A young, female traveller befriends an older Macedonian man in Ohrid and discovers some strange truths.
This short story was first published in Meanjin in 2014. It's no longer available online, but I do have a few copies of the zine version left. In any case, for your enjoyment, here is the whole story.
We – Zlatko and I – step out of the bar and onto the cobbled street. We are leaving behind us Gligor, Gligor's sudden temper and the chair he has just thrown against a wall and broken to pieces. All the way back to Zlatko's flat, we walk without talking about this or anything else. We dodge the mid-summer, late night crowds, Ohrid lakeside tourists and locals alike. We pass by the post office, the old telephone exchange, the new McDonalds, a supermarket and the international bus stand situated across the road from Zlatko's graffitied block. We enter and climb the bare concrete stairs, five floors of them, until we are standing outside Zlatko's wooden door.
Without a key, he opens it. It's not locked – it's never locked – for philosophical reasons, as Zlatko has previously explained. We take off our shoes before we cross the threshold. We leave them outside, as is his ritual, and then Zlatko hands me a pair of the thick, woollen, crocheted house-socks that he keeps in a stack for visitors just inside the frame. We wear the socks so that the almonds and walnuts that he has spread thickly on the floors don't hurt our feet, mine or his. Those nuts can be dangerous, especially the ones that have been husked. I put on my nut-protection socks and walk down the hall into the living room, in the dark. Zlatko doesn't like electricity.
Instead, he lights some candles and begins to boil some water on a portable gas ring – which also gives off a bit of extra light. He's making a pot of Na Majcina Dusica, A Mother's Little Soul's Mountain Tea for me. It's meant to be calming. And I'm trying to relax but I'm finding it difficult after Gligor's violent outburst.
I clear a space for myself. I sweep aside some nuts and sit on the floor next to the fridge which, in the last days, I have come to know is not really a fridge but a cupboard for clothes; across from the TV that is just a box for wires; by the electric kettle that's being used as a vase for plastic flowers; and all the other modern household appliances around that have been disentangled from their regular meanings and functions. There is just one piece of traditional-seeming furniture. A bookcase which displays books: hardcovers, seminal works such as the Bible, the Koran, American Psycho, Tito: Life and Times, Capital, The Brothers Grimm. But the books' insides have been gutted. Perfect rectangles have been cut out of their centres to fit, snugly, Zlatko's cigarette packets.
What else is there to do? I pull down one of the nutcrackers that hangs on a hook from the ceiling, attached to a piece of long, stretchy cord. And I think back to the time I asked Zlatko what they were about for – the nuts, the crackers – but he told me that I should make my own mind up, like with art. Anyway, I haven't yet. Using the plier-ends, I grasp a tough, old walnut. I squeeze and crack it open, picking bones and flesh apart. I put the meat in my mouth, chew. But it's not a good one. It's rotten. I swallow, anyway, grimacing as Zlatko arrives in perfect time to wash this bad taste down with the pot of tea he's made. He sits beside me, opens a little tin and with the things inside begins to prepare a joint for himself – his herbal remedy. I sip my tea, hug my knees and rock gently, watching, until the paper's licked, he's lit the match and begun to draw deeply.
Then I say, 'Well, that was weird.'
It's the first time either of us has spoken since we left the bar and Gligor the smasher of chairs.
'What was it all about, do you think?' I ask.
Zlatko just concentrates on inhaling and exhaling. Then he says, 'All that was for you. Gligor thought he would be with you tonight.'
I say, 'But where would he get that idea? We just met this afternoon.'
Zlatko, with a calm face, free from any sudden furrows, says, 'In Macedonia, we didn't have a war when Yugoslavia broke apart, not like Croatia and Serbia and Bosnia. The young people feel they didn't get a chance to vent their anger, their tensions. But this country was affected as well. The young people have no future. There are no jobs. No security. The young people are suffering mentally. Gligor is suffering mentally. He takes pills.'
I nod taking in this information, Zlatko's train of thought, his argument: that a war would help someone, would help Gligor who takes pills and breaks things when he doesn't get girls, feel better in the short and long term. I consider it. Then I begin to feel panicky.
I say, 'Okay. Well, I'm a bit freaked out, actually. Do you think Gligor will come tonight? He knows I'm here. Do you think he'll come?'
Zlatko says, 'No. He won't come.'
I say, 'Are you sure?'
Zlatko says he is sure.
My eyes dart around.
'Still,' I say, 'would you mind, would it be okay, if we locked the door to your flat? I know it's against your philosophy. But just in case.'
Zlatko says that we could, if it will make me feel safer.
'It would, it would,' I say.
Soon, when he's stubbed out the butt of his joint, Zlatko gets up and unscrews the mouthpiece of a non-functioning telephone and digs out a key – calmly, too calmly, I think. With it goes down the hall to lock the door. And as I observe him do this, as he slides the inside chain across its slot as a final measure, I begin to wonder if Zlatko really is the kind, wise, laid-back yet slightly eccentric person I have judged him to be. What if I am wrong? What if in trying to protect myself from what I imagine lies outside, I have now willingly locked myself in with the real monster?
Maybe the whole scene in the bar was planned, choreographed so that Zlatko could get me here alone: a young female traveller who knows no-one. Probably, Gligor is in on it as well. Soon, he will come with his own key, his own way to open the sliding lock – with a push and shove. He'll bring with him three other young, angry men with no futures and no jobs and they'll rape me. They'll laugh as they do it. I torture myself. You're an idiot. You don't even know this guy properly. No-one knows you are here.
I try to get a grip. I tell myself: Breathe, breathe. Look around. What's really happening? What's reality right now? I watch Zlatko for clues to this reality, but he's just plodding around in the woollen nut-protection booties – they're green and pink with stripes. He's getting ready for sleep, he's brushing his teeth. He's doing normal things like folding up his dirty clothes and putting them in the vegetable crisper at the bottom of the fridge; picking up my empty tea cup and putting it in the sink. He
wants to show me the room where I can comfortably rest. He's offering me his hand.
'It's okay. I can do it,' I say.
I lift myself with my own hands. I wipe the nut shells and husks from the back of my dress and follow Zlatko down the hallway to see what he wants to show me. A few steps and we're there. Zlatko's standing in front of a door which I have never been inside of, never really noticed before.
'It's the guest's room,' Zlatko says, pausing, explaining. The room he rents out to tourists in summer so he can pay his heating bill in winter – when he likes electricity. But tonight, tonight, it is free for me. I don't have to pay. Because I am a friend. 'You are a friend now,' he says.
I want to believe him but I don’t.
My eyes are two slits as he opens the door and turns on the light switch. Amazingly, the light works. I peer in, afraid of what I might see.
Yawning, Zlatko only starts introducing me around.
'This is the bed,' he says.
But it's just an ordinary object, a thing to lie in, as beds usually are.
'Here is the window.'
It's hidden, closed behind some curtains but I could open it if I wanted to.
'You have a blanket.'
It's one of those hairy, red rug-like things they have in cooler mountain climates, nothing more.
'There are clean sheets.'
These are made of linen, as anyone might expect, and tucked in extra-tightly around the mattress.
Everything is what it is, what it appears to be. But Zlatko doesn't mention the floors which are, strangely, completely nut-free. There are no nuts on the floor and no nut-crackers hang from hooks from the ceiling.
'Oh. I almost forgot,’ Zlatko says, gesturing towards an ordinary-looking small table sitting by the bed, ‘This is the bedside table.'
And then he goes, closing the door behind him.
On the table, I notice there is a book. I pick it up and turn it over. I open it to see that it, too, simply is what it is: not a home for a packet of cigarettes but for words arranged in sentences. I recognise the book's blue, watercoloury cover. It is a memoir by a French woman who recounts her memories of the first three weeks of her vivid life. Zlatko read pieces of it to me in the park where I first met him a week or so ago.
I remember watching his face, beautiful under the daytime trees; expressive as he translated from French to Macedonian to English, moving like an underwater acrobat falling without taking a breath, between grammars and syntaxes, genders and cultures to produce a meaning I could understand. I was moved. It's not something I know how to do well.
Now, in the guest's room, I just flick. I stare dumbly at the pages. I can't make sense of them. I close the book, turn off the light. I lie down on the bed, feeling the hairy, red rug-blanket beneath my back. I keep all of my clothes on, removing just the woollen socks. I push them off with one foot, then the other and kick them to the floor. I try to sleep. But instead I lie there with my eyes wide open, feeling the release of tension in my body, my earlier fears diminishing.
I think of the night that is passing and about my life and how it's come to this.
I think of Zlatko and how he seems to have made his life, in part at least, from the walnuts, almonds, the nuts he has scattered on his floorboards.
I think about Gligor in the bar, just before he demolished the chair. How his mouth opened and closed like a wooden puppet's, up and down, but I couldn't make out what he was saying because of the blaring Euro-techno.
I think about Macedonia as a whole and the civil war that was averted. The war that Zlatko thinks Gligor wants. I wonder, really, if he does.
I try to remember the first three weeks of my life, but I have to admit I can't.
Outside the closed window, there's a lot of howling and hooting and hollering going on. I listen to the cries and imagine all the mistakes people might be making, the things people might regret in the morning – or not. And I wonder how it is that I got to be so sober, so careful, so afraid. I decide to get up. I pull back the curtains and open the window to let in some air. Then I leave my room and creep down the nutty hall – barefoot, unprotected – to where Zlatko is resting, a lump on the floor, on some foam, under a sheet.
I stand there and ask in a half-whisper, 'Zlatko, are you awake?'
'No,' he says, joking. 'What is it?'
I say, 'Sleep won't visit me.' The way he might, poetically.
Zlatko lifts his head.
He says, 'Do you want me to come?'
I say, 'Will you come?'
He says, 'Do you want me to come?'
'Yes,' I say.
Then we walk back down the nutty hall to the room for guests and lie on the bed on the red-rug blanket, next to each other, on our sides. We look, for what feels like a very long time, soulfully, seriously, into each others' eyes. Then we drift into sleep.
Here is a picture on the inside of the zine.
If you would like a copy of the publication, please contact me here.