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Returning to the Hague

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Photo by Thomas Claveirole.

23 August. Noon.

The Italian soldier is sweating, but he doesn’t take off his helmet. He doesn’t take the muzzle of his machine gun off me. His legs have gone numb, just like mine. I could reach over and take out a cigarette, but I don’t even feel like smoking now. The armoured car should arrive soon, I’m waiting for it as if for salvation. I’m not afraid of incarceration, there are worse things that could happen – as we stand here like this some misguided aerial bomb could hit the building. Or we could be shelled by a helicopter. Everything looks the same in the dark – from up there in the air you can’t tell what’s what. The allies don’t worry about precise strikes, they crudely tighten the siege until the prey crawls out of its lair on its own. But right now I’m most afraid of the Italian’s childish face.

Outside the bombardment continues. The wind has plastered a sheet of paper on the rusted-out bars of the window. It’s a leaflet, like the leaflets that rain down from the sky all day. They drop them from planes flying miles up to avoid the anti-aircraft fire. The cold stiff paper hits the pavement with a smash, like a bottle breaking.

The leaflet reads as follows: ‘his delivery into the custody of the international military contingent and his appearance before the war crimes tribunal…’

‘Shall I tell you, son,’ I ask him, ‘exactly what I’m guilty of?’

30 September.

Officially, they were still under house arrest. Mila and Slobodan wandered in and out of the rooms, through the kitchen, down the hall, but only went as far as the door. They hardly met each other’s eyes. She maintained her composure, mentally assembling images of her future life without him, either here or somewhere else, but the picture kept disintegrating. In the middle of the day she would be overcome by exhaustion. She would lie down and close her eyes.

In her dream they were in an unknown place, some house. They each had their favourite armchair in the living room. It was just the two of them, in front of the television. Shelves of brown wood lined the wall behind them. All around were framed pictures, candle holders and vases, wicker baskets and ceramic plates, just the sort of thing she would choose for her own home. She later recognized that it really was their apartment, their residence. It was the two of them, yet they were somehow different.

Mila went about her usual routine. Now and then while she was dusting, some knick-knack would fall to the floor and if it was fragile, it would shatter. She would sweep up the pieces with the broom and the object would disappear, cease to exist. Everything finally ended with a glass figurine, the last thing to break. They both disappeared along with the glass figurine – never mind that they didn’t look like themselves. Then came fuzzy images, shapeless and weightless, after which it was pointless to try and follow.

Mila opened her eyes. She now saw that they were surrounded by too many things. Just as in the dream, most of them could easily disappear. She sat up, then got to her feet, slightly dazed. She wrapped the wings of her red dressing gown around her body and went out on the balcony.

That night she burned most of the books, photographs, albums. She tossed entire shelf-loads into the fire beneath the balcony. She reached the kitchen. After all these years, she still kept silverware with the airline insignias in a drawer. One of her old stewardess’ scarves, made of thin She didn’t scream, she didn’t utter a sound, she didn't even look around. She knew that they’d already taken him from her.cotton with yellow and red stripes, was hanging behind the kitchen door. She ran her fingers along the cloth: how much time had passed since then? She knew this scarf, yet it now somehow seemed strange to her. Why did she not remember putting it there? All of a sudden she realized that he was the one who had hung it there behind the kitchen door, not her. She didn’t scream, she didn’t utter a sound, she didn’t even look around. She knew that they’d already taken him from her.

30 September. Dawn.

Dawn is very beautiful in the place where Slobodan now is. The problem is that you can only see a small patch of sky through the van’s open sunroof. The other problem is that it lets in the freezing morning air. He’s lying on the floor so he can’t be seen from outside. He can feel the bumpy metal surface under his back. He sees the legs of the soldiers sitting on either side. The stench of sewage rushes in from outside. Where are they going? It reeks like spoiled fish, like stagnation and excrement and rotting food. And the smell of something burning, of decomposing wet paper and a whiff of mildewed nylon. The scraps from a vegetable market, unwashed wine barrels, rancid meat and worm-eaten apples. The scent of old cheese, the smell of a henhouse. The reek mingles with a tinge of felt-tip pens, battery acid and gasoline. The van jerks forward sharply, the sunroof blinks shut, then the light abruptly returns to its place – making stripes on the floor, cutting across the windows, like a prisoner’s black-and-white striped suit. He realizes he is now a prisoner and nothing depends on him anymore.

They had already offered her a million for his diary. The diary, they explained to her, was a personal item, nobody has the right to demand it, don’t give it up. She received persistent phone calls, the caller ID showed numbers from Belgium and Holland. But Slobodan never kept a diary in any case. They offered to buy her story, a voice promised to send stenographers, all she had to do was dictate, just sit and dictate while sipping her tea, what to dictate wouldn’t be a problem, if she wanted, they would ask her questions. For a 100-page memoir she would get 200,000 upfront, a million and a half when the movie rights sold and ten per cent of the profits thereafter, but she refused. She answered the phone less and less frequently, but she was still waiting for the call, so she couldn’t completely go into hiding and risk missing it when it came. But deep down she already knew that she wanted it all to be over, like a dream, perhaps living under an assumed name in a city where nobody knew her, in some house, doing something different, perhaps with somebody else – perhaps even with a different man. Her body felt tired, yet still young, she wanted something to continue, ever since the war was over everything just kept ending, money, friendships, her fake suntan fading, then disappearing completely. She was pale, left without a hairdresser, masseuse, chauffeur, car, gossip, money in the bank that she usually counted on the last Monday of every month – she wasn’t sad that she was no longer first lady, to the contrary, she felt a new sense of lightness, almost as if now that he was no longer with her, for the first time in thirty years she felt a sense of freedom – but she loved Slobodan, like you love an internal organ that sometimes aches, like you love your teeth or your finger, irrevocably and somehow forever. In any case, part of her had gotten used to the luxury, to snapping her fingers and having her wishes come true, so now it was like learning to walk again, like stepping on the ground barefoot, and it wasn’t always pleasant.

But in the end they succeeded. She used her remaining money to buy an hour’s worth of time. The supply officer at the special prison demanded 100,000 and not a cent less. But Mila had no way of getting her hands on that kind of money and he realized she wasn’t lying to him. He accepted her offer, they agreed on 70,000. He kept frowning and repeating how risky it was for him, but he held up his end of the bargain – he arranged the transportation and everything went off without a hitch. If he hadn’t taken the money, it would’ve looked like a pure favour.

Now they were alone again. This meeting reminded both of them of another one twenty-five years earlier, when Mila had left for Munich. Since then they’ve never been apart for so long.

They went into the living room. She sat in one of the armchairs, while he remained standing, leaning over her and grilling her. She was telling him about her work, about Germany, about her studies and so on. Then he went to the kitchen for coffee. She looked around the room, almost nothing had changed. They had made love there on the floor, maybe even on this very same carpet. And the pillows, tossed on the sofa. She leaned back her head and closed her eyes. ‘What am I doing!’ She wondered for the thousandth time that day. Not with alarm, not with fear, but somehow numb.

‘Do you want milk?’ Slobodan asked her from the kitchen.

She didn’t answer him, she didn’t want him to hear her voice right then. Then she got up and leaned against the armchair. She sat on the armrest, facing the half-closed door. Several seconds passed. She took off her sweater and put it on the chair. She unbuttoned her blouse, took it off and laid it on the armrest. She slid her fingers under the waistband of her pants, right below her navel. She sensed the tension in her stomach. She spit on her fingers and ran them over her eyebrows. She felt her hands trembling slightly. He appeared Another pale shadow stepped aside, circling the two of them. When it reached the window, it went out into the sunny day.in the doorway. He stood still for a second or two, looking at her. Then he set the coffee cups down on the sideboard. She couldn’t bear his gaze and bowed her head. Her hair hung down, covering her forehead. Her damp eyebrows felt cold. He stepped towards her and took her face in his hands. He raised her head and kissed her on the cheek and on the lips. She forced her ankle between his leg and the chair and hooked it behind his knees. They both tumbled and he took their full weight, landing on the armrest. His cheek remained pressed her lips, nose and cheekbone. They sat unmoving and silent, breathing slowly.

One pale shadow rose from behind the armchair, stepped across the two bodies, passed the table, reached the window and pressed its face against the glass. The silhouette melted into the brilliance of the sunny day and the angel disappeared behind the veiled light of the curtains. She tossed her hair to one side and raised her chin. Her face was directly in front of his. She drew her hands across his chest down to his waist. Yet another pale shadow stepped aside, circling the two of them. When it reached the window, it went out into the sunny day.

She squatted with her back against the armchair. She breathed in the warm scent of his lap.

They only did it once – she was standing up, leaning against his hands. She kissed his throat, bit his earlobes, and pressed her lips to his. She forced her tongue into his mouth and they remained locked together until the end. They were sitting on top of each other, he beneath her. His back was damp and she ran her interlaced hands from his waist to his neck and back. Her skin grew wet from the dampness of his body. They gulped in mouthfuls of air. They opened their eyes and stared at each other, separated only by centimeters, breathing in each other’s breath. She smiled and stroked his wet brow, smoothing down his tussled hair. The phone was ringing. They remained as they were, not moving apart. A pale silhouette flew by behind the curtains and its wing blocked out the light of the sky with a sparkling shadow, brighter than sunlight itself.

The phone was ringing, but she knew it wasn’t the phone. It was the signal that their time was up. A voice said: ‘Milic, you’re free to go now!’

He got up, she tried not to burst into tears. She wanted to caress him, to call his name. She knew there was no way she could do it, not even in that reality out there. There she wasn’t herself, she was someone else. She was young and still far too ignorant. Everything ended as the ringing sound died away, their young bodies, his and hers, began to withdraw, as if backing away from the thin net that divides the unreal from reality. The light disappeared, along with the sound of the final warning bell. The window went dark, the room disappeared. Mila lost sight of Slobodan, of herself and the room, the details, the particulars.

On the other side of the border at the checkpoint the cargo is transferred to a vehicle. The ambulance bounces along a side-road with its lights off. Bumps and potholes jostle its wheels. Finally the rattling stops. The silhouettes of stoplights surrounded by puffy balls of weeds loom against the dusty landscape. The cruciform switches lying flat, the rough ties and counterweights of the interchanges. Near them, piles of cement sleepers, scattered chaotically between the tracks. The silhouette of the city glows blue in the distance, quiet and dead. The length of the rails is deceptive – the station and the city are far away, a whole kilometer off. The clamor of noisy crowds doesn’t reach here, nor does any other sound, only the train’s hollow whistle.

They silently unload the coffin from the gaping doors of the freight car, then the ambulance doors slam shut. With its roof lights extinguished, the vehicle pulls away in a wide dusty turn. It melts into the unmarked and unfenced road cutting across the barren field. All is silent again.

The gates on the baggage ramp rattle. The locomotive starts spinning its axles, two by two the wheels begin turning, sliding across the thin corridor pointing due east. Car by car the composition passes by, the train slowly accelerates, breaking away from the dust and the low shadows of the stoplights, passing by without signaling. Closed doors and shutters fastened tightly over dirty windows flash by. The signboards that should hold the destination signs are empty. Blind, peeling iron planchettes with no inscriptions, no initial and final stations.

We’re travelling on that train, the car is moving, stripes of light flash through the window. The trees pass by in a row of trunks, with short breaks for ramps, overpasses, the rattling tracks of highway crossings with barriers. The barriers are decorated with glass reflectors, vertical rods hanging from squeaking rings, fences and obstacles in front of the herds that have stopped to await our passing, the cars, roaming pedestrians, bicyclists, truck drivers who have climbed down from their rigs with cigarettes in their mouths and rolled up sleeves – I love you, people! I love you, animals, gardens, houses with your slanted roofs – I feel like shouting. What fantastic distance of speed between me and you. Someone yells something at me through the open window, some kid outside, a boy, somebody along the road snarls at me. I hear a curse, shouted in an angry voice. I am alone, standing in the car. This wall with a mirror above the backrests: its silver foil warped from moisture and rust, eating away at my own image, yellow-brown bubbles in the water under which I see myself. ■

Translated by Angela Rodel.

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