M. posed for me, reluctantly, like a wilting flower, in front of an up-rearing, megalomaniac statue of a man, an imposing man, a man who desired to intimidate and impress us. I don’t know if it was a representation of man in general, or a man in particular. M. wouldn’t tell me. The photo is rather bad, M. seems to have no face. The statue repels the light.
I spent six hours all up in Banja Luka. We were vanned in from Sarajevo to do a poetry reading at the library. I have recently discovered, during my obsessive reading of anything to do with this town and its times, that the library featured in some questionable practices. People would queue here to find the least worst way to survive. And some of them did survive.
But I didn’t know that then.
I had a panic attack on the road. The driver was gunning the ancient van along in a way that put the Fear into me. I had the Fear. M. kept asking him on my behalf to slow down. But he didn’t know how to. I had to stop the van and get out. I told them to stop the van. Something in my voice made the driver stop the van. I slid the door back and got out. I stood on the verge, on the stalky, brown grass, as the almost empty plain spread around us, and the hum of the few cars on this road buzzed past us – and I did not know how I could get back in the van. H. got out and looked at me with unfeigned concern. We had no common language. He didn’t know what to do. So he reached out and embraced me. He could see I had the Fear and he knew Fear and I think he knew that there is nothing to be done for the Fear except to get back into the van.
So I did. I told M. I was going to my Good Place. And once I was there I cheerily asked him if Bosnia had great ambulances and hospitals and all that? "Oh yes," he replied. But his eyes shifted a little. I knew he was playing fast and loose with the truth. The next day, when the Fear was a thing of the past, I told A. about M.’s kind lie and she chirped – "What makes happy, we will tell." As I left Bosnia a few weeks later, just before we crossed the border into Croatia, I saw an ancient, battered, filthy ambulance parked on the lip of a rushing torrent, with two paramedics, smiling broadly, smoking like Turks, rigged out in shrunken woollen uniforms. And one could do a lot worse. They looked kind. But for the sake of contrast, within twenty minutes, we had crossed into Croatia, and as we whisked along the four lane highway among the recent model cars a brand new, state of the art ambulance sped past us. I could see a well-dressed young girl through the window talking into her mobile phone. We were in a different country.
At our next comfort stop, on our journey to Banja Luka, I ordered a glass of wine to help me stay in my Good Place. I explained to H. (who did not drink alcohol) through M. that I needed some help to stay in my Good Place. I saw a look of concern pass through H.’s eyes, like a fish swimming upstream.
We crossed an invisible border and all the words became cyrillic. M. shivered as we passed a block of flats with a slather of cyrillic graffiti. He whispered to me – "That means ‘Because I love Serbia.’"
Banja Luka was very clean and prosperous looking. And rather white bread, if you understand me. I spotted a United Colours of Benetton shop among the cafes so this town obviously had everything that opens and shuts, hot and cold running everything.
We had coffee, I watched some elderly women glumly polishing rails on the mezzanine floor, ignored the other imported poets who were having some coarse fun at my expense, in a language they knew I couldn’t understand. I could understand their intent. H. kept glancing at me, hoping I couldn’t understand their wielding of masculine power, I kept my face straight and drank my coffee.
As M. and I walked away down the road to look at the town before we met up at the library, he murmured to me – "I’m so glad you couldn’t understand what they were saying."
But I did understand. In the only way that matters.
Because my long hair is unruly I usually tie a headscarf around it. M. and I strolled. He is slim and dark and delicate. I was wearing a headscarf. People were spotting us. We were a cynosure. I whispered to M. – "Should I take my headscarf off?" He checked me out, my clothes, my posture. He said – "It’s ok. They can tell you are not Muslim."
But I slid my headscarf off and stuffed it into my pocket. M. veered towards a street seller and we bought popcorn. We strolled, ate popcorn, chatted to each other, like people, the attention faded away from us. We sat down in a park and wiped the salt and crumbs from our fingers.
"Don’t talk about it, Jennifer," said M.
We looked about us at the young people, some of them sexing each other up. They were all of a type, one sort of people.
"I don’t want to talk about it. It does no good."
I resisted the story locked in the atmosphere, thrumming under the skin, I pushed the oppressive clouds away out of my mind.
No need to go into the ins and outs of the reading in the library. They are much of a muchness the world over. A handful of people gathered together, either married to poets or poets waiting for their turn to read. What can you say, it’s a living. The dinner they turned on for us afterwards was however more memorable than the usual dinner, because it was in an ancient fortress and it was extremely excellent. M. and I scoffed away and swilled wine and were a little unsociable. It’s hard to talk to your hosts when your mouth is full.
At midnight we would turn into pumpkins so we were whisked away back to our van. But as we were hurried through the broad, well lit streets, one of the local poet’s husband pulled at my arm and pointed at a billboard. I was a little mystified. I thought perhaps he was making a joke about what an excellent trencherwoman I was, because it had a picture of a plate full of food, and a picture of an empty plate. Was it for a slimming product? Was it for a diet clinic? He translated the Cyrillic words for me.
"This is what you are promised (the plate full of food) but this is what you will get (the empty plate.) Turn in the War Criminals."
We made our farewells, jumped in the van, and were thundered back towards Sarajevo under an orange moon that made the landscape look like the backdrop to a fourteen year old boy’s video game. I had a skin full of wine and I relaxed and enjoyed. Nothing is real, nothing to get hung about. M. and I sang some of the good old songs in the back seat. Then he held up a slim hand.
"Oh look," he said. "That car has Vukovar plates."