I have written this short story in April 2009; it was the second piece of writing I produced in English.
The Grand Return
I remember that night travelling on the bus over the Italian border to Croatia. It was late summer and air was filled with the scent of lazy nights and idle chatter of incidental travellers. Giggling females sit with oversized bags of knickknacks and cheaply obtained goods from sales at the end of the Italian ‘feragosto’. Some of it will be resold to friends and neighbours as the latest Italian fashion.
In the outer pocket of my travel bag there is a New Zealand passport, new and crisp. The photograph shows my face, still and sombre staring into the camera lens. The name, date and place of birth confirm that I am the person whose face is on the photograph, was born in Croatia and am the rightful owner of the travel document issued by the New Zealand Government. The evidence to prove that the girl who left and the woman who is travelling are the one and the same. Touching the glass of the bus window, I try to remember that girl.
There has been a long time since those memories have been called upon, and instead of beautiful full pictures you would expect from somebody travelling back to the arms of a homeland, only fragments are piercing my view, like sharp pieces of the mirror broken into million little splinters. Before the bus reaches my home town, I am to find that the woman who is travelling and the girl, who left, are not recognizable to each other.
My first memory of the girl is the memory of a photograph. A black and white photograph showing the smiley face of the baby trying to stand on her chubby legs supported by the hands of an older woman with dark curly hair. They are sitting on the grass under the wide apple tree in full blossom. They look happy. I never knew who was behind the camera lens. I suspect it was my father. He would have been the only one who could afford the camera. There are no other photographs of the baby.
Later there will be a few photographs in colour showing the still, sad face of the girl carrying her school bag, or playing in the snow behind the shapeless apartment block built during the height of the Communist architecture. How easy is to use such a description now, after the whole world witnessed the demise of Communism in Europe during the late 1980s. Those who despised it and suffered under it from the outset, rejoiced blinded by the excitement of newly acquired freedom … the blindness that will see them set to slaughter each other not long after.
There is a photograph of a school girl standing in a row of other kids, dressed in a crisp white blouse and dark blue skirt, while the teacher is tying the red scarf around the girl’s neck. The admission to the army of Tito’s youth. The youth that was to carry on the legacy of the war victory, embezzled into the proclamation of the brotherhood of all working men and women, regardless of their original tribes. Some forty years later the tribes will come back armed with long memories and even longer weapons.
I remember feeling dizzy when asked to cross the podium after being adorned in the mandatory regalia; red scarf, navy blue ‘Titovka’ cap with shiny metal five-pointed red star on it. The taste of the future where we can all do anything was palpable in my dry, naive mouth. It will be years before the girl floating over the podium, decorated with paper flags, unwraps the carefully disguised illusion.
The bus nears the outskirts of the town I grew up in. In support of a widespread myth that every émigré wishes for nothing else but to return to the bosom of the motherland, I should really call it ‘my town’, like ‘my lover’, and alike. I have not the slightest desire to do so. Like I had no desire earlier at the border to tell the tall youth, officially inspecting my New Zealand passport, (new and crisp), that there is no need for him to labour over ill-pronounced English words for my benefit … but I did not. Instead I indulged in using as many long English words as I could think of during the miniature exchange. Sterility of English provided the shelter with assumed superiority. While observing the youth’s uniform with the newly designed Croatian insignia, I remember asking myself whether or not he had really seen my name in the passport? Did he choose to use the foreign language to ensure that I understand my place is with those who deserted the motherland and certainly not with likes of him who stayed and fought for the country’s freedom? He was wearing a Kalashnikov across his chest and the belt of ammunition, not far from his clear blue eyes. I felt as invisible as I did when learning rudimentary English amongst those who were using it since birth. It was their language, not mine, and this was his country, he fought for it, not me.
The pale light of the summer morning lingers over the passing landscapes. I place my face closer to the window pane and wish it were cleaner. It has been over ten years; the lights illuminating the highway are still the same. I am looking for the signs of recognition … this is the west side, the side where my friend and I waited for a bus, half frozen, on many school mornings. There is a strange, unsettling feeling moving inside me. I can see it now, the bus stop, still there, only there is no tree. There was a willow tree with its long, melancholic branches, I can still see it clearly in my mind, but it is no longer there. By now my face is plastered to the window pane and I am trying to see the rooftops of the first shabby houses and the land behind them where we used to run into horses and ride bareback until scared off by owners. The bus moves too quickly and I cannot see the tree. There are smudges of my breath on the window pane.
The bus circles the city and enters the shiny new bus station, which I do not recognize. I can see that many buses from all over theEuropecome and go from here now. A kaleidoscope of colour, smell and sound envelops me. I am looking for a taxi stand and rehearsing in my mind how to address the taxi driver. During the last ten years I have only spoken Croatian on a few brief occasions.
The taxi stand is behind the big billboard displaying a Benetton advertisement, kids of each race dressed in bright Benetton t-shirts. The world market has found this city. I approach the first taxi whose driver is a young man leaning nonchalantly against the bonnet of his car. His eyes are slow to register me and I have the impression that he really does not wish to be bothered. Still, I enquire whether he can take me to the cemetery. ‘Which one?’ he asks. I am stupefied, what does he mean; there was always only one cemetery and everybody always knew where it was. His slow eyes rest on me, my light summer dress, and my travel bag purchased in New Zealand… we both know that I have no idea that the other cemeteries have emerged since I left. I turn around and hurry away as fast as my New Zealandtravel bag (on wheels) will allow.
I decide to take the tram. I always loved trams. They are friendly, sleepy blue carriages, regularly off the schedule, and crammed with commuters discussing daily affairs. My heart is slowly returning into its normal pace and my cheeks are no longer burning crimson. I sit on the top of my bag and smile. Smile to the city with more than one cemetery.
Surprisingly, the tram arrives promptly. And it looks different; the carriages are no longer the familiar square shape, although the colour is still blue. I am eager to climb on board, shifting impatiently from one foot to another while waiting in the queue to enter. Finally I am climbing the stairs lugging my bag behind. The driver asks me for my ticket. I feel crimson returning to my cheeks, I do not have a ticket. Last time I took the tram you purchased the ticket from the driver. I wish to say that I am really sorry to not have a ticket, that I did not know that things have changed so much and now you have to have a ticket before you board, that I am truly sorry for my ignorance and can he please, please take me to the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. Please. That is all I want … I have been dreaming about it for ten years. I wish to say all that … in English.
But I say no word and just stand there like some mute puppet while my eyes fill with tears and a large woman behind me pushes me aside and mutters insults into her second chin. I turn around and disembark.