by W.S. McCallum
© 2001, 2002
A coin lay in the bottom of the ditch, half-embedded in the wet mud, an insignificant detail that would have passed unnoticed in other circumstances. It was made of about the same quantity of metal as one of the bullets in the cascade sweeping the edge of the ditch, and had a shiny silver finish. The word “ITALIANA”, running around the curved rim, was visible. It must have fallen out of someone’s pocket as they were walking along the road, the sort of thing that can happen when you pull a handkerchief out. It must have happened recently too, or the coin would have been submerged or splattered with mud by now.
This was an odd thing to be fixating about, but then perceptions change when the shooting starts. Everything becomes immediate. All that matters is the here and now. Every morsel of reality is to be clung to, proof you are not dead yet and that for the time being they are failing in their attempts to eliminate you. In such circumstances, a coin can matter: trying to work out its face value from the bit sticking out of the mud while the crew of an MG40 rake the roadside serves as a slight distraction.
The noise of the shooting is maddening. A mix of ground impacts, ricochets bouncing off the wrecked jeep and the roadside, and rounds whistling past overhead, make any further concerted thought impossible. The bastards!
“PISS OFF YOU BUGGERS!!”
With all the racket their machine gun is making, there is no likelihood of the Germans actually hearing anything, and consequently there is no point in yelling, other than for the release it provides. They keep the shooting going for another minute, firing off rounds in the hope of hitting the one who had managed to take cover. When they stop the first time, it is only to change belts. The second time, the pause is much longer. Someone would be trying to spot the survivor through binoculars, except binoculars are no good for seeing into the bottom of ditches.
There was nothing to do but wait. Were they adventurous, the Germans would have sent someone down to the roadside to finish off the job, but such initiative was in short supply these days. They had gotten too used to fighting rearguard actions and then clearing out so they could fight on. No, they would not venture out of their nest. Nor was their victim going to stick his head out of the ditch to see what was going on so they could shoot it off.
Staring at the coin got boring after a few minutes, except there was nothing else to look at. It would have been easy enough to roll over a bit so it did not hold such a central position just inches from the left eye, were it not for the fact that even the slightest movement in such a shallow ditch ran the risk of betraying life and presenting a possible target.
Coming so quickly after all the din created by the automatic fire, the silence was unnerving. At least while they were shooting you knew what they were doing. The thought that, in spite of the earlier theory, one of them might yet decide to come down the hill to finish the job hung there, creating worry. If the German was any good, he might manage to get up close without making any noise at all, in which case trying to sit up, pull the rifle out from the bottom of the ditch, and firing it would be futile.
Just as this negative thought was being considered, the scenario changed with the arrival of new players on the scene.
The vibrations were faint at first, but shortly grew to the point where the ground was shaken by a series of small tremors. A crazy screeling and clanking confirmed the approach of a tank. It was coming from the wrong direction to be German. And it was moving cautiously. Having rounded the bend in the road, the crew were doubtless looking at the smashed jeep and its bullet-riddled driver, and wondering whether any further advance was a wise thing. This was not something that could be seen when huddled in a ditch, merely a surmise based on experience and logic. They would be having a dekko to see whether the jeep had been hit by shellfire. Machine guns were not a great worry with all that armour for protection.
The tank started moving again. Its crew had seen no shell holes and had decided to press on, approaching the jeep warily, and then stopping alongside it. They were not alone. Now that the tank had paused, the sound of men running could be heard, along with the sarcastic voice of a cocky sergeant, telling them to spread out or they would get their arses shot off.
No one stopped to inspect the jeep, or look for survivors. To the members of the units passing by, it was fairly obvious no one would have survived that lot. All the advancing soldiers saw in the ditch was what they thought was a dead body, lying face down, motionless. That particular body had no intention of moving until they had passed by and the risk of some trigger-happy green private accidentally shooting one of his own had passed with them. On top of which there was still the German machine gun to think about.
For all that concern, nothing happened. Had the machine gun still been there, its gunners would have opened up the minute they had a clear view of the advancing infantry. Instead, the only sounds came from the soldiers’ footsteps, now receding as they approached the front. Feeling no initial compulsion to get up, movement was held off until the scene was silent once again. When it finally came, the first motion was tentative, made in the expectation it might draw fire.
The second movement was more decisive, although a hesitancy remained, along with a keen willingness to duck back down at the slightest prompting. First the head, then the shoulders, were raised out above ground level.
Still nothing, apart from the wrecked jeep and the riddled body. No sign of movement from the dry, scrub-covered hillside where the MG40 had been positioned. They must have cleared off by now.
Standing up was a bit of an effort after being cramped in the ditch. Bending down to pick up the rifle was even harder. A quick check revealed that the telescopic sight attached had survived being thrown to the ground and was not noticeably knocked out of alignment.
The jeep stank of leaked petrol. Unlike the big black cars in the Hollywood gangster films, it had not exploded into flames when the bullets had hit it. The suspension was well and truly buggered from the collision with the ditch, and the windscreen was shattered. Bill, the driver, was an ugly mess, to put it mildly. The first volley had included a bullet that hit him in the face. Had he not been wearing a helmet there would not have been much left of his skull. As it was, most of it had been held in place by the headgear, but there was no question that death would have been instantaneous. Lucky Bill. Luckier than the ones who lay screaming for a stretcher bearer. Poor old Bill by anyone else’s standards. He had been all too happy to provide a lift back to battalion HQ. He was on the way back himself from a mail run. This road was supposed to be an easy shortcut, removed from the fighting. How wrong can you be?
There was still the rucksack to retrieve from the back of the vehicle, where it had been slung just a few minutes ago, in a world where this jeep had been serviceable, and Bill had still been alive and well. Oh, and Bill’s personal effects. Better to grab them and get them back for processing rather than leave them for the human carrion who haunt battlefields. ID tags, wallet, some crumpled letters from his mum – not a lot, but it would matter to someone back home.
There was a fair walk ahead – an hour’s worth at least. Shame about the jeep.
The scenery failed to offer much to please the eyes along the way: barren hills covered in stunted trees and scrub poking up out of the rocks. These were the first proper hills encountered since south of Padua – what was the name of the place? Can’t remember. It doesn’t matter really. Someone had said this sort of landscape was called “Karst” - some sort of limestone. That’s right – it was Jacko. He had studied geography at Victoria, or so he said.
The road wound through the hills, running more or less parallel to a stream that had cut its way through them over the ages. Around the fifth bend there was a burnt-out Panther tank. Its gutted engine deck bore testimony to the effectiveness of direct hits from an airborne rocket attack. The remains of two scorched bodies lay beside the tank. The rest of the crew just might have made it clear, but more likely their charred remains were still inside the vehicle. It was hard to say whether the sickly smell of burnt flesh was coming solely from the corpses on the road or whether it might also be coming from inside. The ultimate indignity was that the Panther had been retreating along the road when it had been hit. The crew may not have even seen the plane coming.
The rear area bludgers loved sights like this – a nice big Panther tank, or even better, a Tiger tank. Something they could scrounge war trophies off and mail home, pretending they had single-handedly knocked the bugger out with a PIAT or, better still, with a couple of hand grenades. As if it weren’t bad enough already that they got better rations and had cushier lives than the men at the sharp end.
The officer in the jeep approaching thought he had nabbed himself a pilferer, judging by his expression as his driver pulled the vehicle up alongside the Panther. His once-over was a quick search for any visible evidence of looting. All it would have taken was a German helmet or a dagger… The bastard looked like he was only a couple of years out of some precious boys’ school – a replacement shipped out to Europe in the last few months, happy to catch the fag end of the fighting while there was still some glory to be had.
The salute was obligatory, but it was not merited.
“What are you doing out here corporal?”
“I’m returning to battalion HQ sir.”
“And why would you have left it in the first place?
Christ, we’ve got a right one here.
“I was out on a mission; to scout around, gather intelligence.”
“Yes, I work best that way.”
A show of the sniper’s rifle should help him understand how this particular loose peg fitted into things. He seemed to get the point.
“So what are you doing out here? HQ’s miles away!”
His driver sat there with a pained expression on his face. Poor bugger, having to put up with this one all day.
“Well, I did have a lift jacked up, but we ran into an ambush down the road from here.”
““We”? Who’s “we”?”
“Me and the driver – Bill. You’ll have the chance to inspect what’s left of him and his jeep if you keep going along this road a bit.”
The bug-eyed imp grimaced and, with an imperious wave of his skinny right arm, motioned to his driver to get going.
Had the bastard been really concerned, he could have offered a lift back to HQ to confirm things. That would have been meddling of a useful sort. Better than the long walk ahead, anyway.
* * *
It was not the silence that was hard to take. Rather it was the quiet ticking noise the I.V. unit produced, spilling over into the quiet, that was difficult to bear. No casual visitor to the room during visiting hours would have noticed it, but for the old man lying in the bed, and his son watching over him, that ticking was ever-present, breaking the strained tranquillity with a monotonous regularity, and providing an ongoing reminder of the relentless passage of time.
The old man opened his eyes, hesitant at facing the world, particularly this part of it. Even back when he had his health, he had hated hospitals, and being stuck in one, with nothing to look at day after day but the same boring white walls, filled him with dread. It would have been better to stay at the farm, yet the buggers had taken him away in an ambulance, trapped him in this artificial little box of a room, and spent all day every day treating him like a halfwit infant. The worst part of it was the total lack of control, even over something as simple as bladder muscles, which kept involuntarily dumping fluid into a specially-fitted plastic bag. It was the ultimate indignity before the greatest one of all.
Given the grinding familiarity of these surroundings, an inability to articulate much in the way of words due to the immense effort and concentration it required, and a level of weakness that ruled out much in the way of movement or touching and manipulating objects, the main sensorial factor that dominated was smell. The odour that held sway was corporeal – a sickly smell of sweat, excreta and halitosis that sponge baths and the occasional scented drop of mouthwash could not remove. Somewhere in the background, just to underline the rankness of the bodily odour, that disinfected, scrubbed hospital smell was breaking through, a reminder of what should be.
The son sat slumped in his chair, exhausted from the long hours spent watching his father groan and twitch, wondering if his own death would be this painful and drawn out, and hoping that somehow it would turn out differently. He managed to perk up a bit at signs the old fellow was coming out of his sleep.
“I’m here dad – can you hear me?”
A faint nod of the head showed that he could.
The old man had been surprised when his son had not only showed up at the hospital, but had stayed for the long haul. The lad had been living in the room practically non-stop for some days now, and it was getting to the point where he was in need of some care and attention himself. He was the only one who could be trusted now. The one to turn to when the nurses were too rough changing the sheets, or when they neglected to provide a morning shave, an omission keenly felt by a man who had always taken pride in his appearance.
The son looked at his watch. It was two in the morning, or at least close enough for the difference not to matter, unless you had been told you only had a few hours left. A passing nurse, having heard the son’s voice, stuck his head around the half-open door. He quietly padded over to the bed, checked the machine, took a pulse, and stood there akimbo, gazing sympathetically at the old man.
His first words were directed at the son: “He’s a tough old bird. He’s grimacing, trying to hold back the pain.”
Then he touched the old man’s brow and leaned over to talk too him: “You’re in a lot of pain, aren’t you? I know you think you don’t need the medication, but I’m going to give you a bit anyway – I know what you’re going through.”
The old man wasn’t up to talking, but he did manage an expression that clearly indicated he thought this last statement was bullshit.
The son smiled, and then watched expressionless as the nurse administered an injection.
The old man hated the drugs. They had a way of befuddling him. Although the drugs lessened the pain, they took away the ability to string coherent thoughts together. Loss of that level of control was worse than loss of mastery of the body’s functions.
The light was another irritation. Neon lights caused headaches and hurt the eyes. Strenuous motions had to be made to convince the idiot nurses to turn them off whenever they had finished whatever it was they had to do with all the blinding illumination shining.
The son was getting better at understanding what the old man wanted, but at other times he totally failed to grasp the intent behind the grunts and febrile motions.
All things considered, the situation was not a good one to be in.
The old man was in his seventies – not that old, but old enough to mean his condition was a serious threat to his immediate future on this earth. He was at that age when death was not considered an unnatural option, and was often assumed by those with a conventional outlook to constitute not only a normal event but a blessed relief. In the drab, utilitarian world of such androids, there could be no place for such unproductive units: children were only tolerated for their future potential. The elderly, having fulfilled theirs, and outlasted society’s welcome, had nothing further to do but shuffle off. The old man had been increasingly aware of such pettiness since the time he reached his forties, and noticed it tended to come from those of society’s members who had not reached a certain age. He blamed his son’s generation for such stupid attitudes: the generation that had grown up thinking anyone over the age of twenty-five was the enemy, and who had then proceeded to increase that age limit further and further as they themselves advanced into middle age. In good health, he could fight such prejudice. Now he was at its mercy.
There was a nagging anxiety pointing to the conclusion that this time there was no way out. Death was winning, and it would leave him with nothing more than a dry husk of a body, motionless in an ill-fitting gown he had never wanted, poorly concealed by the single sheet covering him on this hot summer night. Embedded within, tucked away between the confusion and suffering, lay the fear that the medical staff expected him to die, and were not doing all they could do. With all the budget cuts, union disputes, and bed shortages, it was far easier for them to let some old codger slip away than some cute little kid in the children’s ward downstairs. And his son, and the visiting relatives who had never given a tinker’s cuss about him before, were just blindly accepting what the so-called experts said, swallowing it whole, or were possibly glad that the old bugger was finally going to be gone.
* * *
For most men on the battlefield, the darkness of night provides a time in which to rest. Poor visibility means both sides are disinclined to mount major operations, and unless a big push is on, a fragile unspoken truce of sorts is called so everyone can get some sleep. For a sniper, night time has an altogether different meaning. It is when sorties are made out from the front line so a concealed position in a commanding location can be occupied unobserved. It has to be somewhere clever, somewhere not too obvious; and a place you can scarper from with a good chance of getting out alive if someone spots your fire and calls in a mortar barrage to deal with you.
Fortunately, that was last night, and the farmhouse kitchen provided an altogether more relaxing place in which to pass the evening. Being far removed from the front line, there was no immediate threat of enemy action. Nevertheless, sleeping in an unguarded building surrounded by open terrain stretching for hundreds yards on all sides did not feel safe. Nor did the fact that the building constituted a makeshift billet for a whole company of men provide a sense of security. Regular soldiers are pawns, to be moved around and eliminated at the whim of high, middle and lower command echelons. Being in the company of expendable pawns does not provide a feeling of safety.
It was not that the lodgings themselves were particularly bad. A kip on a bed of straw in a kitchen that not only had four walls and a roof, but also intact windows and shutters and doors, could be considered a luxury compared to a slit trench. It said a lot for how long the latter had been a regular resting place that the former now felt uncomfortable. This place even had electric lighting, although the power lines were down for the time being.
In addition to being a time when men of a nervous disposition lie awake worrying about things that simply were not logical, the night time provides an opportunity for introspection. You can read old letters and write new ones, take in a couple of pages from some dog-eared paperback, wash your socks and clean your rifle or, if you are feeling morbid, think about mates who are no longer around.
That constituted a dangerous path to go down. One that gives rise to doubts and fears, not to mention endless questions that would drive you nuts if you let them. Questions like “Why him and not me?” “What the Hell am I doing here?” “What’s it all for?” and “Where’s it all going to end?” Of them, “Why am I here?” is the most difficult one to answer. Oh, there is the pro forma response; a mixture of big bad Hitler, the crusade to fight tyranny, and Queen and country, yet these are superficial considerations. There has to be more to it than that; this collective madness that sends generations of men off to be slaughtered every few decades, with the only respite being periods of non-peace punctuated by small wars being fought almost constantly somewhere on the globe.
“Where am I?” is an easier question to answer. All you have to do is assemble a picture in your head of what the room would look like seen from above with the roof taken off, looking down at a grubby little foot slogger lying on a straw mattress with his rifle and kit alongside him, and then slowly climb upwards and upwards until your view enables you to take in the farmhouse, with all the khaki drab vehicles parked outside – trucks, universal carriers, and scout cars. Further up, you can see nearby terrain and the units hiding in it, the town of Montfalcone and, climbing higher, the northernmost edge of the Adriatic Sea. Beyond that there is all of Central Europe to view, from Venice through to the Tyrolean Mountains, even Bavaria, the sheltering place for the last remnants of Hitler’s Reich.
Which raised the next question: “Where are we going?” The immediate answer is Trieste, the last major Italian city still held by the Germans. Beyond which, Italy peters out and turns into Yugoslavia: the end of the road; nominally friendly territory where the locals have been fighting the Nazis for most of the war and are now driving them out.
With the urge to sleep becoming greater, focussing thoughts becomes more difficult and no more than superficial thought is possible. There was a time when the temptation would have been to try and keep going, back in peacetime, when the freshness of youth had held sway and it was possible to pack as much into life as you wanted. You lose that after a while at the front. Fatigue and fear slow you down, in spite of the fleeting periods of absolute terror when frenzied activity could be managed in short bursts for the sake of self-preservation. You learn to save your strength as much as possible, and sleep as much as possible. Tiredness is a potential killer, leading to misjudgements, miscalculations and mistakes, resulting in the death of mates, or even your own death. It was always better to try and sleep whenever the occasion presented itself, particularly given that the army had a mania for early morning wake-ups.
* * *
The old man gasped for breath, his throat rasping.
The son was alert in an instant: “Nurse!”
She came fairly quickly. Sometimes she failed to come at all, but this was not one of those occasions. Having switched the light on to get a better look, she reached for the suction tube beside the bed.
“I’m just going to suck the phlegm out!”
She spoke in that loud, deliberate voice nurses reserve for the elderly that makes you think they are addressing an idiot who is hard of hearing, or a three year-old who has not yet mastered basic English. She need not have bothered with the act. In spite of his state, the old fellow had no trouble understanding, and in spite of all his other problems, his hearing was intact.
For all that, he resisted, calling out to his son like a little child, lost in the middle of the night.
“It’s alright dad – she knows what she’s doing. She just wants to clear your throat.”
Only when his son was standing by the bed, holding his hand, did the old man let the nurse stick the plastic tube down his throat.
The green-brown slime it sucked out was not an appealing sight. Both nurse and son independently wondered why such tubes were transparent.
The old man would have thrown up under normal circumstances. Such was his state of debilitation that even that much effort was impossible. He just lay there, flinching as the tube was moved methodically around the inside of his throat, clearing most of the congealed muck that was threatening his breathing.
“It’s from being on the drip feed,” the nurse explained in a normal voice as an aside. “He’s not getting any lubrication in his throat the way he would if he was drinking and eating normally.”
Then she went back to speaking in her voice for the elderly: “Would you like me to wash out your mouth with mouthwash?”
The old man offered no response, so she left the mouthwash alone.
“I’m just going to give you a mouthful of water. You need something to moisten your throat a bit.”
He gulped some of the contents of the tiny disposable plastic cup. When the liquid hit his throat, it made his face contort. It felt like acid lubricating two sheets of sandpaper. He would have cried out from the pain except he was too weak for exclamations. Instead he sank back into his pillow and stared at the ceiling.
* * *
Bright sunshine, diesel fumes and vulnerability. Riding in trucks always creates a feeling of vulnerability; the expectation that just around the bend there is a German lying in wait with a Panzerfaust or a hand grenade, in which case you would just have to sit there and take the hit. In spite of the extra effort it entails, walking is safer than a truck: you can always run for cover if any shooting starts, while jumping from a moving vehicle is not such an easy proposition.
For the time being there is no sign of any Germans. The main force seems to have withdrawn all the way back down the coast, perhaps even as far as Trieste. No great prescience is required for this observation. What with the Yugoslavs holding all the territory inland, and the vanguard of the 2nd New Zealand Division heading southwards from Montfalcone, they had nowhere else to go.
“What’s that on your rifle?”
The private looks young. Not even twenty. Definitely one of the replacements. You can tell just by looking at him, even if you ignore his age for a moment or two. He has the movements of someone who has never been in a firefight – frivolous, flighty movements – and his eyes are not sunken and cold.
“It’s a telescopic sight.”
“I know that! I meant what’s that on the butt?”
He points at the little diamonds that had been cut into it, forming a pattern reminiscent of a Maori carving.
The reply is slow in coming. It might never have come, except that now others are staring too. They are all strangers. This truck was chosen because it was transporting members of the advance guard, not because it belonged to a familiar unit. Some of the men on board look pretty green, but then again there are others who look like they have been through Libya and Tunisia. They at least deserve an honest answer to the novice’s question.
The rifle is held up for all to see.
“Each diamond is a confirmed kill – it’s my way of remembering.”
A hard-nosed corporal cuts in: “If those were all planes you’d be a bloody fighter ace by now!”
His sergeant chuckles. “The Red Baron!”
Edgy silence ensues. No one else knows what to say. It is a hard act to follow. Given that, various of them prefer to remain silent, while doubtless there are also one or two quietly wondering what sort of nutter had been allowed on board their truck.
They take to watching the passing landscape, and the fleeting views of the Gulf of Panzano that the road affords as the column of tanks and trucks steadily moves south.
A German military road sign announces Sistiana’s proximity. With the sudden sound of automatic weapons fire echoing across the road, there is little time to register the new name.
When you are in a truck in a convoy under fire, the standard drill is to wait for the driver to slam the brakes on and come to a halt so that everyone can debus. This is done with the drilled precision that might be expected of men who have been in such situations before. No one pushes or shoves the way civilians would in that predicament. Every man knew that a fixed procedure had to be followed: those at the back of the truck, near the tailgate, get to dismount first. They also run the risk of attracting fire the first, yet in this instance no immediate threat presented itself. The machine gun fire had been aimed at the front of the column, a few dozen yards up ahead.
There is not much that can be seen from behind the stone wall chosen as shelter. What can be worked out, if only from the level of noise, is that the Sherman tanks at the head of the column are giving a relatively small number of Germans a heavy pounding. Regardless of the fact that there seems to be no immediate danger, everyone stays firmly ensconced behind the wall. There is no point in taking any chances.
After several minutes, the all-clear signal is given and everyone piles back into their trucks.
On the way into Sistiana, the column passes a small group of German prisoners, evidently the source of all the trouble. Their guards are a couple of bored New Zealanders. There had been a time when capturing Germans was a big deal. That was before they had been pushed all the way back up Italy. As the war progressed, and their chances of ever winning it grew slimmer, more and more of the master race found themselves dropping their weapons, raising their hands and being marched into captivity, their earlier dogged defence and fighting spirit having given way to a certain pragmatism and a survival instinct that transcended Nazi philosophy.
Their demeanour as prisoners changed too. Before El Alamein, capture had been regarded by the Germans as an annoying inconvenience; one that would not last long given that soon they would be rulers of the world. Now their attitude is a mix of relief and gratitude. Back south in Italy, it was relief at being given the opportunity to surrender to regular troops in ostensibly British uniforms, and gratitude for not being shot out of hand, an emotion particularly prevalent among members of the SS. Italian partisans were not noted for their clemency when it came to German prisoners – a matter of avenging their hurt national pride over entering the war on the wrong side and having ended up subjugated to an occupying German army. Around these parts, surrendering is more complicated: the partisans are not just Italian, but Yugoslav too. It was said that the Yugoslav partisans possessed even shorter tempers than their Italian counterparts, and that they were not above treating the latter like enemies in certain situations. Another symptom of nationalism, that European disease.
The sound of approaching aircraft prompts everyone in the truck to momentarily huddle down, until the planes are recognised as being friendly. They fly overhead without a shot being fired, roaring southwards at treetop level: Typhoons, fitted out for tank busting, with flash Harry pilots who pride themselves on how low they could fly. Some poor bastards were soon to find out how good their aim was. Air superiority is a lovely thing, provided your side has it. The worst part of the fighting had been in Egypt, running back to Cairo and getting strafed by German aircraft. There is nowhere to hide in a desert. The sight of grown men who should have known better trying to shelter under the imaginary cover afforded by stunted little bushes and small rocks is not something you tend to forget. With the Luftwaffe practically destroyed, there was not much sympathy for the Germans now they were getting the worst of the air strikes. They had been using air power for so long, and to such horrifying effect across Europe and into Russia, that being on the receiving end would have come as a deserved shock to them.
That disbelief is frequently visible on the faces of the fanatics among them who surrender. They are always a minority, but there are usually a few of them. Real Nazis, as opposed to the people who had following the crowd and supported Hitler in the thirties because it was the accepted, safe thing to do. The fanatics had the hardest job accepting their fate. They had been told for so many years that they were the master race, and here they were, surrendering to a motley bunch of Kiwis who, but for them, would have been half a world away, living out their lives in mundane everyday professions.
The road reaches the Adriatic coast and hugs it, passing through the occasional tunnel, and following its length beneath high hills and steep cliffs. A few hundred yards out to sea, lying sideways, a German torpedo boat is burning, basking in a black slick of oil.
There is a general feeling of apprehension as the convoy approaches Trieste. Being a large city, there are suburbs to pass through before the city proper is reached: a good place for another ambush and, sure enough, the Germans avail themselves of it.
The ritual of debussing from the trucks is performed in the middle of an otherwise deserted street flanked by grey buildings. Nervous civilians peer out of windows and shutters from one building, a nondescript block of apartments that looks like it was thrown up just before the war, judging from its Spartan fascist architecture.
As was the case before, the Germans only have sufficient line of sight to hit the front of the convoy. With the buildings lining the street to provide shelter from any possible shellfire, this time the occupants of the trucks simply crouch in their shadow, awaiting any further orders. This new ambush is bigger than the previous one. The sound of heavy German guns mixes in with their machine gun fire. Possibly eighty-eights, but there is no way of being sure. The sheltering buildings distort the noise, trapping it and bouncing it back and forth off their walls. A still louder roar from above overshadows the ground fire. The Typhoons again. Only a glimpse is caught of them this time as they pass over the street, speeding towards an unseen target.
* * *
It was that time of year when the sun bakes the hills hard and turns the lush green spring growth into living straw. The sound of the cicadas offered a reminder of Italy. So too did the heavy North Canterbury heat. Here though there was no smell of rotting corpses left to decompose until the fighting moved on.
Under the windbreak – a row of pines – it was cooler. The trees offered a limited zone where the temperature was bearable. Sheep were never grazed here, so there were no droppings to avoid when sitting on the bare soil. It was a place to come to when thought and contemplation were required, a corner of the farm away from the homestead, where there was always administrative and other work to attend to, and away from the paddocks, where the real work was done. The windbreak also offered an inner sanctum, being removed from the rest of the farm, the main road beyond it and, consequently, from any outside intrusion in the form of visitors. And on the off chance someone did turn up who was worth clambering down the hill to chat to, from up here it was easy enough to spot their car coming up the long drive. On the other hand, if it was an unwelcome neighbour, or someone trying to sell something, there was little chance of the caller noticing a miniscule figure in the far distance sheltering under the pine trees.
The coolness of the shade here had a relaxing effect, as did the panorama offered. It was a spot that provided a grand view, looking out over miles of rolling fields, with brown hills in the distance, and the Pacific Ocean just managing to peep through the broken hill line. On a slightly cooler sort of day, there was good swimming to be had out that way, and sea food for the picking too. In the mid-afternoon February heat though, it was better to keep to the shade than venture down to the stony beach.
Still, all things are relative. North Canterbury could be considered quite mild compared to the Libyan Desert, with its lazy flies that just sat and laughed at you when you tried to wave them off. And here you could sit down without having to look for scorpions or snakes first. But the worst of it had been the sand. Crotch itch took on a whole new meaning when you had to march in those conditions. The sand got into everything – your kit, your clothes, your eyes, and worst, under your foreskin, if you had the misfortune to have one. Many of the troops swore that if they somehow survived, got married and had kids, circumcision would be the order of the day. It was a silly position to take - mutilating a newborn boy on the off chance the lad might have to fight some future war somewhere in the Middle East. Funny though, how it was assumed that every returned servicemen held that opinion. The doctor had been really surprised when he had asked, down there at the farmhouse not so many years ago, and the reply given was an emphatic NO! He probably thought the wife had something to do with the refusal, but it wasn’t so.
Having kept his foreskin did not appear to have resulted in any long-term ill effects on the boy. His childhood had been a happy one overall, apart from being packed off to boarding school in Christchurch. He had hated it, but there was no other option. Christ’s College offered him more in the way of long-term opportunities than anything around Cheviot way could. And come the school holidays, he had had time enough to hang around the farm and help out if he wanted to. Too many other farming fathers tended to use their sons as unpaid farmhands, in spite of the fact most of them could afford to hire another man or two. Some of those boys must grow up resenting it. On this farm at least there had been no coercion.
Just as it would have seemed odd for the lad, coming back from school in Christchurch for the holidays out on the farm, Cheviot felt like a much smaller place than it had before the war. The war of course had everything to do with that changed impression. In spite of all the ghastliness, it had in effect amounted to a four-year tour of the Mediterranean basin, from the Albanian frontier, back through Greece, Crete, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Italy, all the way up to Yugoslavia. And all the sights along the way – the Acropolis, the Pyramids, the ruins of ancient Carthage, Rome, Florence, and Venice… History seeped out of the ground in that part of the world. The immensity and sheer span of it all really hit you if you came from a small rural town that was no more than a recent agglomeration of little wooden buildings in a convenient spot, with streets that were usually empty, unlike even the smallest Italian village, where there were people out and about, street vendors, beggars and the like. This was another dimension you didn’t notice was absent until you came back from this other world.
That something felt like it was missing after the war was more than just a matter of the lack of foot traffic in quiet Cheviot. After seeing all those places, and experiencing all the emotions and perils, returning to North Canterbury induced a feeling of loss, combined with that thud the body makes when it returns to earth. Before the war there had been this impression that things worked a certain way (for better or worse) and that there were set paths to follow. That had all been blown apart in service, ironically given the regimentation that being in the army was supposed to impose on you from the day you enlisted. All the square-bashing, rules and inspections were a façade; an attempt at imposing order on chaos. Once the bullets and shrapnel started flying, rules and regulations became irrelevant, and although the firing had now stopped, the impression that anything goes in the crazy human world had remained. People seldom talked about that sort of thing down at the RSA Hall. There, known quantities and commonplaces were the order of the day. The conversation was normally of a more jovial, superficial nature, the sort that avoided real emotion. You reserved that for when you crossed paths with men from your own company or battalion. To some extent, the other returned servicemen were outsiders. Particularly the rear echelon wallahs and the ones who had served in the navy, the air force, or in the Pacific. They had experienced a different sort of war altogether. The RSA Hall was a place best avoided during most of the year. There were too many memories already, and too much to adjust to, without dredging up the past every week in that strange little environment.
The absence of people or other distractions in this pozzy encouraged the mind to wander. It was here that the first truly subversive thoughts about the war had surfaced. They came years after the return home, at which point the passage of time had built up sufficient distance from the events involved for some true insight to be gained. The starter was the realisation that those who had come back from that war were like cattle which had somehow escaped the slaughterhouse. Just like cattle, they had been raised and prepared for slaughter, each of them growing up in an environment, the British Empire, where duty to King and country in the form of facing death on foreign battlefields was held up as a noble destiny for young men.
There was no shortage of role models from the previous big war. Every family had at least one. There was uncle Alfred, for example, who had died fighting the Turks, hit by a bullet in the head a few weeks after having been promoted to captain in the Wellington Mounted Rifles. He was one of the luckier ones, having survived Gallipoli, except that his allotted time did not extend beyond a couple more years after that evacuation, and reached its end in some now-forgotten village in Palestine.
There had been a photograph of him in the sitting room of the house that had been home during childhood days. It showed uncle Alfred sitting on his horse, comfortably posed on his mount, with a lemon-squeezer hat on his head, and a barren desert backdrop. It had been taken by one of his comrades in Egypt, shortly before the invasion of Palestine by the Imperial forces. Uncle Alfred’s face beamed confidently. He was a young man at the peak of his physical powers, looking the future boldly in the face, come what may. His photo was nailed up to the sitting room wall as an example for the offspring, and a reminder to any visitors that this family too had paid the price in the greatest of the Empire’s many wars.
There was no hesitation about what was the right response to make when the second big war came along. You just had to enlist. Hitler was a bloody madman. He had to be stopped, and it wasn’t going to happen if everyone stayed home and hoped he was going to go away. This was the crux of the matter: so many things were done in that war because of the conviction that it was a just fight, and the belief that we were on the right side, struggling against evil and barbarity. A sentiment not at all greatly removed from the tin-pot patriotism floating around in 1914 concerning the need to knock the dirty Hun for a six or it would be the end of civilization as we knew it, except that there were no death camps in that war. The war to end all wars, and yet the shaky peace that followed lasted just twenty-one years – less if you think that the conflagration did not start with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, but years before, with the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, or the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.
And the Germans were even more brainwashed than we were, what with all the rubbish the Nazis filled their heads with about how they were the master race, out to purge the world of its scum. Yet their smug superiority was not all that different from the arrogance of the British Army officers who conquered an empire off what they saw as a bunch of savage darkies and heathens. British soldiers had conquered and supposedly civilised most of the world in the name of imperial power and commercial expansion with an attitude that was hard to distinguish from Nazi Aryanism.
So when it came to another big war in Europe, the groundwork had been laid, the herd mentality was there, and the processing structures were in place. We were just the latest in generations of young men sent off to fight. Oh, it was the good fight and all that, but we were no saints. Our ostensible allies, the Soviets, were of dubious moral virtue, given their invasion of Poland and the Baltic States, and their failed invasion of Finland, not to mention what they did to Eastern Europe after the war. Nor were we beyond reproach: our forces shot prisoners out of hand, and on occasion looted and pillaged. And on a larger scale there were matters like the bombing of Dresden, a non-military target burnt to the ground, not for any strategic reasons, but because the Germans had it coming to them.
Up on the hill, sheltering under the windbreak, was the only place where such dark thoughts could be entertained, away from the pressures and prejudices of ageing peers, too set in their ways to see things from a different perspective, and too ready to assume anyone with a differing viewpoint was some sort of Communist. They were thoughts best left unspoken in a small community where gossip is quick to spread and labels stick and hold fast for years on end.
* * *
The girl pushing the huge food trolley stopped at the door to read the card attached to it.
“Still no food for you.”
She was unaware of the fact that the old man lying in the bed was a terminal case who would never eat solids again.
She tensed up her muscles and gave the trolley a concerted push to get it moving, leaving a trail of cooking smells behind her – a mix of steak, potatoes, gravy and vegetables. The sort of odour that lingers to taunt you when a drip feed is the only form of sustenance.
The lingering smell of the evening meal that was never received could not be helped. It hung there as a reminder of what had already been lost, and the greater loss to come.
The stupid relatives would end up saying that it was a blessed release, that it was best all the suffering was coming to an end. If it were them in the bed waiting to die, they would have an altogether different perspective. Every minute more, every experience, every smell, was a little victory over an uncaring universe that ultimately only offered death.
* * *
“Back in the bloody trucks! Come on! Move it!”
The sergeant looks weary in spite of his urging. He is no keener to get shot taking Trieste than any other man in the convoy.
More streets. Another straggling Indian file of German prisoners being led away down a side street, away from the traffic. No sign of any civilians, just buildings flashing past, and a road sign: “Viale Miramare”. Then the railway yards: row upon row of parallel tracks running up to their terminus; Trieste railway station, a large building that would have been a good strongpoint given its location and its solidity. There is no one there though – just empty goods trucks and dark red passenger carriages, stranded, waiting for better days to arrive. On past a piazza with trees and a bit of a park. This is Trieste proper – no more squalid industrial architecture, fascist concrete blocks or warehouses here.
The trucks turn into what has to be one of the city’s main boulevards – a broad tree-lined avenue several lanes wide, complete with tram tracks and overhead wires. Another quick turn is followed by the sound of brakes being applied as the convoy pulls up in a small square flanked by grandiose structures complete with Roman-style pillars. A couple of Sherman tanks are already parked here, guns pointing up a street straight ahead, with their crews at their positions, waiting something to happen.
“Come on! MOVE IT!!” The sergeant struts around as a matter of form more than anything else. His charges are more than happy to dismount from the moving targets they have been sitting in, relieved at having managed to get this far into the city without being either sniped at or machine gunned.
“Line up behind the tanks, and keep your bloody heads down!”
The two Shermans begin moving slowly up the street, leading their infantry support out of the square, with their guns trained directly ahead. Both tank commanders stand high out of their turrets, trying to spot any snipers that might be in upper storey windows. The infantry trail behind their vanguard, heads down and ready for trouble.
There is no opposition. The road ends in another square, at which point the tanks rumble to a halt and the commanders duck back inside their respective turrets.
Straight ahead, completely dominating the square, stands a solid, palatial building with all the majesty and self-importance of some sort of courthouse. An officer steps out of a deserted shop on the corner opposite and runs over to the men behind the tanks. Orders are quickly issued. The company is split up, each half peeling off to one side so they can force their way into street level doors and windows, eyes all the while trained on the courthouse. Germans are clearly visible in various of its windows. For whatever reason (confidence in the impregnability of their positions? the knowledge they were about to surrender?) they are making no attempt to conceal themselves.
* * *
Annie’s death had been hard to take. With the lad away at varsity, and the shearing season a few months off, the farm was far too quiet all of a sudden.
For the first time, suicide began seeming like a valid option. Annie had been the source of so much joy and light in a life darkened prematurely by those years in the army. The fact that she would not have understood even had she been told about what the war was really like somehow took any pressure off to do so. Not that Annie was stupid by any means; rather she was too fundamentally good to understand all the ugliness in human nature, and the effects it wrought when left unchecked.
She had a way of cutting through moroseness with a smile or a gesture, and a practical sensibility that made her a joy to live with. Which is not to say there were no arguments, yet they were comparative rarities compared to what other couples come to expect.
The worst part of it was all the reminders of her presence scattered around the home: the calendar pictures she had carefully cut out, framed and hung up in every room of the house, including the toilet. Scenes from London, Australian outback landscapes, Mount Fujiyama, even Mount Egmont with sheep grazing in the foreground, an image rendered vaguely exotic by the fact it was from the North Island. The pictures were her way of breaking down the feeling of isolation that living on the farm created. The only one that had to come down was a photo of that fairytale castle in Bavaria.
“I know it sounds stupid, it’s just that it brings back memories.”
“How though? You were never in Bavaria – you never got north of Italy.”
“It’s the fact it’s German: it grates.”
She had not pressed the issue. Her surprise had been genuine, without any hint of reproach, and her questioning was motivated by puzzlement and a straightforward determination to try and fathom what she saw as an outlandish response, rather than being driven by a need to contradict for the mere sake of doing so. Other wives would have persisted, trying to poke holes in such irrational male reasoning with lines like “Well, you didn’t say anything about the picture of Mount Fujiyama, and the Japanese were just as at war with us as the Germans were!” Annie just wasn’t like that.
The picture had quietly been taken off the living room wall and ended up in the rubbish bin. The frame was kept. It was later used for a glorious photo of the Taj Mahal, its white stone contrasting sharply with the pink sunset behind it.
What a change from the battle lines so many others drew across the centre of their home lives! Evidence of such behaviour was all too easy to see when visiting friends and neighbours. She would make some comment. He would sit there grimacing, but say nothing rather than go through the unpleasantness entailed in challenging her and having a full-scale argument about something he felt should not be aired in front of visitors anyway. And so on.
The final verdict according to the police was that bad road conditions had killed Annie. She had been driving back from Christchurch after visiting her aunt, and had come off the road near Motunau. It was raining heavily at the time. She must have driven along that stretch of road on countless occasions, and the bend she had lost control on was nothing particularly abrupt, but it did have a short but sharp drop to contend with if you had the misfortune to lose control on it.
“Instantaneous” was the word used to describe her passing. It was offered as a form of consolement. Doug, the local copper, had meant well, but he could have no idea just how significant that “instant” was, and just how greatly its loss was felt.
* * *
This particular nurse was perceptive enough to leave the room’s main lights off at night. The light reflecting off his white jacket came from a small overhead strip light behind the bed. A regular on the midnight to morning shift, he was the only male nurse on the ward, and had by now become a familiar face.
“You’re going to have some more medication. It’s no good lying there grimacing all night – you need your sleep.”
It was true enough. The old man had been grimacing. He offered no resistance to the oral administration of two tablets, even though swallowing them was a major effort.
“Yeah, that throat’s still dry, isn’t it? Have another sip of water.”
The old man’s face contorted at the effort required to swallow it. Some of it dribbled from the corner of his mouth. It was quickly wiped up.
The nurse turned to the son, barely awake by this time of the morning.
“I’ll recommend that any further medication be done sub-cutaneously. His throat is just too dry now. It’s normal when you’ve been on the IV for a few days. It’ll cause him less pain to get his medicine intravenously. The other good thing is that it allows the medication to be administered at a steadier rate.”
The son just nodded, too tired to manage real conversation. Realising this, the nurse quietly withdrew from the room. The old man’s groaning had woken the son from his fitful sleep in the hospital armchair. He had a single blanket draped over him, there more for psychological reasons than for any functional purpose it might have performed. The pillow however was essential – squeezed between the top of the back of the chair and the white wall, it provided a head rest of sorts.
“Try and get some sleep dad. Don’t worry – I’m here if you need anything.”
The son got up to close the door. The nurse had left it open.
* * *
C Company, 22nd Battalion, was moving out, having had their orders to maintain a watch around the law courts countermanded. While his sergeant ran around barking out commands, a full major quietly oversaw the proceedings.
A troop of Sherman tanks led the way for the trucks up the boulevard. Once they were under way, the major hopped into an awaiting scout car and followed behind them. To the uninitiated it might have seemed cowardly, yet there was little point in leading from the front if the column drove into an ambush.
Rumour was that the tanks and infantry were heading for the fort overlooking the city that could be seen from near the law courts. Apparently there was a German garrison up there that wanted to surrender, unlike their comrades at the courts, who still showed no sign either of giving up or opening fire.
By now, just a couple of hours after reaching Trieste, the 2nd NZ Division already had a sizeable presence building up there. Trucks laden with infantry and supplies, tanks, armoured cars, universal carriers, scout cars and jeeps were steadily arriving. They were given directions at a main intersection as they streamed into the city. Most were directed down to the waterfront, where the town square was.
The streets leading to the town square were quiet once you got a couple of blocks away from the boulevard. Regardless of the spring warmth and sunshine prevalent elsewhere, these streets were dark and shady. It was an unnerving walk; one where it felt more comfortable to carry the rifle at the ready rather than slung. Overhead were long rows of shuttered windows, floor upon floor of them, all firmly closed. To make things worse, each of the residential buildings that lined the streets had individual balconies on their second floor: perfect firing platforms that commanded the whole street. Setting up a machine gun on one of those would have been simplicity itself, had any Germans decided this particular neighbourhood was worth fighting over. It didn’t look that way, however there was still the possibility some diehard Italian Fascist might take a pot-shot from a window.
After a few blocks, the dark, narrow streets gave way to a canal, flanked on the opposite bank by a square, the whole ensemble shining in the mid-afternoon sun. The canal was not a real one, being more of a haven for small boats and a place for women to do their washing than a location for gondoliers to ply their trade. It stopped not far away from a grey box-shaped structure with a dome and classical-style pillars, looking something like a miniature Pantheon. The canal ran straight from this terminus for a distance of several hundred metres, out into the Adriatic Sea. The buildings along it were better-maintained and more ornate than those passed earlier on. Rent and real estate prices would be a bit higher here, what with the view and all.
There were civilians to be seen here. Not many, but people were out and about nonetheless. Various of them turned to stop and stare at the man in khaki battledress and canvas webbing, noting the distinctive British-pattern helmet and his rifle, at the ready. No one cheered or offered wine or flowers. They kept their emotions guarded, as if they thought the tide might still turn.
Following the canal down to the waterfront seemed the easiest option: NZ Division vehicles were already down there, driving past at regular intervals. They offered the prospect of safety in numbers.
A truckload of infantry waved as they passed over the bridge at the seaward end of the canal. Usually it was the civilians who did the waving on these occasions, not the liberators. The promenade along the waterfront was reassuringly packed with NZ forces. Shermans were parked in rows along both the seaward and town side of the promenade. Their crews were taking it easy for the time being, having climbed down out of their vehicles to stretch their legs and have a smoke. Substantial numbers of civilians were strolling around, taking the opportunity to have a close-up look at these exotic new arrivals. Their very first Allied tanks. They stood around admiring the impressive bulk of the machines, speculating among themselves as to the uses for all the odds and ends fastened here and there, around and on top of the vehicles. Tank crews were fortunate in being able to carry all their gear with them – food, cooking equipment, blankets, wine – it all got stowed somewhere either in or on their mounts. Then again, they seldom felt as invulnerable as civilians assumed they were. A high-velocity German 75 mm or 88 mm could make short work of any Sherman, regardless of how many track links were fitted to the front of the vehicle for added armour protection.
The by now familiar questions were being asked:
“Signore, siete inglesi?”
“Non, siamo neozelandesi!”
This reply was quite often met with blank incomprehension. At one point there had been a light-hearted suggestion doing the rounds that all troops should be issued with a pocket-sized map of the world so that ignorant Italians could be taught how to find New Zealand on it.
Not all the civilians happened to be Italians. There was no way of telling by looking at them, but their conversation was a giveaway. Their words were clearly not Italian – possibly Slovenian or Croatian. Any Dallies in the Kiwi ranks would be much in demand just now.
The port, neglected for the time being, was empty. There were no freighters berthed alongside the various moles jutting out from the waterfront every hundred yards or so. The Adriatic’s waters were a calm blue, undisturbed by surface breaks or swells. The coastline, tapering off northward to the horizon, behind which lay Montfalcone, stood as a visible reminder of just how much ground had been covered in the last couple of days.
The town square ran off the promenade, forming a huge rectangular incursion into the line of buildings that stood opposite the waterfront. Although slightly grimy, the structures facing onto the square were among Trieste’s most impressive, with ornate cornices, balconies, a profusion of pillared and arched windows, and baroque flourishes creating an effect of power and opulence.
Yugoslav soldiers were mingling with the crowd. Their khaki clothing and forage caps were a different cut from what the New Zealanders wore, and various of them were clad in a mix of civilian clothing – black pants with a khaki tunic for instance - or were dressed completely in mufti, with the exception of their equipment and webbing. Their other distinguishing feature was their weaponry, a combination of captured German and Italian arms. Beretta submachine guns seemed to be a favourite – the ones with the long ammunition clips, for more sustained fire. The Yugoslavs had a rag-tag look that would have sent the square-bashing sergeants back in Trentham and Burnham into a fit. It was a sign of their origins as a clandestine partisan force. With the Yugoslavs scattered among the crowd, it was hard to tell how many of them were there exactly – possibly a company’s worth.
The fraternal mood abruptly changed when the sound of rifle and machinegun fire began echoing down the hill from the fortress. All eyes turned. Some locals, imagining they had seen something, pointed at where they thought the shooting was coming from. There was no immediate threat. The fire was not aimed at the square. For all that, a good many people either ducked or ran for cover, unwilling to be caught out in the open if there was to be a shooting match.
The Yugoslavs, like the Kiwis, stood their ground. They had both been in enough firefights to know when there was a real need to seek shelter. Wary glances and stares were exchanged as they wondered who was doing the shooting, and what the target might be.
* * *
“NO WAR! NO WAR! NO WAR! NO WAR! NO WAR! NO WAR! NO WAR! NO WAR! NO WAR! NO WAR! NO WAR! NO WAR!”
“Bloody commos! And if any of them try and get near this flag they’d better bloody watch out!”
The voice of the old soldier carrying the regimental colours was a mixture of belligerence and outrage. Twenty-three years of participation in ANZAC Day parades without a hitch, and now this: A bunch of long-haired stirrers waving placards with peace signs and slogans protesting against the war in Indochina. Faces too young to have known any war. Some of them would even be too young to have known National Service. Yet there they were, held back by a row of policemen, jumping up and down, gesticulating and making a nuisance of themselves. And just what Vietnam had to do with remembering the dead from the two World Wars was anybody’s guess. For them it was just a good chance to get their faces on the evening news and in the papers.
The standard-bearer was outraged at their presumptuousness, the imposition their presence entailed, and their hijacking of a sacred day in the name of dirty politics. They had no right, no claim even, that could justify such an intrusion.
The retired officer whose task it was to say a few words in front of the cenotaph did not waver as he solemnly spoke about the deaths of so many youths on foreign fields. His voice echoed around Cathedral Square over the PA system installed for the occasion, bouncing off stone and concrete walls, producing a slightly staccato delay.
As all eyes were turned to him, the two agitators who somehow managed to break through the police cordon were not spotted at first. They ran directly towards the cenotaph, carrying a large wreath of their own between them. The sight of them approaching was too much for the standard-bearer.
“You little BASTARDS!”
He dropped his flag and took a swing at one of them. His fist landed on the young man’s shoulder rather than connecting with his face, and did little to slow him. Then the speaker leapt into the fray, grabbing the other youth from behind and holding him in a bear hug in an attempt to prevent him from getting any closer to the cenotaph. Temporarily immobilised, the youth dropped his end of the wreath. By this time, the standard-bearer was laying into his hippy mate with somewhat more precision. The wreath fell to the ground, whereupon it was kicked and stomped on by other members of the honour guard.
The police intervened before much damage could be done to the two interlopers. They cuffed the pair and frog-marched them off to a black Maria.
Was this what all the sacrifice had come to? An undignified scuffle for the benefit of the media? It left a sour taste, this reminder of the world’s pettiness, and the men who had not come back deserved more fitting remembrance.
There were lots of phone calls that night: “Saw you on the box mate! Gee, you were just standing there! You should have laid in to them too! Still, George was giving them a good hiding from what I could see. Good old George!”
“Should be a law against those pricks – they wouldn’t get away with that carry-on in Russia. They’d be bloody well locked up, you mark my words!”
The lad did not call, although doubtless he saw his father on the news, standing there shocked and motionless, decked out in his Sunday best with a row of medals affixed to his chest, while his old mates in the honour guard behaved like they were brawling in some seedy bar in Cairo.
The boy had picked up various new ideas at varsity. One of them was pacifism. In his younger days he had been happy enough to come along and watch the ceremony, then trail along afterwards, asking those questions that boys ask: “Were you a hero dad?” “Did you kill lots of Germans?”
Answers had always been hard to provide, particularly as he had a way of repeating variations on the same old questions every year. It was as if he did not quite believe the answers he had been given earlier and was probing for cracks. Trying to make the boy aware that having killed people, even Germans, was not something to boast about was difficult to do when, like so many kids his age, he saw war as some big game.
“You must have killed lots of them, I reckon.”
Those days had passed. Now, having reached early adulthood, and watched TV images from Vietnam of executions and napalm bombing, he had an altogether different take on what his old man had been trying to say. With the passing of years, all he had now was the impression that his dad must have been a bloodthirsty warmonger of the worst sort, too ashamed to even admit what he had done in the war. That piece of selective memory and his new-found political conscience was why he did not call. Dad had gone from being a hero to becoming an old butcher with Yankee imperialist sympathies, all in the space of a few years.
* * *
The stand-off at the law courts did not last. Arriving at the main entrance under a white flag of truce, the Kiwi negotiating team were met with drunken abuse from someone who may or may not have actually been in charge of the defenders. The senior New Zealand officer began shouting back at him. His interpreter duly informed the Germans at the door that, given the fact they were surrounded and outgunned, it might be a good idea to surrender. It did not take a great linguist to work out what the response was, accompanied as it was by a good deal of gesticulating and swear words. And with that, the door to the law courts was soundly slammed in the New Zealanders’ faces. The two officers shrugged and shook their heads, turned around, and started walking back across the square, trying not to flinch at the sound of German machine guns having their safety catches loudly released. In spite of what might have been expected, the Germans at least accorded them the dignity of allowing them to return to their HQ across the square alive.
There, it was decided to clear the square and “flush the cheeky buggers out” using tank fire at what was practically point blank range. Twenty-odd Shermans took up firing positions around the building.
And, as part of the attack preparations, an order was sent out to locate the sniper who had been spotted hanging about earlier in the afternoon. When he eventually presented himself, he was told to find a good position from where he could pick off as many Germans in the building as possible.
It was a bit of a climb getting up to the top of one of the apartment buildings flanking the square. The maid’s quarters in this particular building were empty. Fortunately, the lock on the door was not sturdy enough to withstand a determined heave.
Towns are tricky environments to operate in as a sniper, as you always need a spot with a commanding view. The snag is that once you have climbed up a bell tower or some equally obvious landmark, fired, and given your position away, getting ambushed rushing down the stairs while trying to escape is all too easy. Here the circumstances were different: the target was surrounded and was not about to give chase. They did not even have artillery to call down harassing fire with. It was indicative of how far the war had come that it had gotten down to this formlessness, without even a decent front to provide some sort of reference point for the battlefield. The Germans had been reduced to holding individual buildings with isolated detachments of men supported by nothing more than booze and bravado.
The building shook when the tanks fired their first salvo. It was rare to see such a concentrated mass of firepower shooting over open sights at such an exposed position, and it was a luxury for the tanks’ gunners to have such a large target just a few yards away. Normally Shermans had to shoot and scoot, doing their best to avoid taking hits from the high-powered tank and anti-tank weaponry the Germans fielded.
There was little left in the way of targets for sniping once the tanks had opened fire. The Germans did what anyone with common sense would do under those circumstances and pulled back away from the windows, sheltering out of sight in the building’s inner corridors and rooms. The initial, tense scoping of individual windows in a hunt for targets gave way to frustration at the lack of any visible victims, with spotting not being helped by all the smoke and dust kicked up by the high-explosive shells. Nor did the tank fire seem to be doing much. Many of the shells were merely bouncing off the building’s sturdy masonry. The only fire that had some actual effect consisted of the shots that were fired through windows, although it was impossible to say whether any real damage was being caused by them either.
Shortly, it became evident that any bullets fired from the rifle would be wasted. There was little else to do but engage the safety catch and watch the show from the commanding pozzie. It was impossible to say just how much tank ammunition ended up being fired at the law courts, other than to pass the observation that a substantial number of shells were expended. By the time night started setting in, the Shermans’ barrels were glowing red.
Then they fell silent.
It did not last. Before the Germans could recover from the din and the explosions, Yugoslav soldiers dashed towards the building, converging on it in small groups of three or four to each window. They knew exactly what they were doing. They used the same approach the Kiwis had adopted at Monte Cassino: a grenade through the window, followed by a leg-up from a comrade, a burst of fire through the window just in case, a quick dekko to see whether the way was clear, and then a hurried scramble over broken glass and splintered window frames to occupy the room while the remainder of the team hauled themselves through.
The rest of the fight took place sight unseen, a mix of sporadic gunfire, further grenade explosions and the occasional muffled scream. There was no early sign of surrender.
It was odd that the Yugoslavs were doing the mopping-up work. It should have been obvious that clearing the Germans out of the building was going to be a lot riskier than laying down the initial fire. It was possible they wanted to prove what hard men they were; a force to be reckoned with. There was a good deal of substance to back up this unvoiced claim. Their soldiers showed a grim determination that a good many Kiwis were finding hard to muster at this late stage of the war, as thoughts turned to the possibility there was now a far greater chance of survival than death, provided you avoided taking any unnecessary risks.
The German garrison commander formally surrendered Trieste around midnight. He and several hundred of his men were escorted by New Zealand troops down from their positions in the heights overlooking the city, past Yugoslav units that would have preferred to escort them back to Yugoslavia. The dazed occupants of the law courts were less fortunate. As they had been mopped up by the Yugoslavs, they found themselves being herded away in precisely that direction.
* * *
As well as wearing you out, four years of war also have a toughening effect on the physique. Shearing and other heavy farm work no longer seemed as difficult as they had been before the war. With none of the violence, bullets or shrapnel there to contend with, fatigue and physical effort in themselves seemed trivial concerns. And there was the luxury of being able to go about your daily business without wondering if today might be your last day. That sense of security constituted a sturdy support that most people were not even aware of, unless they were among the few who had come close to death through accident or misadventure and had somehow pulled through. Yet even they could not understand how rich life could feel if you had been a human target for years on end, and survived intact in spite of the best efforts of the German, Italian and Yugoslav armed forces.
For all that, it was not going to last. Youth does not endure, and with its passing comes a sense of mortality, along with the deepening of the face’s lines, the inexorable retreat of hair lines, and the stomach’s increasing bulge. You can fight it, exercise, take vitamin pills, apply hair cream and even face cream if you are that way inclined. Nevertheless, the body slows, and thoughts slow with it, becoming entrenched and fixed, clinging to old points of reference that have become outmoded and invalid. The empty pauses, when that inner vacant feeling dominates, become increasingly longer, coalescing into a great helplessness marked by inactivity and fatalism. Drinking halls are a good place for bringing on such moods. Fuelled by alcohol, the emptiness can seem comforting, a natural state of sorts, where slurred words and commonplaces pass for conversation, and everyone is in a like state and of a like mind, so not too much vocal effort is required in any case. It is an environment that provides an insulating cocoon from the outside world, that dangerous place where things keep changing, and it is all so confusing and hard to keep up with.
For a nature lover, open spaces offer an alternative venue, although their effect is just as soporific as the smoky drinking halls. Taking in all the natural beauty, the lulling timelessness of the hills and bush, the mind floats in much the same way as it does after a few drinks, empty of real thought, managing little more than scattered fragments of coherency. Such mental aimlessness was something to be fought against. It was the advance guard of senility. Fighting it off required increasing effort with the accumulation of years, with steadily decreasing chances of success in the long run. Reading books became tiring. So too did listening to the radio or watching TV. The mind just kept wandering off, up its own funny little aimless garden paths, until it got lost somewhere in an overgrown corner that had suffered too long from neglect. Focusing was an ability that faded to the extent it got to the point where even remembering various things to do with running the farm became difficult. All those little jobs that constantly needed doing. Writing down lists helped, until you reached the stage when it was even hard to remember to look at a list.
Then, to make things just that bit more difficult, the body started failing too.
Having managed to cheat infirmity and death in foreign lands in youth, and hidden from them through middle age, they now decided to come calling at the farm, hovering around, getting in the way and making nuisances of themselves, waiting for that weak moment before they struck, like gypsy beggars hanging out for the main chance. With their arrival, the farm became a place of fear and tension, accompanied by a cold sense of loneliness in the face of eternity.
The moment of weakness eventually came, and they closed in. The first time their blow was not fatal, and the time spent in hospital recovering was short.
The second time around, there was a broken hip from a fall to deal with – the result of attempting to climb a ladder that slipped. A sense of shame at such weakness, such clumsiness, added itself to the existing fears. This time the stay in hospital was longer, the pain was more intense, and recovery was not complete. Pain became a daily factor of life, causing the level of fear to go up a notch. Lying there in the ward, all there was to think about was morbid fear. The rare visitors brought no solace. For all their smiles and sympathy, they could not make the pain go away, and their sympathy was, quite simply, not enough. Their reminisces and anecdotes floated around the room, warm yet ineffectual.
Upon eventual release from the hospital, no respite was granted. Death was hovering now, poised to strike. It had already sent out its feelers, probed for weaknesses, and made an initial attempt. That attempt may have failed, but it would not be the last. Death is not a force that can be swayed forever.
There was a sharp decline in the number of visitors to the farm after the second hospital discharge. Old friends failed to call. Relatives found more pressing engagements to occupy their time with. Few people know how to talk to a doomed man, offering, as he does, a reminder of their own mortality and their powerlessness in the face of it.
So what was already a fairly solitary existence became even more so. There was still the farm to keep running – that at least provided a distraction from greater issues. It was easy enough to find a couple more hired hands to do the work that the doctor said should be avoided, and the spin-off was that they provided more company, to make up for the loss of friends and relatives with other priorities. It was odd that strangers could end up providing more satisfactory human contact than those who were supposed to be close.
The lad was not around much. He had his own life to tend to, over in Sydney, running a stationary supplies firm. It was a successful company, providing him with the opportunity to travel all over Australia and overseas periodically, before heading home to one of Sydney’s outer suburbs, where he could find repose in the sort of house people get jealous of. It was not a matter of filial dereliction, just that he had responsibilities. He still made annual trips across the Tasman at Christmas time to share memories and silently reflect about the wife and mother who was no longer there. Unfavourable comparisons were made between purchased pavlovas and the ones she used to make, even if the Christmas lamb and potatoes tasted as good as ever. Equally unchanged were the pictures she had framed and hung on the walls, with their various scenes of the world, as too were the hand-made cushions, the curtains she had run up, and even the very configuration of the furnishings themselves, which had not been shifted from their positions since the time she had still been around.
Little wonder that the lad did not visit more frequently. The farm and its owner presented too many reminders of a past that no longer existed, and circumstances that had changed, in spite of the reminders left behind.
* * *
The cleaner did not bother knocking. Her vacuum cleaner shrieked a high-pitched whine that, in itself, provided sufficient notice of her arrival. She was near retirement age, her face lined with years of resentment at her station in society and her allotted fate. With her vacuum cleaner powered up and sucking away, she had a powerful weapon with which to exact revenge and make people sit up and take notice while she did so.
One by one, the relatives seated around the old man’s bed, who had assembled to say some final words, were forced to stand up while she loudly scraped each of their chairs out from under them and clattered the vacuum cleaner’s suction nozzle around the liberated space. She performed this feat four times, and then stopped in front of the son, waiting wordlessly for him to get up. He was not important enough in her little world to warrant a “please” or an “excuse me”. For some reason, he just sat there, glowering at her, somehow unaware of her importance, and the fact that he was supposed to meekly stand at this particular juncture.
Irritation mixed with condescension blended into a withering tone: “I need to vacuum.”
The son did not stand. His hands clenched the ends of the chair’s armrests, his knuckles white. Then he erupted.
“My father’s dying! Do you think what you are doing has even the slightest importance?”
The cleaner reared back momentarily, until her fleeting surprise was overtaken by her indignation.
“I have to vacuum in here!”
The son was having none of it.
“You come in here, banging about, disturbing my father, upsetting my relatives, and all for no reason whatsoever. Under the circumstances, a bit of bloody dust on the floor isn’t going to make any difference!”
“I have my orders.” The cleaner’s voice was stone cold.
Only now did the son choose to stand.
“Get the hell out!”
“I am going to tell my superior about this.”
“Go ahead and do that then, you stupid woman!”
He followed her to the door to make sure she was actually leaving, and then firmly shut it behind her. Slamming it would have disturbed the old man.
* * *
The new billet was the Hotel Savoia, a large structure facing the waterfront on one side, and the town square on another. The owners were none too happy at the sight of a mob of Kiwi soldiers tenanting their rooms, regardless of whether they would have got much else in the way of business now that the war had reached Trieste.
Each room was palatial, and various of them came complete with a balcony, a washbasin, a bath and a toilet. After the various makeshift lodgings occupied all the way up the Italian peninsula, and all the nights spent outdoors in conditions ranging from searing heat to snowstorms, it felt like a jackpot had been struck. Given the opulence of these living quarters, it was hard to believe there was still a war on, whether or not Hitler showed no signs as yet of capitulating, even as the British and Americans pushed their way across western Germany.
In spite of their surrender at Trieste, the Germans there had not entirely departed. While the Yugoslavs had been quick to transfer all their prisoners back to Yugoslavia where, sight unseen, they did heaven knows what with them, the Kiwis were more relaxed. Their prisoners were relocated to various camps in and around Trieste. Shipping them further back into Italy was not an option, given that the camps there were already full to bursting with POWs. Still, they had their uses. Trieste’s remaining former garrison members showed themselves to be quite willing to provide labour for their New Zealand captors, erecting road signs, digging latrines and waste dumps, unloading supplies and provisions, and all those other menial tasks that enable an army division to keep running.
While they still formed a part of the local human landscape, the Germans were no longer players in deciding Trieste’s fate. With the Germans eliminated from play, the victors faced the issue of what to do next. Initially, the Yugoslavs had the problem of wanting to know what position to adopt in response to their unwelcome allies, who were not supposed to be there. The response from Tito was not long in coming. For their part, the New Zealanders, very much proverbial fishes out of water, struggled to obtain clarification on exactly what stance to adopt themselves. For while it was evident that their presence was not wanted by their erstwhile allies, the local Italian population was not at all ready to be abandoned to Yugoslav rule. Withdrawal was not an option.
Following the German surrender, Kiwi solders had initially strolled the city’s streets unarmed, acting on the welcome assumption that with the real fighting over, there was no further need to tote guns around. At first, the locals had joked about it, referring to them as “l’armata senza armi” – the army with no arms… It was a habit that did not pass unnoticed among the Yugoslavs. After the first few run-ins with roaming armed Yugoslav patrols, the order was issued for all ranks to avoid going on solo strolls, and to start carrying their weapons, loaded, at all times. Both sides began sizing up their positions and jostling for a tactical edge. Certain key strategic buildings were seized and occupied. Machine gun nests were established, and observation posts were set up. Roadblocks and checkpoints were established at various points in and around Trieste, first by the Yugoslavs and, not to be outdone, by the New Zealanders, both sides striving to demonstrate who was in control. A stand-off near the law courts typified the new state of play. A Yugoslav checkpoint and a lend-lease Stuart tank were positioned within throwing distance of where elements of the 19th Armoured Regiment were billeted and their Sherman tanks were parked along the side of the road. Getting fed up with staring at the 37mm gun pointed at them, it was decided to place a Sherman opposite the Stuart and train its 75mm gun on it. If it did come to a shooting match, it would be a case of whoever was the quickest being the winner of the first round, although it was unlikely the roadblock would last long against a column of advancing Shermans.
Such local advantages for the New Zealanders counted for little. If the Yugoslavs decided to force the issue, cutting the road back to Montfalcone was easy enough to do, and it would leave Trieste surrounded. What their total strength amounted to was uncertain, yet it was assumed that the Yugoslavs held numerical superiority. There was a great deal of discussion as to whether they would prove worthy opponents. Certain cocky veterans doubted they would be a match for troops that had survived El Alamein and Monte Cassino. Others were not so sure. The Yugoslavs had, after all, worn down the Germans and Italians in a three-year partisan war when they were supposed to have rolled over and played dead after Italy, Germany and Hungary had invaded Yugoslavia. Regardless of their slightly comical appearance, their predilection for bushy Mexican-style moustaches, and their habit of being as armed to the teeth as Mexican bandidos, it was held by various self-appointed experts in the New Zealand Division’s ranks that they must nonetheless be able fighters. The German garrison had been scared enough of them – a good thing given that, had they not had the Yugoslavs closing in on them, they might have fought to defend Trieste in earnest. It was clear the Yugoslavs hated the Germans even more than the Italians, who themselves had a lot to answer for in relation to what they had done to Yugoslavia.
Rumours and complaints began reaching the Kiwi garrison on a daily basis as the Yugoslavs made their presence known. People began “vanishing”, either being rounded up in the still of night using tactics reminiscent of the Gestapo, or even being taken away in broad daylight. Inquiries made to the Yugoslavs in relation to specific instances were met either with blanket denials or statements to the effect that it had been necessary to deal with certain collaborators wanted for war crimes. To top things off, it was discovered that their trawling among the local population for suspected fascists and their fellow travellers was being conducted under the aegis of a new civilian administration which had been set up under the noses of the New Zealand Command. There was some debate as to whether Trieste could still even be considered Italian, with the Yugoslavs claiming they had “liberated” the city, never mind the fact they had met the New Zealanders coming the other way right in the heart of the city before they could finish the job. The Yugoslav response was to pretend the New Zealanders were not really there. Trieste was officially declared a part of the new Socialist Republic of Slovenia, itself a component of the new Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. Never mind what the slightly older Republic of Italy, Churchill or Eisenhower thought. The Yugoslavs were making a bid to establish a fait accompli of the sort the Russians had already presented their Western allies with in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, ensuring that any last vestiges of the local non-Communist establishment were firmly eliminated from the scene so that card-carrying Communists could seize administrative control. In Trieste it was Slovene Communists, or at least Communists of Slovene origin, who were the vanguard of the new order, along with Croatians and the odd Serb in their ranks. Their time, it seemed to them, had come: after twenty-five years of Italian control over the city, Trieste was in the hands of its rightful owners – the people who would have gotten it after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I but for the violence and militantism of Italian nationalists and proto-fascists, in addition to Western support for Italian claims at the Versailles treaty negotiations.
Beyond their visceral feeling that it was all rather unsporting, the Kiwi staff officers did not press the issue, not being entirely sure of either exactly what they could do, or what the response might be if they took any firm action against this shadow authority in their midst. This was a new sort of war they had not been trained for, and they felt considerably ill at ease over their circumstances. Old-fashioned concepts of right and wrong had been superseded by an unfamiliar mix of ethnic hatred, virulent nationalism and extremist politics, all being used concertedly and with some skill to gain sway over Trieste. It was the sort of situation that had not been covered during basic training, or at the various specialist training camps held since those early days of the war. It seemed to those among the New Zealanders who gave thought to such matters that this was yet another typically European mess that once again the colonials were being left to sort out for the big boys. Little did they realise they were in fact unwilling participants in the opening round of what would later become known as the Cold War.
* * *
“For all their faults – overpaid, oversexed and over here – the bloody Yanks saved our arses when it came to the Pacific War!”
Harry always got emphatic after the third whiskey. There was no need in this case – no one at the table in the Cheviot RSA was disagreeing – quite the contrary. He carried on all the same:
“And now bloody Lange and all those nuclear-free wallies are playin’ silly buggers!”
James chipped in his thoughts while Harry took another sip of his whiskey. He would have swigged it, except that now he was on the pension he had to make it go a bit further.
“How are we going to hold our heads up high among our allies if we’re not pulling our weight? And mark my words – excluding US warships is definitely a case of New Zealand riding on Washington’s coat-tails. We’re only too bloody happy to let them do all the work of protecting the Pacific from the Russians, but we won’t do our bit by letting their warships come here for rest and recreation on the off chance they might have nuclear weapons on board. It’s bloody ridiculous!”
Harry piped up again.
“They’re barmy up in Wellington if they think the Russians aren’t laughing into their vodka about this one. It’s not like anyone in the Warsaw Pact would dare tell the Russians to keep their ships away because they might have a nuclear weapon or two on board. They wouldn’t dare after what the Russians did to Hungary and Czechoslovakia when they stepped out of line.”
It was an observation that could not be stated out aloud for fear of alienating a lot of old mates, but the real issue was not Prime Minister David Lange, his cabinet colleagues, and their anti-nuclear policy. Instead it was the fact that times were changing and the RSA generation was being left behind. Attitudes were shifting now that the younger generation was in charge. Lange was a baby boomer, unlike his defeated predecessor, even if he had only fought the war from the rear echelons. Muldoon had been happy to let US warships in. Like the men at the RSA, he saw it as New Zealand’s duty, a part of the country’s role in the global alliance against Communism. Lange thought otherwise – he was thinking of the future; a world where there would be no nuclear arms race, no Cold War, and no split of the world into two largely hostile camps.
James, Harry and the others hated Lange for bringing yet another uncertainly into their lives, in a field where they had not previously harboured any lasting doubts. Seeing the world changing around you is one of the unsettling aspects about growing old. You expect everything to stay more or less the way it was when you were in your twenties, back in the days before the oil crisis, home computers, women’s lib, Black power, TV, rock ’n’ roll, and all the rest of it. They were changes that had the effect of making you feel increasingly alien to your world. Living in the twentieth century is what made it so hard to adapt. The Chelsea pensioners who had survived the Crimean War never had such far-reaching changes to worry about in their old age – just telephones and electricity. Throughout their lives, Britain had remained the greatest empire on earth, its power and authority unchallenged. Not so now, given that the US and USSR had relegated it to the state of being an also-ran, wracked by rising unemployment, declining living standards, and an increasingly dysfunctional economy that had been overtaken by its wartime enemies. It was a bit too much to fathom given that Britain was supposed to have won the war. Was someone up in Heaven playing a bad joke on the British for being so cock sure of themselves?
The oddest part of it was that out here in Cheviot, most of the changes had somehow been kept at bay. All the same, there was no stopping the TV images beamed into local living rooms day after day, along with the radio, magazines and the like. The arrival of TV in North Canterbury had finally removed that sense of isolation you get living out in the country, leaving you instead with the impression of now being up the play. The flip side was that it instilled a sense of powerlessness over how big and complicated the world was. Lord knows what effect TV would have had on the population if it had been around in the 1930s. Possibly, there may not have been a war, if the effect of the conflict in Vietnam being beamed into New Zealand homes was anything to go by.
The box had its limits in any case. In spite of being bombarded with images of the latest fashions on-screen, none of the members of the local RSA had ever felt moved to modernise their dress sense. It was fair to say that their fashion tastes still lay somewhere back in the 1950s, even if their bodies had moved on. It had to be admitted there was something strange about men in their sixties still wearing the same sort of thing they had worn in their twenties. If their younger selves had been able to see them they would have assumed that these funny-looking old blokes in their post-war clothing were some sort of bizarre mismatch. Would it always be like that? Would the hippy generation keep their bell-bottomed jeans and flowery shirts into their old age? No – various of them had already changed into suits and the eldest of them were not past middle age yet. Perhaps that was the real revolution they had brought about – an ability to transform themselves sartorially and mentally as they aged, unlike the generations that had preceded them. They showed no signs of being ill-adapted to the new world – for them new technology was a normal part of life; something to be used to maximum advantage, rather than constituting a source of fear and bafflement. They had what it took to face the next century, a period beyond the expiry date of most of the men who had fought in World War II.
* * *
The doctor did his rounds about nine every morning, registrars and other assorted junior staff in tow. They trooped into the room with all the confidence their years of professional training bestowed upon them. It was a confidence that came with their uniform; the white coat with pens and assorted paraphernalia poking out of the pockets, a symbol to which nurses owed deference and patients and loved ones their humble submission and which, at times, had even been known to sway hospital administrators.
The doctor examined his clip board and proceeded to read the values inscribed upon it before launching into a spiel about the patient’s current status (terminal) and the course of his condition (ever-worsening). His junior colleagues listened attentively. The most junior amongst them even took the occasional note for future reference, while the others had built up enough self-confidence in their own abilities to eliminate the need for such paper-based learning supports. If there was something that perchance they did not know, they preferred to take a mental note of it, to be written out subsequently if necessary, once their mentor was out of sight. Once one reaches that third or fourth year as house staff, it does not pay to offer any open admissions of such gaps in knowledge.
The old man watched them silently. It was as if he were not there. None of them shot more than a passing glance in his direction as it was the doctor who formed the centre of the hushed acolytes’ attention. The medical staff were quite certain that the old man was too far gone to even be aware of his surroundings, such was his condition and the extent to which he was on medication. They were quite wrong in thinking so. The morning nurse had yet to do her rounds so he could receive his next shot, and seven hours had passed since his last administration, shortly before he had managed to fall into a haunted sleep. The euphoric, hallucinatory effects of the codeine he had received had tailed off. Consequently, he was rather more lucid and aware than was expected, and raw pain was surging up through his consciousness. He could hold it for a while though, and he refrained from saying anything, revelling in his minor triumph over both his condition and the staff, who seemed to want him drugged senseless around the clock so they would not have to spend so much time with him.
None of them really cared whether he lived or died. Their attention was taken up with other concerns of a mundane, technical and careerist nature. Soaking up information, currying favour with the senior physician, keeping up with, or ahead of, colleagues, pulling the cute nurse spotted down the corridor, getting that student loan paid off, drinks tonight at the local bar, catching up with the laundry, looking forward to something good on TV… Anything but death and the thought that at some stage in the not too distant future it would be each of them lying on a similar bed, in a place like this. The big picture being uncomfortable and disquieting, it was better to concentrate on immediate concerns and screen out the possibility that one day death would be beckoning.
It would be nice to get up, stretch and bend, get dressed and walk out of this place. A drink at the pub would do wonders. The sort of thing you take for granted, until you end up in a shitty predicament like this, being worn down by the pain and the agony until the breaking point finally comes.
Before the war, church-going had been a weekly habit. Time at the front had changed that. Seeing all the evil things that happen in wartime has one of two very simple effects on an individual’s religious convictions: either they become further entrenched and irrepressible; or they crumble. The second response had seemed more logical. It became difficult to believe in some benevolent old bloke with flowing robes and a big white beard looking down from ahigh after seeing the effects of German dive bombers on a Greek refugee column. And God might move in mysterious ways, but there was just a bit too much mystery in why He would allow a four year-old girl to scream and howl over the shattered body of her dead mother while she tried to hold her own intestines in with her hands to stop herself bleeding to death. Such things are more than sufficient reason to conclude that either God does not care, or He is not up there in the clouds with all those harp-playing angels and happy cherubs. And the more ghastliness that was witnessed, the stronger became the conviction that God was just another fairytale.
These medical people have their own sort of religious faith; a belief in the power of modern medicine. This might explain why they preferred to avoid looking into the eyes of the dying man watching them, a man they were powerless to save just as, ultimately, they were powerless to save the rest of humanity, condemned to leave the world in pain and misery while the doctors struggled to keep them hanging on that little bit longer.
They would not see it that way, and in fact they were incapable of such a take on the situation, but then the ebb of life still propelled them onwards as they consumed the days allotted to them, one by one. That force was one of the reasons why the elderly are so often embittered reactionaries, sniping and picking, fighting a losing rearguard action against the new surges of life thrown up in their wake; portents of a future society where, at best, they would be no more than entries in reference sources, whether published, audio-visual or electronic in nature, or more likely they would only have a weathered plot with a headstone each to serve as the marker for their fleeting lives.
On and on and on, constantly regenerating, the line of humanity travels forward through time. Towards what? Self-annihilation in some future war? Subjugation to a more advanced race? Or successful expansion and colonisation of other worlds? There was no way of finding out other than to stick around to see it, yet nature would not allow it. That was the way of things, the natural rule that had been established for some reason in this universe of harsh extremes, where the wailing new-born babies who survive the perils they are exposed to in the several decades allotted to them before their life force fails, end up being placed in the ground to moulder.
“Ahh, but their spirits live on!” the Christians say. The old man knew better. It was all stuff and nonsense, an elaborate fairytale cobbled together by primitives living in Palestine a couple of thousand years ago, that had found favour with a segment of the world’s suffering populations for the light of hope it held out, in addition to providing a vector for men with ambition to hold sway over others. Just the way the doctors hold their prestige and power as a result of adherence to medical doctrine handed down from the ancients, and they derived solace for the shortcomings entailed in their own mortality through their ability to grant short reprieves from death, sometimes at considerable cost.
The senior practitioner offered his concluding comments, then tucked his clipboard under his arm before leading his followers out of the cramped room so they could look at the next number on his list.
* * *
Having noticed the glint of the sniper’s scope, the bearded partisan made a point of adjusting his weapon, a captured MG 34, on its tripod so it was aiming directly at that particular window of the Hotel Savoia.
Now that the ongoing stand-off between the supposed allies occupying Trieste had heightened, the town square had become a no man’s land, with sandbagged emplacements on both sides, and guns reciprocally trained on opposing targets. The Kiwis were firmly ensconced in the Hotel Savoia, while the Yugoslavs held the civic and maritime building facing it across the square.
All leave was cancelled. The German work parties were confined to their POW camps. Civilians only went out if they had to, for food and other basic supplies. A joint agreement on the fate of this particular part of Europe had in fact been concluded, according to which Trieste would remain Italian in exchange for tracts of land to the north, and most of Istria to the south, which would go to Yugoslavia. The problem was that the Yugoslavs appeared to be in no hurry to leave. In fact, the number of roadblocks, checkpoints and defensive positions scattered around the city had increased over the last few days.
The machine gunner was clearly visible through the scope. He had some sort of scar on his left cheek. His comrade had just wandered back into the building, possibly for a smoke, a cup of something, or on some errand. It was a strange sensation, looking through the scope at this man from a distance of what seemed like just a few yards, while he stared straight back, but could not really see who was watching him. Even with a telescopic sight, normally the target is at a much greater range, and consequently is not so large. He was definitely staring at the window. It was impossible to tell how much he could see, yet evidently he could make out something, given the way he was staring fixedly. His mate reappeared, carrying a pair of binoculars. A brief exchange ensued, unhearable at this distance, following which the machine gunner took the binoculars so he could get a better look. There was a bit of fiddling with the focus, and a few seconds more before he found the window again as he looked through the lenses. His reaction was perceptible when he finally locked onto the person observing him, and got to see the barrel of a rifle pointing at his head in larger-than-life detail. He muttered something, again unhearable. Then, lowering the binoculars but keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the same point, he slowly ran his index finger across his throat whilst continuing to stare at the sniper targeting him from the window.
* * *
“Arhhh… Arhhh… Arhhh…”
The groaning had been going on for about forty minutes. The old man was in real pain, and the drugs could only do so much to alleviate it. The nurse had refused to administer any more: “It might finish him off – leave him in too weak a state to fight on.”
The son wondered whether that would be such a bad thing under the circumstances. It was the first time the issue of euthanasia had come to mind. That it was still against the law was actually a positive factor – had there been a choice available, it would have been too difficult to make.
The old man had made his choice of his own volition before he embarked on the final slide towards death. He had rejected going onto life support systems, but had agreed to receiving continued medication to keep the pain down.
“I can’t do it without the drugs. I know that from the war, when I got wounded.”
So there he was; lying groaning in spite of the medication, and heedless of his surroundings, also because of the medication.
The war. He always came back to it at some point. It was a hiatus in his long life – an extended event of enormous significance that he would never have been able to remove himself from even had he wanted to. He had experienced a life with a greater than normal level of suffering and now, in his final hours, he had returned to that element, unwillingly, fighting against it just as hard as he had done during his youth.
The evening shift nurse stuck her head around the open door. She must have heard the noise. She stood at the door, maintaining a distance.
“There’s nothing more I can do for him, I’m afraid. It’s a waiting game now.”
And then she was gone.
Another forty or so minutes passed, filled with intermittent groaning and twitching, pain and writhing. And then it stopped. He lay there motionless. Except for the fact that he was actually still breathing, it would have been easy to assume the end had come. Instead, he chose to start yelling.
“They’re coming, they’re coming!”
He raised his head upright, just for a moment before the pain of the exertion forced it back down, shaking wrinkled hands formed fists, clenched tightly. Fists for a scrap? Or was it a nervous reaction?
“The buggers are coming for me!”
Then no strength remained for the voice to make anything other than what verged on a strangling noise, scarcely more than a whisper. The son got up and leaned over the old man.
“There’s no one coming dad – it’s nearly midnight!”
It was a gentle, reassuring, slightly laughing voice, designed to calm and sooth frayed nerves. It failed. In a fit of frustration at the stupidity of the comment, the old man’s voice came back to him.
“That’s when they come! In the middle of the night!”
Given that he had reached the stage where the mustering of effort required for expressing even a short sentence was simply too much under normal conditions, it was clear that the withered body’s movements were being propelled by real fear, not just some passing aberration of the mind.
“Don’t worry - I’m here dad. I’ll fend them off if they come.”
“Where’s my bloody rifle?”
He was straining to look around, forcing his neck and torso in spite of themselves.
“You don’t need it dad – this is a weapons-free zone.”
It was meant as a joke, but judging from the start it invoked, again it was the wrong thing to say.
“So that’s their trick – l’armata senza armi – catch us unawares!”
Then, as suddenly as the ranting had started, it dried up as the physical pain created by the exertion caught up with him.
* * *
The Shermans were on the move, having been ordered from their parking places near the law courts. Someone at staff level had decided the tanks were too exposed to a possible grenade attack from the apartment buildings overlooking their position. The sound of their running gear could be heard from blocks away. They trundled along the seafront Corso Cavour. As the Shermans passed the city square, Yugoslav soldiers appeared at the side of the promenade, watching them warily, wondering what was going on, and why the presence of over twenty tanks was suddenly required on the waterfront.
Having reached the Stazione Marittima opposite the Hotel Savoia, the tanks broke their file as they executed neat three-point turns and reversed to form a straight rank of vehicles, with their backs to the port terminal and its long pier, and their guns facing Trieste. Having completed this manoeuvre, most of the crews dismounted, grabbed their kit, and wandered off to their new lodgings in the hotel. The remaining few crews stayed either on or in their mounts, surveying the city spread out before them as if they were the spearhead of a landing party that had just disembarked from the mole behind them.
Curious civilians out strolling, or returning from their day’s work, altered their paths to go and have a look at the orderly row of tanks now lining the waterfront. Some of their number imagined that these vehicles were fresh reinforcements. Upon asking their crews where they had come from, they were both surprised and disappointed to hear the reply “Del Palazzo di Giustizia”.
It was a clear, sunny spring evening, the tranquillity of which was periodically broken by the roar of trucks coming and going from the Stazione Marittima as part of the New Zealand Division’s supply chain.
Word of the new presence on the waterfront must have passed quickly up the Yugoslav chain of command, as a response was not long in coming. They came from the east, clunking and clattering as their tracks tore up tar seal and scraped over cobblestones. Fearful mothers peered through lace curtains. Café patrons looked up from their evening drinks and conversations and sat bolt upright. There were twenty-five of them in all; a number to match the quantity of Shermans lined up outside the Stazione Marittima. When they reached the waterfront, the crews of the 19th Armoured Regiment did the ground force equivalent of an RAF scramble, emerging from their quarters to man their vehicles.
The harbourside room assigned as lodgings in the Hotel Savoia provided an ideal vantage point from which to watch the show. There was no shortage of guests that evening, all of whom had come over to gaze down at the scene below.
“What are those tanks? They’re not captured Jerry jobs, and they’re not Lend-Lease either.”
“Christ – look at the size of the guns on those things!”
Even from five floors up, it was apparent that the Shermans were outgunned.
A lance-corporal, pleased at being able to answer the question raised, piped up. “Those tanks are Russian – T34s, like the ones they used at Stalingrad, except heavier.”
“I didn’t know the Russians had gotten this far. Now we’ve got real problems.”
The lance-corporal was adamant: “Don’t be a fool – that lot down there aren’t Russians! See the uniforms? They’re just more bloody Yugoslavs!”
“He’s right you know.”
“Still, it’s a worry in any case, with that lot parking there.”
“Maybe not… Bloody hell! Look at that!”
Apprehension turned to mirth when it became evident that the Yugoslav crews were still learning how to use these impressive new gifts from the Russians. The orderly row in which the Shermans had been parked was not matched by their allies. Instead, there was a mix-up reminiscent of a Roman traffic jam, with lots of noisy grinding from mischanged gears, and smoke belching out from the exhausts of overworked engines. A Yugoslav officer climbed down out of one of the T34s to try and sort out the mess.
The men of the 19th Armoured were the ones who enjoyed it the most. Having fought their way through Libya, Tunisia, Sicily and then up the Italian peninsula, taking on the best tank crews the Germans could field, the sight of such an inept performance was hardly going to pass by without an appropriate response. Rowdy cheers and whistling greeted each slow-motion collision, stalled engine, and seized gearbox. However little they may have understood the words in English being shouted across to them, the Yugoslavs nevertheless picked up the gist and tone of the comments being directed their way.
“No, no mate – stick her in third!”
“Hey comrade! Can I give you a push?”
One comedian even started making his way over so he could provide the Yugoslav officer with the benefit of his extensive professional experience, but he found himself being sternly ordered back to his post by his commander.
Up in the room too, the dominant tone had turned from apprehension to contemptuous dismissal.
“The buggers don’t even know how to park the things!”
“Do you reckon they know how to shoot?”
“Even a halfwit couldn’t miss at that range.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure with that pack of drongos!”
Eventually, order was restored and the last of the T34s was parked alongside the others, like them, with its gun level and pointed at one of the Shermans opposite. Now that the pieces on this particular chessboard were in place, the two opposing units sized each other up. If it came to a fight at a range of 20 yards, it certainly was not going to be hard to score a direct hit. The men of the 19th Armoured wondered what precisely they had done to merit such a response. Did the Yugoslavs honestly think Trieste was going to be subjected to fire from the Shermans?
The infantry staying at the Hotel Savoia watched the stand-off until night fell and the streets became deserted, leaving the two rows of tanks facing each other, illuminated by the ornate street lamps along the promenade. Eventually, the hotel’s guests tired of this promising but actionless spectacle and one by one decided to turn in for a night’s sleep. If a new war did happen to break out overnight, they would know about it soon enough.
As it turned out, the T34s departed in the early hours of the morning, long before most of Trieste’s inhabitants were out of bed. They drove through empty streets as they headed back to Yugoslavia, their drivers better able to handle the less demanding task of steering the vehicles along the straight boulevards that had been chosen for the line of withdrawal than they were at managing three-point turns and parking in formation. A point of sorts had been made, although at the price of the professional reputation of Yugoslavia’s tank corps, and an early morning wake-up for sleeping locals as the lumbering monsters passed noisily through their midst.
* * *
There came a point where, up through the numbing, euphoric effects of the drugs, and even against the will of a mind fighting with every last reserve of strength, the pain managed to burst through to a new level, with such an intensity that it could not be restrained.
Viewed from the outside, no change was apparent. The old man had already been shaking and groaning for days, his pale torso speckled with excreted mineral salts left behind by evaporating sweat. His once powerful body had steadily been reduced by his condition to a weak shell, incapable of lifting its own weight, still less of propelling itself in any sort of forward motion, including crawling.
No perception remained of the room and its meagre visual stimuli. The illumination from the neon tube above barely registered. Nor did any smells or sensations of touch. What remained was a singularity comprising pain. The singularity expanded into a discernable point, and then grew into a hole of substantial proportions, through which pure, intense bright light streamed. Was this the secret of the afterlife? That death is not black, being instead a blazing light of unparalleled force and brilliance, searing through until it engulfs the consciousness.
Except that for some reason it did not. It stabilised, leaving a peripheral field of darkness that diffused with the white, creating a tunnel effect.
A tunnel. To heaven? Where were the voices? The Archangel Gabriel or St Peter, stepping out to greet the new arrival at Heaven’s Gate and lead the way up to cloudland, with its angels and harps? Or were things now being run by Mohammed?
The light show served to distract attention for a while, but soon the realisation came that an even greater change had occurred. The pain, that ever-present factor which had brought it all to this, had lifted, yielding to a sense of euphoric joy no medication was capable of providing. Then came a beatific sense of bliss of unexpected dimensions and portent, allowing the reduced core of the mind to float. Age had shattered the sharp edge of youthful joy. Now, miraculously, it had been restored fleetingly in that zone where pain turns to ecstasy and exaltation before the final plunge into the depths. The mood would have held but for the unexpected stimulus of an external voice just inches away.
“Zakaj to ne deluje? Ne razumem!”
The Slovenian technician in attendance that evening was a newly appointed staff member, all the way from Maribor, a home town for which he had no fondness and which he had been glad to leave. He had only been in New Zealand for a few months, and was still finding his way in this strange land. But the immediate problem to be confronted was his failure to find a strong enough vein into which to insert a small tube so he could take a routine blood sample. There was definitely something wrong with the old man’s circulation. It was worrying – another failed jab or two and the poor man would be experiencing unnecessary pain, as if he did not have enough to put up with already. It was fortunate the son had stepped out for a while, or he would have been a witness to this embarrassing incident.
Because it was so totally unexpected, the Slovenian failed to see it coming: two ashen-white hands wrenched him forward down onto the bed. The plastic device he involuntarily released as a result fell from his hand and dangled on the end its connecting tube from the apparatus it was hooked up to. The old man’s breath stank of vomit and iron, an unforgettably curious combination. His eyes, the eyes of the blind, stared into the middle distance, even though his victim’s face was only centimetres away.
“You bastards aren’t going to get me! You hear me?”
With that, he let go as quickly as he had grabbed. His strength now exhausted, his hands dropped back onto the bed, all limp, while his head tilted askew, all sensation gone.
Shocked and surprised, the man from Maribor frantically pulled himself off the still-warm corpse, unsteadily righted himself and tried to regain some composure while he wondered what on earth it was he had done.
* * *
There was a shortage of greenery in Trieste. Geography could have had something to do with it; this being a less green and fertile part of Europe than the Italian heartland, yet wartime shortages seemed to be a bigger factor. Walking around town, it was hard to miss the stumps that had once been trees, or the surviving trees that had suffered from having various limbs lopped off. Aesthetics take a low priority in wartime, even in a country as well-endowed with splendid cityscapes as Italy. Or was Trieste now really a part of Yugoslavia?
Behind the town hall lay a miniature labyrinth of buildings that straggled up the hill to the Castello San Giusto. At the foot of the hill, the apartment blocks were solid and quite well maintained, standing several storeys high, yet failed by far to match the splendour of the nearby town hall. Here the streets always lay in shadow, offering cool shelter from the spring sun. Further up the hill, the level of upkeep was noticeably lower. Chipped, cracked and peeling plaster was the salient feature of the buildings there, their roughness exceeded only by the river stones used for cheap cobblestones on the streets below. The locals showed no great interest in the outside world: most of the windows were not only closed, they were also shuttered, as if to ward off some unwanted external influence – probably the sound of rowdy soldiers passing by below. Even though the Divisional Cavalry was stationed up the hill, it was easier for its personnel to walk down these streets to the Hotel Savoia and the Stazione Marittima when off-duty than to try and drive a vehicle through the narrow, twisting alleyways.
Growing up in a place like this, among the sloping narrow streets and paths, where the buildings have to jostle to gain purchase on the hillside, would certainly be different from anything New Zealand had to offer. There was no need to step inside to imagine that the apartments would be cramped and rudimentary and their denizens poor. There were no elegant abodes in this quarter. The rubbish bins here offered such a paucity of pickings that there was nothing to attract Trieste’s hordes of stray cats, who preferred to haunt more affluent neighbourhoods where the household waste left out for collection at least offered some form of sustenance.
Further up the hill, the street widened enough for sunlight to re-enter the streetscape. The light helped counterbalance the even more depressing drabness of the upper reaches of the quarter, until the buildings came to an end, their final row forming the lower fringe of a large square strewn with the shattered fragments of Roman pillars. The Italians took it for granted, having all this old architecture around them. They had been disassembling Roman ruins for centuries as a ready source of masonry. Yet for someone from a young country, even these feeble shards and stumps of pillars felt special. This would have been a forum or an agora in ancient times. A local would know, but there were none around to ask at the moment. Steps led up to the paved square, the quality of its surfacing, however old, putting the cheapjack cobblestones used further down the hill to shame. In spite of a slight growth of weeds sprouting up between the cracks, the stones were in good condition for their age. Judging from the number of fragments of rock that had once formed pillars here, in its heyday the square must have been at least partially roofed. Now there was nothing but blue sky and the May sun overhead, the latter really starting to make itself felt as the morning petered out and turned into the afternoon.
The edge of this ancient area offered a commanding view of Trieste. From this vantage point, the city looked grimy and shabby; the effect of seeing a vast expanse of roofing at an angle from which it was not supposed to be viewed. As long as there are no leaks, the roof tends to be the least-maintained part of a building. Standing on a hill overlooking Greymouth or Lower Hutt would offer similar vistas, although of rusting, peeling corrugated iron rather than of the sort of tiles used here.
It felt like a West Coast sort of day: hot, slightly sticky with humidity, but not to any great extent due to the sea breeze’s cooling effect. Apart from that, there was no similarity, yet one or two little things are enough to trigger an association with another place or time, much the same way as using a handkerchief washed with a certain brand of soap could bring back memories of the tears of childhood, the things that had hurt, and the solace provided by a piece of fabric mum had carefully washed and ironed: “Don’t go out without a hanky!” she always used to shout. Always the worrier.
A truck rumbled out of the gates of the Castello San Giusto. A work detail, armed nevertheless, was going out for the afternoon to complete some task they had been assigned. The truck’s tarpaulin had been removed – a concession to the heat – although its metal frame was still fitted. Given the tendency for sudden downpours around these parts, being able to hastily throw the tarp back on was an option worth maintaining.
The castle had the look of a Medieval structure, with thick, high walls of the sort favoured in the days before cannons made them an insecure form of defence. Up on the parapet, there was a guard on duty. He gave a casual wave of acknowledgement: “yes I see you – you’re one of us – no worries”. That sort of wave.
A flight of pigeons descended in the hope of a free feed. Heedless of the absence of any sign of food at hand, they persisted nonetheless in trailing their victim across the square, anxiously poking around for any crumbs that might have been dropped in his wake. By the time they had reached the other side of the square in the course of their pursuit, they got the message that there was nothing on offer and flew off in a noisy flap.
Running around the back of the castle was a narrow road that cut a swathe into the hilltop, spiralling down in-between stone embankments topped with pines that shaded it from the sun and diffused the cool breeze drifting in from the Adriatic.
Hobnailed boots echoed off the stone embankments. The source was a Yugoslav. There was a sense of purpose in his gait as he rounded the bend in the road. He was not just out for a stroll, this one. Like a good many of his comrades around town, he carried an Italian carbine, slung casually over his shoulder. It acted almost as a badge of authority, a method of obtaining respect from the otherwise contemptuous Italian community, and of keeping the New Zealanders on their toes. As he approached, he did not seem to notice there was someone coming the other way. He kept his head down, staring fixedly at the cobblestones as he closed in on a collision course.
A change of direction was needed to avoid walking into him, except that any shift in trajectory was met with a matching change on his part, the sort of thing that often happens unwittingly when two people get in each other’s way on a footpath. In such circumstances, after a couple of failed attempts at disentanglement, standard etiquette is for one of the parties to stop so that the other person can choose which direction he wishes to take to get past. A smile and muttered apologies are exchanged.
The Yugoslav was not smiling when he stopped. His dark eyes were full of belligerence. His expression was cold and fixed. He was not prepared to allow through passage, and shuffled from one side to the next, purposely blocking the way.
“Get out of my way you bastard!”
There was no point in being polite. After all, these are people who round up and shoot civilians.
For some reason, now he smiled. His eyes had shifted. He was looking at something. The sudden sound of footsteps proved it was another person, coming from behind.
The knife blow came before the realisation there was something amiss, prior to there being any indication of danger, at that stage in an unexpected situation when frantic assessment is still being made, before any response is either contemplated or initiated.
It was a hard thrust, expertly aimed at the lower rib cage and angled upwards. The attacker came from behind, moving in without a word. His left arm reached around his victim’s battledress-clad chest for purchase even as the knife was entering from behind. The blow was deep and was intended to be both fatal and slow, causing the punctured lung to fill with blood and drown its victim. The twist exerted before the blade was pulled out in a single clean stroke was a testament to its wielder’s strength, hatred, and calculated skill.
The worst thing about being knifed in the back is that there is nowhere for your hands to go. If you are wounded in the arm, the leg, or the stomach, you can clutch at the hole to stop the bleeding, reach for a dressing, and assess the damage. “Am I a goner, or am I going to get a nice rest in hospital?” This time there was no way of telling. Oddly, real pain had not come yet. The body was still in shock, and the real pain from the damage had not yet surged up. There was nothing to do but gasp for air, stagger a bit in a state of convulsion as the lungs filled up with blood, and turn to face any further threat.
It was not forthcoming. The soldier who had been blocking the way was already running back down the lane, while his accomplice merely lingered a few seconds longer to make sure his work had been effective.
Seeing no sign of recognition on his victim’s agonised face, the Yugoslav ran the bloody knife across his throat in a mock motion. A drop of still-warm blood fell from the tip of the knife as he did this, staining his khaki shirt. It was only then that the facial scar was recognised.
Shots rang out from the parapet. Shouting in familiarly-accented English rained down from above. The cavalry were coming.
The cobblestones were hard. For want of strength, it was impossible to break the fall with an outstretched arm, even one involuntarily extended.
Real pain had now arrived, grasping the body and squeezing. Blood poured from the wound. There was no way of seeing it, but judging from the amount being soaked up by the battledress jacket and seeping through to the extent it dripped along the spine, a considerable amount of fluid was involved.
Breathing diminished to little more than a few gasps in-between coughed blood.
It had been a pleasant sort of day. For others it was still. Cotton-white clouds passed overhead, pushed along gently by the same breeze as was blowing through the pines up on the embankment.
So this is what dying is like.
Across the Border
The expanse of the Adriatic which was visible was so smooth seen from the hilltops above Trieste that it might have been a vast sheet of glass. No ship’s wake broke its surface. Gone were the days when this was a major seaport, and the home for the Austro-Hungarian fleet, lost as war reparations in 1918. All too much sea trade now went to the next stop along the coast: Koper, Slovenia’s sole port, experiencing a boom as the result of having lower port charges than its Italian rival. Trieste’s wharves were a sad sight. Beyond the bounds of the container terminal further around the peninsula, they largely lay empty, except for the occasional Italian or foreign NATO warship stopping in for a rest from patrolling the Adriatic for embargo breakers and smugglers of drugs and human lives.
The sky too was unbroken, without a single cloud in sight, giving the vista a symmetry breathtaking in its simplicity.
The road winding up the hill to Opicina was a steep one. A sturdy stone wall on the seaward side prevented any hapless drivers from tumbling their vehicles off the edge. It also served to block much of the view that might have been had of Trieste. Only a fleeting glimpse of Miramare Castle was gained as the bus rounded a curve in the road and entered Opicina which, along with certain counterparts on the Austrian and Swiss borders, is one of the least Italian villages in Italy. Somewhere along the road coming up that hill we had entered Slovene territory. Apart from the buildings, which somehow failed to look Italian, the village’s otherliness was strikingly proclaimed by its shop signs and shingles, showing that although the Italian border still lay ahead, we had already left Italy. I tried to read as many of them as I could as we passed by: “Papirnica” - stationer’s; “Frizerstvo” - hairdresser’s; “Mesnica” - butcher’s, and so on. The elderly locals pottering around failed to look particularly Italian either. I wondered about the absence of young people - was it because they were all at work, or had they migrated to more promising regions?
Regardless of what signs the locals put up, or what language they spoke as they went about their daily business, as far as international law and the Italians were concerned, this was still Italy. Once much of what is now part of Slovenia had been Italian too, at least until Tito’s partisans wrested it back off the Fascists in ‘44 and ‘45. Italian imperialist ambitions might have been thwarted, but odd remnants of die-hard attitudes remained amongst Trieste’s Italians who, owing to their awareness that, had history followed a slightly different course, they might now be part of Slovenia, are perhaps the most chauvinistic nationalists out of all their compatriots. I was reminded of this when I attempted to exchange Italian Lire for Slovene Tolars in Trieste’s largest bank, and was told they did not deal in such currency. Likewise, when I handed a supermarket checkout operator a 50,000 Lire note for a small purchase and was condescendingly asked if I did not have a few Slovenian “stottini” instead, the assumption being that I must have been one of “them”. And lastly, back at the downtown bus terminus, just before my departure, the ticket seller had just looked at me blankly when I asked for “un biglietto per Postojna”. A little old lady with a Slavic accent helpfully came to my assistance, piping up and adding “Signor vuole dire “Postumia””. The ticket seller’s face lit up - “Ahh! Postumia!” The Italians may have lost that particular town at the end of World War II, but they were determined to cling to their name for it, come what may.
Given the linguistic imperialism witnessed at the ticket booth, I was surprised to see a Slovene bus pull up at the curb to take on passengers. Judging from the blinkered attitude of the ticket seller, my assumption had been she was working for an Italian bus company. I let my fellow passengers, a mob of old lady pensioners with the spoils from their shopping sprees around Trieste, pile on board first. They chatted away merrily both among themselves and to the driver, heedless of the stern warning posted above the windscreen: “Ne pogovorjaj se z voznikom!” - Don’t talk to the driver!
He continued chatting as he started up the bus and roared out of the terminal, stopping hurriedly to collect a single straggler who he nearly ran over coming out the gate. She took advantage of having gained his attention to thump on the door and let it be known that she intended to get on. The driver assented and pressed a button that actuated the door with a hydraulic hiss. She bundled herself aboard quickly, her two-wheeled shopping bag cum trolley clattering as she pulled it up the steps behind her, which was just as well, for no sooner had he spotted a break in the passing traffic, he vigorously hit the accelerator.
The driver stopped to let off three passengers in Opicina. They bustled and fussed as they hauled their purchases down out of the bus. I had no idea Trieste was such a shopping Mecca. I guess it is a matter of there being low Italian prices for certain goods that would cost more in Slovenia, given elementary factors like economies of scale, and the European Union.
The road leading out of Opicina crossed an overbridge above a broad Karst gully that had been carved out and widened to make room for a motorway. The southbound heavy traffic on it looped through the hills behind Trieste and carried on either into the city or towards Slovenian Istria and Croatia, as the case may be.
The bus’s brakes squeaked loudly as we pulled up outside the Italian border post. The driver opened the doors to a blue-uniformed official, who climbed up on the top step at the front of the vehicle and, with raised eyebrows, gave the passengers the once-over.
The query was addressed at the passengers rather than the driver who, after all, could not really have known the answer.
It was time to pipe up.
“Non, sono neozelandese!”
A New Zealander?! A few inquisitive old heads turned. The official strode up the aisle to where I was seated.
“Passaporte per favore.”
He looked through it with interest. It was probably the first such document he had seen.
“Dovè va oggi?”
Where am I going? Not a difficult question to answer, except that I was drawing a blank on how to say “Postojna” in Italian. My short-term recall is abysmal at the best of times. When it finally came, I blurted it out like a delayed-action cuckoo clock: “Postumia!”
“Va bene. Grazie Signore.”
And with that, he handed me back my passport and alighted.
It only took ten seconds to drive through to the Slovenian border post. This time, an official in a field green uniform stepped on board.
“Vi ste slovenci?”
Again, it was a general question directed at all and sundry.
Various little old ladies turned around to look at me. They were wondering if I understood. It was my turn again.
“Ne, novozelandec sem!”
He approached. Before he quite reached me I asked: “Vi želite moj potni list?” I offered him my passport.
I noticed various jaws dropping. Other ladies nodded their heads approvingly. A foreigner who speaks any Slovene is an uncommon phenomenon.
The customs officer took my passport without a word, hopped off the bus and vanished inside the checkpoint building. There was a five-minute interregnum while I wondered if they were going to let me into the country. It was a wait a couple of the ladies were none too happy with. I overhead them muttering something about lunch.
The man did eventually reappear, and handed the driver my passport through his open window. As the driver started the bus up and pulled away from the checkpoint, it was passed from hand to hand till it reached me. I flicked through it, looking for a new entry stamp. I had to look again, and even then failed to find any. Perhaps they thought New Zealand was part of Britain still - EU citizens can come and go as they please, now Slovenia is scheduled for European Union membership.
The road beyond the checkpoint was straight and lined with houses. Soon the density increased to the point it was clear we were entering a small town. The bus turned a series of corners and then went into a carpark, where the driver put the hand brake on and only just outpaced the descending horde of ladies in a dash to a nearby café.
Only one had stayed on the bus.
“Gospa, kje smo?” I asked.
She turned and smiled: “V Sežani.”
Sežana? I looked up my map. Its scale was such that it showed Sežana sitting practically on the border, which was in fact a fair reflection of reality. There was still a way to go before we got to Postojna. A bar of chocolate from my pack helped fill in the twenty-minute wait. Once everyone had all trooped back on board, I was under the impression we would be well on our way, but I was wrong. The next twenty minutes were spent dropping off most of the individual shoppers at various points around Sežana, following which we ended up back only a block or so away from the carpark, where we stopped to pick up a motley party of school kids. By this time, of the original passengers who had boarded in Trieste, only me and three of the old ladies remained, supplemented by a dozen or so kids ranging from 7 or 8 through to 16 years of age. They all looked happy to be going home for the day. It was only about 1pm, but it was Wednesday, which for some reason often has a shorter school day in European countries.
The bus followed a meandering road through low, barren hills studded with wind-blown, stunted pines, and stopped now and then to let someone off. Most of the kids lived on little farms out in the country. I would hesitate to use the word “isolated”, as not much is isolated in a country as small as Slovenia, although on the face of it this looked like a remote sort of place. The barren nature of the terrain that gave that impression. I wondered about this little paradox as we drove through the heart of the limestone karst area of Primorska, as the Slovenes refer to their dinky littoral region. There was no sign of crops, only some sheep and goats scattered here and there, the region’s limestone base making the land pretty much useless for anything other than low-intensity grazing.
At some point along the empty road, according to my map, Primorska gave way to the province of Notranjska, another karst region, this time with the distinguishing feature of having a greater abundance of trees.
It started snowing just as the bus pulled up at the terminal in Postojna, forcing me to retrieve my coat from my pack for the short walk to my accommodation.
Hotel Kras is a 1970s Yugoslav tourism development; a skyscraper hotel that towers over what is little more than a sizeable village. There was next to no one in the place when I arrived - January is not the tourist season in these parts. Winter holidaymakers in Slovenia head for the Julian Alps rather than lowland Postojna, so there was no worry about getting a room. You could only imagine the quiet, carpeted halls bustling with people coming and going in the summer months.
It being too late in the afternoon to do a tour of the famous Postojna Caves, I had to make do with a wander around Postojna itself. The town itself has little to offer in the way of distractions for visitors. The most striking sight in the town centre was a monument to the partisans in the form of a statue of a man surging up out of the undergrowth to take a potshot. He could have been firing at Germans, Italians, Hungarians or Domobranci, the Slovenian equivalent of the Chetniks. In any case there was no mention of the target. A street leading away from the statue featured a straggling row of small shops and a tiny superette. The rest of Postojna was just houses, hemmed in to the north-east by a high railway embankment and a lofty flyover forming part of the Ljubljana-Trieste motorway. There were no footpaths, and the edges of the town’s roads were muddy. Still, the setting was more affluent than what was offered by various Slavic neighbours in countries to the east or south. I was the only one walking the streets - a crazy foreigner wandering around aimlessly in the falling snow. The only local to pay me any particular attention was an enormous Saint Bernard that reared up to place both of its ham-sized paws on a first-floor balcony so it could emit a gruff “WOOF!”
The railway station was empty of travellers - there were no trains due for another hour or two. Judging from the timetable, Slovenian Rail was doing better than its New Zealand equivalent. Here you could catch regular through trains and connecting trains to pretty much anywhere in the country. Like Hotel Karst, this too was legacy of Yugoslavia. In spite of their high overheads, State-run railways tend to offer that much more than privatised ones. It was the stuff of history books in New Zealand, the country that sold off its assets to foreign multinationals, and then wondered why everything was getting so run down.
The station offered the unexpected bonus of its own bone fide tourist attraction: a fine old Italian locomotive, made in Naples just before World War I, and still bearing a shiny plaque to prove it. It stood proudly alongside the station, side on to the road, as a reminder of how people used to travel before the advent of diesels and electrics.
And with that, my tour of Postojna proper was all but at an end. The only entertainment option left to me was to buy a copy of the local newspaper from the newsagents and retreat from the cold and snow to the shelter of my hotel room. There, fatigue got the better of me and I ended up snoozing with the newspaper scattered all over me like a tramp’s bedclothes.
The room was dark when I awoke. Dusk was long gone. With the lights still out, I yawned, stretched and lay there thinking. Further sleep would have to wait until after dinner was found and consumed. Still a bit groggy, I stumbled on a step or two on my way down to the ground floor.
There was a single waiter on duty, standing at the entrance to the dining room. No, better to call it a dining hall, given that it was large enough to seat hundreds of guests at a multitude of tables. Tonight however, the sea of Formica tabletops was empty. Tablecloths and utensils, as well as salt and pepper shakers and the like, had only been laid out on half a dozen tables; an indication of just how few guests were currently staying. And of those half a dozen tables, only one had a diner seated at it. He was tucking into a steak: a youngish man, possibly thirty years old at most, with a black beard and the remnants of equally black hair, cut back as unobtrusively as possible. His clothes (jeans, a sports shirt and a green windbreaker) were touristy enough without going to the extremes of “the world is my playground” recreation gear that ageing Americans wear when rediscovering the Europe their ancestors had struggled so hard to escape from.
The waiter led me over to a table just across from him. As I was hungry, I ordered straight away, and the waiter hurried off.
An awkward silence descended following his departure. There we were, two grown men, sitting alone at two different tables in an enormous empty dining hall. I felt that some sort of minimal acknowledgement of our mutual existence was called for. I raised my hand and waved it a little to catch his attention.
“Dober večer! Ali ste slovenec?”
He grimaced - not the reaction I wanted.
“Sorry, I don’t understand. I only speak English.”
I can only imagine the look on my face. It came as much in response to how the words were spoken as the words themselves. There was no doubt as to the origin of that accent.
“Where are you from in New Zealand?” I asked.
“Hokitika originally, but I’ve lived all over. And you?”
“I grew up in Blenheim, but it’s been a long while since I lived in New Zealand now.”
“Live here do you?”
“Not here as such. I live in Geneva. I have a job there as an English teacher.”
“So what are you doing in these parts?”
“I’m on holiday. I come to Slovenia from time to time. In some ways it reminds me of home, on top of which I like the people and the countryside. And you?”
“Just passing through. I’ve come to see the caves - world famous and all that.”
We would have sat together, except for poor timing. He was just finishing his meal, and mine would not be coming through for at least another quarter of an hour.
At the time I thought he must have had something lined up for the evening, such was the haste with which he polished off the last remnants of his meal.
“Not bad at all. They know how to do a good steak here. I’m off now. See you around some time.”
He stopped himself before walking away, straining to remember something. Then his face lit up when it suddenly came back to him: “Oh, and “Dober tek”!”
It means “bon appetit”. Odd that Slovene should have a phrase for this, and all English can resort to is the French expression. I watched him as he negotiated his way through the expanse of tables on his way out.
I just went back to my room and hopped into bed afterwards. The next morning I woke up feeling a bit seedy and depressed, without really knowing why. The view from the balcony of my room was of a series of unprepossessing houses with roofs caked with freshly fallen snow. It was one of those clear, sunny mid-winter mornings, with air so crisp it felt like you could snap it, and a beautiful pale blue sky streaked with wisps of stratospheric cloud. Seeing it raised my spirits. I told myself I had a day of novelty awaiting me, something to take my mind off the drab implications of mortality that so often weighed upon me.
I was alone in the dining hall for breakfast. The fare on offer was surprisingly wholesome for a European hotel - muesli, bran and conventional cornflakes, still warm rye, white and brown toast, slices of baguette, and a choice of grapefruit or orange juice, along with the more standard tea and coffee. You would be hard put to find a French or Italian hotel that would give you so much to choose from. I opted for muesli and orange juice, accompanied by a slice of baguette dabbed with strawberry jam supplied in tiny plastic pots.
There was more to see from the dining hall in the daylight. It looked out directly onto the town square which, at this time of day, actually had foot traffic worth speaking of. The passers-by were mainly housewives doing the rounds of the local stores, stocking up for another day.
By the time I had finished, the clock on the wall read 9.35am. The start time for the morning tour of the caves was ten, so I headed back upstairs to brush my teeth and grab my coat. Although the sun was shining, it was cold outside. I guessed it was slightly above zero. My sole detour on the way was to stop off at the newsagent’s to pick up the morning paper. It would be something to read if there was any down-time during the day ahead. Failing that I could sit on it to keep my backside dry.
Postojna can lay claim to being one of the modern age’s first mass tourist sites. The caves were first explored only in the 19th century, but by the 1880s the locals were packing visitors in to the extent that they installed electric lights inside, at a time when most European cities were still using gas lighting.
Getting to the caves involved a short walk of a kilometre or so from the edge of town, which itself lay only a few hundred metres from the square. There was a fork in the road near the caves, with a turn-off that went past Jama Hotel, Hotel Kras’s sister establishment, which looked like it too had been built in the 1970s. Jama Hotel was more original in its construction, having been built into the hillside, and was something more than just a concrete block, yet could hardly be termed beautiful. It overlooked an extensive car park that had been laid out over an area large enough to handle peak traffic during the summer months. Just now there were only ten or so cars parked there, and I guessed some of those would have belonged to the hotel and cave staff. I was glad not to have arrived during the high season. There would have been mobs of tourists, herded into the place like sheep.
The cave entrance was quite presentable. Large paving stones had been laid, leading up to the triangular mouth, which was shut off by a large wrought iron gate and high railings. A couple of cave employees were washing down the slate paving with hoses. I purchased my ticket and waited. Even though it was past ten, the proprietors were hoping some more tourists would turn up at the last minute. They weren’t totally disappointed in that one at least did show up: my dining “companion” from the night before. He had exactly the same clothes on and looked as if he had slept in them. Judging from the stubble on his face he had slept in too. He waved at me as he went up to the counter to buy his ticket.
I don’t recall the small talk we exchanged while we were led down into the cave. To our mutual surprise, we found a little train awaiting us in a tunnel. The locomotive was a small job. It must have originally been used in a coal mine. The carriages it towed were simple flatbed trucks with wooden seats installed. We and the handful of other visitors hopped on and waited for the engine driver to appear. He was suitably attired in blue overalls and a railway-style cap. After he had sat down at his seat behind the loco’s boiler, he turned around and made motions with accompanying hand signals that warned us to keep our heads down.
We soon found out why as the little train whizzed along the tracks, zooming through low tunnels that forced us to duck right down to avoid having our heads knocked off. Respite was offered at irregular intervals when the train roared out of the confines of the tunnels and passed through huge majestic caverns. For our benefit, they were illuminated sufficiently to allow us to gape for a few seconds at the spires of brown, white and grey limestone before ducking down again as we entered another tunnel.
After ten or so minutes of this Disneyland-style ride, the little train pulled up at our disembarkation point. There was a platform and a broad, winding path, leading up through a moonscape slope consisting of stalagmites and weird stone shapes. At various points along the initial stretch, signs had been erected: “Slovensko”, “Italiano”, “Deutsch” and “English”.
We two were the only English speakers. Four Germans or possibly Austrians stood by the “Deutsch” sign, and a family party of five Italians stood by the “Italiano” one.
I was disappointed there were no Slovenes other than the four guides who accompanied us (3 on duty interpreting, while the other one walked on ahead to switch on lights as we wandered along). I had wanted to put my Slovene to the test, but it was just as well I did not, as my companion might have been offended at being left out. The guide we had was a real professional. He had evidently done all this countless times before and had his narrative down pat, as well as managing to field the various questions we threw at him.
As we walked through the caverns, gasping at the beauty of it all, listening to the narrative, an otherworldly feeling descended on me. I had the impression I was walking through one of those subterranean realms in Middle Earth. It wouldn’t have surprised me had Tolkien visited the Postojna Caves at some stage.
At one point, the lights operator switched off the lights so we could experience pitch blackness. An icy chill entered me as we stood there in total darkness, unable to see anything, not even an outstretched hand. Had it been possible to feel anything inside a coffin, this is what death would feel like. For the first time in my life, I gave serious thought to cremation. It was a relief when, after thirty seconds or so, the guy switched the lights back on. They cast shadows across the crazy landscape of limestone formations, throwing them against the backdrop of cold, grey cavern walls, themselves encrusted with rock.
The guide must have noticed our nervousness when the lights came back on.
“Don’t worry, there is no chance of us being trapped in the dark - all staff have one of these for emergencies.” He held up a large electric torch which had been hanging from his belt.
“On top of which, we have these hidden about the place.”
He stepped behind a limestone column, opened a cabinet door out of view on the far side, and pulled out a telephone receiver.
“There’s a direct line up to the control room at the entrance.”
With that advice, I decided I could put off thoughts of the grave - for a few years at any rate.
We walked on through the fairytale realm of the Postojna Caves, marvelling at all the strange shapes in the stone - hens, mushrooms, turkeys and so on. We traversed an arched footbridge over a precipice, which had been built during World War I by Russian prisoners of war. It was a fine piece of engineering in spite of having been assembled by amateurs, yet it looked small and unimportant alongside the millions of years worth of natural engineering that stood tall and proud all around us. What made me stop and think the most was the idea that down here was a world that no one, other than some hardy cave insects and other small creatures, had explored until the beginning of the 19th century. I asked the guide why no one had ventured down into the caves in earlier times.
“Fear of the Devil. In spring, when the ice in the caves melts, steam rises up and wafts out of the cave mouths and sink holes. People used to think it was sulphur fumes rising up from the depths of Hell.”
I laughed, but it was not really funny. People took that sort of thing very seriously in those days; the way I take the thought of lying in a coffin for eternity seriously. Yet had any of them ventured down here, their fear would have turned to wonderment for, apart from the dark, there was not a great deal to be frightened of in the Postojna Caves.
A great calm descended over me as I walked and watched the changing surroundings. I imagined myself living down here, in my own private kingdom. They had already installed electricity. There was running water, albeit a bit cold. A quiet corner with some furniture and basic necessities and it would be a hermit’s paradise. If you got lonely, you could always come out of your lair and go down into one of the main galleries to spy on passing tourist parties, and it was a short enough walk out of the caves and into town, so you could stock up on groceries once a week with no problems. The only freaky aspect would be switching the light off to go to sleep, and having that oppressive blackness bearing down on you. However with covers over your eyes, leaving the light on and sleeping would be feasible. Natural light would become a precious resource after a while. Spending time up on the surface would be a necessity - the skin needs sunlight to give it a healthy pallor, and the feel of the sun’s rays gives you a sense of mental well-being.
There was little chance of getting claustrophobic down here. A greater problem would be agoraphobia, what with your living area lighting casting eerie shadows on the walls and the rock formations. And what of the silence? Could it be comfortably broken without feeling like you were somehow profaning a holy place? It did feel like a huge natural cathedral down here. It was the sort of place that would lend strength to those of a religious disposition, or at least those aware that Hell did not start this close to the Earth’s surface. I doubted whether a radio or TV would work in the caves, unless you had cable, which meant you would have to resort to videos and recorded music, assuming you could handle that feeling of being a rowdy interloper in the temple.
It would be an odd sort of existence, but you might find calm here, the way an inner-city apartment dweller does, by building a personal inner world within the concrete confines of the central city. Here the confines are natural, but not too different in the sense that they form an imposing, intimidating backdrop that you would have to come to terms with.
And when you eventually died, it would be just like dying in the big city. It would take a week or two before the locals noticed that you hadn’t turned up to buy the weekly groceries, and eventually they would come looking. They would carry you out on a stretcher for burial, and attend to the worldly possessions you had left behind, after which your corner of the underworld would return to silence.
Our walking tour of this wonderland ended at the concert hall, a huge cavern with floor space sufficient to seat up to 10,000 people. In summertime they held orchestral concerts there. I was unable to confirm whether or not they had ever actually managed to attract 10,000 people here all at the same time. The guide was unsure, although you could imagine Marshall Tito holding a Yugoslav Communist Party meeting here just to impress people.
Our parting spectacle before we hopped back on the little train, which had appeared from somewhere, was a tank with a single cave salamander in it. It was a curious-looking creature that the Slovenes call “ loveška ribica” (the human fish) due to its human skin tone and tiny legs, the front two of which strangely resemble arms. We were told the little fellow was not a permanent prisoner - he was to be released that very afternoon.
The train ride out, travelling through a different series of caverns, was even more exciting than the ride in. The high point of the trip was the very last cavern; a vaguely U-shaped area that you could easily fit a couple of football fields inside. It had a river running through it, but this was not what made it stand out. Unlike all the other caverns, this one had walls that were as pitch black as it had been when the guide had turned off the electricity. This place had been the site of a German military fuel depot during the Second World War. The Germans had presumed that the caves would offer a safe storage place, well out of any harm which might be inflicted by the Allied bombers that held firm domination over European skies by 1944. They had failed to take account of the various locals, who knew all sorts of secret routes in and out of the caves.
There is a plaque at the entrance to the caves in commemoration of what had happened:
Tu je dne 23.IV.1944 sabotažni vod vojskove brigade uničil okupatorju sladišče bencina.
“Here, on 23 April 1944, a sabotage detachment from the military brigade destroyed the occupiers’ fuel dump.”
The explosion must have been phenomenal. The townsfolk in Postojna would certainly have heard it. It was surprising the cavern had not collapsed, but then it probably had to some extent, and the locals had had ample time to clear the rubble away before my arrival over half a century later.
It was on this return train ride that I finally got around to asking what my companion’s name was. He had to shout it above the noise of the carriages clattering through the tunnel: “Gavin!”
Gavin and I blinked as we stepped back out into the morning sunshine. We had only been in the caves an hour and a half, yet it felt as if a much longer time had elapsed. In that short period I had witnessed some of the most wondrous sites I would ever see. This must be the sort of feeling the born-again have in them as they step out of church after a morning’s worth of Bible reading and gospel singing. It was a good feeling to have.
It was about twenty to twelve, but Gavin refused to contemplate going back to the hotel for lunch: “We’ve got the better part of the day ahead of us still. If we don’t muck around, we can get to Predjama Castle by early afternoon.”
Walking was the only feasible way of getting there. Gavin had already discovered there were no regular buses to the castle. A taxi was more than either of us was prepared to shell out for, so we started walking.
It was a fine day for it. Cool enough so you could avoid working up a sweat, but not so hot you had to take your coat off.
The country road had no footpath, so we walked along the side of it and hopped onto the verge whenever we heard the occasional sound of an approaching vehicle.
Walking in single file was not conducive to conversation, and it did not really seem to matter in any case. Gavin was just as happy to be out in the countryside in the peace and quiet as I was, and there seemed little point in disturbing the silence. The road was neither steep nor overly winding. We passed by the occasional little house, but there was no sign of inhabitants. I wondered whether these were holiday homes or whether the people were off working somewhere. A couple of caves were also signposted along the roadside, except after the glories we had just witnessed, it hardly seemed worth the effort trying to top them.
After a while, the road started winding through low hills, and a gorge of sorts appeared on our left, running alongside the road for a way before veering off. Here the traffic was a bit more worrisome, as there was nowhere to go in the event of a passing truck, given that there was a drop on one side of the road, and the steep bank of a cutting on the other. We had no mishaps though as the drivers passing us were forced by the bends and the narrow road to slow right down. The trees sprouting out of the hills above the road were all skeletal, having lost their foliage for winter. They gave a harsh feel to what would otherwise have been a pretty landscape.
Several kilometres on, and over an hour’s walking later, we came to a fork in the road. A large sign with a picture of Predjama Castle clearly indicated this was the turnoff to take. Just past a country inn, not doing a great deal of business due to the season rather than the location, the road rose up through further hills, making its way through a plantation of fairly young pines. They had that densely-packed, Central European look about them, their boughs locking together to form a dark, snow-free forest floor, where it was not hard to imagine wild animals or even the exotica of fairy tales lurking.
People lived around these parts too. Tucked away between the trees were three other isolated homes. It felt like a lonely place to live - alright if you wanted seclusion though. After a couple of kilometres the plantation came to an end, leaving just the bare hills and open fields to look at. The Nanos Hills, a solid massif forming the backdrop, seemed too far away to be within walking distance. I hoped the castle was not all the way up there, or we would never get back to Postojna by nightfall.
The road led us across hilly fields to a village called Bukovje, with a population of a couple of hundred judging from the size of the place. No one was out in the streets. The fact it was now about one in the afternoon explained why. We could hear the chinking of plates and the sound of conversations around tables coming from various of the houses near the road. Our only reception was a series of barking dogs and, outside one home, two honking and hissing geese who were far more dangerous customers than the canines. Given how territorial they were, we crossed the road to avoid antagonising them.
By this stage we both had food on our mind. Bukovje was not the sort of spot where you would even find a café, such was its small scale, but it did stretch to providing a village store. We picked a few things off the shelves therein and ate lunch just outside the shop, which itself promptly locked up for lunch moments after we had shut the door behind us.
While we ate, I checked a map. We had taken the wrong fork in the road when we had entered the village, and would have to back-track a hundred metres or so to the intersection.
The remaining couple of kilometres were distinctly hilly. I was beginning to have doubts you could nestle something as large as a castle nearby, until we rounded the final bend in the road and found ourselves entering Predjama Village. The village itself was nothing much - a dozen undistinguished houses, dwarfed by the most imposing structure I had ever seen - the castle itself.
It was not a matter of size - there are far bigger buildings in existence. What struck me was the way this white stone structure, clinging to a natural hollow in the rock, jutted out of a near vertical cliff face hundreds of metres high. I wondered whether modern architects and builders would have had the expertise to erect such an edifice without it crumbling and collapsing in 20 years’ time, the way so many of their flash-in-the-pan creations have a tendency of doing.
Walking closer, we could make out a faded coat of arms that had been painted on the castle wall. Someone had whitewashed over it, but the rain of several decades had soaked enough of the covering layers off for a faint outline to be perceptible. I guessed it was the coat of arms of the Austrian aristocrats who had previously owned the place. The Slovenes, having become the building’s owners after World War II, would no longer have wished to be reminded of their former overlords.
The road to the castle ended in a carpark that looked like a relatively recent addition. The closer we got, the more the place reminded me of Dracula’s castle. The steep-pitched grey slate roofs on all the towers gave the structure a distinctly Transylvanian look.
The far end of the car park narrowed down to a single drawbridge. As our footsteps echoed off the rock face towering above the castle, we looked about for some sign of life. There may have been lights on inside, but it wasn’t apparent at the angle from which we were viewing the castle. It felt like we were being watched. I told myself this was a paranoid delusion.
We stopped at the door and looked at each other.
“You do it,” Gavin prompted.
I shrugged and grasped the door knocker. It was one of those wrought-iron lion’s head knockers. Again, just like something from a Gothic horror film. The deep sound it emitted when hammered against the knocking plate would have been enough to waken a slumbering vampire. We strained our ears to listen. Nothing could be heard except the unabated roar of the stream below.
I was about to try again when I heard slow footsteps, coming down a staircase. They echoed around inside the room behind the door, and then stopped. We both jumped at the sudden clunk of a bolt being drawn back. The creaking of the door being swung slowly open was so stereotypically creepy that it was alarming. We were both wondering what we had gotten ourselves into when a short young brunette in a blue smock stuck her head around the door.
“Dober dan.” She looked at us expectantly.
It took me a moment to snap out of my trance, but I got to the point: “Dober dan! Je grad odprt?”
The door creaked even louder as she swung it open wide enough for us to get through. She gave the door a final heave and slammed it shut behind us after we had trooped through the gate, and completed the process by bolting the door. Although logically, nothing was amiss, for some reason this act made me feel uneasy. I told myself I was being ridiculous.
Up the stairs to the left was the ticket office. We paid and were given a guide leaflet each - mine was in Slovene, and Gavin’s was in English. We were then set free to roam at will.
The castle was everything a child with an active fantasy reflex could wish for. It had a dungeon, secret passages, narrow winding staircases and, best of all, a secret escape route through the cave behind the castle, all the way back through the hills and out into the Cipava Valley on the other side.
The cave behind the castle formed the inner sanctum in its defences. Here, nothing but a very lucky cannon shot could have hit you, although that was how poor old Erasmus Lueger, the robber baron who operated from here, came to his death in 1483. Lueger had decided to back the Hungarians in their war with Austria, and duly set about pillaging Austrian convoys. King Frederick II was furious enough with him to lay siege to Predjamski Grad. At the time, there was another defensive structure here, which came to be replaced by the present-day castle in the 16th century. For all that, this earlier castle was practically impregnable. To cap it off, Lueger had his hidden passage, through which he was able to stock up with provisions. He whiled away his time taunting the Austrians by throwing food at them. The siege lasted months, with the deadlock only being broken by an Austrian spy who placed a flag on the castle privy when Lueger was doing his business. The subsequent cannon bombardment finished him off.
We got to see the privy building, although it was locked. We assumed it too had been rebuilt, as there can’t have been much of it left after being hit by the Austrians.
Our tour of the castle eventually led us up and into the cave behind it. Although it did not look very impressive, this was the fortification’s strong point. It was sheltered, out of any line of fire, and provided ample room for huge amounts of provisions. The passage Lueger and his men had used was still there, although there was a barrier up making it clear that uninvited explorers were not welcome. Through the cave’s mouth you could make out a slice of the village and no more.
By this stage we were both behaving like little kids, such was our excitement. Predjama Castle is the sort of castle you dreamed about, growing up in the South Pacific, where they don’t have real castles. We marvelled at the engineering - the castle had been grafted so skilfully onto the rock face that it looked like it had been welded on.
The place was not without its drawbacks. The social life out here can’t have been too exciting, and the thought of living in this damp, chilly environment was forbidding. This and World War II may have been what led its last private owner, an Austrian aristocrat, to sell the place to the Slovene Socialist Republic after the war.
We came away from the castle pleased at having made the effort to get out there. It was better than spending the afternoon in Postojna. To round the trip off nicely, we even managed to get a lift after only three or four kilometres of walking back, being picked up by a local council vehicle laden with spades, shovels, picks and so on, as well as carrying a crew of three workmen. They were surprised we were foreigners, and for some reason clammed up when they found out. The lift was appreciated all the same, as it allowed us to get back into town by 4pm.
I spent the saved time snoozing in my room, while Gavin, as I later found out, took the opportunity to stock up on beer and spirits for the evening. We had decided to go out for dinner at the local pizza restaurant, and Gavin had decided a few drinks back in his room afterwards would be form a fitting end to a long day.
Our dining venue for the evening was Pizzeria Minutka, a few minutes’ walk up the road from the hotel.
Gavin warned me off the Union Beer (Slovenia’s national label): “I’ve got a couple of dozen cans of that stuff back at the hotel already.” So I settled for Coca Cola instead. Wine seemed a bit effete for pizza.
We were both ravenous by the time the pizzas arrived at our table. After guzzling them down without too much decorum we were both in agreement the place offered a really good feed. There is something about a simple, filling meal after a long day spent exerting yourself. All up we would have walked about 17 or 18 kilometres that day, if you counted the walk around the caves and the castle. As neither of us were hardy bushmen, it felt like quite an achievement.
I had vanilla ice cream for dessert. Gavin opted for a banana split.
The talk was small. We jointly berated the current government back in Wellington, fumed about how greed and short-term profit-making were sending New Zealand down the gurgler, and reminisced about the old days. For the two of us, being only around the 30-year mark in life, the old days (note the absence of the word “good”) were about fifteen years ago. We laughed about long-gone rock and pop groups, fashions and youthful stupidity. It was an exercise in mutual recognition, one of us alternating with the other in sounding out likes and dislikes, hates and fears, and even hopes and disappointments.
For me, it felt as if I was talking to an old school mate - someone I had lost contact with during childhood, and had unexpectedly come across all this time later. It was a good feeling. Gavin was a straightforward sort; not very demonstrative, as Kiwi males tend to be, even these days, but comfortable to be around all the same. He was a real tonic for me. Here I could come out with some cliché about the Swiss, but it would have been the same had I been living just over the border in France. In Geneva I was a foreigner, and as such I was treated in a set way. For my pupils I was an English-speaking piece of exotica. For my employers, I formed the subject of distant condescension; an individual unaware of his place and inept at fitting in. What I really needed was someone like Gavin in Geneva to bring me down to earth and see past the triviality of European bullshit, so I could keep things real. It is an unsettling experience, living alone in a foreign country. You go there to put something exotic in your life and you find yourself confronting all the mundaneness you could just as easily have gotten back home, minus the ease you feel in familiar surroundings.
There was something about Gavin’s demeanour though. He played the part of a “hail fellow well met” sort of Kiwi joker, but there were little twists in his mood, when something melancholy would show through. Nothing dramatic - just a vacant stare, a sad look, a little frown for no apparent reason. These tics were fleeting. He had them under control, except the very act of exerting that control, and the strain it imposed, were self-evident.
I wondered if I might have the same disease. We all have things driving our thoughts in odd directions, pushing us ways we don’t want to go. I might just as easily be twitching or something and never notice.
Any tics in my face would have been work-induced. Even here, so far from Geneva, I found myself dwelling on my job, the pointlessness of it, the bureaucratic nonsense I was made to put up with, and the feeling of frustration it engendered. Gavin might have been seeing something in my changing expressions. Someone in need of a holiday I guess.
We were at the restaurant for about an hour and a half, during which time we only shared the premises with five other diners - a couple in their forties and a family of three. They arrived after we did and left before we did. Their departure led to thoughts of moving on, although there was no pressure whatsoever from the waiter on duty. The thing was that we were having too good a time anyway, talking about distant places and people we might not have been so fussed about in other circumstances. Being away from home does that to you.
As promised, we ended up in Gavin’s room, downing cans of Union Beer. The conversation was boisterous, fuelled by the alcohol and the knowledge Gavin was the only guest on this floor, so we could make practically as much noise as we liked and not have to worry about keeping someone awake.
Come midnight, we were still going strong. It is a rare feeling, getting on so well with someone who, a couple of days before, you had not even met. Gavin excused himself to step out on the balcony and have a cigarette. It was a habit we did not share. He apologised for being anti-social, but as so clearly he was not, it was a pro forma act rather than compensation for a real failing. I stretched out in the armchair while he stood out in the cold night, looking out over the roofs of the nearby houses.
It was a mix of beer, my comfortable position, the long day and all the walking done during it that led to me dozing off. Sleep born of fatigue is a peculiar creature. It catches up on you and pulls you into slumber in a matter of seconds, prior to which you can feel quite perky, but to little effect.
I have no idea how long I dozed. I hope I did not snore - my posture was conducive to it. My awakening came with the jolt of a consciousness suddenly aware of its environment, and with the realisation that a social transgression had been committed. It was met with a snapshot of a face immersed in thought, heedless of the surroundings. Gavin was trembling slightly. His eyes were red from tears, now dried but still apparent. Noticing my stirring, he tried to snap back into an emotionless state, but failed to manage the transformation. I suspected this was due to a mix of the beer and his tiredness. To try and shield his feelings from view, he began talking.
“You had a good sleep.”
I sat up. “Did I? I’m sorry.”
“No worries.” His face looked anything but carefree. “You’re probably wondering about the state I’m in, but that’s to be expected.”
“I haven’t been the same since I left New Zealand. It’s been five months now, and I can’t shake it. I go through these day-to-day actions, soaking up new things in new surroundings, in the hope this weight bearing down on me will lift, except it doesn’t. What I am doing is trying to submerge something with new sensations and sensory input, but it’s not like some sort of erasable cassette that you can record over, the brain. I just wish it was.”
I was still bleary-eyed at this point, not having completely woken up. As he continued, I found myself wide awake, trying to grasp his meaning.
“You came here to get away from the humdrum aspect of your life in Geneva. Just as I imagine some people from here might go to Geneva for a breath of fresh air and a change of pace. It’s funny how anywhere other than where you find yourself at is the place to go to get a better sense of yourself and make yourself feel better. A friend of mine grew up in Christchurch. Every summer holidays, come what may, when he was a child, he and his sister were packed up with a couple of weeks’ supplies and equipment for the family, which were carefully unpacked and carted out to the family bach at Spencer Park. You don’t know it? It’s about twenty minutes’ drive away from Christchurch. The point is, my friend couldn’t understand why his family didn’t just live out there the whole time, down near the beach. Dad could have easily driven a little bit further to work each day. There was a school nearby, shops and the various other amenities you needed for the basics in life. Except then the bach would no longer have been a haven - it would have become just another home; the venue for their day-to-day hassles and hang-ups, as well as the arguments and infighting that all families experience. This was why his father kept two properties - one where he lived and worked, and another where he pretended to escape from it all for a couple of weeks each year, although actually he brought nearly everything with him to the bach, including his family.
That may have been my problem - not having a holiday home to escape to. The tension just built up inside me, with there being no way of releasing it. There were two main sources of stress - home and work - with one feeding on the other incessantly, tightening the pressure and increasing the strain. I used to go to work and spend the day getting stressed out, and then I used to go home at the end of the day for more of the same.
I hadn’t imagined it would be like that. Marriage is supposed to be good for men. They say it gives them emotional support. I have even read reports that it improves men’s health and makes them less susceptible to heart disease. I wish it were true for me. It might very well be true in other cases, although not in mine.
I met Lea in high school. You remember how in high school there was always a couple or two who were crazy in love? That was me and Lea. We never doubted we would end up hitched. It didn’t happen straight away, but it did happen in the end. We were both twenty at the time. Our honeymoon was a motorcycle ride around the South Island. Magical days. And nights. The whole honeymoon had that dreamlike quality such events are supposed to take on - you know those days when you just want it to go on and on? That was our honeymoon. Waking up at Cromwell, crawling out of the tent and hugging each other as we watched the sun lift up over the Southern Alps. They were great days for us. Living had meaning as we had found it in each other, and in the wider scheme of things that may not have counted for much, but it was plenty for us. I thought it was more than enough to see us through. I felt invincible back then, having gained Lea as a permanent part of my life. Our marriage seemed like destiny. Our future happiness was taken as read. We were young, happy and together. Nothing else counted.
Except it did. More than two twenty-year-olds could ever realise. Everyday existence can do things to you, and that was what we were unready for. The mundane influences and the changes they inflict. They are barely noticeable, these changes, but they have an effect for all that. And the problem is that you’re too busy running around dealing with all the stuff that you have to do to realise that you are changing.
Everything is always so clear when you look back on it. I wish I had the benefit of such clarity then. The ability to recognise something while it is happening and admit to yourself that you have a problem on your hands is not a lot to ask for. Except that I, Lea, and most other people for that matter, just aren’t all that perceptive, so instead of fronting up to changing realities, you do what people normally do, which is to tell yourself that these niggling worries are the results of your imaginings. Or you think to yourself that you are feeling these uneasy emotions because you’ve had a tiring day, or didn’t get much sleep the night before. It’s a sort of paralysis, this unwillingness to recognise a key event for what it is. Instead, sloth-like, you just hang on the vine, trying not to fall off, telling yourself that the fact you are clinging on is enough in itself, never mind the swinging caused by the blowing wind.
This is why so much evil happens in this world. It’s not because those party to it are necessarily evil themselves, it’s more because they abdicate their individual sensitivities and responsibilities. They block out the bad feelings about what it is they are doing in the name of the greater cause - hanging on to the vine. And the greater cause doesn’t have to be anything particularly momentous, it could be something as commonplace as marriage.
For me, the unease started not too long after our return from honeymooning. It was on our moving day, shifting in to our new home. Okay, I know what you are thinking - moving into a new home has got to be stressful, and it was. Where do I put this? What about this thing? Should it go over here? No, not there! All that sort of stuff. And in the middle of it came an argument. A stinking little argument, right there in front of the movers, with neither of us giving a damn who knew about it.
She put a chair on a box full of stuff that belonged to me. It was fragile stuff - things that could easily get broken if you stacked a bloody great heavy chair on top of it. She dumped the chair on top when I was out of the room. When I saw it, I muttered a curse and took it off. There was plenty of room for it - somewhere that didn’t involve my stuff getting crushed. Then I went outside to the moving truck to get something else to bring inside. By the time I had returned, the chair was on top of the box again. This time, I waited until Lea reappeared, toting an ugly lamp she had found at a garage sale.
“There’s fragile stuff in that box.” I stood there pointing at it, obviously looking annoyed.
“It’ll be alright.”
That was all she had to say. She carefully placed her precious lamp out of harm’s way and walked out.
I took the chair off my box again, and went out to collect something else from the truck. When I came back, I caught her in the middle of placing the chair back on top of the box again.
“You have the whole room - you don’t HAVE to stack that chair on my box full of FRAGILE things.”
I deliberately spoke to her the way you would to a slow person. My assumption was that, for some reason, she was experiencing a short spasm of befuddlement, and should be treated accordingly.
“It’s just in the way - it’s alright on the box.”
“HELLO! It is not alright on the box. As I told you - there is no need to stack that chair on a box full of fragile things.”
“Fine then!” she snapped, and stormed out of the room.
It was the type of happenstance that seemed unimportant on the day. I attributed her irrational behaviour to the fact it had been a stressful day and filed it away, but it was not something I forgot. I found myself coming back to the incident from time to time to go over it, again and again. I arrived at various interpretations with the passage of time, but the ultimate conclusion, the one I came to consider to be the best explanation, was that at some very basic level we were not connecting. It was as if my concern for my fragile property was invisible to her, even when waved in her face. Either that or it was beyond the bounds of what she considered important. And then there was her failure to respond to my unambiguous hints, no matter how bluntly put, until she finally stomped out of the room.
I suppose I was naive, but I had thought that run-ins like that were not going to happen to us. We had known each other for a few years by that time. Long enough, I thought, for us to have reached a stage where we could transcend such scenes. But it’s that reflex I was talking about - this expectation that because something doesn’t match your preconceived notions, it is somehow an aberration.
On top of which, there were more pressing concerns: making money, paying bills, looking out for the future, keeping the in-laws happy - that sort of thing. We held it all together, and even prospered. We bought our first home by the time we were 23. The aim was to have the mortgage paid off by the time we were 40. We had it all mapped out; right up to our retirement, when we would be able to settle down and enjoy what was left of life while we still could, and share quality time with our grandchildren.
The house was in Alicetown. It was a 1920s cottage with leadlight windows and a vaguely Art Deco woodwork finish. It had been transported to the site many years ago and placed on concrete piles there. We used to joke that if the nearby Hutt River ever burst its banks, we would have some slight safety margin before the water rose up to our front door. There was a bit of a lawn and a passable looking garden out front, with some shrubs and roses. Out the back was the garage, a shed, a clothesline, vege patch and some trees. It was a quarter-acre section - no sub-dividing took place in this neighbourhood, ta very much. I like Alicetown. It’s a quiet, respectable working-class neighbourhood. Nothing wanky or pretentious about it. The houses along our street were similar in style to our one, without the dreary grey uniformity you would find in such residential streets in Britain. They were pleasant structures in a green environment. They were painted different colours, and here and there you could see signs of extensions and other improvements. The generations of families who had occupied these homes since they were built after World War I really had achieved the settlers’ dream of improving on the way things were back “Home”. I imagine over the years the gardens would have improved a bit, but the street as it stood when we moved in would not have been much different from its early days, with the minor exception of the TV aerials and satellite dishes. If someone who had spent his or her childhood in that street were trundled out of a retirement home and allowed to have another look, it would have all come back to them. The faces had changed, but the neighbourhood kids still played soccer and cricket in the street, pausing only to let the occasional passing resident’s car go by.
Alicetown has the advantage of lying just across the Hutt River from Lower Hutt, with its small cluster of sore-thumb tower blocks and all those shops. The fact it was the neighbourhood where I worked also played a part in the choice of suburb. Originally I had worked for a light engineering firm in Petone. At the fairly young age of 22 I had decided to go for it. A dead uncle had left me a fair amount of money, so I sank it into setting up my own panel beating and auto repairs workshop down by the Alicetown railway overbridge. There is a straggling light industrial zone there, running along the railway tracks. It made for a passably bleak lunch-time environment, so it was good to have the opportunity to pop home for lunch with Lea, or even head down to the grassy floodbanks of the Hutt River, and sit in the shade of the weeping willows on a hot summer’s day. I loved those lunches with her, particularly the ones by the river. We used to laugh a lot, even fool around a bit. Someone told me generations of Lower Hutt residents had been conceived on those riverbanks, but it never got that far for us in any case. Life was still a struggle, what with the new business and the new house to take care of, but we had faith, and the expectation that we would get where we wanted to go.
Despite the daily grind and the petty demands placed on us by life, society and relatives, we still managed to go on holidays, and enjoy ourselves. And it was the little things that made suburban life liveable: a good series on TV or a video from the local rental store; a fine stereo system with a good collection of recorded music to back it up, swimming down at Petone beach, or just standing out in the back yard at night, looking up at the stars and listening to the periodic hooting of some nocturnal bird up in the hills near Normandale.
I did used to worry a bit. Given that we were living about thirty metres from a fault line, I hoped there wouldn’t be an earthquake. Then, after a winter when the Hutt River came close to bursting its floodbanks, I started worrying in earnest about floods too. I read in the local newspaper that back in the 1890s, the whole Hutt Valley had ended up under water following a major flood. Such possibilities are all a bit daunting for a young homeowner still worrying about mortgage payments.
Me and Lea settled in and found ourselves ending up pretty much detached from the friends we had known in our school days. There was a time when young people had generally married early - within a few years of leaving school, but nowadays that’s a bit of a rarity. This made us the odd couple, in the sense that most of our peers were not in our situation. Consequently, our old friends largely dropped away. The ones that had not headed off overseas to find real jobs for real money did not relate too well to the concept of me and Lea as a single unit. We found new friends, mainly local couples who were neighbours or lived nearby. This entailed a bit of a demographic shift, as most of these married couples were at least several years older than us. It felt strange: we went from being the mature ones in our old peer group, to being the young ones in the new crowd.
The relationship slowly spiralled down from the euphoric heights of the initial months of our marriage. It was living together that did it. That sense of day-to-day familiarity which means you become less and less likely to marvel in wonderment at your significant other. We lost the spark we originally had, and which we brashly thought we would always retain as an active part of our mutual relationship. Neither of us spotted the change at the time. It took a long while for that realisation to sink in. Both of us were clinging grimly to the idea of something better than what we actually had.
Lea unwittingly further provoked my awareness that something was amiss. One day I found a half-written letter to one of her cousins lying on the coffee table in the living room. I noticed it when I collapsed onto the couch to watch the TV news after a particularly hectic day. Lea was in the kitchen making dinner at the time. I know what you’re thinking, but as the breadwinner, and one who put in long hours running a business, it was a bit much to expect me to make dinner at the end of a working day. Anyway, the letter was trivia apart from one paragraph: “We have settled down too much. It’s not like our courting days any more. He never takes me anywhere. I feel empty.”
I was hurt by this. It was not just that it was untrue and that we did in fact go out to this and that social event, but also the fact that she was moaning to her cousin instead of talking to me. The common agreement was that we were both supposed to let the other know if there was a problem. Now I was finding out Lea was keeping some heavy thoughts from me, yet she had no hesitation in telling her cousin all about them. I wondered what other things she let slip behind my back to friends and relatives. Mulling over this, it didn’t take long for me to end up completely browned off. If she was unhappy, she was supposed to tell me. It was not as if I were the enemy or anything.
Looking back, I reacted the wrong way. I should have said something, sat down and talked with her. Partly I responded the way I did because I did not want to have to admit I had read her letter on the sly. Partly too it was because I was hacked off with the thought she was more open about revealing her problems when she was relating to other people than she was in her dealings with me. So instead I fretted and said nothing. I was sullen that night. Lea attributed it to tiredness. It was a convenient excuse, so I hid behind it. I just grunted at her most of the evening, and went to bed early, falling asleep within a few minutes of my head hitting the pillow.
That was the second of the moments at which I noticed something was not going right. Like the first instance, the feeling was submerged by that flood of mundane events that keep everyday living so hectic. However the memory did not fade. It was still lodged there in my head, only my attentions were turned elsewhere, until such time as I could sit back and really think, upon which it would be pulled out of the databank for further scrutiny and consideration, and compared with other incidents in an attempt to discern a pattern and find some logic to it all.
My other reason for letting the incident go was that, as stupid as it might seem, I could find no real grounds for why Lea might be unhappy. Sure, we had our squabbles, yet this was part of being a couple. Apart from that, I really could not see what she had to complain about. Lea had a loving husband (even if I do say so myself) who was making good money, or at least enough to give her a nice house, her own car, and all the clothes and other ephemera women like. We went away on holidays once a year, either in New Zealand or in Oz. I was not earning so much money that we could afford to go any further afield, but there’s nothing shameful in that. A lot of people never even get to go on holiday for want of money. We definitely did not fall in that category.
In fact, I had plenty of reasons to feel pride in how well I had provided for Lea. And I know saying something like that sounds very traditional, but it was a traditional relationship: I took care of business and provided, and she took care of the home and me. That was why I found it so hard to work out why there should be some element that just did not feel right. There was a point at which you can no longer put it down to tiredness, a bad temper or a bad day.
I will throw in a couple more instances, just to give an idea of the sort of thing that was getting to me, making me doubt my smug pride over our marriage.
Firstly, there was her verbal harassment. Her putdowns and comeuppances extended to the most hallowed places. Things which stood as points of refuge for me, and which common sense and feminine empathy might have led her to leave unviolated and unsullied. I will give an example, and it may seem trivial to you, but bear in mind this is a woman who has known me for years, knows how I function, and also knows how to turn that to advantage in her attempts to cause damage. Sometimes, when I am feeling down, when I have had a bad day, I seek solace in music. I pour myself a glass of wine or crack open a beer, and sit down and let myself float away. If I am feeling really low, I run a bath, put on a record, then soak in the bath listening to it. It gives me a sense of ease, and shores up my battered senses after spending several hours in the general free-for-all that people refer to as “work”. When we first got married, Lea would respect these times, knowing full well what was going on. Then she started impinging on the fringes, coming in to ask me about pointless things that could wait like “where’s the spatula, you know, the wooden one?”, or “did you pay this power bill or will I have to?” Trivia that could have waited. At first it was annoying, and then it went beyond that. If I was in the living room, sitting there taking the music in, she would come in and switch the radio on. Or if I was in the bath listening to something, she would waltz into the living room and turn it down to a level that would have been barely audible had I been standing beside the stereo, but was imperceptible from the distance of the bathroom.
It turned into a confrontation after one particularly upsetting day, when we had received a damaged car to fix. It was a windscreen replacement job. Only problem was that the windscreen to be replaced had received the full impact of someone’s head. There were strands of hair, caked blood and torn shreds of flesh to show that whoever had hit that windscreen had probably not survived. It shook the lads up. Actually it freaked them out, so I took over the job. Boss’s prerogative. You have to do the shitty jobs yourself sometimes, not because you’re letting them off or stuff like that, but because it’s the right thing to do, and with that seniority comes a certain amount of responsibility and obligations. I didn’t want them to think I was dropping them in it, getting them to do dirty work I would have turned my nose up at. Truth be said, there might have even been a positive factor involved in that next time there was some onerous task to be done, they would remember my sacrifice and pitch in without complaints. I never got to put that one to the test though: events overtook me.
Anyrate, I was shaken up by the time I had finished that job. You don’t need reminders of mortality like that in your face. Life is hard enough as it is. I had just the record in mind for when I got home: Astral Weeks, by Van Morrison. You don’t know it? You know Van Morrison though eh? Yeah, the Irish guy - Moondance and all that. Astral Weeks was one of his early solo albums, and he decided he was going to change direction a bit with it, so he got in some crack Black American session musicians, jazz players. They probably didn’t have a clue what was lined up for them. They recorded the album more or less live in the studio in just a couple of weeks. I first heard it when I was fourteen, and it simply blew me away. It is the whole tableau of human life - the love, hate, fear and frustrations of living, with a mix of wonderment and elation thrown in as a response to the excitement and the unknown. It’s a magical record. Lush strings, Morrison’s vocals flowing through it all, on the verge of losing it, then pulling back, reining in his rage and passion just in time. And the musicians! They not only cut it, they broke through. It’s one of those records that people will still be listening to a century from now and marvelling at. It just soars, lifts you up and carries you away. Side one is my favourite. It starts off quite subdued. I remember when I heard it the first time I wondered a bit about what was going on, but by the time you hit the third track, “Sweet Thing”, and the string section kicks in, you are just floating. It’s like that thing gospel music does to you, even if you’re not Christian. It just goes for a part of your emotions, and once it has them, it doesn’t let go.
So imagine how I feel when I have raised myself to this tranquil state of elation and joy, only for it all to come crashing down around me when Lea comes home and turns the stereo down. I felt like I was the victim of the music Gestapo, making sure there would be no joy in our house so long as the little woman took issue with it. I sat bolt upright in the bath and roared at the top of my lungs: “TURN THE FUCKING VOLUME BACK UP!”
Sure, it wasn’t polite, but nor was her treatment of me. And it wasn’t the first time. You never heard me complaining when she had her radio turned up to listen to something. Far from it. But the minute I want to listen to some music and relax... Can’t do that. Not in my own home. No, it wouldn’t be right. I have to button up and shut up. I think she would have been happier if I just stood in a corner with my face to the walls. At least then I would have been under control and not making any noise.
Of course, my yelling didn’t have the effect I wanted. Instead of her turning the volume up, all I heard was the front door being slammed loudly behind her and her car roaring out of the driveway. She was pissed off alright. “Well, that’s two of us then” was my response. It was only fitting that if she was going to put me in that state that she should share in it. I hoisted my dripping body out of the tub and stomped down the hall to the living room, where I took great pleasure in turning the volume back up higher than it had originally been.
I didn’t recapture my earlier musical-induced elation. Van and company now felt like they were on too lofty a plane for me. They were way up there in the clouds, shaping and shifting sounds, and here I was, down in my bathtub, fuming at a woman with no manners and even less consideration. Then my mind went back to the gore on the smashed windscreen and there was even less chance of me pulling out of my depressed state. I wondered if she could even to begin to understand the effects of her thoughtlessness. Whatever her motives, her actions just left me fuming. This was not what marriage was supposed to be.
But what incensed me the most was that Lea began to doubt me. There was a time when her love had entailed an implicit faith, the security of which I had become accustomed to. It had seen us through the wedding arrangements, honeymoon and house buying, and the various administrative decisions that weigh on any marriage. Now she was incapable of accepting anything I said at face value. Doubt was thrown on my every word. She cross-examined me, probing for chinks in my arguments, searching for something to hold up as proof of my fallibility, a fallibility which I had moreover never denied, but did not need thrown in my face constantly. It was a vexing and irksome habit, and made even casual conversation all but impossible. We could no longer discuss things without Lea veering the conversation into some sort of verbal challenge to what she took to be some fundamental tenet in my mindset that she just had to blow sky high. It upset me and made me surly and sullen, which itself was the target of further comments. It occurred to me that with Lea there was a deeply-held need to put me in my place, and to get the upper hand, whether we were talking about the parliamentary debates on the radio, or our joint bank account.
I felt she was actively rubbing salt into the wound she had created with her carping criticisms, by incessantly harping on about the same points over and over. It was not good enough for her simply to score points off me, she had to remind me of it again and again so she would feel better about herself and somehow superior to me and my human failings.
The natural reflex is to adopt the same tactics and carp back. This I did, although I must admit she was superior to me in that department. I simply didn’t have the persistent pickiness required to do it. I was also amazed at her virtuoso skill at dredging up past issues and recombining them in astonishing new ways to provide additional evidence of my stupidity and incompetence. So I became more sullen and grouchy. This was of course my fault - the sort of things males do because that is the way they are. She would take great pleasure in commenting on my behaviour to her friends and relatives over the phone, usually when I was within earshot, and would sling in some smart remark along the lines of “see what I mean?” when I interrupted and gave her an earful while the other person was still on the line.
I found it hard to accept, but I eventually had to admit that the woman I loved was turning into a sniping little cow. It began to look like my choice for a partner in life had not been the best after all. Had I told her this, she would have held it up as further evidence of my uselessness.
You’ve never been married, have you? It’s hard to convey the sense of frustration you have when, day in day out, you are being put through the wringer by a fussy bitch and worse, one who you thought you loved, who you thought was that special someone. When you are engaged to be married, you have such high hopes, and hold such an optimistic view of how wonderful marriage is going to be that, when you find out it’s all shit, it’s a tough thing to take.
I took it hard. I realised we were going to end up just like my parents - two people who had loved each other and, for the sake of maintaining appearances, stuck together although they could barely stand it. I felt cheated. I had wanted more than this. I had been convinced that I was made of better stuff than that, and so was Lea. Now I had to adjust that picture to factor in the realisation that, while I possibly still was made of better stuff than that, Lea had turned into a petty demon, driven by a desire to come out on top come what may, even when there was no visible gain to be extracted from the upset she was causing.
There is another incident that is more forcefully imprinted on my memory, for the reason that it was our first, full-blown screaming match. To make things worse, it occurred on Christmas Eve, casting a shadow over us on the big day that followed, and its aftermath when, by tradition, you trot around to the various rels and have to be happy happy cheerful cheerful.
That Christmas Eve we had been invited over to the neighbours’ place. I had answered the phone when they rang and asked if we would like to come and have a few drinks. The time to come was “any time after 8.30 - by then the kids will be in bed.”
Christmas Eve is a hectic time if you are in the motor trade. People check in their cars for repair work the week before and want them fixed by the time the holidays start. Christmas Eve that particular year was on a Friday, the last working day of a very stressful week. Consequently I didn’t get home till seven in the evening, and by the time I had finished dinner it was 8 o’clock. The week having been a blur with no time for anything much other than slogging away, I had not had the opportunity to wrap all the presents I was supposed to distribute to the relatives and in-laws the following day, so I shut myself away in the study and started wrapping. I soon had paper off-cuts and presents scattered everywhere - you can imagine what a mess the place was. I happened to be right in the middle of all this when Lea erupted through the door and plonked herself down in the chair by the desk, surveying the scene like a site foreman.
“It’s half past eight. You’re late.”
“I’m not late,” I countered. “They said any time after eight thirty. And at the moment I am trying to wrap some presents.”
“I’ll just wait then.” She emitted a smug smile.
What was she thinking? I was trying to wrap presents - her’s included! Fortunately it was buried in a pile and was not visible for the moment.
“Please go. I can’t do this with a spectator.”
“Maybe you’ll hurry up if I’m here.”
“I don’t need you to hurry me up - there is no reason to hurry. We aren’t late, and in any case, I will have this finished in another fifteen minutes or so.”
Since she was not moving, I pulled her out of the chair and herded her to the door, which I slammed shut once she had been pushed out.
“Bloody cheek!” was all I could mutter under my breath.
I finished the wrapping in twenty minutes, but this was in any case of no importance, given there was no time limit on our arrival. I found Lea in the kitchen.
She must have been sitting there fuming for the last quarter of an hour. Now she took the opportunity to erupt.
“You think I’m going now!? After what you did? You can go by yourself!”
That set me off nicely. And I have to admit, that if I was placed in that particular situation again, I would probably do exactly the same thing all over again too.
“So it’s my fault? You pull your little bullshit act and make a big fuss over nothing, and it miraculously becomes something I‘ve done? Do you think you are achieving anything by carrying on like this? Anything at all other than behaving like a bitch? If you’re not going, then I’m not going either. As if I give a shit anyway!”
Damn her, putting me in that mood. Applying just that little bit of pressure on me, to push the stress level that week from borderline to unbearable. Setting a deadline that didn’t exist when I had spent the last five days rushing around after real ones! And then she had the gall to try and make me feel guilty for it! So just what the fuck was going on in her pernickety little head? I couldn’t work it out. It made no sense to me at all. Was she just stirring me up for the sake of it? Fat lot of good she’ll get out of that, I told myself.
I went and sat in the lounge and switched on the TV. There was some god-awful crap on - Christmas Stars on Ice - that tripe that the programming manitous out at Avalon schedule for the silly season. That was beside the point though. Although I was watching it, I wasn’t really taking it in. In reality, I was just sitting there livid, mumbling curses under my breath.
Half an hour later there was a knock on the front door. Lea answered. It was the neighbours. I could only hear part of the conversation from the lounge - the bit Lea made a point of yelling in a loud voice so I couldn’t help but overhear it.
“Yes, I’m sorry. My darling husband has been running late tonight, but we can come over now.”
She entered the lounge beaming a phoney smile. “Come on darling. It’s time to visit the neighbours.”
By that stage I was honestly wondering whether she was on medication of some description. Her behaviour had no reason to it, other than some Hell-bent urge to put me in my place for reasons I could only guess at. It might have been the fact I was busy at work, yet this was not the first time I had been busy working before Christmas. Lea knew how things operated. The least she could do was make allowances. Or is it a woman’s prerogative to behave like a bat escaped from the asylum?
She certainly seemed determined to put me in my place at our little social gathering that evening.
“Yes, his range of work is not as great as when he was working for his old employers. He has had to limit himself to what he knows best. It’s safer that way.”
In fact she was saying my skills were limited, and I used to take on work I couldn’t handle. A wonderful advertisement for my business.
I said nothing. It was apparent enough to our hosts what I was thinking.
She had the temerity to hug me afterwards, as we were walking down the neighbours’ driveway. I made no response. All I could think was “she plays up all evening, doing her best to rile me, and then I am supposed to smile and forgive her”.
Christmas Day was my revenge. For once I refused to laugh at her brother’s lame jokes. There’s always one in the family at Christmas time - an amateur Benny Hill who assumes that because his jokes are lame that his suffering victim has no humour. I made a point of not smiling either, and I passed a few comments of my own designed to have a certain effect. It was not a happy day. I can lay some claim to having ruined it quite soundly for Lea. She was shamefaced in front of her relatives. I didn’t give a damn. It wasn’t revenge. My mind was somewhere else entirely. I was in a crest-fallen place, surrounded by disappointments and doubts, wondering whether my life was futile. I had worked so hard to make the marriage succeed. It might have been that I was working too hard. Lea had taken me for some sort of passive fall guy she could stuff around.
The instances I had thought were insignificant exceptions were now coming together to form a fabric woven in a chillingly coherent pattern.”
I interrupted Gavin at that point. I needed a pee as all the beer I had sunk had made its way through my digestive tract. As I stood watching used beer cascading into the bowl, I wondered where all this was leading.
I wasn’t wearing a watch, but I knew it was late. I guessed it was some time between one and two in the morning. I was holding up, but it was hard going. It had been a very long day.
My host was getting overwrought, and it was more than a case of tiredness after an eventful day. What struck me the most was the total contrast between Gavin’s quiet behaviour during the day and this effusiveness at this late hour. The urge of the confessional was driving him. I thought about why he might have chosen me as confessor as I zipped up my fly. It could have been my face, my attentive look, my ability to listen and not say much. A string of women had found that attractive over the years. The occasional man too, although not for any sexual reasons. Many years ago at a friend’s party a bearded bloke had sat down beside me and proceeded to spend over an hour telling me his life story, from teenage delinquent through to gang member and then drug lord. As he was telling me tales of murder, trafficking and intrigue, I noticed the friend who had invited me to the party (it was his flat) occasionally popping his head into the room to check up on me. After I finally got away, I found him in the kitchen preparing snacks and told him what had happened. He stood there stunned: “I don’t even know that guy. He just happens to live next door. I didn’t have the nerve to turn him away.” By the time we left the kitchen to hand around the snacks, his uninvited guest had already left.
So there was some element of my personality involved. I was too tired to get to the bottom of it, even assuming I could in the couple of minutes it took to wash and dry my hands. I stared into the mirror for a moment, didn’t like the dishevelled face I saw, and went back to face Gavin again. I had barely exited the bathroom when he launched into his spiel. I left him to talk and slumped back down into the armchair, which was still warm from my body heat.
“The impenetrable element is the key. If only I had thought of it in time, but the human mind doesn’t work like that. It’s too illogical. It only holds a few elements at once and lets the rest slip away: “Too hard, don’t bother”. You can see this in the faces of stupid people when you challenge them with a concept or a proposition beyond the narrow scope of their normal comprehension. If they really tried, they might grasp what you’re on about, but they’re not that intellectually vigorous to begin with. They prefer to think about things they’re familiar with and let the rest take care of itself.
“The bloody key! I thought I worked on a higher level than that. At work, I was the guy in charge, holding it all together, spotting other people’s mistakes and ticking them off. Yeah, that was my normal everyday scene, the stuff I was familiar with. Then put me in a situation beyond my experience, and I was just as bad as the people I looked down on. And in forgetting, I brought it all crashing down - the false hopes and deceit, that unerring conviction wrongdoers have that they will never be caught, because they have thought it all through. One omission, one piece of forgetfulness, that was all it took to ruin everything. I might as well have left my business card at the scene of the crime.
And that was what the absence of that key constituted - a sort of calling card which proved I was involved in what would otherwise have been taken for an accident.
Anyway, I am getting off the track, and leaving you none the wiser, so I’ll get back to where I left off.
That Christmas and its accompanying holidays were soon over, but the gulf that had opened up between me and Lea had by then become a permanent part of the landscape. As the weeks went by, she became increasingly critical of me, of her surroundings, and of our life together, to the extent that life with her became intolerable for me.
I find it difficult in retrospect to adequately summarise what it was like. Just thinking about it makes the bile rise up. There she was, this woman I loved, who promised me all that forever after stuff at the wedding ceremony and elsewhere, and now all she could do was harp on incessantly. I didn’t make the bed properly. I didn’t wipe down the kitchen sink properly. I didn’t know how to clean the toilet properly. I left crumbs in the kitchen, the living room and the hall. I went to bed too late. I got up too late. The water I used to wash the dishes was never hot enough. I put the margarine back in the wrong place, and so on and so on and so on.
Lea had turned the house into a sort of 3D obstacle course, with the main obstacle being my inability to read her mind to discern the hundreds of trivial little details I had to accomplish to keep it just so, and make her the contented homemaker cum Queen of Sheeba.
There was another level though, which I came to think of as “habitation domination”. Paradoxically, Lea, who was spending so much of her time telling me what to do around the house and exactly how it should be done, had the conviction stuck in her craw that I was somehow monopolising the house. It got to the point where she was talking in terms of percentages of room space occupied by what could be identified as my “individual possessions”. The living room was a particular sore spot, as she claimed I had “taken it over” with the presence of my hi-fi system, and the 26 inch TV, as well as the VCR and the DVD player. Not to mention my collection of CDs, cassettes, videocassettes and DVDs. She did of course stoop to using these from time to time herself, but nonetheless they were regarded as “mine” and were endlessly exploited as ammunition in what had developed into an ongoing war against me, the foreign invader in “her” home.
I used to make fun of her. I once asked her not to shit on “my” side of the toilet, in addition to which I claimed the hot tap of the washbasin and bathtub as my own, but stuff like that just made her worse, so I gave up after a while. Then I asked her in all seriousness whether she actually thought I should pack up my belongings and put them in storage just so her peculiar mania could be sated. Or would the peace and quiet only last until such time as she could find something else to dwell on in her ongoing quest for discord and disputes.
I reached the stage where it was easier for me to spend more time at work and go out with the lads than it was to go home and listen to her having a go at me, but this was not the worst of it.
The ultimate weapon in her arsenal was what I came to think of as “direct attacks”. These were hurtful comments aimed at me personally rather than at my household derelictions and my unseemly hogging of domestic space. And they worried me much more.
My personal shortcomings, it seems, came in a whole range of forms. I was supposedly clumsy, for instance. Lea took to placing objects strategically around the place in positions likely to cause accidents. For instance, a jar would be left teetering on the edge of the kitchen bench, where I might easily brush it with my elbow and send it crashing to the floor. Or a pastry, still wrapped in its brown paper bag, that she had thoughtfully left in the oven without telling me, only for me to discover it too late once smoke came billowing out of the oven. Of course, you are always supposed to look for inflammable items in an oven before switching it on... Then there was her habit of opening bags of flour, sugar or whatever at the bottom and carefully placing the bags back in the cupboard so that when I picked them up, the contents would pour all over the place. You are probably sitting there thinking that I am making this up, but she managed to turn the whole house into a series of little booby traps, all with a view to proving that the booby was me. And every time she caught me out, it was further evidence I was a clumsy, muddlesome galoot, whose only purpose in life was to mess up her house.
Then there were the comments about my appearance. Before I decided just to shave it all off, I was struggling for a long time with a receding hair line. It was the stuff most men go through: “Oh God, what do I do? My masculinity is receding before my eyes! Do I comb it over or cut it back? Will people notice?” All that stuff. If it wasn’t bad enough thinking about this all the time, I had Lea there to remind me: “You’re looking very bald this morning” was her favourite line after I had just stepped out of the shower, and what was left of my hair was left looking even more reduced by the effects of soaking in water.
My nose was another aspect she worked on repeatedly in her attempt to turn me into a psychotic obsessed with his own ugliness. Apparently it was too big. She would remind me of this by making comments about nosey parkers, Pinocchio and the like. The only problem was that here her efforts were totally unconvincing. She could put me through the emotional wringer over my hair loss, but try as I might I never managed to pick up a complex about my nose. Never in my life had I been under the impression my nose was too big. It was too much a woman’s sort of obsession for me to even begin to take it for other than what it was: a shaky ploy to undermine my self-confidence.
And there was her other weapon - comments about my sexual performance. In our adolescent days, the sex had been great. Then, of course, what happens as a matter of course to all couples happened to us: the sex went stale. As she got older, Lea became more and more passive in bed. And here we should clarify what I mean by “passive”. I don’t mean submissive. In fact, she was altogether the opposite: the more passive in bed she got, the more she was ordering me around. You must know the sort of thing: Faster! Slower! Up a bit! Down a bit! No, not there! It was like fucking a barking sergeant-major. I used to ask her what she was doing to satisfy me, but her impression was that this was no longer her job - as with so many other parts of our relationship, I had to be the one taking orders. I think she was beginning to see herself as some sort of superior being. She was a bit like one of those little girls we used to have to put up with in primary school, bleating on about how boys are made of puppy dog tails, while girls are wonderful and sweetness and light. If only it were true.
After a while, I lost interest in sex. To make things worse, she was using that as a control mechanism too - denying it to me when she had some point she wished to prove. All I could think was “fine, if that’s the way you want it!” I got a sick thrill telling her I didn’t feel like it, the first time she asked me. I almost wavered the second time, when she actually took the trouble to be nice to me for a day or so beforehand. Her charm didn’t work though - my repugnance ran too deep. By the third time I said no, I felt like I was beating her at her own game. The problem was that by then I felt no desire for her anymore. Playing with sex as a control mechanism over me was paradoxically what led to Lea losing all control over me. Once sex was out of bounds, I started really looking at all the other aspects of our crumbling relationship and realised there was not much left to hold me to her, apart from the messiness and expense of a divorce. I knew that if it came to that, her mean streak would ensure she made my life as much of a misery as she possibly could, and as I was the one with all the income and the business, I had everything to lose. Overall, I was in a pretty fucked up little corner.
It’s a sign of how bad the situation had become that I was thinking in such terms. Love and emotion of any positive kind had been thrown out the window. What I now faced was a duel involving mean-spirited self-interest, and the victor would be the one who was cruellest and hardest. I resolved at that point that I was going to show the bitch that she had made a mistake when she thought she could pick on me. My fury and spite had been held in check for many months. Now I released them to wreak as much damage as I could possibly get away with.
I had endless justifications for my behaviour: She had started all this; I was just acting in self-defence, and so on. Excuses come easy in such situations.
I took to spending most of my evenings with the lads - my old school friends who had not married. They were thrilled to have me back in the fold, no questions asked. For them it was normal I should prefer their company to Lea’s - they considered marriage to be a sign of insanity, but I was back now, amongst the mentally healthy. I found an outlet for my frustrations through social drinking, playing the pokies, hanging out at the TAB - the usual stuff Kiwi males do in their spare time. The normality of it was comforting. I could pretend I was like everyone else, even if in the past I had not been greatly interested in that sort of thing. It was this big, dreary culture just waiting in the wings to help me find a world that was distinct and removed from Lea’s. Sitting in rooms smelling of ciggy smoke and beer stains, watching the trots or the league via satellite from Melbourne over a few beers with me mates.
Sex didn’t take long to get factored in. There were plenty of women in those places, some single, some married. Neither variety was fussy about who they hung out with. Pubs and gambling joints are great levellers - places where social inhibitions and barriers are easily ignored, if only because you are supposed to be there for a good time.
Thoughts of infidelity started one night when me and the lads went to a strip club. I left that joint shortly before midnight with a bloody great hard-on and no one to use it on. Lea was off-limits: if I gave it to her, she would accept it as an admission of defeat; something to crow over. So I just went home and crawled into bed without waking her. She kicked me in the back an hour later to remind me of who was boss and ensure I spent the next day yawning for want of uninterrupted sleep.
Over the next few days, I kept thinking more and more about sex. You know how it is if you aren’t getting any. After three days I had had a gutsful. I went to a pub I normally did not hang out in, determined to get laid, and not feeling fussed about who with. I ended up with some woman. Now I can’t even remember what she looked like, but at the time, I walked away afterwards feeling fulfilled to some extent. What she looked like didn’t matter. With the lights out, and certain urges taking over, stuff like that becomes irrelevant, and by that stage you only have the one thing on your mind.
I suppose I should have felt guilt or remorse for having cheated on Lea. That’s not where my mind was: I wanted revenge for all the crap she was putting me through, and I was going to make sure I got it. And the more I got it, the better I felt, whilst at the same time my disgust and loathing for her grew. Here I was, night after night, drinking, gambling and fucking, all behind her back, acting like a freed man, and then creeping home and meekly putting up with all her bullshit like a whipped pussy. I was happy to the extent that I could think about the night before while I nodded my head absent-mindedly at her latest remonstration.
It was a victory, but not a total victory. I had to contend with the fact I was still saddled with her, and had to put up with her, even if only to a minimal extent, day in and day out.
Something inside me was revolted over the duplicitous behaviour, wanting to make the rebellion total. She had wanted trouble. She deserved it in her face every day, the way she had put me through her shit.
With my inhibitions rapidly fading, working her up became easy. I started actually leaving the mess behind that she had always complained about but had never really had grounds for. I started buying objects I knew she would hate - huge stereo speakers (four of them!), ugly posters, hideous furniture, and began filling the house the way she had only claimed I had before. In response to her put-downs, I began retaliating with talk of saggy tits, crows feet and unsightly wrinkles. Whenever she raised sex as an issue, I passed a comment about beached whales being in no position to be fussy. In short, I made her home life as nasty as she had made mine. On several occasions I reduced her to tears. She would be bawling her eyes out at my words or conduct. I didn’t let up. I would yell at her to piss off if she didn’t like it - bugger off back to your mother! Basically anything I could think of to rub in the aggro.
When I was at home, which was not often, I shut myself off from her. We sat at different ends of the house. I played my music loud to hack her off, or sat watching videos while she hid in the kitchen. Maybe she was beginning to feel guilt for what she had initiated. She might have just been scared of what I had become. Either way, I made it apparent to her with my every move that I now no longer gave a flying fuck about what she thought or did. It was easy. I had enough hate in me by that time to do it without any niggling doubts or concerns. The basest part of me kept whispering words inside my head: “The bitch deserves it! She deserves it! Give her what she deserves! All her shit, thrown back in her face!”
And throw I did. Were it actual shit, she would have been covered in it, from top to bottom. The neighbours would have fled at the sight and smell of her, and I would have been there, jumping up and down and gesticulating like a wild monkey, laughing at her misfortune.
Sometimes she tried to break through to the old me. I would be sitting in the living room and she would meekly creep into the room and sit down on a chair. I just ignored her. It was a prick of a thing to do. There was no helping it though. I had all the hatches battened down in case she was about to pass some crappy comment to put me in my place. If she failed to, both of us would just sit there in silence for the rest of the night, before going to bed in silence. More likely, she would come in with something to throw into the pot of discord, something to stir things along with. It might have been a comment about what I was watching. Or she might sneer at something that was said on TV. She seldom liked the sort of things I watched, so she would use it to get on my nerves. It wasn’t like the days when we were still kids in school who used to go to the flicks on Friday night, regardless of what was on. No, what we had now was a cold, emotional funk where, to get even, we had to disagree about everything.
The best possible outcome that could be hoped for under the circumstances was a verbal exchange and me telling her to fuck off and leave me in peace if she didn’t like it. I still don’t think she really gave a damn what I watched. Mainly it was just a pretext for her. At worst, the situation would develop into a full-blown slanging match, with gesticulation, thrown objects and possibly forceful bodily contact. Before you jump in to ask if I’m a wife beater, she was the one given to swinging punches and jabbing me in the ribs and stomach. She knew I wouldn’t retaliate. In fact, she counted on it. I was bigger and stronger than her, and was scared of hurting her. She counted on this once too much. There came a night when she had wounded me too deeply for me to restrain myself. I punched her in the shoulder. It was an odd spot, but then I had never hit a woman before. I couldn’t bring myself to punch her in the face, or the stomach for that matter. She walked out of the room bawling her eyes out, just like a little girl who had overstepped the mark and gotten a short sharp shock in spite of being cute and pretty and made of sugar and spice.
She showed me the purple bruise on her shoulder later on. It almost succeeded in eliciting guilt, until I caught some flash of cunning in her eyes and spotted it for what it was. It was all I could do to stop myself from spitting out the words of rage. But that calm Kiwi joker act, that reflex ingrained in us poor males, took over. I ended up simply mumbling the words in that flat, emotionless voice we are conditioned to: “Serves you right, doesn’t it?”
Oh, afterwards I felt bad. By “bad” I mean worse than I normally felt thanks to Lea. Punching a woman was something I never thought I would stoop to - any more than I had thought I would lower myself to adultery, except I had managed that one with ease, and was continuing to transgress.
To my dismay, in my frantic attempts to escape Lea through these acts against her, all I did was keep her hanging about in my mind, omnipresent, like some tinpot god on my shoulder. Right in the middle of getting some, all I would be thinking about was Lea. It detracted somewhat from the pleasure. There might be some stripper waving her goods in my face. Irrelevant - in the back of my mind stood Lea.
You might see this as indication of guilt. Again, you’re wrong. It wasn’t guilt at all. At the same time, her presence was like a bad cold that couldn’t be shaken. In spite of my best efforts to shake her, some vestige of her was in me, screwing me up worse than ever.
I thought she was a witch. First she messed me up generally with her physical presence, and now I had this particular mindfuck to deal with.
This was the hardest part. In fact it was too hard. Even getting drunk couldn’t shake her grasp on my twisted head.
Part of me said to the rest of me, the miscreant majority, that I must still love her. The response from that majority was that this was just bullshit. How can you possibly be in love with someone who has turned your life into a series of petty acts of torture, who treats you like an upstart houseboy in your own home? The thing was that there was another layer beneath this recent nonsense - the love we had felt; all the happy times together, the hopes of a rosy future, growing old in the cocoon of mutual affection. The minority dissenting part of me dwelt on moral dilemmas such as “two wrongs don’t make a right” in an attempt to show the error of the majority’s vindictive behaviour. Yet the overall urge that prevailed was to get my own back at the bitch for being so mean to me, even at the price of turning myself into something harder and crueler than she had ever been. I said to myself that I was a man who had been brought up in a country where males have the ideal of being cold, hard and alone held up as a virtue. I couldn’t help but beat her at her own game, show her once and for all. And the “two wrongs” stuff was crap if it meant saying nothing and having her wrongs inflicted on me. No, she had started this, and I was going to finish it.
“To what end?” the doubting part of me used to ask. “So you can end up bitter and alone?”
“Better than being bitter and under her thumb” came the retort from within.
It was a sign of my state of inward turmoil that I was having conversations with myself over moral issues. From being a happy, well-adjusted person, marriage had transformed me into an alcoholic nymphomaniac freak with a split personality, given to acting out and harbouring dark thoughts. I was unaware of my change at the time. At that stage I seemed still to be the old me, albeit a me faced with overwhelming strains and pressures. Only later on could I come to accept that those external forces had brought about extensive changes within me.
What really threw everything to Hell was that just as I had become set in this new, warped mode, acting out and getting my revenge, indulging in excess and doubts, a further change came over Lea. It was a change that I did not immediately notice, such was the thickness of the protective shield I had raised in self-defence.
I suppose it was a bit like the Cold War, back in the 1980s, when Reagan was talking about Star Wars and sinking billions of dollars into defence. That was when the Soviets just went “oh shit, look what we’ve done, we can’t keep up!” and all of a sudden decided to call the competition off almost unilaterally.
I reckon this must have been what Lea ultimately thought - she had an “oh shit” type of reaction. That response you get that comes with a sinking emotion and a sense of impending doom when you finally realise you have done something horribly wrong. The sad thing is that this reaction always occurs when it is already way too late, but you struggle to set right what you have already completely shattered, praying you can somehow piece it all back together.
This was what Lea set herself the task of doing. It took me until later to work this out. The barrier she came up against was that I had now switched over to hate mode as a permanent setting, and no shift in her behaviour was going to affect this. I had already been immunised by her mood swings early on in this emotional journey. Her initial attempts at behaviour modification had been more effective than she could have imagined, although not in the way she could have desired. Unlike her, I was unable just to switch polarities and merrily go on my way again. The taunts, the put-downs and her garbage were lodged in my brain, and still are. To me it felt like a further phase whereby she manipulated my emotions, and mine had polarised too far in one direction to be reversed. My course was set and that was that.
To add further pathos to her new-found state, her father unexpectedly died. Lea retreated to the shelter of her family for a couple of weeks, leaving me in blissful peace. Social etiquette required I attend the funeral, but I did not stick around long afterwards. I didn’t care what the relatives thought. Doubtless I was painted as some sort of villain. There was little I could have done to rectify that impression, even if I had given a damn about it, which I didn’t.
When she eventually came back to what had been our happy home, Lea was a pale shell of the woman I had known. She drifted about the place, ghost-like, hardly saying a word. It was enough even to make me settle down my ideas a bit.
I found myself hugging her, comforting her, but it was only a half-hearted, perfunctory effort. Only a faint emotion stirred within, sheltered by my protective shell.
The bickering stopped. It was replaced by a still nothingness. It was all we could muster after such extended hostilities. Life together became tolerable again, regardless of the fact I had still not shifted out of hate mode. It could have been a turning point in our relationship. It’s easy to say that now.
Her change of heart simply could not last. By that time I had become everything she could initially only claim I was. I was the original worthless bastard husband. I drank, gambled and screwed behind her back. I left the house in a mess. I treated her like crap. It was no more nor less than she deserved. She had her self-fulfilling prophecy in all its horrible glory full in her face and tumbling out of control. And it was not going to end simply because she had a change of heart. She could have turned into Mother Teresa for all the good it would have done. I was now her worst fear, everything she hated, and I derived a sick sort of enjoyment from it.
“Evil” is not a fashionable word these days, but I was in the grip of evil. Since then I have taken to reading the Bible. I used to laugh at such people. I think it’s too late for my salvation, yet it calms my nerves to some extent. How strange to have become a moral man now! I should be more precise - how strange to have become a man yearning to be moral. In fact, my circumstances disqualify me from “moral” status. So I have to settle for parables and dictums from the Good Book. Good news for a modern man none too proud of himself.
I reckon that’s where the modern world has lost its way. Morality in the old days used to be everything. Everything you did in life had some sort of bearing on your fate. If you trespassed against the big guy upstairs, you could burn forever down below. There is of course a fairy tale element to that old-time religion, although my belief is that it must have done some slight good back in the old days when people still believed. How many people refrained from committing some unspeakable act because of their fear of God? Sure, it wasn’t infallible as a social conditioning method - not much is. Just look at us nowadays though. We have no fear of God, and no fear of the courts and prisons. What we fear is having no money, having no status in society and, the ultimate - death. Beyond that, anything goes. I blame the Lange Government. They lifted the lid off New Zealand society, and look at what they left behind. We are down to the shreds and tatters of human decency, and still feel smug at just having those.
You might as well know I killed her. I strangled her with a scarf. It was her scarf, paid for with my money. She tried to scream, but couldn’t due to all the pressure on her neck. Her blocked breathing turned to a rasping. She put up a struggle, wriggling around, trying to loosen my stranglehold on her neck. She even managed to kick me in the leg at one point. Then a sudden shudder passed through her body, and she crumpled, all limp. I was caught off-guard and, losing my balance, fell on top of her. At that time I had the bizarre thought that this was the closest I would ever get to making love to her again. It had been a while since we had experienced such close contact. Then I reminded myself that she wasn’t experiencing anything, given that I had just squeezed the life out of her. I lay there on top of her, crying. It hadn’t taken much to set me off. It was almost as if I had been waiting for it to come. “It” being some sign of her previous nastiness that would provide me with confirmation of my revulsion for her, and affirmation of my hate. About the worst thing you can do to someone who hates you is be nice to them, and she may even have been aware of this. I speculated that this was her ultimate ploy - she had been stringing me along to see if I would crack. That was what I thought then. Now I wonder how fucking stupid I could have been, thinking such tripe. The human mind is a wonderful thing. It can come up with all sorts of contorted explanations as to why you had to do this or that. These are the contortions that allow corporate executives, African dictators and government spooks to sleep at night, secure in the thought that there is a “reason” for what they do. A fucking reason. I had no reason! Not in reality! Just some stupid excuse, a series of circumstances I had interpreted to suit me, and my own surging anger as justification for what I had done.
It had not taken a lot to set me off. A comment about some things left on the table. She attributed my silence to a weak acceptance of guilt. Instead it was a rictus of disgust. That moment at which all your pent up frustrations burst the emotional dam. My response was to grab her scarf. It was hanging on a clothes hook by the kitchen door. For some reason, she had turned her back to me. She must have felt she had done her damage, and was turning away to show how little regard she had for me. She didn’t see it coming. When she was writhing, she managed to turn and stare pop-eyed at me. I could make out my face, twisted in anger, reflected on her pupils.
I was thinking about that reflection when I finally climbed off the corpse, once I was done with all my crying. My face was imprinted on her eyes. I had read somewhere that they have a way of recording the last image captured on the retina of a dead person. It was only then that my thoughts turned to the prospect of being punished for what I had done. Murdering my wife. I had become a wife murderer. I repeated the words “wife murderer” to myself. There were two options open to me - I could confess it all, or I could lie.
Being a coward, I decided to lie. Quite coincidentally, given that I had planned none of this, it happened to be late at night. I told myself that this was a positive factor. You can do things in the still of night that are unfeasible during daylight hours. Things such as disposing of a corpse. Strangulation marks on her neck would give the death away as murder to even a green cop fresh out of training college. So the body would have to be destroyed somehow, and she would have to be found as far away from here as possible.
First I needed an alibi. With Lea lying in the boot, I drove her car down to the workshop and rang up one of my mechanics. Some sort of plan, that was more instinctive than anything carefully thought through, was forming even before I had dragged her body out of the house. It was late, but not that late. I asked him tetchily where he had left some paperwork about a job that was due the following day. I made such calls from time to time at odd hours of the evening. The staff hated me for it, even though sometimes it was necessary. They also knew that I was the one who put in the long hours, and sometimes I needed their help at strange times. I made paper-shuffling noises as I pretended to look for the documentation. Prior to going home and murdering Lea, I had actually been looking for the very same pieces of paper, but had found them myself. Anyway, I now had my alibi - I was still at work when the fatal accident happened. “No officer, I was all alone.” It was not watertight, but the cops would get plenty of corroborating evidence from my workers to the effect that I regularly kept such hours at the office, sorting out paperwork that never seemed to get done during the daytime when all the real work was pressing.
While I was in the workshop, I filled up the car’s petrol tank.
I was far from being in a cool and collected state. I had the shakes all the way over to the workshop. Before I rang the mechanic, I had gulped deep breaths and gave myself a frenzied pep talk to get my voice in a normal state. My head was throbbing, my pulse was racing, and I was in a sweat. I had entered into the dark side of existence for real now, and I was not prepared.
From my workshop down by the railway tracks in Alicetown, I drove up the main road, over the Hutt River Bridge, and through Lower Hutt, just as dead as it usually is on a weekday evening. From there I just drove around. Out to Avalon, then over to Whitby. I eventually ended up driving back through Lower Hutt again.
It was a stupid thing to do. There are probably speed cameras up around Lower Hutt which might have caught the car on film. I wasn’t thinking about anything like that. I was sick with fear. It felt like some waking nightmare. By the time I got back to Lower Hutt though, I managed to spur myself into action. I drove up the hill road that takes you to Normandale, the car engine breaking the stillness of the night. I came out the other side of Normandale, somewhere over the crest of the first line of hills between the Hutt Valley and Porirua. The road ran up past Belmont National Park. Given all the people who live in and around the edges of the Hutt Valley, it is amazing how empty those hills are. Just the occasional farmhouse really. When I was happy I had found the right place, and could see no sign of human habitation in my field of vision, I stopped the car, got out, opened the boot and hauled Lea’s body onto the front seat. My last memory of her is her corpse, slumped beside me, as I steered the car off a cliff.
I jumped clear before it reached the edge. There was a hell of a noise as it cartwheeled down to the bottom of the precipice. Then it just lay there, a metal beetle on its back. It was just as well it finally burst into flames, or I would have had to clamber down there and start the fire myself. The corpse had to be charred to a cinder, or the cops would have worked out she was strangled.
I walked back home. I left something inside me at that cliff, something that left me feeling hollow. All that was left in me was an upwelling feeling of impending doom. I had transgressed not only human but natural laws and now I would have to pay. It was a clear night, a rarity in that part of the country. Overhead, stars twinkled. At one point I stopped to look up. I wondered if shit like this went on out there, or whether it was something peculiarly human to murder your wife.
The road shifted from country into urban landscape, down through Normandale to the Hutt motorway, passing across it and back into Alicetown. As I trudged along, my legs so involuntarily tense from stress that they ached, the whole time I expected to hear cop car sirens behind me. There was no sound though. I even saw very little traffic, but then it was after midnight. By the time I got home, I had psyched myself up into thinking that I might just get away with it if I kept my grip. I was starting to think that I might bluff my way out of it. I was sure to be interrogated: “No officer, I arrived home to find my wife’s car gone, and her too... No idea why she was driving up that way - she maybe just wanted to get out for a while.” I was working out my lines and even started to feel a bit cocky about it, until I went to fish my keys out of my pocket to unlock the back door.
The fucking keys!
I still had Lea’s car keys in my pocket!
I had taken them out of the ignition when I stopped to get her out of the boot. Only problem was, I had forgotten to put them back in the ignition before I pushed her car over the edge.
I sank down onto my knees and began sobbing quietly on the back doorstep. It was a mix of despair and pity at my own poor fool stupidity. It might take them a while to notice the absence of the keys from the ignition, but they would eventually notice they were gone. And it wouldn’t take some investigating officer long to work out that the whole thing was faked.
That was it. I knew I had to get out, and fast. I can’t tell you how I got out of New Zealand, but I can tell you I had plenty of money, which broadens your options considerably. I emptied the company and personal accounts that very morning and went bush for a while. The good thing was that it gave me time to calm down and think.
I concluded, out there in the bush, that there was no way I wanted to give myself up. I’m not proud of what I did, but neither am I so noble that I want to subject myself to prison and social exclusion. It took some planning, but I made a break for overseas.
Oh, I know they’re looking for me. For all that, I have managed to get this far without them catching me. I’m sticking with Eastern Europe for the moment - a white face is less conspicuous here than in Africa or the like, and a bit of money goes a long way over here. In case you’re wondering, I have false papers. False everything as a matter of fact. I’m not saying how I managed that either. There are things it is best I don’t tell you.”
At that point he just petered out and hung his head. It was as if his batteries were dead. He left his last words for when I was quietly leaving and closing the door behind me, thinking mistakenly that he was asleep or in some crazed trance. They were words that shook me.
Then he raised his head to give me one of those stares, the sort you see on the faces of war veterans, death trip junkies and disaster victims. He wasn’t smiling when he offered his parting remark.
“If you dob me in, I’ll come after you.”
I nodded solemnly and carefully shut the door.
I spent a moment or two standing in the corridor, trying to think and failing, then made my way back to my room.
My enduring memory of Rome is swarms of starlings forming shifting patterns, reminiscent of clouds of locusts, across the grey sunset above Termini railway station. Every night this is where they settle down to rest. The noise is phenomenal, cutting through the rowdy traffic sounds at street level with ease. Even the gypsy beggars stop to watch in awe at the sight of the starlings.
The seedy neighbourhood around the station was where I usually chose to stay when visiting Rome. The place has an unsavoury reputation for petty crime, yet has the advantage of offering an abundant supply of relatively cheap accommodation, and is fairly close to the city’s various attractions: within walking distance for New Zealanders, and offering easy public transport distance for more sedentary nationalities.
I spent very little time unpacking in my tiny room at the little pensione I had found a few minutes after stepping off the train from Trieste. Just long enough to pull out a street map I had bought at the railway station and get my bearings.
My path was simple and direct: from Porta Pia, straight along Via Nomentana, until I turned off at Via Zara, where the New Zealand embassy is located.
I faced the usual “who are you and what do you want?” line of interrogation from the secretary staffing the reception desk. I purposely spoke with a pronounced Kiwi accent rather than use my Italian - the better to drive home the fact that I was in fact a citizen of the State that was supposed to serve me now and then.
In this case what I wanted was their newspapers. I could have gone back to Geneva and paid a visit to the New Zealand embassy there, except I was worried I might attract attention. As a local resident, I was known to the Geneva embassy staff, even if only on a casual basis, and I wanted to avoid being noticed for suddenly developing a craving for back copies of the Wellington newspapers they held, particularly given I am not even from Wellington. So I decided a side trip to Rome would be in order. Here I could play the part of a homesick expatriate and no one would be the wiser.
What bothered me intensely, and it was a thought that refused to go away the rest of the time I spent in Slovenia, was the possibility that Gavin, if that was his name, might have been having me on. I wanted a handle on what had been divulged to me - independent confirmation that the story had some basis in reality, and the certainty that a murder had actually been committed.
Gavin’s brief presence during my time in Slovenia created a profoundly unsettling effect on me. I looked for him that morning, in Postojna. I knocked on the door to his room. There was no answer. They told me at reception he was long gone. I did not stick around. Not just because of Gavin, but because I had seen what I wanted to see in Postojna and in any case I wanted to continue with the next stage of my itinerary, which involved a couple of days in Ljubljana.
I ended up falling asleep on the train. A helpful guard woke me up as we pulled into the capital city. I had hardly slept back at Hotel Kras. My head had been filled with a bubbling mess of conflicting thoughts and arguments as I lay there in my bed, tossing around on the hard mattress and thumping the pillow to an unwarranted extent.
It was hard to guess what might prompt someone to make such a confession to a total stranger. Assuming the tale had not been some sort of imagining or con job, it might have been guilt that had driven Gavin, or the need to unload emotions he had clearly been keeping repressed for a long time. He said he had been in Eastern Europe for a while. There can’t have been many people to talk to, particularly about something like that. He might have just been letting it all out to the first person he had come across who he deemed trustworthy to keep his mouth shut, if only because of tenuous connections through being from the same country, and background. Or it might have been that he wanted at least one person to hear his version of events, for better or worse.
And it was only his version that I had heard. My other thought, as I lay there on the hotel bed, was whether Lea really was as odious a woman as he had led me to believe, or whether he was falsifying things to show himself in a more favourable light.
There was little chance of the papers providing answers to that particular issue, although they could offer confirmation of other matters. I had to work my way back through a few months’ worth of copies of The Dominion, but I found the news I was looking for. It was an effort not to stare transfixed. Somehow I managed to keep what I hope was a poker face as I went through the news coverage, complete with photos of Gavin, his wife Lea (a pretty woman, as it turned out), and the charred remains of her car. There was little doubt from the tone of the journalism who the prime suspect was. Gavin’s sudden disappearance along with all the liquid funds he could lay his hands on was what gave it away for the police. I saw no mention of the lack of a key in the ignition, but I took Gavin’s point that if he had hung around they would have worked it out. The fact he had given the game away by doing a runner had just deflected the police investigation away from forensics and directed it towards a manhunt.
I spent no longer than I absolutely had to reading those articles. I was aware there was a security camera watching me. The fact I might have been caught on tape did not bother me much. Fortunately I do not bear even a passing resemblance to Gavin, so there was little likelihood of security staff making that mistake. I made a point of spending just as much time reading coverage of the latest All Blacks tour of France in more recent back issues. After about an hour, I carefully returned all the papers and thanked the secretary.
The rest of the day I just wandered around the back streets of Rome, stunned senseless. I somehow ended up sitting on the Isola Tiberina, watching the dirty Tiber flow slowly by and contemplating the broken spans of the ancient Ponte Palatino, now a resting spot for the occasional passing pigeon.
What I was wondering about was what I should do with this new information. Gavin’s threat was still ringing in my ears. So too was all the stuff I had been brought up with about being honest and obeying the law. The dilemma set me on edge. In listening to Gavin’s story, I had taken on his troubles in a very real sense. I was now a party to them.
There was the option of contacting the cops, Interpol, or marching back into the embassy. That was assuming I could get someone to believe me. It is a major “if” when dealing with law enforcement officers on the other side of the world from your homeland. In the end though, I failed to take that step. Something held me back. Sympathy? Fear? Cowardice? All of the above, in addition to the realisation that my life was already complicated enough without adding a whole new dimension of trouble to it.
Writing this account wasn’t easy either. You could call it the middle path. Evidence too late to be of use, but nonetheless something concrete to release the burden Gavin placed on me. He may just come looking for me, regardless of the fact you could hardly call what I have written “dobbing him in”. Somehow I doubt that he will.
In the end I decided that prison would be a poor substitute for the Hell that man is living through, alone, running from a private world which turned sour. My ultimate feeling is that he needs no punishment. What was left of his bitter life was punishment enough.
I kept going back over the words he had uttered to me just before he voiced his threat, as I was leaving his room back at the Hotel Kras.
“I keep seeing her in my dreams. Every time it’s the same scene, played back inexorably. I want to wake up but the film just keeps rolling. We are sitting there in her car, driving along that road through the hills up out the back of Normandale, and for some reason she’s in the driver’s seat rather than me, even though we’re in my car. It’s a sunny day in the weekend, the sort of day you can relax in because you know you haven’t got the usual workday stress on you. And then I notice, frozen in terror, that she’s driving straight for that cliff, steering for the exact spot where I pushed her car over, and she’s looking at me and laughing.”
When the phone rings at 2.30 in the morning, your first reflex is the effort required to shift from a state of sleep to consciousness. There is a short moment during which your eyes open, and you are listening to the sound of the phone, except that your body has not caught up yet. It has to be willed to move, by a mind inwardly screaming at it to shift. When motion finally occurs, it is jerky and unco-ordinated, Frankenstein-like, requiring great effort to gain balance as you reach out with both hands, frisking the wall for the light switch and still somehow managing to miss it, cursing, before it finally switches on.
The worst part is when the light actually comes on. Searing brightness momentarily blinds the retinas. Furious blinking ensues – a frenzied attempt at allowing the eyes to adjust to a change in sudden luminosity they were not designed to handle. There is no question of switching the hall light on – being blinded once is quite enough for the time being. The half-light leaking out from the bedroom is adequate, and is less strain.
The phone is still ringing.
Silence. A crank call?
“You little prick!”
“You two-faced little shit!”
“You just used me!”
She doesn’t stay on the line long enough to allow the sentence to be completed. The monotonic disconnect tone sounds, the only aural accompaniment following her hit-and-run phone call. Her timing is intentional. She knows about the time difference. She must have wanted maximum impact and disruption. She certainly achieved it.
I put the receiver back on the phone, slump down against the wall and began crying. There is no basis or logic for the things she said, and no grounds for the terms she used. That it had come to this stunned me: early morning phone calls designed to hurt, where once there had been love.
The week before she had rung me up shortly after midnight to tell me I had only been after her for her money, which would have been difficult, as she had none to speak of. It looked all too much like this was turning into a pattern. The week before that, she had rung me at work. I ignored the potential for office gossip that such comments over the phone can arouse in an open office. Even when they are in Slovene, your body language and tone of voice speaks for itself. I told her in no uncertain terms never to call me at work again and hung up. It seems she has found a way of repaying me for it. She knows all too well that I am unable to function properly without a good night’s sleep. It was no trouble for her to ring during her daytime, half a world away, and vent her anger and resentment at the man who had caused her so much pain.
Oh, she was hurting, that much I admit. But she was not alone in that respect.
I failed to get back to sleep. After finally getting over the initial shock and all the thoughts echoing around in my head, I ended up pacing around the flat, telling myself I was not crazy, in a manner that any objective onlooker would have surely held up as evidence I was wrong.
Marjana had come to have that sort of effect on me. Our brief time together had left me feeling head-butted. She was in that place between wounded pride and the urge for revenge, with traces of the former love she had held for me still clinging on, getting in the way and confusing things. Had she stopped to consider her situation impassively, she might have realised that all she was doing was wasting a lot of money on toll calls. There was no likelihood I was going back to her. Not now, after all the farmyard language and diatribe, the half-baked theories about what I had supposedly been up to behind her back, the fantasias of a delusional mind, driven by desperation at the thought of having to face life alone, with only herself to blame for her actions.
I told myself I was fine, that it was all over. There was no longer anything to worry about. I had escaped intact. I had my freedom, my health, and what remained of my youth.
For all that, I still failed to get any sleep. I watched the TV for a while. The BBC World News was all that was on really. At that early hour of the morning, it was either that or infomercials. I watched the fighting in the Middle East. Suicide bombers and Israeli tanks. Blind hatred and fanaticism all around, while a very British reporter offered narration, looking down on his subject matter from on high, the way a little boy peers down at an ant colony. More than a few minutes of his English condescension was more than I could stand. I switched the TV off and stared at the floral wallpaper instead. It was not my choice of decor – I was only renting.
The last time I had felt this disembodied was when I arrived in Slovenia for the first time. It was a weird feeling, sitting in that railway carriage, watching the cityscape, in the knowledge that this place was going to be home for at least a year, and probably more. Prior to my departure, I had only seen three of four photos of Ljubljana, and so did not have much to go on in terms of building up a mental image of the place prior to my arrival, and nothing I could make out from the train on that cold September morning seemed to match those touristy shots. Not that much could be expected given it was not yet seven in the morning, and it was still dark outside. There is something about railways too. They always seem to take you through the arse end of cities, even when it’s a place as beautiful as Florence. Ljubljana’s main line was no exception, offering vistas of bland apartment blocks, a brewery, sheds and warehouses.
I only paused on the station platform for the time it took to get my coat on, as there was an icy wind blowing along it. I had a pretty good idea of where I was going, but had another look at my guide book anyway, before crossing a parking lot with a shed that claimed to be a bus station.
Walking down those streets, I felt like the spy coming in from the cold. The pre-dawn darkness didn’t make them any cheerier. I had all those clichés running through my mind that Westerners are inculcated with regarding Eastern Europe – drabness, bleakness, depression, fatalism. I began wondering why the Hell I had wanted to come here, as if I really needed to ask.
That same feeling arose as I sat in my drab little flat, listening to the wind rustle leaves outside, wondering how it had ever come to this. What was I doing at this particular juncture in space and time? I originally wanted to leave Palmerston North, and yet I ended up coming back to New Zealand, living no further away from the home I hated than Wellington – not even far enough away to feel I had truly escaped.
So my wondering to myself as I walked along Ljubljana’s grey, empty streets just before dawn was not particularly well-reasoned. I did in fact know why I was there – to escape, start afresh, explore, find myself, or at least find a part of myself I did not as yet know. All that stuff you think is possible when you leave your home town for the first time.
I had already managed to do some exploring. A Eurail pass allowed me to get around most of Western Europe in a couple of weeks. To save money (a commodity in short supply for me), I slept on a succession of trains in-between hopping off for day visits of various cities of renown – Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Lyons, Madrid, Barcelona, Nice, Geneva, Frankfurt, Vienna, Florence, Rome, Venice, and now Ljubljana. I got the idea from some American film – I have forgotten its name. Anyway, the male love interest was a guy who had escaped from a loveless relationship by travelling on the train and watching Europe out the window. The film sucked, but I liked this particular concept of using public transport as a mobile hotel. The only thing lacking was a shower, but when it got to the point I felt I needed a proper wash, it was easy enough to check into a youth hostel for the night without any great impact on my funds.
You don’t get the opportunity to explore Europe in-depth using this approach, although in my case this was no worry. It was my first time in Europe, and I had wanted to squeeze in as much as possible in the couple of weeks I had before my presence was required at the University of Ljubljana for enrolment.
My mother thought I was mad when I told her I had applied. I told her that her negative preconceptions about Slovenia were not very reliable given just how little she really knew about the country. Like most people do, she mixed Slovenia up with Slovakia. I cheekily pointed out that she might be a little bit more qualified to pass judgement if she was able to even locate the place on a map, but this was an argument she preferred to ignore, falling back on the old dictum that mother knows best, even though I was twenty-two and her opposition to my going was no longer the barrier it would have been at an earlier age.
What I was after was a place that invoked a lack of familiarly. There was also some pleasure to be derived from watching the reactions on people’s faces when I told them where I was heading to do my master’s degree. The word “Mars” would have had the same effect. It is safe to say that for all their self-proclaimed love of globe-trotting, my fellow countrymen are not so worldly that they know much about the ins and outs of Eastern European geography. Most of them would have trouble locating the place on a blank map, were they given the chance. “Poor” and “Communist” are the two words that come to mind when they think of any part of Eastern Europe, regardless of the fact that the Slovenians have a standard of living not to be sniffed at, and a welfare State that could offer lessons for the battered, under-funded shell that is all that remains of what was once the New Zealand welfare State.
I should confess that at the time I arrived in Slovenia, I did not know about such details. Probably the very thought of going to a place considered by my misinformed compatriots to be backwards even strengthened its attractiveness for me.
I was still thinking in such terms when I arrived at the hostel, a not particularly attractive building with its own compound, nestled in-between tower blocks. It was a drab yet cheerful place, with the unprepossessing surroundings being more than compensated for by the exuberance of the building’s young inhabitants. I was assigned a room with a young Bosnian, called Boris. Communication was made difficult by the fact that his Slovenian was not much better than mine, and I did not speak Serbo-Croatian, or rather “Bosnian” as it is now politically correct to call it in that particular part of the world. Nor did he speak English as such. Italian was his other language. He was not openly hostile, yet nor was he particularly friendly. He had already settled in when I turned up, and initially he viewed me as an interloper on his privacy. Later on, my occasional offers of alcohol and snacks (wine, beer, chips and the like, purchased from the local supermarket) were always refused. I wondered if it was against his religion, but did not have the nerve to ask him about it. Religion and politics were two topics best avoided, given our existing communication difficulties and the potential for misunderstanding that might arise.
Fortunately for me, he spent a lot of time in other people’s rooms, communing with various of his compatriots, who had also come to Ljubljana to study. Most of them had at least one Slovene parent, who had moved to Bosnia to work, marry, or both, back in the days when Yugoslavia was one big happy ethnic mix. I had the impression that all the young Bosnians were away from home for the first time. It might be considered surprising given just how rough their teenage years must have been, but none of them seemed particularly self-sufficient. The boys (for although they were in their early twenties, their behaviour was that of boys) had to have things done for them. I never caught any of them cooking, sewing, darning socks or the like. My impression is that their understandably protective mothers had taken care of such things for them, happy to do what they could to soften a harsh existence.
My first few days in Ljubljana were spent exploring. It was a wonderful time of year for it. Although summer was drawing to a close, the sun still resolutely hung in the sky sufficiently high enough to provide warm days for strolling. These were happy days for me, spent discovering my new environment, taking in all the new sights and places, visiting the museums and art galleries, and watching people in the street from café windows. There was that feeling of freshness that you have when you are a new arrival, before the novelty of the situation wears off and the new place begins its slide into familiarity. In my euphoric mood, it was not difficult to come to the conclusion that I really liked Ljubljana, and it certainly had a great deal more to offer than Palmerston North.
It was a precious time too – one of those privileged periods in life, before real responsibilities set in, when you just feel like you are floating, a free agent in an uncaring world that, for the moment, is actually giving you some respite, rather than squeezing you into the drab pigeonhole society has allotted you. Had I stayed on in New Zealand, I would have had to start thinking about finding a job, because that is what adults in their early twenties are supposed to do. I had been clever enough to find an escape hatch through which to avoid all the demands society places on you, which would not be shut off for at least a couple of years. I was not looking forward to ending up like all too many adults: tied down to a dull job, having to pay off an enormous mortgage, and all the other responsibilities they rush into. Do people get into that scene because they actually want to, or is it because that is what is expected of them? I wonder.
So I floated. I was still floating when university started and I found myself being immersed in a crash course in Slovenian – a prerequisite for pursuing higher study in my chosen field. I am going to be annoying and refrain from telling you what I was studying over there. Partly because I am not compelled to tell you everything, and partly because it has no bearing on what I am endeavouring to retell here. And, as so often turns out to be the case, regardless of my choice of subject, it turned out that I ended up in a dead-end office job with no bearing whatsoever on my chosen field of study. This may be why I feel an aversion to going back over all the work that I put into studying a subject that proved to be of no use at all to the New Zealand’s tiny corporate fish tank. In fact, about the only practical skill I got out of my time at university, apart from a working knowledge of computers, was an ability to speak passable Slovenian, a skill that is not in great demand in Wellington, New Zealand. Looking back, from a dull, responsible adult’s perspective, I suppose I should have opted for something eminently more useful, like studying accountancy or business management. That would have allowed me to enter the rat race with a head start over a good many of the other competing vermin.
My problem was that I did not see things in terms of money at that stage. The pursuit of knowledge was what fired my interest, not a potential to generate income. It was not that I was unaware of the demands of society, or the personal benefits that a predilection for creating wealth could provide. In Palmerston North there had, after all, been plenty of breadheads floating around campus, studying precisely the sort of subjects mentioned above, a good many of whom dressed for the office even before they had found a position in one.
I do wonder if they were as clever as they thought they were. That type goes through life seeing everything in terms of money, status and power – the holy trinity of the 1990s. And that is all they ever see. Beauty and art is something they incorporate into their world only to the extent that it allows them to fit in with their peers by seeming to be sophisticated and cultured. They dash off to the latest musical or whatever so they can drop its name with their fellow movers and shakers. They buy art to the extent they think it adds something to the decor of their habitats, or insofar as they imagine it may be worth something in purely monetary rather than artistic terms.
It is sad for me that I despise such people, for they are the ones who run the world. For that sort, dreamers who head off to Slovenia are nothing more than an extraneous blip on life’s radar screen.
My crash course in Slovenian went relatively well. I could not keep up with the Bosnians on the course, but then they had an unfair advantage. On the other hand, I was not one of the ones who dropped out in the early stages. I had done my preparation back home, spending long hours poring over language books and listening to cassettes. I had to order them from the university bookshop – books on Slovenian are not the sort of thing you find on the shelves of bookstores in New Zealand, along with a good many other things.
Again, various people back in Palmerston North thought I was nuts to even try learning something as arcane as Slovenian. The sight of me wandering around town mumbling words to myself while I looked up my phrasebook to check for mistakes turned more than one head. I received the sort of look reserved for spastics or the crippled. Ahh, the joys of living in the provinces!
Anyway, the preliminary work paid off. I surprised the teachers, all of whom were used to monolingual Americans with Slovenian surnames who could not manage anything more than fractured linguistic atrocities, a living testimony to that great leveller in the melting pot of American society – the traditional dominance of English.
It was on that course at the university that I met Marjana. She already had a vague presence in my life, as she too was rooming at the hostel, except that, as she usually hung out with the other ex-Yugoslavs, we did not initially have much contact. I could hardly have failed to notice her in class – she was a stunner: slim, pale (perhaps too pale, in retrospect), with large, dark eyes, and beautiful long, straight black hair. She was easily the best-looking woman in the class , and the others were far from being ugly. I naturally assumed she was out of my league. I pictured her with one of the Bosnian lads, most of whom were thickset blokes. Not that I had any evidence this was the case, I just assumed.
She was one of those students who don’t go out of their way to please the teacher, but who unerringly have the right answer when cornered. The sort of student that annoys the hell out of language teachers because they need maximum participation from the able members of the class to keep proceedings moving at an animated pace. Marjana, I noticed, was like me in that respect. My motive for holding back was fear that I might not know as much as I thought I did, and the consequent assumption that I shouldn’t push my luck by trying to answer too many questions. With her, I had the impression it was different: she knew the answers – she just didn’t see why she should have to strive to be the teacher’s pet. At least that’s how I interpreted her behaviour.
I will admit here to a failing: my eyes wander whenever there is a particularly attractive women in the vicinity. I do it all the time when I am walking along the street – a dangerous habit if you are out on a date, as women somehow seem to be able to spot even the most indirect glance, no matter how briefly held.
So yes, she caught me staring at her in class: that moment when your eyes meet, and she wonders for a second or so whether there is a smudge of food or make-up on her face before realising what is going on.
It is a risky thing to get caught doing, especially with a stranger. Some women take great offence at being eyed up. To confuse matters, others take still greater offence at being ignored. Being a male in this day and age is not an easy thing.
She held my glance. Just for a couple of seconds. Long enough to show some interest, before the teacher distracted both of us with an order to all open our textbooks at page whatever it was.
I put that glance out of my mind so I could concentrate on the lesson, but it came back to me later. I lay there that night in my bed, trying to work out what motive lay behind that brief glance, whether I really had a chance with her. There had been no expression in either her face or her eyes – just a glance, the way you glance at someone you have just noticed for the first time, whether for good or bad.
My conclusion was that her look was one of recognition, and further probing would be needed to find out anything more than that. Specifically, I was going to have to do a lot more staring at her, most probably in class, as it provided the only venue in which we came into relatively close contact. Even though she was a boarder at the same hostel as me, the girls were segregated onto another floor to reduce (but certainly not eliminate) any potential for hanky panky of the sort that gives respectable hostels a bad name.
I waited three days before I really looked at her again. Partly it was due to nerves, and partly I wanted to come back to this tricky issue after a brief interregnum because it felt like the right thing to do. I didn’t want her thinking I was some sort of weirdo, incessantly eyeing her up at every opportunity.
So it was not that long before I was gazing at her again. I took the opportunity to admire her, the way you would a sculpture in a museum. She had the lines for it – a cleanly-cut face – Slavic without being stereotypically square-jawed. A slender body, without veering into being skinny. Full breasts, neither too large nor too small, although in the state I was in, I was not all that fussed. I tried to imagine what her body was like under the clothes she was wearing, and was starting to get a hard-on for my efforts when she caught me in mid-stare. There definitely was something there. This time I was not going to look away. I had no intention of breaking the moment, of going back to the lesson I was supposed to be engrossed in. She showed no great willingness to break off either. I liked her eyes. There was a strength in them. I can only guess what she saw in mine – probably just post-adolescent lust. Maybe that was why she eventually smiled, and turned her attention back to the teaching.
I trailed after her once the class was over, but peeled off in another direction when she turned left down a street to walk into town. I ended up wandering pointlessly for several blocks, and eventually got my thoughts together sufficiently to allow me to steer my path back to the hostel. Boris was not there, so I managed to have a couple of uninterrupted hours, just lying on my bed, thinking about her.
I say “she”, yet I did of course know her name even at that stage. After all, we were in the same class, and everyone had been obliged to introduce themselves at the beginning of the course. It was one of the teacher’s ways of assessing our respective linguistic strengths and weaknesses when it came to speaking Slovenian. For the record, Marjana did really well. The teacher corrected a couple of Serbo-Croatianisms, just as, with me, she corrected a couple of English-style sentence constructions. Which is not to say I spoke Slovenian as well as Marjana. As a speaker of a contiguous Slavic language, she was already several thousand words ahead of me just in terms of acquired vocabulary.
Language aside, I learnt from her brief presentation of herself that she was twenty-two and was from Zagreb, although one of the Bosnian lads later told me she was originally from his part of what had once been Yugoslavia - Tuzla. She also said she had a large family, but did not go any further into details. Not that she had to – there were twenty-five of us in the class, and a couple of minutes was all that was necessary under the circumstances.
For that matter, I didn’t say much myself, although I spoke with the dead certainty that no one in the room would have had clue where Palmerston North is, or probably even where New Zealand is, in various cases.
So I can’t say I really knew any more about Marjana than she knew about me, which did not amount to much. Perhaps it was the fact that I was exotic for her that prompted her interest in me. Certainly I was the only student who had travelled so far to come to Ljubljana. In fact, I was probably one of the very few people attending the University of Ljubljana at that time who came from the Southern Hemisphere, and doubtless was the only one from the South Pacific, so there were grounds for considering me to be exotic in that particular setting.
The pattern of exchanged glances and mutual sizing-up happened a few more times. It got to the point where Boris, my room-mate, tiring of me staring into space vacantly over her, finally threatened to ask her out for me if I did not get a move on and do it myself. I was sure he meant it, and did not entirely trust his motives either.
So after class the next day, I found myself following her to the university entrance, and this time I not only followed her, I caught her up. To my surprise, she said yes when I asked her if she would like to come and have a drink at the local cafe.
The place was French-looking, or at least it tried to be. I think the decor was something to do with the cafe’s location on the edge of a square with a monument to Napoleon. Our conversation was hesitant small talk, punctuated with smiling and laughing at jokes that did not really merit it. I was amazed that, at the end of it, she actually agreed to go out with me.
The following weeks were like something out of one of those American made-for-TV romance films. You know the sort; where two strangers meet in a foreign city, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Well, the first two parts applied to us in any case. And there was the sex, of a nature not likely to be seen in any TV soap opera. It was one of those times in your youth, all too rare even during what is supposed to be the flowering of life, when you come to experience total fulfilment. Regardless of a lack of money, initially great language difficulties, and being tied down to the drudgery of daily study, I felt totally contented. I wondered if this was how the rich and famous felt, floating along through life in the wake of their worldly success. Like the rich and famous, we too had our share of gossip to deal with. Even young people do not necessarily like seeing two people so obviously in love. The bile they feel at their own lack of emotional contentment rises up within them. No one was openly nasty, although you could tell what some of them were thinking just by looking at them. Mindful of possible comments, we refrained from sitting together in class. Apart from what the petty-minded would have thought, it would have been too distracting. For study’s sake, we maintained that little distance, even if it was only in the classroom.
Both of us being level-headed people (or so I thought at the time), our studies did not suffer from the emotions we felt for each other, even though we ourselves certainly suffered from the lack of opportunity to be alone together. Every spare moment was snatched, as it had to be, given the demands of a communal university and hostel lifestyle. Finding time alone together became a more and more pressing issue as the weeks passed, and our emotional bond grew stronger. There is no privacy to be had when you are living in a hostel, particularly when you are living with a backdrop of unkind gossip. It was not that either of us really gave a damn about what the jealous people thought, rather that we wanted to be left in peace so we could just enjoy what we had, and relax in each other’s company. It seemed like there was some sort of plot to keep us apart, and distract us from each other as a prelude to dragging us apart and pushing us separate ways, as if it were somehow forbidden for two foreigners to fall in love in this particular setting. Sure, it sounds weird when you set it out in words long after the events have passed, but at the time, we really felt as if we were being stifled by outside forces that did not have our best interests in mind.
When we finally gained the mutual momentum required to act, for us it was a big step. Neither of us had lived with a partner before, which was scarcely surprising given our ages. We had no way of knowing whether moving in together would be successful or not, but we knew we could not handle living at the hostel any longer, so it was not a hard decision to make. As it turned out, our momentous change of lifestyle did not involve much in the way of distance. In fact, the apartment we located was just around the corner from the hostel, and faced out over the same concrete-paved pedestrian-only square that the hostel fronted onto.
It was the easiest shift in my life, and I had been in a fair few student flats in Palmerston North. My only belongings were my back pack and my day pack, laden with the essentials I had brought over from New Zealand, along with a cardboard box full of mainly unessential stuff I had already accumulated during my short time in Ljubljana. All up, only two short walks and rides up the new building’s lift were enough to complete my shift. The grumpy doorman eyed my toing and froing suspiciously, regardless of the fact we had been briefly introduced by the building manager. He was just that sort of person. Possibly he got bitter at the sight of all the tenants in the tower block coming and going all day, when he had to stay there, right by the door, and keep an eye on the place from morning through till night.
Marjana had a bit more gear to shift than me, so I helped her out. She had driven to Ljubljana from Zagreb in a little Renault of venerable age – a present from her parents. Consequently, she had taken the opportunity to load it with all sorts of items I could not even have contemplated, given the 20 kg air baggage allowance imposed on me. Actually, it was better that way – I had no temptation or real desire to bring along reminders of home. It was best I left all that detritus behind.
The positive aspect of all the extra items she had carted over from Croatia was that the flat had certain basic tools and utilities it would not otherwise have contained, including a coffee pot, kitchen utensils, pots and pans, a limited range of crockery, and even a funny-looking miniature TV of Yugoslav extraction, which worked to a greater or lesser extent, depending on sun spot activity, the alignment of the stars, and prevailing winds.
In addition to which, the flat itself had some basic although not particularly attractive furnishings – a table, chairs, couch; that sort of thing. There was no bed, so we ended up sleeping on a mattress on the floor, which had to be lifted up and aired on the miniscule balcony every three or four days to prevent mould from forming between it and the thin carpet it lay on. Marjana was the one who clued me up on that particular problem – it was not the first time she had slept on the floor. I eventually got fed up with this arrangement, and shelled out for a bed frame that we could place the mattress on without it going mouldy.
And while your mind is on it, I should add that this is not one of those accounts where the author goes into what actually happened in bed. If that’s what you are after, there is no shortage of soft porn out there masquerading as literature for you to choose from. Suffice to say, there was nothing lacking in that area. We were as happy as two young people away from their families and in love could possibly be, which was extremely happy indeed. And the joy was not just to do with sex. It was the feeling of having found that someone who you hope to find one day, who you can share your life with. And when you manage to find that person at such an early age, it feels like you have hit the jackpot.
It actually amounts to more than that, because sooner or later, prize money gets spent. With love, it’s different, or at least it is supposed to be. It is something that does not necessarily diminish or run out over time, unless you let it. I have really positive views on this, at the risk of being taken for someone who is naive. The problem is that these days it is very easy to be sceptical about marriage, but I reckon it can be amazing, provided you put the effort in that it requires, and really are committed to each other. I think this is why there are so many divorces and so much infidelity happening around us. Too many people only think about themselves, and not about others. Or they tell themselves their partner is being selfish either as an excuse or as a pretext for behaving even worse. The sixties generation can take the blame for being the start of all this: their permissiveness, their materialism, their “me, me, me” attitude. Things were far from perfect before the 1960s, but you can hardly claim people are much happier now, what with all the solo parents, and kids being brought up in essentially incomplete environments because their parents were unable to make the right choices; the choices that would have given their children the stable two-parent environment they need for normal socialisation and development.
So now you probably have this image of me as a conservative sort of person. When it comes to human relationships, you are right. I had too many friends in school who suffered as the result of divorced parents and other hang-ups caused by the wayward adults who were supposed to be doing a decent job of raising them. Growing up, I had the impression I was going to do better, that I would play my part in establishing one of those stable home environments, and thus buck the trend.
That was how I pictured it was going to be with Marjana – we would finish our studies, get married, and settle down to raise one of those happy families. I had all these images, stereotypical images, in my head, showing me how it was going to be in our little home, with a couple of kids, a dog and a cat. At the same time, I am not just a dreamer, and I knew that if all that was going to happen, it would only be because I had worked towards it, and had gotten to really know and understand Marjana, the way you should when a woman looks like she is the one you are going to spend the rest of your life with.
So it was that I embarked on my voyage of personal discovery. I soon learnt all those everyday things that are defining features when it comes to living with a person. I learnt for instance that Marjana would not tolerate waste: meals were only considered finished by her when the last traces of gravy had been wiped from the plate with bread and swallowed.
I learnt that she did not tolerate wastage of power either – a light was to be switched on only if necessary, upon entry into a dark room, and was to be switched off upon egress. And I learnt that Marjana was very frugal with money, in addition to being almost maternal in her attitude towards material possessions. I dropped a plate in the kitchen at one point (as you do from time to time) and found myself the unwilling recipient of quite a forceful telling off, with serious quantities of guilt being cast in my direction.
These things I could attribute to the fact that Marjana had grown up in the midst of a war which she and her family had been constrained to flee. Consequently, they had endured hard times, which I imagine would have entailed a good many material sacrifices, and the need to get by on very little. My grandparents, who grew up in the Depression years and World War II, had the same traits, although years of post-war prosperity and successful lives had taken the edge off their attitudes by the time I arrived on the scene and got to know them in their final years. Marjana’s attitude was the same as that of my grandparent’s generation, just after World War II, when they were still getting used to the fact that their past habits were now superfluous. For Marjana too, the war had practically only just ended, and she had no adult memory of what life in peacetime, free of wont, was like. For her, every little bit still had to count – never mind that a new plate, or even a whole set of them, could be purchased as replacements at a price that was affordable even on a student budget. But then, logic has little to do with individual thought patterns, mine included.
One of the spin-offs of having a flat was the privilege of having a private phone. People who have never lived in a hostel will never have any conception of what a lottery telecommunications become under those conditions. If someone calls, the passing on of whatever message there is to be communicated becomes a matter of pure chance, with successful transmission made even less likely if the phone call is from New Zealand, and the student answering the call only has rudimentary English, or is incapable of grasping anything other than that transatlantic accent which is now held up as the model for the English-speaking world by the Anglo-American axis running the global media.
My mother got in the habit of calling me once a week, always on a Sunday evening. I had no problems with this – quite the contrary. I liked hearing from her, and it saved me money, as toll calls from Slovenia are far more expensive than some of the cheap calling rates you can get in New Zealand.
Marjana was usually subdued after these calls, as if she was worried that I was blocking the line or something. Calls from her immediate family came fast and furious, unsurprisingly given Croatia’s proximity to Slovenia and the modest toll charges involved. I took it as a sign of familial closeness. On top of which, Marjana regularly received mail. I used to wonder if she thought it abnormal that I did not have such a high level of contact with my relatives, but then all families are different. She probably gave it no real thought at all.
I think all the phone calls and letters for her went part of the way towards making up for the fact she was away from her family, but nonetheless, in living with me in that flat, Marjana was cut off from wider social interaction to a greater extent than she had been in the hostel. True, it was hardly as if she were living a cloistered existence – she still crossed paths with her earlier acquaintances (I don’t know if they were particularly close friends – she never talked about them in those terms) – but it was nothing like the level of social interaction she would have enjoyed if she had continued to live at the hostel. I had become the focus of her social life, to the practical exclusion of others, even if not to their total exclusion. Consequently, the quality of our social interaction became paramount. Like her, I had no one else in Ljubljana to fall back on. I was basically alone in the city, apart from Marjana. My early acquaintances made in the hostel were even more tentative and fleeting than hers, given my lack of strong language skills at the time, and my own natural reservedness. So we became a mutually-dependent unit, without anything much in the way of a support network to help us through any difficulties. It would have been nice to have a friend or two on hand to act as sounding boards onto which our fears and hang-ups could be bounced, if for no other reason than to be told how silly we were being, either individually or jointly. We could have used someone like that in our lives. Possibly things would have turned out better. I like to think they would have been better, at any rate, but I suppose this is nothing more than wishful thinking.
Our world became more self-absorbed and enclosed as winter set in and the university workload increased. We spent even more time in our new flat studying, watching TV, practising our Slovene, or performing household chores. What we should have done was get out more, except that, being on a tight budget, we had to keep a cap on our expenditure. If it came to choosing between a night out at the cinema watching a foreign film (nearly all films in Slovenia are foreign, given the small scale of the local film industry), or staying home and watching something on TV, from a financial standpoint, the latter was preferable. For me, this was nothing new. It was the sort of thing that had always hindered my getting a real social life as a student back in New Zealand, so there was no adjustment involved for me. The same was true of Marjana: frugality was engrained in her as a result of living through a war and being a refugee. She had no burning urge to spend money on frivolous entertainment either.
The same logic applied to concerts, theatres, bars and discos. Had we still been living in the hostel, which we now looked down on, literally from ahigh, it would have been different. Peer pressure would have forced us to go out more, and we might have ended up enjoying life more, instead of hiding away in our apartment, as if the local entertainment industry was out to make us destitute and run us down to our last Tolar.
This is not to say that we never did anything. Marjana’s car provided us with the opportunity to get out and see the wider world, which, within the bounds of Slovenia’s frontiers, was not that wide, but held plenty of beautiful sights to behold. Places like Lake Bled, with its pretty little island and the fairy-tale church perched on it, or, not far away, Bohinj, with its charming villages and towering mountains. We roamed further away too – as far away as Koper, on what the Slovenians immodestly refer to as their “Riviera”. We even popped over the frontier to Italy to have a look at Trieste, although we were held up at the border post by a fussy Italian official who seemed to have the impression that Marjana was not just visiting for a day trip.
That particular scene, which involved a lot of waiting and being mucked around, left Marjana tense and on edge. She was sullen and uncommunicative the whole time we were in Trieste, which was the better part of the day, given it is only an hour’s drive away on the motorway from Ljubljana. I knew her resentment was nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the obstructive bureaucrats with guns who had made our border crossing so difficult. I did my best to enjoy myself anyway, but it was not particularly easy in such company. Marjana was doing her best, but I could tell the incident had struck a discordant note in her, as she was distant the whole time we were in Italy, and by the time we were heading back to Ljubljana, it was as if she had floated away.
So much so in fact that she nearly killed both of us. We had just driven over that enormous flyover near Postojna when she suddenly steered the car towards the edge of the road. Frantic, I shouted at her, and when that produced no sudden response, I grabbed the steering wheel myself. Somehow, I managed to get us off the road and bring the car to a halt without totalling it, pushing Marjana’s arms, hands and legs out of the way so I could clumsily take control.
She just sat there, quivering. She had nothing to say for herself – no apologies, no explanation, absolutely nothing. Her eyes were fixed at something in the middle distance, as if there was a speck of dirt on the windscreen. I climbed out of the car, cleared away the odds and ends strewn across the back seat, and then opened the driver’s door. Wordlessly, I undid her safety belt and lifted her up out of the driver’s seat. She was limp, almost lifeless, as if she were somehow paralysed. It was not easy getting her laid down on the back seat (if you don’t believe me, try it yourself some time), but I finally managed to do it. I rolled up a couple of spare jerseys for a pillow, and draped her in my overcoat so she would have a blanket.
In terms of the time taken, I know it was not a long drive back to Ljubljana, but it felt like it was. My head was clouded with nervous tension and resentment at her reckless behaviour. Not feeling that confident about driving on the motorway, I got off it as soon as I could and found a secondary road leading into the capital. There was also the fact that I did not have an international driver’s licence, in addition to my inexperienced driving, and the consideration that the car had Croatian licence plates was bound to make the vehicle a likely target for being stopped by whatever they call the highway patrol in Slovenia.
Marjana shut herself up in the bedroom when we got home. Not a word passed from her lips in-between getting out of the car down in the street and shutting herself away. That night I slept, or rather tried to sleep, on the couch. Actually, I just laid there for the better part of the night, wondering what it was all about, wondering whether what had happened could really be attributed solely to an officious border guard, or whether there was more to it. No matter how much I thought about it, I could not come up with anything remotely plausible that would account for her behaviour. So all I did was lie in the dark and wonder as I stared up at the reflections of the lights from passing cars bouncing of the ceiling from the street below. Her mad impulse was unexplainable. The most I could do was speculate about it and, mindful of its potential for destruction, hope it would not happen again.
The next few days were odd. There was a superficial return to normal, yet something still felt as if it were amiss. Possibly misguidedly, I decided not to tackle the issue of why Marjana had suddenly attempted to kill both of us, and what would have happened had I not managed to grab the wheel and re-establish precarious control over the vehicle’s motion. My fear was that being reminded of her actions might set her off again on some new uncontrollable course.
Faced with all my fears and uncertainties about what her behaviour might turn to, I came to realise I knew much less about Marjana than I thought. It was time for a reality check in that department. We had, after all, only been together a matter of weeks – long enough to think you know someone, but not enough really.
Inwardly, I dwelt on this point quietly for some days, yet no matter which way I approached it, I realised there was no possibility of asking Marjana about her problem either directly or indirectly. It would be like asking an alcoholic why he drinks: all I would get would be a mix of denial, obfuscation and self-delusion.
There was also the possibility it might make things worse generally. She might start blaming me and I did not want to run any risk whatsoever of losing her, in spite of her strange behaviour. This in itself might be considered a bit loopy, yet she was important to me, and it is true that love accounts for a good deal of very strange behaviour.
Arguably, I too had become touched, just like Marjana. Except with me, fear of losing her was what kept me hanging on.
As I write this, I am grasping for words suitable to encapsulate the strange mindset I was in, but nothing I can put on paper seems adequate. To put it bluntly, in terms comprehensible to anyone, I was in love with a sick woman who had infected me, not with some strange virus, but with her mind. The effect was to be just as ugly as any of the various venereal diseases, and the action mechanism was not that different, in that it came from excessively close contact with the carrier. At the time I was not capable of admitting it, however the truth was that Marjana was having the same effect on me as a disease, slowly breaking down my defences. Looking back, I realise she would have ended up killing me had I let her. Still, I am getting ahead of myself.
Our strange life together continued uneasily yet placidly for some weeks after the driving incident, with me studiously avoiding anything that might bring back memories of that horrible day.
As Marjana was not giving away any clues, I found myself studying her habits more closely, sizing up her reasons for doing this or that; in short, obsessing about the situation. It got to the point where I began wondering whether I was the one with the problem, fixating about an unhappy aberration that was steadily receding into the past in any case.
Perceptibly, our environment was also having its own effect on me. Unlike Marjana, I was not used to living in an apartment, squeezed into a little box stacked up with other identical little boxes into a tower. I found the setting drab and depressing, dehumanising even, although by European standards it was not such a bad place. I did not mention it to Marjana – she would not have understood. Try explaining to a European about feeling crowded in. They live arse to elbow with each other all their lives. When they get a bit of space and solitude, it frightens them. They have no way of understanding what it is like when you come from a country only marginally smaller than France, but with less than 10% of its population density. Living in central Ljubljana did not help. As cities go, it is quite a pleasant one, however I still found myself missing the flat open spaces of home. I spent an excessive amount of time gazing out the living room window, looking down on nearby rooftops and the dull concrete paving of the square below, watching people come and go, wondering if this was it – life in Europe. Was that all it amounted to?
I had had a more glamorous (doubtless unrealistic) view of it before I left home. Somehow I thought it would all be more exciting, heedless of the fact that day-to-day life in the so-called civilized world is more or less the same all over. Admittedly, Ljubljana had more on offer in the way of cultural events than dull old Palmerston North, but then I didn’t have the money to enjoy it.
There was still the car for excursions, except that now I was hesitant about suggesting them. We ended up going for a drive one weekend anyway, out to Celje, mainly at Marjana’s insistence. We went despite my worries about what might happen, as I was more scared of creating further strife by voicing my fears than I was of placing my life in Marjana’s hands again. There was no question of me driving the car the whole time – it was her car after all. So there came the point when I allowed her to take over the steering wheel. I was wrong to assume that such an optimistic balance could be held. Foolishly, I imagined that, after having failed me so badly before, she would not dare to break my trust in her again.
It had been a pleasant day out, that Sunday. It was nice and sunny, although not too warm, given the time of year. Celje is a couple of hours’ drive east of Ljubljana, if you take your time; somewhat less if you put your foot down. Like so many European towns, Celje has managed to retain the charm of its old centre by spreading out into new suburbs with their own less attractive concrete apartment blocks. Fortunately, not being central, casual visitors have no compulsion to view them. We drove into town from the south, along a winding road running through a green, wooded river gorge that had been smoothed out by millennia of erosion. The scene was strangely reminiscent of Westland. The centre of town was pleasant and not particularly large, allowing us time to cross the river for a picnic in the park, before heading back over the bridge and up a side road so we could get to the local castle.
By the time we got back in the car for the return drive to Ljubljana, I was feeling a bit tired, which is mainly why I let Marjana take the wheel. I dozed off shortly after we had passed through Laško, home of the famous brewery of the same name, which has a logo that is practically unavoidable, hanging as it does from nearly every pub, inn and restaurant in Slovenia.
It was a sign of how much I trusted Marjana that I managed to fall asleep while she was driving. As it turned out, I did not stay asleep for very long. The jolt of a rapid acceleration and a sudden swerve brought me back to my senses. Petrified, I watched as we drove directly towards an oncoming truck, altogether too close for safety, while overtaking a file of three cars, which were driving in the lane we should have been in. With a sudden jerk of the steering wheel and a triumphant “Yes!”, Marjana managed to get the car back into the right lane with just a few metres to spare between us and certain death, while the truck driver braked and sounded his horn, his face contorted in fear and fury at the stupidity of such reckless driving.
We still had the file of overtaken cars behind us, and a long stretch of winding road ahead, so I waited until we got clear before quietly asking Marjana to pull over.
When she stopped in a wooded rest area, and I finally got out of what could have been a death trap, something in me snapped. I stalked around the back of the car until I reached the driver’s door, jerked it open, and pulled her out. Strangely, given her excitement just minutes before, she was about as animated as a sack of potatoes. I baled her up against the side of the car, pinning her down by the shoulders. I was so far gone that I started shouting at her in English, calling her a stupid crazy bitch, along with various other names. She did not understand most of what was being shouted at her, yet the general intent and meaning was clear enough.
Still she said nothing, frozen up against the side of the car, like a nun in front of a flasher, trying to assimilate what was happening to her. She had never seen me angry before, and had never been shouted at by me before. I was actively dispelling the myth that New Zealanders are quiet people who never display any emotion.
I was the one who drove the rest of the way back to Ljubljana. From that day on, I never let her drive me anywhere again. I had no intention of making the same mistake a third time. My withdrawal of faith extended to other parts of our relationship. I began telling myself that, given what had happened, I could not really rely on Marjana for anything much. It was from around this time onwards that my attitude towards her started turning colder. Inwardly, I told myself I still loved her, yet external evidence of this began getting harder to find.
Christmas came along and I found myself invited to Zagreb to spend the festive season with Marjana’s family. I could tell that Marjana was not necessarily very happy with the prospect. She had done her best to keep me and her family separate and compartmentalised. During our early days in the apartment together, she used to rush to the phone when it rang to pick up the receiver first when she was expecting a call from her relatives. She couldn’t possibly ensure she would be successful all the time, and so it did come to pass that I ended up answering a call from her mother one day. Her mother seemed surprised to hear a male voice and asked who I was. I found we could communicate reasonably well, provided sentences were kept short and simple, and you used a bit of imagination to bridge the gap between Slovene and Croatian. I introduced myself merely as a friend of Marjana’s and let her know she had gone out for a few minutes to buy some groceries from the corner minimarket and I would be sure to tell Marjana to ring back. Marjana was a bit embarrassed when I asked her later that day if her parents knew we were living together. From her evasiveness, I guessed she had not told them. I suggested she had better let them know sooner rather than later, as it would not take them a great deal of effort to work out what the living arrangements were if I happened to answer the phone a couple of more times while she was out. She came to see the logic in this, and relented, which is how my existence came to be established in her family’s mind, and how I came to be invited for Christmas.
Zagreb left a strange impression on me. It seemed like a sad, ramshackle place; the result of a series of hopeful accretions, from Medieval churches through to Austro-Hungarian Empire apartment buildings, with a fringe of concrete Yugoslav residential blocks, none of which managed to fulfil the promises that lay behind them. It is the capital of a country that is just a few years old, but which has such a weight imposed by the burden of the past that moving forward looks like it is going to be a difficult prospect.
The shadow of the old ways persists in more than just the local architecture. I was alarmed when Marjana’s father asked for my passport. I was told it was so my stay could be reported to the local police. A country where all foreigners are considered potentially suspect and worthy of close monitoring is worrying if you are an outsider visiting for the first time. It was the sort of thing I associated with the Soviet Union, not with what was now ostensibly a liberal democracy. I was told it was only a formality and so on and so forth, except it still left me feeling distinctly uneasy that some goon down at police HQ wanted my name and particulars on file.
There were other sights that made me uneasy too – the gypsies in the streets, begging and stealing, and the number of amputees and disabled young men to be seen around the place, a living reminder of a war that was still in the recent past. Oh, I had seen war veterans with no legs before, at ANZAC Day ceremonies, yet somehow it was less of a shock, as most of them were old, although of course when they had lost those limbs they too had been young men.
The fact that winter had arrived by the time I was staying in Zagreb did not help me warm to the place. Very few cities fail to look bleaker in winter than they do in summer. Zagreb may have left quite a different impression had I arrived there in springtime. In any event, I noticed Marjana too felt antipathy towards the place, unlike Ljubljana, which she was fond of, and habitually referred to as “pretty” and “charming”. She was very much like me in that respect – she wanted to leave the setting where she had spent at least some of her earlier years and break out on her own in a foreign land, even if it was a great deal less foreign for her than it was for me.
Meeting the family formed a central part of my Christmas in Zagreb. In other circumstances I might have spent my time exploring this new place, wandering the streets and taking in the sights. Social dictates required otherwise, with the result that my view of the city as a whole never got beyond my shallow initial impression. Marjana had been away for some months, and there was an obligatory round of visits to the rels to be completed. The whole stay was an uninterrupted series of drinking, eating and socialising. Not that I felt left out at all. Quite the contrary. Marjana’s relatives were warm, hospitable and welcoming. I was treated like a guest of honour. Marjana’s mother in particular was lovely. She must have made enquiries, as when I arrived I found a packet of my favourite chocolate biscuits on the chest of drawers beside my bed.
Marjana’s sister Agnita (an oddly un-Croatian name, but there you go), acted as our driver and accompanied us on the rounds. She is a couple of years younger than Marjana, and quite different in character, with a mischievous look that is never far from the surface. As a bonus, she spoke English, whereas Marjana had specialised in German at school. Agnita used her linguistic edge to her advantage to tell me all sorts of things about what Marjana had been like as a little girl that I may not otherwise have gotten the chance to find out.
And then there was Marjana’s father – a taciturn man with a Groucho Marx moustache who ran a trucking firm. He had come up the hard way, but had made a success of things in spite of the war and various other obstacles that life had placed in his path. As the only male in a family with three strong women, he knew when to yield, yet was the sort of man who would stand his ground when he realised that what was at stake was important. I was aware that he, like everyone else in Marjana’s immediate and extended family, was sizing me up as a marriage prospect. Confirmation of this was received when he took me aside for a whiskey in the kitchen. I don’t drink spirits, but this time I could hardly refuse. He got to the point fairly quickly, and asked what my intentions were. Although I felt like I was in an old Hollywood film, I had no hesitation in telling him I thought Marjana was the woman I could spend the rest of my life with, but in the end it would have to be her decision as well. He nodded his head sagely.
Even though later I came to be accused of having all sorts of opportunistic, base motives in relation to Marjana, the bottom line was that I was in love with her. That I had my doubts was also true, which is why I added the codicil about it depending on her. It would in fact, as it turned out, entirely depend on her behaviour and her response to me.
Upon our return to Ljubljana, and resumption of our by now established routine, our relationship appeared stable as we went through the motions of daily living. Neither much in the way of deep emotions or feelings was expressed. We both retained an inner space where the other was not allowed to enter, thinking our separate thoughts without any great interaction. It was a step down from Zagreb, where I had been the honoured guest, on display to all the relatives, and a retreat from our early days together, when close, lasting union seemed possible. Now, in terms of day-to-day tasks, in reality I was little more than a series of functions that made Marjana’s life that little bit more bearable, from providing her with sex through to putting out the rubbish (both of these duties being performed on a weekly basis).
What grated the most was the loss of heartfelt fellow feeling. She had no trouble when it came to switching it on for her friends and relatives, yet when it came down to just her and me together, a coldness had set in, to the extent she did not even want me to touch her that much any more. Touching had by now been relegated to fixed times, such as departure for classes, and our weekly bout of sex. There was something going on in her head, and I was having trouble trying to work out what the logic was of being allowed to fuck her once a week, although not being able to hold her hand casually in public. It raised questions about the role she was allocating me, without any consultation or concern for what my feelings might be, and showed the slowly sliding level of esteem she held me in. A lesser annoyance, but one which also grated, was her habit of issuing peremptory commands to do this or that, as if I were her houseboy.
What are you supposed to do in a situation like that? The writers of all those relationship books always have pat answers. The problem is, if all their hollow advice actually worked, there would be no break-ups or divorces. You reach a stage where the disparity between what you had in the relationship, where you wanted it to go, and what little you are actually getting out of it, becomes so great that you feel like you have been handed one of life’s booby prizes. In my mind, that was what Marjana had become: the booby prize, an unkept promise; hope that was not fulfilled.
Just to push things even further out of kilter, there were periods when she would become ecstatically happy, to the point of absurdity, giggling and carrying on. On such days, she would pester me with the future as she saw it: visions of us marrying; of all the children she was going to give me (whether or not I actually wanted them all). She painted all these vivid scenes of bright happy tomorrows together, the kids playing in the yard while she did the gardening. Oh, and she wanted us to have three dogs when we were married: the big fluffy Arctic sort with the kind eyes.
There came the day, when I was hearing these deluded visions being trotted out once again for her own self-gratification, that I became thoroughly fed up with it. I was so sick of hearing her prattling on about these absurdities. I wanted happiness, and all I was getting was a mix of misery and delusions. Uncharacteristically, I spoke my mind. I told Marjana about my doubts such dreams would ever come true in light of her behaviour. It was not just the way she treated me, it was her whole cracked outlook. Her literally two-faced nature – one grim, demanding face for me, with a death wish lurking behind it, and another more palatable face for public consumption. I told her that if things did not improve soon, it would be over between us.
As she had in the past at traumatic junctures, she just sat there, saying nothing, doing nothing, as if she were autistic. I left her there, sitting on the couch, staring at the wall in shock. I felt that this was the calm before the next storm and preferred to be elsewhere when her rage rose to the surface. It was chill outside, a sensation that seemed in tune with how I was feeling about my life generally at that point, that made the reality of what I had done that much sharper. Before I had been too scared to say anything that drove at the heart of our relationship, for fear of losing her, and now that fear was falling away. Instead, I was speaking my mind, almost in the hope that I would lose her in doing so. It is not hard to understand why I felt so unhappy about the way things were going.
There was something ethereal about Marjana. She could coalesce and force changes on me and my life, and yet when I belatedly tried to do the same, it was as if I was not even there, as if she obeyed other rules beyond my understanding. Or was it rather that she was firm and immovable, unresponsive because the force exerted was feather light compared to the inertial mass resisting it?
I spent a couple of hours wandering around the streets, trying to explain the situation away with a series of simplistic images and half-baked ideas, striving to encapsulate something I thought would offer the key to explaining what was happening, as if human relationships are ever that simple. Having failed to arrive at a solution and, starting to feel the cold of that chill January evening, I reluctantly returned to the flat with all the dread and apprehension of a wage slave plodding off to his place of employment.
I suppose I was expecting trouble – some sort of scene, an argument, even a fight. Instead, I was met with a Marjana in tears who clutched at me, crying and muttering that she did not want to lose me. I can’t say how long we stood there, just inside the door, while she cried and hung onto me, clinging to my coat for dear life. I eventually shut the door and led her off to the bedroom to put her to bed. It was late, and I had been through as much as I wanted to go through that particular day.
She slept soundly that night. I lay there watching her. For what precise reason I can’t really say. She made no sound, dozing peacefully right through until morning, when she woke up with a start to tell me that she loved me.
I had come to understand some of what love means – getting beyond the Hollywood or soap opera definition of the word, and from that time on, I realised that Marjana did not, in fact, love me. Love is more than just clinging on to someone when you are scared of being alone. For Marjana I was at best a security blanket, something to clutch onto and protect her from her fears and inner loneliness. However, what I wanted was a partnership, where we would be able to rely on each other, and face whatever shit life came to throw in our direction. Instead what I would end up with was a caregiver role in relation to an unbalanced, emotional dependent. It was not a prospect that I found attractive.
Marjana eased up considerably in her offhandedness towards me after that particular evening. Our life together became less grinding and impersonal than it had been. She went out of her way to be nice to me, except it did not seem real, this sudden show of gentleness, as her actions were propelled by a base fear of the sort that will prompt a person to do anything to placate it.
This new turn in our relationship did not last very long. I returned home one Thursday afternoon in February to discover that the apartment was in a shambles. Nothing much was actually broken, although everything had been either turned upside down or thrown around. I found Marjana in the bathroom, bawling and muttering to herself. She kept ranting something about how she had been condemned to death and that it was only a matter of time before it would be over for her. It took me some time to get her to tell me what had happened to place her in such a state, but I eventually managed to ascertain that there had been some sort of incident in an alleyway down by the river. She later pointed it out to me: a graffiti-covered lane running down to the banks of the Ljubljanica, with a plaque at the top end commemorating the death of a Slovene patriot at the hands of the Fascists during World War II.
Two men had approached her for money. She said they were Bosnians. Apparently she could tell from the way they spoke. I got no admission from her that they had actually said or done anything vaguely threatening other than beg for money, but it had evidently freaked her out. I can only imagine what she behaved like in that alleyway. She said she had started screaming. Fortunately, it is not a secluded spot, running as it does off a main pedestrian thoroughfare, and the two men backed off and scarpered. A kind old lady and her husband had escorted her home. I asked her if she wanted to go to the police about it, but she was quite insistent that she would have nothing to do with them.
Thus began Marjana’s paranoid phase. She began avoiding going out, getting me to do things like grocery shopping. I had to knock four times on the front door whenever I came home, following a set pattern, so she would know it was me when I unlocked the door.
When it got to the point that she started skipping classes, I realised something had to be done. First of all, I tried getting her friends to try and coax her out more and take her out for a drink now and then. When none of them managed to succeed in convincing her, and I was in despair at the thought of not even being able to live a normal life because of her condition, I decided to call up the heavy artillery: Marjana’s mother.
I outlined the situation on the phone as best I could in light of the language barrier. Mum turned up in Ljubljana the very next day, having caught the early morning train from Zagreb. I met her at the railway station and carried her luggage back to the flat. Fortunately, there was no longer any pretence on Marjana’s part that we were not living together. Marjana was tearful yet happy to see her mother. I left them alone and went out for a while. I had classes that Friday like any other, but did not have the heart to go to them.
A semblance of normality had been restored by the time I got back home in the early afternoon, somewhat at a loss as to how to fill in the rest of the day given that I did not have the heart for work. Marjana and her mother were preparing schnitzel Zagreb-style for a filling lunch, so I popped out and bought some Vipava wine from the supermarket to wash it down with. It was a very emotional meal. I really had no idea what was going to happen next. I felt Marjana might lose it completely at any moment. Instead, she had switched over to being a bouncy, jolly little girl, on her best behaviour for mum. I wondered how long it would last.
Marjana’s mother stayed a few days. She shared the double bed with Marjana while I slept on the couch in the living room. Marjana was calm when the time came for her mother to return home. To avoid a tearful scene on the platform, she said her goodbyes at the apartment and I accompanied her mother to the station. Neither of us really said anything during the ten minutes or so it took us to walk there. Just before she boarded the train, she told me I was a good man with a kind heart and kissed me on the cheek. I wonder if she thinks so highly of me these days.
Marjana managed to hold it together for a good while after her mother returned to Zagreb. She began showing faith once again: in our life, in my love (making a more convincing effort than she had), and in our future. She also started coming and going from the flat like a normal person would once again, going about her daily life, and meeting the commitments entailed in her study and assignments due at the university. Even her old friends from the hostel started coming around again, after a long period during which she had successfully shut them out in spite of their concern for her.
She asked me one day when I was going to marry her. Actually, it wasn’t just “one day”. It was a Sunday. We were strolling through the flea market they hold along the banks of the Ljubljanica every Sunday, where all the old codgers bring out their old junk and antiques, odds and ends, and the odd piece of Communist-era memorabilia, which always fascinated me but naturally left Marjana singularly unenthused: “I had to grow up with that shit” was her explanation. I, on the other hand was shocked to see a bust of Adolph Hitler on sale. I forget how much the guy wanted for it. That someone would choose to openly admit to owning such an object by placing it on sale in a main thoroughfare in the middle of the capital city of a nation that had suffered so badly at the hands of the Nazis struck me as being in poor taste.
Consequently, my mind was elsewhere when Marjana popped her question. Distracted from my thoughts about Hitler and how much the bloke wanted for this offensive piece of Nazi metal, I paused before answering, not really knowing what I should say. All I could manage was a lame, hesitant “I’m not sure”.
“Not sure of what?”
The tone of her voice had suddenly changed from light-hearted to deadly serious.
“I’m not sure I want to get married.”
I wasn’t expecting it, so I did not see it coming. Her fist landed square on my jaw.
As I reeled from the blow, trying to regain my balance (it was a hefty wallop), everyone in the vicinity stopped and stared – the old codgers manning the various stalls nearby, the would-be purchasers, a respectable middle-aged couple strolling their toy dog – they all turned to watch as Marjana started flailing at me wildly in a fit of rage. Then, either tiring of the effort, and most probably overwhelmed by the whole situation, she ran off down an alleyway.
I did not call after her. It would not have had any effect. Everyone was still staring at me, the way people stare at something offensive stuck to their shoe, that they have accidentally trodden in. It was too late to call for a judge or a jury here. For them, I was obviously the one at fault, and whatever it was I had done to that poor woman must have been absolutely awful for her to run off like that.
I exited down another side alley, wishing I could turn invisible. Although I could flee from the crowd in the short-term, in the long-term there was no way of avoiding Marjana, and I would have to face her again sooner or later. I decided it would be a bit later at any rate, and walked up the hill to the castle that overlooks the central city. It was merely a way of killing time. My mind was a blank, paralysed by the feeling that I had done something that, confusingly, was both terribly wrong and very possibly totally right, depending on whether you cared to adopt a romantic or a pragmatic view of life. A romantic would choose to overlook all the trouble he had experienced, trust in the power of love, and respond affirmatively. I however was more of a pragmatist than a romantic, and could not reconcile myself with the thought of being shackled to an emotional wreck, however lovely she might be in her better moments. Did this make me a bad person? Something visceral inside me told me that it did, that I was being selfish and uncaring. I also knew however that in years to come, if I stayed with Marjana, my caring side would be battered to the point of crumbling. I thought back over the twists and turns in our time together, and decided it was time to face the situation head on.
She was busy packing when I got back to the flat. When I asked her what she thought she was doing, she shouted at me that she had had enough and was going home.
Her decision flew in the face of all logic. She had no desire to return to Zagreb. There were her studies to complete, which she had already devoted several months to, if nothing else. As if you could just drop everything and flee, and in doing so, solve your problems which, in her case, were not bound up in her geographical location, or her living arrangements, or even anything to do with me, but came instead from something somewhere inside her.
She packed up everything she could fit in her car, ferrying back and forth from the apartment, down the stairs, out to the car, and back up again. I said nothing. Absolutely nothing. Instead, I slouched in an armchair and watched some documentary on TV, my eyes on it, but with nothing sinking in. It was all I could manage under the circumstances. I was so tense and apprehensive I could barely even focus on the screen. The words spoken in Slovenian just bounced off me. It was enough effort just to register the blurred movements projected by the cathode ray tube.
Despite my earlier fleeting determination to face things, I had actually reached the point at which it did not seem that anything I could say or do would really change things. There was the Marjana I had originally fallen in love with, and then there was this strange, unpredictable, illogical creature lurking beneath the surface, who had made my life a misery with her erratic behaviour. It was this creature that was currently in control, and not responding seemed the best option I had available if I wanted to avoid too much further strife or confrontation. That was what I told myself. More likely it was just a combination of fear and cowardice on my part, combined with a sense of inadequacy. You cannot hope to stop a storm by waving your hands and pleading with it, and calling for it to show reason.
At the end of it all, just when it looked like she had finished and was about to hit the road, she sat down at the kitchen table and started crying again.
I went over, with all the grace of a zombie, and hesitantly placed my hand on her shoulder.
Her voice itself was an accusation: “You were supposed to stop me, tell me not to go, tell me that you loved me.”
My voice was stone cold. “It’s your decision. If you really want to go, nothing I can say will stop you. You have a mind of your own and have the right to use it.”
They were blunt words, but then I really had gone through all I could take, or so I thought at the time. If she was going to leave, then she should do it, even if I would be left sorting out the messy bits, like how to afford the rent and bills by myself.
“You’re not like them – they would have stopped me.”
“Not like who?”
“My parents. They would have told me not to be stupid, to calm down.”
“But then I am not your mother or father. It’s not up to me to tell you how to behave. You’re a grown woman now.”
She looked up at me.
“But I don’t really want to go. I love you! You’re good to me. You’re kind. Oh God, why do I always make such a mess of things?”
She stood up to hug me. I won’t say I didn’t feel sympathy, although it was not there in very large quantities. I thought back to the other scenes and reconciliations and remembered how short-lived they had turned out to be, and how little time passed before the next lapse into craziness came along.
Previously, I had been the largely passive partner, responding to the initiator, and trying to hold our relationship together, in spite of my declining hope, in the face of the repeated blows Marjana had inflicted on it. Now that I had renounced that role, she was at a loss. The parameters of the game had been altered, and in doing so, it appeared it was all over.
“You can’t leave anyway”, I pointed out, “you have to finish your studies.”
She nodded her head slowly, like a naughty girl caught in the act, admitting her guilt.
“It’s late, let’s go to bed.”
She nodded again and we climbed into bed. She was unable either to clean her teeth or put her pyjamas on as she had already piled all her gear into the car, so she just took her shoes off and slid in-between the sheets. Fortunately, as tenants of this particular apartment block, we had secure parking. Otherwise, I doubt whether her belongings would have got through the night unattended.
When the question finally came from out of the darkness beside me, the voice behind it was level and calm: “You don’t love me any more, do you?”
I measured my words carefully. “I care about you, but I can’t continue like this.”
I hugged her as I said it. To my surprise, she failed to offer any response. I think she had run out of steam by that stage, what with all the effort involved in loading up her car, and the emotional wringer she had been through that day. It was not long before she was snoring.
In the morning, she finally confessed. It all came out. All the dreadful secrets she had seen fit to conceal from me in an attempt to hide her shame and horror at what had happened to her during that war. Everything that was supposed to remain unsaid in order to preserve her family’s good name and spare polite society from any undue shock was finally detailed to me, the first outsider who she had chosen to recount her experiences to, step by step. It was neither a clinical account, nor a chronological one. In places it was even far from being coherent – the words simply would not come, so she had to force herself, spitting them out the way an anorexic dry retches. The strain was visible on her face. Her body shook, and her chest rose and fell as she gulped deep breaths of air. The events she was retelling may have happened years ago, but for her they were still fresh experiences, the immediacy of which would probably never fade.
What she actually told me is none of your business, suffice to say it was ghastly in nature. Such was the emotional damage caused that when she finally reached safety and was reunited with her family, her troubles were by no means over. Various therapies, medication administered according to a range of treatment regimes, and a series of practitioners of one sort or another had failed to alleviate her suffering. In the end, her family had her committed. I don’t know what the standard of psychiatric treatment was like in war-time Croatia, but I can imagine. She spent two years in a ward for the worst afflicted patients, visited regularly by her family, but feeling terribly lonely and frightened all the same. The stark ugliness of the asylum eventually pushed her towards finding a fragile equilibrium, if only because she knew that if she stayed there, she would go completely mad.
So she clawed her way back and did her best to behave like a normal person. This is not an easy feat when you are in a mental institution, surrounded by crazy people – something akin to being trapped in a twenty-four hour chimps’ tea party. She took her medication, gave the doctors the answers they wanted to hear and, after two years, was finally released from confinement.
One of the conditions of her release was that she kept taking her medication. Hence her parents’ concern when she announced she was going to turn over a new leaf and study in Ljubljana. In retrospect, I had a better understanding of why their phone calls to her had been so frequent and so long. They were carefully checking up on her; doing their best to assess her state over the telephone through prolonged contact, and making sure that she was sticking to her programme of medication.
Unfortunately, she was not taking her medication any more, because she had met me. She stopped taking the pills about the time she decided she was in love with me, her attitude being that now she had found me, everything would be alright. It would all sort itself out. A bubble of happiness would be all the protection she would need as a fragile shield against her fears and memories.
Stupid, stupid girl.
I don’t know what she was expecting at the end of it all. That I would turn around and say everything was going to be alright? That we would live happily ever after?
In fact her confession strengthened my resolve to be done with her once and for all. You probably think I am a heartless bastard. It’s not that I didn’t feel for her suffering, or that I didn’t care for her. I just knew that no good would come from carrying on with a relationship that had already been shattered by her secrets and perilous emotional state. When, after my return to New Zealand, Marjana started making calls in the middle of the night to tell me what a bastard I had been to her, I received the confirmation I needed that I had made the right decision. As I listened to the foul names she was calling me, I paused to reflect on what married life with her would have been like, and was at least grateful that I had been perceptive enough to get the Hell away from her while I still had a chance.
It was that morning in Ljubljana, once all her confessions had been spilled, that I offered my own by admitting I was returning to New Zealand anyway. My mother had written me a letter to tell me she was dying. The doctors said it was unlikely she would see the New Year in.
I had been sitting on the letter for some days. It put me in a terrible bind: either I could stay in Slovenia to finish the academic year, and hope mum would still be alive by July, or I could abandon my studies and return immediately. Staying here to see things through would mean I would have the worry of my mother’s condition on my mind, as well as the added pressure of having to handle Marjana’s fits, starts and moods, on top of handling my studies. I decided the easiest option was to return home, and now that it looked like it was all over between Marjana and me, my departure would, in a way, be less traumatic, or so I hoped. There was no reason why both of us should abandon our studies, and I drove this point home to Marjana that day, to the extent I finally convinced her to stay in the flat, and to stay in Ljubljana so she could finish her studies.
Marjana took it all surprisingly well only to the extent that this complicating factor blurred the break-up scenario she had spent all day before going through in her mind. That she no longer formed centre stage in terms of my attention and concerns was a sudden change she had not been prepared for. Had the cause of my departure been a woman other than my dying mother, I imagine her reaction would have been very different. One of the characteristics of Marjana’s illness is that it was very self-centred in the purely literal sense of the term. That there might be someone else in my life with bigger problems than hers sort of stole her thunder from her. It left her with no legitimate grounds on which to object to my leaving, and she was not so far advanced down the path of madness that she was incapable of recognising this.
I was, of course, relieved to be going. It was a cruel turn of events that had offered me this escape from an ugly situation, under circumstances which left me beyond reproach – at least at the time. Later on, as her condition worsened, Marjana found it in her to attribute blame in my direction. Fortunately, by then she was just a voice over a telephone, even though that voice caused me great hurt.
Not that I was free of complexes myself. My trouble was fear. The worst part of fear is the uncertainty it gives rise to. When you are in its clutches, nothing seems sure or reliable. Appearances can never be taken for granted. It was mainly to do with Marjana. I was of course scared for what would become of my mother too, except that this particular part of my fear was tempered by the fact that we are all going to suffer the same fate sooner or later, and the fact that she was, at that point, still half a world away and I was not yet staring her suffering in the face. Marjana’s ability to conceal and keep secrets whilst trying (unsuccessfully) to maintain appearances and her loose grasp on reality was what really scared me, along with the realisation that I too was going to get hurt somehow if I stayed with her.
I am a fairly straightforward person. To function properly, I have to know what is going on, what the truth of the matter is, and what is acceptable and what is not. I need boundaries, and need to know that those around me do too. The worst years of my life were in primary school where, as a precociously mature child, I felt lost among the wild savages who were my classmates. Being with Marjana was like being taken back to those days, and facing the whims of some emotionally unformed child, for whom there are no limits or who, at any rate, has only had rudimentary limits inculcated by society, and has no concern about overriding these limits on a whim, the understanding being that people expect no better of a child.
Marjana expected that sort of tolerance of her behaviour from me. Her unspoken line of reasoning was: “I am ill, so therefore you must endure whatever occurs as a result”. My problem was with the fact that nothing was ever stated out aloud, or even implied. Instead, I had been forced to decipher this underlying message from her confused actions. An unwritten code had been laid down unilaterally, to be followed without question, except it is a bit hard to obey if you have never been either consulted about it or informed of it.
When I had finally worked out her rules, the ones that determined a game I had never voluntarily accepted participation in, and decided I was not going to be subject to them, she saw my response as a betrayal. I had broken my commitment to her. In fact not just to her, but also to her madness.
Madness. There, it has been stated. The word neither she nor her parents would utter to me. A mark of social shame and stigma that is difficult to remove once you are branded with it, rightly or wrongly. For me it was neither a matter of stigma or shame. What bothered me was the question of honesty and integrity, the need to tell the truth when there was nothing else left. I had no guarantee it would have turned out any differently if Marjana or one of the family had actually told me the truth about her condition, and then, on the other hand, it could hardly have turned out any worse, what with all the emotional damage caused between us as a result of the secrecy.
For a while after my return to New Zealand, I found myself hating them for their conventionality and their bourgeois need to maintain appearances when it flew in the face of all common sense, and undermined what little chance the two of us might have had to build a future together. Probably as a result of someone’s coaxing behind the scenes, I even got a phone call from a couple of Marjana’s relatives in America who proceeded to give me a lecture about living up to my responsibilities and going back to Marjana now that my mother was dead. I told them my responsibility was to face reality and make the best of it rather than hiding behind a veil of secrecy. I also added that they had some nerve ringing up and telling me what to do on the basis of one side of the story. At that point, the call took a turn into the truly absurd, as my comments were greeted with indignation and shock that I should dare to doubt or disagree with them. They went to some pains to stress that they had both our interests at heart (the truth of the matter was they were trying to save face for the family). They even pointed out they were American citizens. Why this should matter to me one iota I have no idea, but there you are. I was still trying to fathom what their citizenship had to do with it when I heard myself being told off for being a “coward”. Which was when I told them to mind their own bloody business and hung up.
It’s a tight-knit family that brings that much pressure to bear. I wondered how I would have done if I had married Marjana. Then I would have become part of the façade, pretending to outsiders that there was nothing wrong with my wife, attributing her erratic behaviour to a variety of other causes, a quiet, suffering husband, hoping his boss and other important people to him did not find out what a miserable, pathetic life he was leading. That life would have been a nightmare for me: a wage slave dogsbody to a touched woman with a death wish, who somehow imagined she had what it took to make a marriage and motherhood work. It was a travesty, an absolute sham, self-delusion of the most grandiose sort. Human nature being what it is, it is quite possible I might have ended up being unfaithful, fooling around in an attempt to make up for the hollowness of a marriage that was a sham. Nothing good ever comes out of such marriages. None of Marjana’s family could see that. They came from a society where family values are still held in some importance, along with all the ugliness that families cover up. For them, wallpapering cracks with social remedies like marriage and a code of uneasy silence was good enough. Addressing the source of the problems and trying to curb it was no longer taken seriously by them, as that approach had failed in the past. Instead they had found a great solution – fob her off on some unsuspecting husband to take care of.
Ljubljana’s airport is about twenty kilometres away from the town itself, at the end of a circuitous bus route that takes you through a winding string of little satellite villages. The airport itself is on a scale more suggestive of a small provincial aerodrome than of a national capital’s air transport hub. I arrived there alone. I had refused to entertain the possibility of being driven there by Marjana, and I did not want any scenes at the airport. It was one of those situations where everything had already been said anyway, and all that can follow is uneasy silence and hollow small talk. Even though we had said our good-byes at the bus station in Ljubljana, as I sat there in the tiny airport building waiting for the airline counter to open, I still felt I had not really left her. What’s twenty kilometres after all? I wondered whether she just might drive out to the airport anyway, but if she did, I failed to see any sign of her on the observation deck as the Adriana Airline jet taxied out onto the runway. As the plane took off, a feeling of security descended over me. For the first time in months, I did not have to worry about her any longer. There would be no more physical danger, no more nightmares or strange moods to deal with, and no more of her secrets.
If only it were really that simple. Although I tried not to, my thoughts kept dwelling on Marjana all the way back to New Zealand. That weird, disembodied sense that air travel gives you, stepping from antiseptic terminal to antiseptic aircraft to antiseptic terminal, in the course of changing several planes so you can get from your obscure departure point to your equally obscure destination, was heightened by Marjana’s presence, brooding over me, filling my tired mind with surreal thoughts about right and wrong, good and bad, and who was to blame. I found myself crying for no reason at the in-flight film; some soppy American romance I would not pay to see under everyday circumstances, and normally would not even want to watch. And as I gazed out the window down at the sands of Iran, spread out several miles below, I wondered just how it had come to pass that I had so thoroughly failed to realise my dream of starting a new life in Europe. Just as I had made a decision to leave New Zealand behind, here I was only months later, returning indefinitely to a place where I did not want to be.
I can’t say I was overjoyed when we finally landed at Auckland Airport. Once you are through customs, there is a short walk – just a few minutes – across the airport grounds to the domestic terminal, the stopping point for all flights south. As I relished that warm, humid Auckland air, heated by the southern summer sun I had largely missed that year around, I remembered the last time I had followed the painted line guiding transit passengers through the warehouses and car parks. I had felt liberated, like I was throwing off the shackles of a mundane existence I hated, except it was more tenacious than I had imagined, throwing up new twists and traps with which to drag me down. This is not a reproach against my mother. My decision to return home was my own. From a certain angle, it might even be considered fortunate that she had provided me with grounds for extracting myself from a hopeless mess, although the prospect of returning to watch my mother’s final decline was not a cheerful one, to put it mildly.
My only certainty was that I had to be strong. There is no room for weakness in this life, None at all. For better or worse, you handle whatever shit comes along. The ones who suffer the most from this are the sensitive and noble people. They rail at the absurdities and injustices of a world that does not care, upsetting themselves over things that cannot, and never will, be changed. It could be argued that I was weak for having turned away from uncertain love in a distant country, and that I was heartless for leaving Marjana. Yet she had a safety net – her family – to fall back on. I had no one. She and her family had treated me like an outsider in the one important respect of keeping me outside their joint secret. They could have let me know, offered support, or even practical advice. They certainly knew Marjana better than I did. For me, such disregard was just another facet of an uncaring, unthinking world, where you have to watch out for yourself, or you will somehow be caught out, and left hanging on someone’s whim for the rest of your life.
Marjana proved to be tenacious, and not just in terms of the abuse she periodically meted out to me over the phone. As I went about my drab everyday tasks in a country I did not want to be in, she would not leave my mind, even when I was attending to serious matters, like how to cope with my dying mother, and finding a job so I could survive.
If this were one of those American films, I would be looking back on the past with nostalgia and regret, along with a yearning for what I have lost – my love, my hope, and my happiness. Yet none of this applies. Real life is never the way two-bit scriptwriters portray it. They have a lot to answer for – all the false hopes, silly romantic notions, and irreality they create in people’s minds with their imaginings. You don’t realise just how far off the mark their fictional creations are until you actually fall in love with someone, and discover it just doesn’t feel right, because it’s not like in the films. There is a vacuousness and a mundane feel to the real thing that it is not supposed to have, along with a sense of hollowness based on a series of false pretences. Women must feel it the worst. They are the ones who buy into all that romance stuff so badly, and not just in terms of Hollywood films either. They are doomed to disappointment, most of them, if only because of their own failings, let alone those of the prospective males who are supposed to be an image of some great fictional hope.
So, reality being what it is, I have nothing to look back on with nostalgia, and I would have to be a fool to think I did. My short time with Marjana was just another failed attempt at happiness – nothing more or less than that. I have no great sense of loss, as in a very real way I never felt I really “had” Marjana. She was too elusive for me to get to the point where I thought I could really understood what was going on. It took her own personal confession to offer just a rough idea of some of the forces pulling on her. Despite my earlier impression that I had escaped her by returning to New Zealand, it now looks like she will be with me for a very long time indeed, and not just in the form of crank phone calls. She keeps popping up in my head at all hours of the day. My mind keeps going back over specific scenes. Marjana has not truly lost her grasp on me.
I am hoping that with the passing of years this mental compulsion to dwell on a past best left alone will fade away and I will eventually be free of her. It is easy to see the state she would have left me in had I persisted in clinging to a love that was completely without hope. I would have become a total wreck, drained by her fixations and fears: a mirror image of her own damaged soul.
It may just be that I am trying to justify myself so I can feel better about the option I chose to resolve the situation. I can never know what might have been had I stayed in Ljubljana. There was a vague chance Marjana may have pulled out of her mental fog, regardless of all the indications to the contrary. Certainly, her position now (expressed in one of her more lucid phone calls), is that she was doing her best to hold it all together until the time I supposedly dealt our relationship the death blow of telling her I not only was unsure of our future, but that I was also moving back to New Zealand. Selective memory is a wonderful thing when it is to your advantage. You can look back on the past and overlook the inconvenient and embarrassing things that led you to being in the mess you were in, and seek to place any blame elsewhere – just the way the Communists used to do in places like Yugoslavia and the USSR, before the collapse of their system and a host of people eager to remind them of their failings. Human nature is like that.
The bottom line is that at some point I just had to let go, or she would have dragged me down with her, into the lower depths of a despair not easy to get out of, not far from death; to the extent of actively seeking it out. I was unable to accompany her on that journey, acting as a crutch and accomplice to her madness, telling her everything is fine when it isn’t, suffering her rage and her physical violence. Backing away was not an easy step. The sense of guilt that remains with me is enormous, tied to the moral reproach of having given up, of having been a quitter who left a troubled soul to her fate. No better than a motorist who leaves an accident victim on the side of the road while he hurries past, pretending not to have seen.
Nonetheless, she made her choice, either consciously or unconsciously, long before she met me, and now I have made mine: rather than lurk in the shadow of darkness cast by her troubled soul, I have stepped out into the harsh light of an uncaring world.
© Wayne Stuart McCallum 2002, 2003
Web site © Wayne Stuart McCallum 2004