Blesok no. 49, July-August, 2006

The Playground

Rumena Bužarovska

    The next day I woke up happier because I knew I would be able to go to the playground and play with the other kids. My mother sent me out to get some bread again, but this time I bought a nice, soft and even somewhat warm loaf, so when I came back my mother didn’t scold me, she even kissed me.
    “Where are you going?” she asked.
    “I’ll go play with my friends,” I said.
    “Alright, but be careful, don’t go the playground, you can fall there,” she warned me, as if she knew I were going to the playground.
    “Yes” I said, and left the house.

When I got there, Bistra and Moni were already on the swings, while Bistra’s little sister was sitting nearby, shouting at the top of her lungs.
    “My turn, my turn!” she screeched, while Bistra and Moni went up into the air and back down, showing off that they knew how to swing.
    “Wait a minute!” Bistra screamed back, while her sister jumped up and down impatiently, or ran up in front of the swing, only to run away when Bistra would come swinging back.
    Milan was there, too. He was dangling from the bridge and walking on its bars.
    “Is the bridge dry?” I said, trying to show that I already knew of the news.
    “What do you think?” Milan shot back.
    I touched the bridge and really it was still a bit sticky, but only if you pressed your hand on it harder.
    “It’s still sticky,”I told him, “Yesterday the men who came told me to tell the other kids not to climb the bridge, because they’d get dirty and spoil the new paint.”
    “So what?” said Milan and continued to dangle on the bridge, “Petar stained his clothes yesterday, ha ha ha!” he giggled.
    I saw that the bridge was not as smooth as it was when the two men painted it the day before; there were places where it was rough, places where hands had stuck on it.The mid-parts of the steps were the roughest, where the children had walked. I remembered the two men and how they told me to tell the other kids that the bridge had been freshly painted. I felt like uttering another small “aaaah”. It was my fault that the bridge was a bit spoiled.
    I never liked Milan too much, so I turned my back on him and moved towards Moni and Bistra.
    “Hey Iva,” said Moni, “Why didn’t you come out yesterday?” she surely knew my mother had grounded me.
    “Because.” I said, “Can I try the swings?” I asked.
    Oh come on Iva,” said Moni, “you just came here. Wait a little. Can’t you see Bistra’s sister is also waiting?”
    I sat down on the sand and started playing with some pebbles. I threw them at the see-saws and listened to the pebble going “clink” when it hit the metal. Bistra and Moni continued to swing. When they would get tired, they would just talk and swing slowly, while the fat little sister would pull and shove the swing where Bistra sat. Then they would start all over again by taking wide swings. Finally, Bistra got off when her sister started crying very loudly. She hopped up on the seat and Bistra pushed her forward. The little girl stopped crying and smiled, exposing her pointy little rotten teeth.
    Moni would not get off, although I was still sitting on the sand, waiting. Then, all of a sudden, Jasmina appeared from somewhere. Jasmina, Bistra and Moni were the same age. She came to say hello to them, and only looked at me. Moni immediately got off and offered the swing to Jasmina.
    I got angry.
    “Moni, this is not fair,” I gathered up the courage to tell her, but quietly so that Jasmina couldn’t hear us, “I’ve been waiting for you to get off the swing for such a long time.”
    “Yes Iva, but Jasmina is older than you and she’s got the right to swing, not you.”
    “What about Bistra’s sister? She’s younger than me and she still got to swing.”
    “Yes, but she is much younger and if she doesn’t go on the swing she will cry, and this is why she’s got the right to swing before you do,” said Moni and turned her head, “but if you want we can play on the bridge.”
    The bridge, which had always frightened me, now seemed even larger and scarier than before, because its color was so bright and red.
    “Let’s see who can cross the bridge fastest!” shouted Moni.
    I did not know how to walk across the bridge. I could do it only by crawling with my hands, but I couldn’t simply walk on it like the older kids. But Moni, Bistra and Milan could do it.
    “Let’s!” Bistra and Milan shouted at the same time.
    “Are you going to play or not?” Moni turned around to face me.
    I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to play with them, but I was afraid.
    “No,” I said “I can’t cross the bridge.”
    “I couldn’t, too, but I learnt! I couldn’t when I was little. But you are not little anymore and you should cross the bridge,” said Moni and started climbing up, step by step.  
    When she did it, it seemed easy. Her feet curved around the rungs, and she kept her hands spread for balance. To show how easy it was for her, she whistled as she went up. She got to the highest part of the bridge and looked like a giant. Then she slowly climbed down.
    “Now it’s your turn,” she said.
    “No, I can’t,” I said, as red as the bridge.
    “Pfffff,” Bistra made a sound with her lips and started climbing up the bridge.
    She was a bit less steady than Moni, but she still got up to the top and headed down the other side. Her feet also curved. I looked at mine. I was wearing soft slippers. I could bend my feet in them. I had tried climbing the bridge before, and it was easy the first several steps. Then, as I neared the top, I would get scared.
    “You see?” said Bistra, “it’s not that difficult. All you should do is not be afraid.”
    “Now it’s my turn!” said Milan and ran up and down the bridge. He was obviously the best. Not only did he cross it, but he could go back to where he had begun, crossing it twice.
    “Come on Iva, let’s have a look,” Milan grinned his horrible grin. He had a gap between his teeth, and a flat nose. When he grinned like that he looked even uglier than before. “You’re not little any more. If you want to be a grown-up you have to behave you like are a grown-up.”
    I don’t know how I gathered up the strength to move towards the bridge. Everything seemed blurry, except Bistra and Moni looking at me, and I also heard Bistra’s little sister and Jasmina swishing through the air on the swings. I took a step up and my leg shook. I returned it to the ground.
    “Ha ha ha!” Milan cackled.
    Then I raised my other foot, and then I did it again. I got somewhere near the top, keeping my arms wide apart. Moni, Milan and Bistra suddenly turned small, and the next thing I felt was something slipping under my foot, and Moni, Milan and Bistra disappeared, the sky emerging before my eyes instead. I heard only a dull sound, and felt pain, like from a rock, under my back.
    Moni and Bistra were gone. All I could see was Milan bending over and flashing his ugly grin, even poking my rib with his toes, but I didn’t feel anything. With my staring eyes and gaping mouth I only wanted to tell him to help me, but I couldn’t breathe in, and he disappeared, giving way to the cloudless sky above. I wanted to call after my mother to help me, but I still couldn’t take a breath. This time she surely wouldn’t scold me.

Translated by Adam Reed and Rumena Bužarovska

    My mother told me not to play on the playground, but I didn’t listen.
    It wasn’t fair from the very start, because I was the first one to see it. Before, it had been totally ruined. The swing set was just one A-frame with two suspended chains, one lonely, rusty chain for each swing. Even the seats were broken, and there were only dangling pieces of wood left to cut you if you weren’t careful. Somebody told me that Milan cut his hand trying to break the piece of wood. I didn’t feel sorry for him, because maybe it was people like Milan who broke the swings when they were pretty, clean and new. Apart from the swings, there were also see-saws, but those were for smaller children. Sometimes, if we were very bored, we would go on the highest one and give “burgers” to one another – the person on the side of the ground would jump up quickly, and the person who was on the high end would slam her bum on the board. But then someone demolished those seats too, so the only seats left were those on the smallest see-saw. Sometimes, Branko’s mother would bring her youngest son there and would gently lift him on that see-saw, and he would giggle.
    The third thing on the playground was an arch with rungs that we called the bridge. I was always afraid of the bridge because it was taller than me and I was afraid I would fall. When my mother told me to never go to the playground, I think she was also terrified of the bridge.
    As a small child, I watched some of the bigger kids walk the bridge. They would first climb up the first several steps with their arms spread to keep their balance, and then they would continue on up to the highest bars and down the other side. I was very little then and usually played in the sand with Keti, or we would sometimes go on the lowest see-saw and give each other burgers. But the playground grew boring. There was nothing apart from the demolished swings, the bridge the bigger kids would climb, and the broken see-saws. With nothing left to do, we stopped going there and took to playing football in the meadow with the boys, or we’d play jump-rope or dodgeball in the street.
    Then one morning my mother sent me out to buy some bread. It was still early, so the kids had not come out to play yet. As I walked towards the store, I heard pounding noises coming from the direction of the playground. I thought to myself: someone is breaking the seats – and ran to see who it was. At first I carefully hid behind the corner of a first-floor balcony, in case it was some bully who’d spot me and then pester me. Then I peeked out for a better view.
    Next to the big swing frame stood two men wearing blue overalls and faded-out blue caps on their heads. One of them was using a screwdriver to fasten the chains to the upper horizontal rod of the swing, while the other was securing the new sitting board. I didn’t have to hide anymore, so I approached and saw that the boards were light brown, smooth and shiny, as if they had been polished. They were unlike sitting boards on other playgrounds: these were rounded at the sides, new and clean.
    I took a look to see if they had also changed the see-saws, and they really had, except for the smallest one where it was still possible to sit, although it was old. The difference between the old and new seats was obvious: the old ones were cracked, grayish, and rotting on the sides, with rusty screws; whereas the screws on the new boards glimmered, the seats seemed to be adjusted for the thighs, there were holes where the legs were supposed to be suspended so that when someone gives you a burger the board would not stab itself into the flesh. I also noticed a strange, strong smell, and only then saw that the bridge was no longer pale-yellow as it used to be, rather it was painted brightly red. There were several hardened drops of red sand on the ground around the bridge, and right next to it stood a bucket of paint with a brush.
    “Hey, little girl,” one of the men in blue turned to look at me.
    I didn’t say anything, but just looked towards him.
    “You live here?” he asked.
    I was afraid that he might scold me for something – maybe because I was disturbing them.
    “Yes, a little bit down the road, in the block behind this one,” I admitted.
    “Alright, fine. Tell the other kids not to touch the frame,” he pointed at the bridge, “we just painted it and it’s still sticky – it’s going to be sticky for another day. Ok?”
    I felt proud that someone had given me such a task. I nodded several times and said “Ok, ok”. After that I heard the other man asking the one who had spoken to me: “Are we going to paint this rod?” and pointed at the A-frame; then the first answered “If we start painting all of them we won’t get anywhere”.
    I really wanted to know why the smallest of the see-saws had not been changed, so I asked the men.
    “Why did the seat on this see-saw stay like this?”
    “Ho-ho, you are a curious one!” said one man and looked at the other one. Both smiled crookedly, raising only one side of their lips, “Do you want us to take off the other seats so that you can sit on the old ones? Or do you want to be left without a playground?”
    “No, I just – I just wanted to ask…” I blushed and stuttered. I imagined how there might be no playground because of me.
    “Go on, tell the other kids and don’t ask too many questions,” said the man squatting on the ground as he tested a screw with his hand to make sure it wasn’t loose.
    I felt ashamed, as if I had done something bad. What did I do? – I kept asking myself as I trudged along the grass, my back turned towards the men. They were talking, I think I overheard something about some kind of food. I said to myself, now when I will leave, they will say something bad about me. What? Why? What did I do? I was probably rude, I told myself, but I didn’t mean to be. Then I promised myself that I would complete the task the men gave me – I would tell all the kids in the neighborhood not to climb the bridge because it has been freshly painted, and if they did, they would stain their clothes. I first decided to go to Moni’s.
    I rang the doorbell and it seemed there was no one there. Moni was still not tall enough to reach the peephole, so this is why there was a chain. She would open up the door slightly, holding it by the chain, she would look and see who was there, and usually would say “wait”, although I was always afraid she would close the door on me and not open it again like she had done once before. I thought about that while I waited for her to open the door, because I knew she was home and her parents were probably at work.

    That other time I rang the bell, and Moni opened up and peeped under the chain.
    “Wait,” she said. It seemed to me she had something in her mouth, that her lips were a bit glossy.
    She closed the door and I presumed she would open it. But I stood there and she didn't. I stood like that a long time, maybe five minutes, feeling very awkward. My mother would surely scold me for being a nuisance. I headed towards the stairs and had just started down when Moni cracked the door again.
    “Where are you going?” she said.
    “Oh, I thought you wouldn’t open.”
    “Come on Iva, look at you, you wait a little and then you get mad.”
    “I’m not mad,” I tried to explain, but Moni already turned her back and walked back into the apartment, leaving the door slightly open behind her, probably meaning that I should go in. Before she turned around I saw that the corner of her lip was smeared with chocolate. I wondered if she was mad at me because maybe I didn’t wait for her long enough.

    Maybe she is eating chocolate and doesn’t want to give me any, I thought, and moved to leave again, just like that time before, but then Moni finally opened the door against the chain, and I saw her head of tangled hair.
    “Oh come on,” said Moni, “look at how early it is. What are you doing?” She still didn’t open the door.
    “I just wanted to tell you something.”
    Moni closed the door and I wondered again if she’d open. But the chain slid down the metal bed and the doorknob squeaked before moving. She opened the door and I saw she was still in her pajamas.
    “There were these men that came around this morning and fixed the playground!” I shouted out the words, grinning.
    Moni became interested.
    “Really?” she said, “And, what did they do?”
    “Nothing, they put on new sitting boards, and the most important thing is that they told me to tell you not to touch the bridge because it is still sticky, they painted it red. You want to go on the swings with me?”
    “Ok, ok, big deal,” Moni suddenly changed her mind, “We’ll go later. We have to go get Bistra, too.”
    I didn’t really want to ask Bistra to come, but she and Moni were inseparable. Moni was the dominant one, but when someone wanted to fight or argue, Bistra would take on the job. She was large, dark, with small hairs above her lip.
    “Alright. Now?”
    “Oh come on, now. Can’t you see that I just woke up? I have to wait for my sister to come back from the store. Besides, I haven’t had breakfast yet.”
    I remembered I actually went out to get some bread and my mother was waiting for me. I gripped the side of my pocket to check if the money was still there: it was, it jingled when I pressed my hand against it. I went pale when it occurred to me how my mother would scold me.
    “Oh my God! I was supposed to buy bread, my mother’s waiting for me!”
    “Ok, ok, big deal!” said Moni and calmly sat at the table, “Let me just finish eating and you will go get your bread, and we’ll also get Bistra, and then go to the playground.”
    Maybe my mother won’t be so angry, I thought. She’ll probably guess I stayed out with my friends.
    We sat at the table. Remembering the bread, my stomach started growling. From the breadbox Moni took out a fleshy, thick piece her mother had left her for breakfast. She unwrapped the plastic coating and put the bread on the plate waiting for her on the table. Then from the shelf next to the fridge she took a jar of chocolate cream. She sat down and started scooping up huge, gooey slabs and spreading thick layers on the bread. Whatever fell on her plate, she would wipe clean with her finger and then lick it. My stomach growled even more loudly now. I was afraid Moni would hear it and realize I wanted to eat. Then I remembered all the times Moni and I would dig through spoonfuls of chocolate cream in a bucket my father bought me, and I told myself that maybe it wasn't so shameful that I wanted to eat when I watched her. Moni looked at me before jabbing her teeth into the melted chocolate smeared over the bread and as always, asked me:
    “You wanna? You don’t,” and started eating calmly.
    Every time she bought ice-cream, crisps, or chips, she’d do the same thing: You wanna? You don’t. Once I told my mother this and she advised me to do the same from now on, every time I bought myself something.

    “You wanna? You don’t,” I said once when I bought some ice-cream.
    “I do!” said Moni and bit off the chocolate-coated top. Every year the amount of chocolate on the ice-cream seemed to diminish. I felt sad, left only with the vanilla.

    I thought about this as I watched her smeared all over with the chocolate cream, but I didn’t have the strength to say “I do”.

    Finally Moni stuffed the bread into her throat, went up to the fridge and drank milk straight out of the mouth of the box. This time she didn’t even say “You wanna? You don’t”, she simply gulped down the milk, put it back in the fridge and slammed its door shut. The bottles of juice in the shelves of the door rattled and something turned over, but Moni did not even stir. I couldn’t wait to leave: my stomach was growling, my mother was waiting, and I had to warn the other kids about the playground. As I thought of the latter, something ugly passed through my body and I felt like crying out. I uttered only a little “aaaah”.
    “Huh?” Moni thought I was saying something.
    “Nothing, nothing,” I said. In my head I could not forget the men in blue overalls who scolded me. I was extremely embarrassed that they had, and it gave me an awkward feeling inside. Every time I felt awkward about something I remembered, I felt like letting out a little cry.
    Moni’s sister had still not returned from the store, but that didn’t seem to be a problem any longer. Moni left me waiting on the kitchen chair while she went to get dressed. Then she came back, slipped in her sneakers, locked the door, left the key under the doormat, and together we left.

    Bistra and I lived in the same block, whereas Moni lived in the one across the road. The store was a little further down the road, near the playground. I asked Moni to keep me company while I went to the store, and then we could go to Bistra’s to ask her to come to the playground with us.

    “Oh come on,” Moni complained, “I don’t want to go to the store. Go on your own. I’m going to Bistra’s.”
    I wanted to go to Bistra’s with her because I saw the playground first and I wanted to warn the other kids about the bridge. Otherwise, Moni would make herself look important by telling everyone this as if she were the instructed messenger. She lied like that very often – she would make things up, or she would say something someone else said as if it were hers.
    “Ok, then I’ll come with you and I’ll go get the bread after that.” I followed Moni to the block where Bistra and I lived.
    We rang the doorbell and Bistra opened the door. Behind her stood her fat little sister. Both were eating a powdered juice mix with spoons, and their tongues were yellow.
    “You know what?” said Moni, ready to steal my thunder.

    “Two men came round this morning and fixed the playground and now we can go on the swing!” I grinned and spilled it out in one breath.
    “Iva,” Moni looked at me with tight lips, “it is unpolite to interrupt when someone else is speaking.”
    “Yes,” Bistra confirmed.
    “Yes!” screamed the fat little sister.
    “But I didn’t interrupt you, I only…” I tried to explain.
    “You interrupted me!” Moni shouted.
    I became silent. Bistra was also silent, as if I never told her anything about the playground. Moni continued speaking.
    “Today some people came and fixed the playground. They also painted the bridge.”
    “Great!” Bistra’s expression changed suddenly. She opened up her mouth wide to smile and exposed her yellow tongue.
    “Great!” the little sister repeated after her, “I want to go, too!”
    “No way,” said Bistra.
    “Yeah, right,” the little sister said like an adult, “there is no one to look after me. Both mom and dad aren’t at home. Ha ha ha!”
    Bistra cuffed her sister's head, but the little girl continued laughing.
    “Hold on, let me finish up eating,” said Bistra and moved towards the kitchen. We all followed her.
    In the kitchen, she gave a spoon to Moni, but didn’t give me one. I watched them eat the powdered juice, and I wanted some too, but I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give me a spoon. They chomped in silence.
    “Is that powdered juice?” I gathered up the strength to ask. I shoved my hands under my thighs because they were shaking a bit.
    “No,” said Bistra, “we’d give you some, but it is medicine that they give to us at school. You’ll see when you catch up, they’ll give you this kind of medicine too. This is why we are not giving you any.”
    I noticed Bistra’s sister eating from the jar, although she was a year younger than me and did not even go to nursery school, but I said nothing. I knew the smell of powdered juice well.
    My stomach started growling again. I remembered the bread and my mother and my face went pale.
    “Oh my God! I should’ve bought bread! Will you wait for me here? I’ll only be a minute, I just need to buy it and give it to my mom,” I pleaded with them.
    Moni, Bistra and her sister did not say anything. They just continued chomping. Bistra waited for Moni to say something. She finally opened her month and with her yellow tongue said “alright”.
    I ran down the stairs as fast as I could, so fast that I was no longer afraid of jumping two stairs at once, like my brother did. I said to myself, what if I fall, what will they say at home, what will I say, will I lie? But I didn’t trip at all, and I continued running to the store. I went in, where I found the evil saleswoman in the blue uniform.
    “What do you want, little girl?”
    “Good morning,” I said, as they taught us at nursery school, “is there any bread?”
    “Do you have money?” the saleswoman asked.

    This was not the first time she had asked me this. Once I really wanted to have some chips, so I went into the store just to see if they had any, and how much it cost. I found the same saleswoman there, in the blue uniform, the white slippers and the messy hair. She had asked about money, and I'd said I didn't have any. “Go home and get some, then ask for chips,” she said, and I left. I never went to the shop without money from then on.

     “I do,” I said this time, and I proudly held out the money from my pocket.
    The lady disappeared behind the bare shelves. After a while she came out and gave me a loaf of bread, but not fresh, white and tasty like the piece Moni had eaten, but a wrinkled, old loaf. I was too embarrassed to ask if they had another one. She shoved it into my hands and took my money.
    “That’s it, we’re out, “she said as if she read my mind, “next time come earlier,” and she turned her back.
    I went pale again. I thought of how my father would come home from work in the evening and would have to eat dry and hard bread. And it was my fault, since because of the playground and all, I forgot to buy bread sooner. I knew my mother would scold me, but I headed home to tell her about the playground – hurrying so that Moni and Bistra don’t wait for too long.
    On the way to my block, I saw them walking with Bistra's sister. They were surely headed for the playground, and their tongues were even more yellow than before. They were laughing.
    “Where are you going?” I panted. As I approached them they stopped laughing and looked at me sternly.
    “To the playground,” Moni said.
    “Will you wait for me? All I have to do is take this up to my mother.”
    “Sorry Iva, but we can’t wait for you anymore,” Moni said proudly and calmly. Her nose was really up in the air.
    “But I had to get the bread for my mother,” I whined.
    “You should have done that earlier,” Moni replied with the same tone, as if she were a judge.
    “Shame on you, to leave your mother waiting for so long,” said Bistra and looked at Moni, who nodded approvingly.
    “Ha ha ha!” Bistra’s fat little sister stuck out her yellow tongue.
    And they left.
    Something chilly started moving around my stomach. Little by little it started going further down, and then I felt an urge to pee. What did I do? I said to myself. They must be angry with me because of my mother. I really should have brought her the bread. But Moni told me not to worry, I wondered to myself.

    It wasn't the first time Moni had done this. She’s a bad person, this is what my mom and dad say. Once we were at her place, and she said something strange about Bistra’s sister. She said it as if she was telling me a secret, and she put a worried expression on her face, as if she were an adult.
    “You know, something must be wrong with Bistra’s sister. She’s already three but she still doesn’t talk like she should.”
    “Yes,” I nodded.
    Then one day we were sitting on the grass in front of our blocks and playing with Jasmina. Bistra’s sister passed by and started blabbering. After she left, I said that there really must be something wrong with Bistra’s sister. That she was old enough, but didn’t speak as she should. Moni turned around to look at me.
    “Come on Iva, how can you talk like this. The poor child, shame on you.”
    Jasmina agreed and I just sat there, embarrassed.

    It was like that this time, too. I was already standing in front of my door. It was locked, so I rang the doorbell. The chilly feeling in my stomach had not passed.
    “Where have you been! Are you crazy? Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for you?” my mother yelled when she saw me.
    “I’m sorry mom, but there are new swings, and then I went to Moni’s and Bistra’s to tell them that there are new swings and not to climb on the bridge because it’s painted and that’s what the men in blue told me this morning when I saw them fixing the swings and…” my mother interrupted me at this point.
    “I don’t care about any Bistra or Moni! When I tell you to get something you do it straight away! You haven’t even eaten, shame on you!”
    “I ate some bread and chocolate cream at Moni’s,” I lied.
    Then I handed my mother the bread, and she got even angrier.
    “What’s your father going to eat tonight? This disgusting bread? Who gave you this?”
    “This is all they had, this is all the saleswoman gave me,” I struggled to explain.
    “Yes, because you went too late, and not when I told you!” my mother yelled, “This is it. You are grounded. No going out today.”
    “But I want to go to the playground! I have to tell the other kids!” my eyes started filling up with tears.
    “The playground? You’re not allowed to go to the playground at all, you want to fall down and break something? No playground and no going out today. You’re grounded,” my mother said and went back to the kitchen.
    I cried all day.

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