through. The conversation quickly turned into an argument. I could hear a hurricane coming down the phone. He kept checking with me that I “had my clothes there,” and kept shaking his head. Eventually he said: “I think she’s coming.” I thought I could hear distant noises from inside the courtyard, but after 10 minutes just put it down to hope. Then finally the door opened and there was Mariam, her orange hair stuck up in rollers like a medusa, hailing a torrent of abuse.
She was leaning on her stick and rubbing her back much more than I’d seen her do before, making whimpering noises interspersed with full-blown rages of hate. I stepped through the gate, afraid it would shut again, and for a minute she swore at the young man and his friend who had wandered up to watch the spectacle. She slammed the door shut and clenched her fist, making hammering gestures in the direction of my nose. She carried on shouting and I did my best to rectify the situation. I helped her as she hobbled back through the courtyard to my shed door. My bag was on the table outside, underneath the vines. My toothbrush and toothpaste were on a chair next to it. She’d cleaned out my room. I panicked, thinking about my belt pouch containing my passport and money that I’d hidden under the mattress.
Mariam continued to rant at me, pretending to hammer my face with her right fist, as she gripped her stick with the other. I kept telling her I hadn’t said anything about checking out. Her punching motions got closer to my nose. One slip of her walking stick, and my nose would be as flat as a khachapuri. Eventually she unlocked the door to the shed and we walked in. I kept saying “no check-out” as she continued her attack. She said nothing about the English being “number one” this time, and the only thumbs-ups signs were the ones directed at my face. I realised she was probably mad.
She pointed at the beds and I pointed to the one I’d slept in, and she turned back the cover. While her back was turned, I checked under the mattress and found my belt pouch. Nothing appeared to be missing. The cash seemed to be about the right amount and the passport and bank cards were there. I handed her 25 laris for the room, then she left. The shed was freezing. The water jug had a slight sheen to it as though it was about to ice over. I shut the door and found she’d taken the remote control for the air conditioning, which when you put it up to its maximum of 16C was the only way to heat the room. I took the blankets from the other beds and piled them on top of me. I decided to check my emails and realised she’d turned off the wifi as well.
I woke early. There was no banging on the door this time and there was no sign of Mariam in the courtyard. I dressed and wandered out to the other shed to brush my teeth. It was far too cold to shower. I stood outside my shed for a few minutes gathering my thoughts. There was still no sign of Mariam. Normally she would be peeking through the net curtains, but there was no light in her kitchen. I found a plug outside my shed that led to a bundle of wires and managed to put the wifi back on. It also turned on the porch light.
I lay on my bed, shivering and searching on my tablet for hotels. It was still a few hours before check-in times. I went to the toilet. I heard no noise in the courtyard, but returned to find the outside light was off and so was the wifi. The plug had been taken out and the bundle of spaghetti was dangling down as it had been before. I took it as a sign that I was definitely no longer welcome.
I packed my bag and walked past the mandarin plant and the noticeboard with all those cheery messages. I could feel eyes on my back. Mariam’s black cat was sitting on a chair near the gate and was watching me with narrowed eyes. It hadn’t liked me when I first turned up, but now it looked particularly unfriendly.
I pulled the gate open and ventured out into the rain-drenched street. The basement bar next door was shut. At the end of the road was a small hotel with Christmas lights in the window, but I wanted one further away from Mariam. That cat had put the chill into me, and in my bleary state I began wondering whether Mariam had ailuranthropic powers – she certainly had the temper for it.