Blesok no. 75, November-December, 2010

The Twenty-first
(excerpt from the novel)

Tomislav Osmanli

Maja was staying in a room of an old bed and breakfast downtown, with a dozen snug rooms that from the window stretched inside the building, toward the bathroom doors and the exit on the opposite side. In the middle, lengthwise as well, was her bed, with the pillow placed closer to the window. Maja moved it the other way round since she believed she’d rather look out the window while in bed than toward the bathroom. The room was on the first floor and was facing the alley with a skimpy tree row, or rather the crown of one thinning tree. The first morning that arrived in her long and narrow room woke her up playing with the morning shadows over her face. Maja looked through the window and noticed that above the crowns with the first yellowing leaves most of the sky was taken over by the silhouettes of the two grandiose buildings of the World Trade Centre. It occurred to her that here she wouldn’t be able to see the sun through the window, which brought her down, but she quickly shrugged it off thinking she’d accumulated plenty of sun for the whole upcoming year in New York.
    The bed and breakfast had a payphone hanging downstairs, by the entrance door. Maja put a quarter in the device for the second time and dialled the number in Skopje.
    – Hello? – said the female voice in the distance.
    – Hello, auntie Stanka – said Maja, somewhat confused – may I speak to Gordan, please?
    – Maja, is that you? How have you been, child?
    She recognized his mother’s voice, even though moved for the first time.
    – I’m calling from America. I’m doing fine. Please, is Gordan there? I’ll lose connection anytime now, I’m calling from a payphone… and I’m out of quarters.
    – Gordan’s just l… – the reply from Skopje didn’t reach her.
    – Has he left?
    – Yes, dear. He’s gone too. He should be on a train to Vienna by now…
    – Has he said anything about calling me when he arrives? – Maja screamed in the phone.
    – He said that… – was all Maja managed to hear before the line broke.
    Only the empty signal was coming through the receiver.

– We’re fighting, man! – the man with the railway hat screamed – We’ve been fighting all our lives. It’s not our fault we’ve got so many enemies. Everyone outside’s got something against this little country of ours.
    – And the ones inside are all in favour, right? – replied Gordan with no tinge of ill will, but determined to end the silly conversation on that note and finally go to the platform from which the July puffs of heat came.
    The impassive response left the angry little fella speechless. His taunting behaviour had assumed a violent reaction, but that never happened. For these reason, or out of sheer spite, he added some more oil to his own fire.
    – That doesn’t matter now – the guy boomed, threw his hat on the bench and started waving his arms – Now’s the time to defend the country, for the future generations – Then he looked at him and smugly added – But, not everyone does. My son defends it and some are just running away, skipping to Europe and to Maribor. They’d rather be bootlickers than soldiers – he leaned back on the bench and drew his railway hat over the eyes, as if wanting to quit the conversation and doze off.
    – Excuse me, young man – the woman spoke again and indicated that he shouldn’t pay attention to the spiteful man – I was wondering why you were going to… that place… what was it?
    – Paramaribo – Gordan coolly replied.
    – That’s it… Par… Is there really such a place or is it some Utopia of your own making?
    Kiril took off the hat, sat up in the bench and took out a flask from his bag, opened it, took a sip from the gin, lapping noisily, with holes forming in his hollow cheeks. Pretending not to notice, the woman in the floral dress continued talking to Gordan, calmly and with great interest.
    – Paramaribo? It’s real. It’s in the Caribbean. It’s on a different continuant, but it might as well be on another planet…
    – You’d sooner become fucking spacemen than stay here – the gritty old man was mumbling, running his fingers through his short, grey, sharp and dishevelled hair. Holding the flask of gin in the other hand, he called out again – Anyone want some?
    Gordan was staring at the neurotic pap not knowing what to do.
    – Pay no attention – the woman said – I was wondering what you’d want to go there. The youth nowadays usually go to developed countries…
    The railwayman guzzled from the flask again.
    – First I wanted to go to America… – Gordan said.
    The geezer spat out the gin the second he took a sip from the flask.
    – That’s it, that’s it! – Kiril said with a muffled voice – That’s perfect for you.
    The woman brushed off the annoying railwayman and directed her attention to Gordan.
    – … But then I changed my mind. I still feel drawn to America, though – added Gordan and pretended once again not to hear the capricious old man.
    – Why doesn’t anyone think of going to Russia, damn it? – the pap smacked the flask on the bench by the hat and turned to them – The land of science and technology. What’s with the whole America things? It’s been like that for generations. Instead of knowledge, we’re chasing money. That’s why we’ve come to this. One Miladinov went to Russia and that was it.
    – Two – Gordan interjected.
    – What? – hissed the old man.
    – Dimitar and Konstantin Miladinov – the young man explained.
    The woman made a surprised face.
    – I was referring to Konstantin. He wrote that poem… ‘Longing Southly’.
    – Jesus Christ! – the woman shouted crossly, shocked not so much by the old man’s ignorance as by his stubbornness.

    – He wanted to come back here. Dimitar wanted to skip, I’m sure, just like you – the railwayman hissed at him and then started laughing at his own expense, coughed from all that laughter and tried clearing his throat with another guzzle of gin.
    Gordan gave him a dirty look.
    – Pay no attention to him whatsoever. Can’t you see that’s what he wants? – the woman in the floral sundress whispered and then continued out loud – I’d really want to know… America, you said…
    – I said America! – the guy was relentless.
    – Yes – Gordan responded to her interest – I’ve only known it from movies, the Internet, from CDs. All my life I’ve wanted to roam around New York at night.
    – Ah, like that classic… – the woman said, her voice changed, as if she’s only just began communicating with Gordan.
    – Excuse me? – Gordan was puzzled.
    – I was thinking of that tune, ‘Strangers in the Night’. It was quite popular in my day. We were, you know, daydreaming with it. We were walking, in our minds, beneath the New York skyscrapers… – the woman said – The image is haunting me… Black stretch limousines flying about, yellow cabs, fumes from the subway coming out through the manholes, neon lights shining over the wet asphalt, and the sounds of a saxophone are heard. Someone nearby is playing some jazz…
    – Rap. East Coast hip hop is the thing now – Gordan tried to explain, but she didn’t even listen and went on:
    – … And you, you’re gaping about, dazed and confused from the bright lights everywhere. You’re drenched in brightness. The neon light is dancing on your face and the city around you is radiant. You’re walking down Broadway and suddenly someone’s calling your… – she turned to Gordan – What was your name again, young man?
    – Gordan.
    – Right – she continues – Someone is calling out for you ‘Gordon! Gordon!’ You turn around. You can’t believe your eyes. Just two feet from you, cigarette in hand, a relaxed, slicked smile, it’s him…
    – Who, then? – suddenly the man in the railway hat squeaked.
    – Frank, Frank Sinatra – she tells Gordan, ignoring the old man.
    – Bad Boy, ma’am. Da gangsta. That’s what they call him. He’s my favourite rapper. His music is fierce. Don’t get me wrong, but Sinatra has been dead a long time.
    – For you maybe, young man, not for me – she was relentless and, with a smile on her face, continued on that same note – Whatever, let’s say it was this Boy of yours… Anyway, he’s standing in the mist and the asphalt fumes in the bright street and, while you gape in surprise, he invites you for drinks at a nearby bar, right there in the neighbourhood, in a quiet alley round the corner… Right?
    – Perhaps. How did you know? – Gordan looked at her all befuddled.
    – From experience, young man – the elderly lady smiled – My generation was dreaming the same dream. I’m a teacher, you know… second generation after the war. Everyone in this country dreams of the same things. My generation was longing for Harry James, Esther Williams and California. The next generation for The Beatles and London. You dream of New York and your gangster. In those days my dream was Sinatra. It’s the same pattern. There’s nothing new, young man.
    – Nothing new – suddenly, but rather pensively this time, the guy under railway hat repeated – We were tripping out too. American gangsters. Not just me, the whole gang… We were imagining we were in Chicago, in those days, you know, with Eliot Ness and the Prohibition… Kid, are you sure you don’t want some gin? Take a sip, you want be sorry.
    – I don’t want to! – Gordan retorted.
    – Stop bothering us with your interruptions – now the woman snapped at him as well.
    – Well, well, my dear, you showed your teeth too. You’re in cahoots with this emigrant, shame on you! – retaliated the old man – And that dream of yours is so passé, you know!
    – … It was like then before as well; back then Paris was in vogue… – she raised her tone and continued, trying not to pay attention to the old rascal.
    – And the Orient Express. A train going London-Paris-Constantinople and back. Aller-retour – the guy interjected again, calling out to Gordan – Everything’s the same, darn it, you take after us. There’s no escape. Everything boils down to one: aller-retour.
    – I don’t take after anyone – Gordan rejoined – I take after myself. Not even my father. I’m more like some mad hacker from Wyoming than you.
    – Right, then I’m the spit image of Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.
    – Just look at you two – Gordan exploded – like caricatures from the previous century.
    The woman looked at him in shock. She was astounded by Gordan’s reaction.
    – That’s right – the pig-headed railwayman started showing some nerve, not even trying to try his satisfaction that his young interlocutor had finally lost his temper – and we’ve been hanging out with hanumas, revolutionaries, pashas and beys. As for myself, I’ve mooched a smoke out of Goce Delčev’s cigarette case, and I’ve sold Kemal Atatürk a new fur cap to replace his old fez. I got it here, from the Skopje fellmongers. Have you heard of Goce and Kemal?
    – And of Tito too! – Gordan shouted all out of sorts.
    The old man stopped, as if befuddled.
    – I don’t want to hear of him! – the railwayman sad full of malice after the puzzled break.
    – The Slovenians have built a website just for him.
    – What have the Slovenians built? – the capricious little fella asked with an angry, but curious falsetto.
    – An Internet page – anxiously tried to explain the woman.
    – A freaking page? We were supposed to read ginormous books on that bugger, not a page…
    – It’s no use, young man – the woman added moralizingly, trying to resume her interrupted conversation with Gordan – there are no more fantasies. Especially in your generation. You dream, as this… man said, passé dreams of the world. Can’t you see the world is here now? Nowadays the world is where the fiercest is.

    – The world is elsewhere – Gordan retorted – only their TV cameras are here. They like to watch us in the news. As some soap opera, in episodes. In their living rooms, for relaxation, during the breaking news. In their private homes with backyards, while their TV dinners, bought at a discount at the local supermarket, fresh out of the microwave, are getting cold. I don’t want to be a segment on CNN or NBC, as if I was some wild beast at an African safari. I want to have a life. I don’t want to be an extra in their news. And I’m sick of the likes of you too. Old, bitter, no good!
    – You don’t want to? As if you had a choice! – the man started shouting at him – That’s what this world is like. Like a circus. Some of us are taming bears, wolves and wild cats, while others are looking on, munching popcorn and laughing at us.
    – I beg to differ – the woman interjected – there’s no pleasure in another’s misery. The tables could easily turn.
    – Haven’t they already? – the railwayman said.
    – Not yet – she retorted – God help us if they do. I know what I’m talking about.
    The old man was staring at her, speechless. Gordan stood up and put both straps of his backpack on one shoulder.
    – It would be better if they didn’t, lady – rejoined the spiteful man – when the shoe is on their foot, we’re always screwed, pardon my French.
    Gordan left them behind and decisively moved toward the stairs to the railway platform.
    – Brute! – Gordan heard the woman in the floral dress behind and finally stepped out on the scorching platform.
Gordan glanced at his watch. He noticed that the second hand was sluggishly moving from one position to the other like a man with heat exhaustion. The train was an hour late. A warm breeze was blowing outside when his attention was drawn by the steps on the platform stairs. One by one – she with her plaid suitcase in both her hands, he with his bags with the bottles of gin sticking out and tinkling – the woman with the straw hat and the railwayman were going up the stairs. They stopped to look about the platform and sat down on two separate benches across from Gordan.
    – Could you please tell me – the woman asked the old man – what time it is exactly? The railway clock seems to have stopped.
    – I don’t know – he replied – I stopped wearing a watch when I retired. Why would I? Time stands still her anyhow.
    – We’re standing still – the woman said, with a somewhat anxious tone – time just stirs things up. It’s strange how the past returns here.
    Sensing the old subject of their little dispute in the waiting room coming along, Gordan turned around and looked into the distance trembling in the hot air. A fly was buzzing in front of his eyes, there was not a single railwayman on the platform and the train was a no-show.
    – Have you asked if the train is coming? – Gordan couldn’t help himself.
    – There’s no one to ask… – the woman replied listlessly.
    – I don’t know if I should stay… – noted Gordan anxiously, jumped up, waved his arm and caught the fly in his hand.
    – You’re too eager to skedaddle, buddy – the railwayman started to taunt him again, taking out a cigarette from a soft pack and prepared it for smoking with gusto – Interesting, ma’am, how this youth never dream of our country. They always want to go abroad, into the big bad world…
    – What the hell do you know? All you know is the Skopje-Kumanovo line and back, and you keep foaming up here – Gordan snapped at him, he took a swing and smashed the fly against the edge of the bench.
    – My dear boy, I’ve travelled more than you’ve driven around Skopje and that’s a fact!
    – Right, from Blace to Prdejci, round trip.
    – With a pass, buddy. All through that other country. I’ve worked at the railway all my life and in those days it was impeccable, a symbol of the organized state, not this mess. I’ve been to that Maribor of yours, just so you know.
    – Take it easy – the woman told Gordan taking off the straw hat and cooling herself with it as with a fan – after all, it’s rude to speak this way to your senior…
    – You all just love preaching, don’t you? – Gordan couldn’t take it anymore – My father at home, the MPs, you two… You all have to put your two cents in. How come we’re stuck like this with all this wisdom flying about? You’ve seen a dozen films, you’ve learnt the names of five capitals and three celebrities, and you’ve been lecturing us on fashion and geography for years.
    – On history, young man. On history… And history repeats itself – the woman with the hat said grimly.
    – It repeats itself, buddy, but as farce! – Kiro said and crossed his skinny legs, revealing the old and dusty summer shoes – that’s by Marx, not entirely mine.
    – Nothing repeats, only you’ve been taught on reruns – Gordan flared up again – Everything happens only once. You live once. What’s happened to you hasn’t happened to me. Everyone’s got to do their damn part. You’ve screwed up everything you’ve done. We’re standing still and that’s the way you like it. You want us to change, but everything to stay the same. That’s why we don’t take after you. We rather resemble our generation out in the world than you. We keep in touch with the whole world in English. We surf the planet. We’re damn computer whizzes…
    – Big whoop! – the old man puffed a cloud of smoke.
    – … we kick ass on the Internet. What do you know of the freaking Internet? Nothing. You didn’t even write your homework back in the day, let alone an algorithm today. As if you know anything about the war; you haven’t even seen gunpowder. You’re – I can tell – from that generation stuck in-between. Then: too young to be a partisan; and now: to old to be in the reserve. A railwayman from this God-forsaken train station, that’s what you are. I’ve been to war on the computer, Kiro, that’s why I’ve chosen to leave. Because I know that in every war it is someone else that activates you. I’ve shot my ass off with the joystick and I keep wondering: if these virtual wars are so brutal, what’s a real one like?
    – Disgusting! – said the woman vaguely and for a second neither Gordan nor Kiro knew if she comments on the style or the contents of the report.

    She moved away, turned her back on them and, staring in the distance, fretfully arranging her hair on the nape with the one hand, once again started cooling herself with the straw hat in the other.
    – Let me tell you… – the railwayman puffed out some smoke from the cigarette and with a tone of someone enjoying the hyped-up conversation added – They’re great. They shoot at you some, and then you shoot at them. That’s what my son says. And, unlike you, he doesn’t shoot with that… joyous stick.
    – That’s your fault. You should’ve got him a computer on time – curtly snapped Gordan.
    The woman stopped fanning and, still standing with her back turned, started eavesdropping on their conversation again.
    – What the hell is my son to do with a compactor? He doesn’t have the time to fiddle about. His Daddy doesn’t have his own company. Just his pension and his distillation pot.
    – A computer, Kiro, to surf the Net. To let loose a bit. For a change of scenery. To escape this place for a while since he can’t split for real. Not to wait in ambush and drink and cuss like a sailor on shore leave.
    – Go ahead, spew your bile. That’s all you know. You work on compuctors and have no manners to save your life.

In the operative work he was diligently doing with his unit, Lieutenant Hugh W. Ellisor was trying to be outstanding, but never stand out. That was Rule Number Two:
    ‘Anywhere in the field,’ his father instructed him, ‘from Korea, Vietnam and Latin America, all the way to the Balkans, those who stand out are the first to get hit by local sharpshooters.’
    Rule Number Three: when on such unsafe territory, be careful, be on your toes as if you’re under attack. Seemingly relaxed situations could be most misleading there.
    Rule Number One: the good soldier’s ideal is not to die in the battlefield, but in bed, as Wyatt Earp.
    And it worked.
    Everyday he’d chat on the Internet with his father until he wrote him an email from Washington to tell him that his ‘the results from his latest check-up are not all that great’. Lieutenant Hugh W. Ellisor knew that this euphemist phrase might be hiding a new problem for his father and their little family. His tour in Bosnia and Herzegovina finished very soon, but not soon enough. While he was in the Balkans, his father died at the cancer ward of the grand Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.
    The last message Hugh got from him was: ‘Mission accomplished. Rule Number One – observed.’
    Soon Hugh returned to Washington in the empty apartment in which his father and mother had lived all their lives – but his mother, left all alone, refused to stay in that place any longer, or in Washington.

The hot summer wind on the roofed platform of the long plateau of the train station in Skopje, dominating over the city and stretching in the distance, stopped. The heat became unbearable. Seldom rumblings were heard from afar. The woman with the straw hat in her hand turned to Gordan.
    – You may be right, young man – she said calmly – I don’t know anything anymore. I used to know everything. Now I get nothing. I’ve been retired for fifteen years. Early retirement. Back in the day I was advocating the idea of independence, but before the time was ripe. I was taken in for questioning by the communist police. I nearly ended up in prison. Soon I was served the notice of early retirement. Had I waited five more years, I would’ve retired as a public servant in the Ministry of Education, not a mere teacher. Everything should come in its own time. Sooner or later is no good.
    – Despite the fact that everything here sucks all the time – Kiril interjected.
    – If you hadn’t liked it, you should’ve gone away. Why haven’t you left by now? – Gordan asked.
    – Like you now? – wondered the teacher.
    – Like me now. I could barely get the visas. With a lot of money and a lot of strings pulled. At least back then you didn’t need visas.
    – It’s never too late, young man. I just might leave.
    – You also just might not have the chance, madam – Gordan said – Where are you headed?
    – Visiting close ones.
    – Someone close or somewhere close? – the railwayman asked meanly.
    – That’s enough. You mind your own business – she replied callously.
    – What’s the hell is the matter with all of you? All you talk about is leaving. Does anyone intend to stay here, huh? – Kiril asked, with a low tone of voice, for the first time, and out of honest conviction.
    No one answered. The three of them kept silent for a long time. The sound of a scrappy choir of cicadas was coming from somewhere.
    – What does your father do? – Kiro finally spoke.
    – PTE – listlessly replied Gordan.
    – What?! – Kiro stretched his neck out like turtle.
    – A Private Trade Enterprise. He’s swindling, just like everybody else these days.
    – The likes of him created all this mess! – Kiril said with a serious tone.
    – He’s like you. He says he’s staying – replied Gordan looking at the old man – You do what you want, he says. I’m not moving an inch, it took my blood, sweat and tears to get this little place, I’m not letting anyone take it. And you can take a hike if you will.
    – Your father has a shop? – the teacher asked.
    – Yes. A grocery store, sixteen by ten.
    – He doesn’t want to leave the store! Your father doesn’t give a damn about this country, all he cares are his shelves. That’s why he wants to stay – once again interjected Kiro’s abrasive voice – In the near future, when everyone else leaves, only shopkeepers will stay. This won’t be a country, but a chamber of commerce.

    – Won’t you stop with the insults? – Gordan furiously stood up from his seat – Who the hell are you, after all? What have you done with yourself?
    – I was riding, damn it! Half the time I was driving myself and half I was driven by others. What have I don? I made a child. What more should I’ve done? That’s the best thing ever. My life is a failure otherwise. And, you know what?
    – Let us hear those words of wisdom too… – Gordan turned his head impatiently.
    – Because of the likes of your father – Kiril pointed at him with the two fingers between which the cigarette butt was still smoking – I was a freakin’ dream-chaser. We thought we were saving the world.
    Kiril stood up from the bench, threw the butt down, took off his hat and wiped the sweaty head with a handkerchief he pulled out of his pant pocket and went on:
    – Unlike you, we were mostly thinking of others. The beatings I got for these ideals, the humiliation I suffered! So what? When I see you like this now, I’m still not sorry. At least I had a youth. We had an idea and what do you have, damn it?
    – If you ask me, I’d agree, young man – the teacher added – Those ideas – like those of… the gentleman – I’ve never liked them, to be honest. I despised communism, but I’m like him, of the same mind…
    – Of course you are, we’re the same generation! Although, you seem somewhat older – maliciously said the railwayman.
    – I sometimes wonder, am I a failure at life? – the woman continued – I had a husband, God rest his soul, but we had no children. I used to think, alright, I don’t have children of my own, but I have my students. If not mine, I’ll raise these children, the new generations. They are all our children, the offspring of our people. Now I see what generation we’ve created… Them – the teacher said, pointing to Kiro with her head – and us. How come? We haven’t taught them to be rude and heatless. We’ve been teaching them work ethics, kind words, good behaviour…
    – There you have it, that’s what we’ve created – Kiro sat back down on his bench, pointing to the young man.
    – Right! – Gordan said, addressing both of them – You taught us and raised us well, but we turned out all flawed. What were you teaching us? ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers’ and ‘Politeness costs nothing and gains everything’… Peter never picked anything but elbowed himself to the position of self-management unit director, and politeness here costs everything and gains nothing. Here you gain something by force or by pulling strings. Peter was the son of a partisan mobilized in ’44, then a second-generation party soldier, and the gains were behind steel gates in the houses, factories and stores of pre-war entrepreneurs. You’ve got your fairytales all mixed up. Peter’s socialism and Ali Baba’s cave!
    Gordan got up and climbed on the nearby fence turning his back on them, looking somewhere in the distance from where the train was supposed to come. She was looking at him with troubled eyes, but answered to him with a steady tone.
    – I haven’t mixed anything up. They took away our property and the rest of it my father handed over to the state. He was a noble man, even though he wasn’t a political idealist. ‘Expropriation – expropriation, so be it,’ he used to say. ‘If that’s what is meant to be, I’d rather it went to the people.’ It was easier to give up your property in those days. We honestly thought the rule was popular then.
    – So it was, don’t tell me it wasn’t – protested the railwayman.
    – It turned out the same people expropriated twice. First they took our properties, preaching socialism for all, and then the socialist factories, selling us capitalism, for themselves.
    – Why delude yourself then? – Gordan asked.
    – I thought it was a different story – the teacher answered – Not just me. All my colleagues. We called ourselves educators. We thought we were bringing literacy and educating, that we were bringing light to the darkness that had been swallowing our country for centuries. We thought we were teaching children how to be people, to love this country, small and modest it may be, but it was ours. Were we wrong?
    – Absolutely! – the railwayman yelled and got up again, and she looked at him with surprise, eyebrows frowning, at which point Kiro sat back down again – I mean – you’re absolutely right… comrade.
    – This country could’ve been a rose garden, become a rich orchard… – the teacher said.
    Gordan turned to her, looked at her straight in the eye and started quietly declaiming.
    – Fruits from the orchard: the Resen apple, Delicious and Golden Delicious, Karaman pears, Ohrid cherries… – he itemized.
    Absorbed in her monologue, she didn’t even hear him and continued:
    – … Where have all these broad-daylight criminals come from, these power-hungry, primitive boors, I sometimes wonder… – the teacher kept talking as if not even listening to him, while Kiro was confusedly glancing first at her, then at him.
    But Gordan wouldn’t stop ironically reciting his imaginary lesson either.
    – Gevgelija figs, Maleševo plums, Šar Planina blueberries, Šipkovica hips…
    She got up from the bench, without interrupting her speech.
    – … We taught them proper speech. Honest behaviour. Patriot values. Who turned them on to money, to bribe, who infected them with selfishness? When has this country fallen out of their favour? How come they made a home out of thievery, and a backyard of authority?
    Gordan picked up the pace and raised his voice to outspeak her with his ironic games.
    – Valandovo pomegranates, domestic actinides, imported bananas…
    – The last time they’ve read a book was at school. They don’t read books, but they’re experts in false bookkeeping. Their pockets are full, but inside they’re empty. They’re building mansions, one bigger than the other, but who or what is to live there? Emptiness?
    – Kavadarci grapes, Demir Kapija vine, Strumica mastika, Negotino gin, brandy…
    – They don’t know what’s nice, only how much it costs. They don’t value people for their knowledge, but by the price they put on them then. If you have – you’re alright – if you don’t – you suck. Worth, they say, is calculated at the stock market, and they’ve lost all sense of human values.
    – … Skopje medlars, white mulberries from Kumanovo, black ones from Karadak…

    – God only know where we got it wrong. The important thing is, we didn’t deserve a war – she concluded with a trembling voice, on the verge of tears, and sat down on the bench.
    Kiro looked at her full of sympathy.
    – Yes, we did. The hell we didn’t – Gordan started shouting – History is unforgiving. To be in a circus. The entertainment of others. To be in a farce.
    Kiro lifted himself up.
    – Finally! – he said with a dull expression on the face.
    Gordan and the teacher looked at him in shock.
    – The train, damn it – he said – the train’s here!
    They turned around and noticed the composition approaching them from the distance. In the hot trembling air the train in motion seemed to be skipping left and right from the tracks, looking strange, almost unreal.
    Kiril bent down and picked up the bag with the gin and stood by the tracks, and the woman put her purse on her shoulder, then picked up her plaid suitcase and went by the railway man.
    The train entered the station screeching and stopped. That was the cue for Gordan to bend down and pick up his plastic backpack, even though he was determined not to enter the same compartment as the other two travellers. Bent down as he was, Gordan heard the train stop, the doors opening with a loud bang and, yelling and screaming, soldiers in combat dress and full equipment, with long automatic weapons in their hands ran out of the composition.
    – Freeze! Nobody move! – one of them, with sergeant stripes, shouted!
    – Hands up! – screamed another one with a metal corporal badge and pointed his gun at them.
    – Up, up, up, up! – the soldiers started yelling dissonantly, with their guns ready to fire.
    Gordan was staring at the soldiers all petrified, and then noticed that the teacher and Kiro were acting as if they didn’t even hear them since they calmly passed by them, she, dragging her plaid suitcase in both hands, he, puffing his cigarette toward them. It looked to Gordan as if the Skopje railwayman and the teacher passed through the figures of the just disembarked soldier that seemed to have come out of nowhere. He wanted to do the same, but still, their dangerous shouting was ringing in Gordan’s ears, so, even though it all appeared unreal, the threatening yells and gun-waving made Gordan put his backpack down and lift his hands up. Besides, they were talking to him specifically. Kiro was already on the train and was helping the teacher up, first taking her suitcase, then pulling her in.
    – Hey – the soldier said with a changed, almost friendly tone of voice, to an astonished Gordan – Isn’t this Afghanistan? Or… or something?
    Gordon was dumbfounded and remained speechless.
    – Platoon! As you were! – the order came and Gordan saw them change into a new, relaxed mood, joking around, opening packs of bubblegum, chewing, reaching for their military-issued water canteens, some of them lighting cigarettes, whereas others blowing and popping bubbles, then cheerily and noisily going down the stairs of the train station plateau toward the exit.
    – Kiro! – Gordan cried, his voice trembling – Wait for me, I’m coming too!
    He picked up his backpack from the ground and rushed to the entrance just at the second the composition jerked on the blistering tracks, made a sharp screech and slowly left the train station in an oddly deranged Skopje.

Trnaslated by Kalina Janeva

created by