Либрусек (книги fb2)
The Collector of Names
Night on an island. A well-behaved demon will come from the woods and ask you your name. Answer, and you are left nameless. But can anybody live without a name, even through one single night?
Miha Mazzini THE COLECTOR OF NAMES
She was watching her husband eat his soup when she suddenly realised she was pregnant. From the kitchen, she could hear the clattering of the dishes Greta was putting on the serving trolley. There was no tension in the air and she did not sense anything terrible was about to happen. A quiet family dinner: even the flames from the candles were almost still and the darkness in the corners of the dining room was undisturbed. The rhythmic sound of the splashing waves wafted through the half-closed shutters, lazily, slowly. There was no wind.
Her husband’s spoon waded through the liquid, pushing the soup away — maybe in the rhythm of the waves outside? — and she knew that he would sense her looking at him, pause, raise his head and smile at her. She waited for him, ready.
The spoon stopped and waves of soup splashed over it. He smiled slowly and for a moment she felt sorry for him. Not for the whole of him, just for that slow widening of his lips in the early summer evening.
“How long have you known?” he asked.
“Three minutes. It’s a boy,” she answered very honestly and immediately regretted her outburst. Watching his smile had temporarily made her drop her guard.
He looked in her eyes and she knew he would not demand an explanation for her strange answer.
The spoon was still floating in the middle of the liquid.
“What will his name be?” He only just managed to complete the question before he was overtaken by the growth — yes, that is exactly what she thought: something is growing. Out of his ears. So fast that his face did not have time to change, let alone grimace. His smile just stopped. Before she became aware of something leaving his body, his bald patch, covered with hair combed sideways, bent towards her. That’s just how it seemed: the slight movement of a hat being raised politely. It all lasted only a moment and this comparison only came to her later, much later, when it was all over.
The next few images came so fast they just ran into each other, drowning in a sound, which was by no means loud or unpleasant. As if somebody had hit a rock with a wet cloth. The body on the chair opposite her sat upright and dead. Untouched below the nose; but above that, nothing — it simply stopped, destroyed in the explosion. The base of the skull, above which only a moment ago the brain had been suspended, sparkled obscenely in the glow of the candles which flickered belatedly, nearly went out and then steadied themselves. The torn skin stood erect, surrounding the remaining half of the skull like the small leaves on a hazelnut. Then they wilted, gradually bending outwards. Downwards.
She looked around the room and the small, animated traces were visible everywhere. They slid down the walls, down the portraits of his predecessors, travelling down to the frames and then dripping onto the floor.
“What will his name be?” she repeated quietly, smiled and tore her look away from the splattered walls and returned it to the incomplete body in black tails and bow tie. Even after his retirement he still dressed as if he was in the diplomatic service.
She looked at the spoon, which continued to be held in the previous position by the stiff muscles, neither on the bottom of the plate nor up in the air. Why had she been given this body, which had so rarely laid on top of hers and which needed a full five years to impregnate her? Because it was coming to this place? She sighed deeply. You can not ask questions when you are in service.
The sound of the flickering room started to fade. The dishes clattered in the kitchen again.
She rang for Greta.
* * *
“Holy mother of Jesus… Holy mother of Jesus… Holy…”
He forced himself to look at his left hand. Yes, it was still there, even though he had stopped feeling it one ledge lower. It was bleeding without any real pain.
“Come on… come on…”
To plead without making a sound? Only in his head? Without looking down, at them? He closed his eyes and leant his forehead on the rock. Warm, but not very — as if the summer sun had bypassed it.
“I must… I must…”
He could picture their faces. All five of them, standing far below, watching. He felt dizzy at the mere thought of the distance, in metres and age. They were all a few years older than him; and they seemed so small. Dizzyingly small.
He was motionless even though he knew that he could not afford to be. With stillness came pain, a terrible trembling of the arms, as if they were someone else’s and uncontrollable.
Whenever he opened his eyes and looked in front of him the rays of the setting sun reflected off the rock and blinded him. He did not dare look up for fear that his backwards bent neck would break off like a piece of the rock on which he was climbing and pull the rest of his body after it. He focussed his every look on some small detail: indentations, cracks with grass growing out of them, dried up by the lack of rain. Whenever he could, he would hold onto ledge with grass stalks under his fingers. He could not even feel the grass, let alone be protected by it from the sharpness of the edge. Once, it seemed like a long time ago, what sounded like a seagull had screeched right next to him. He had not dared to turn around.
The spectators said nothing and because of their silence they seemed very remote. The temptation to look back kept repeating itself. What if they had gone and left him on his own? Had they got fed up and walked down the beach? Had they left only tracks which the sea would erase in long sweeps? The sea. Water. Cool, not yet warmed up. In spite of the heat, the summer had not been around long enough.
He pressed himself against the rock, which grabbed the heartbeat from his thumping chest and amplified it into what seemed like thunder.
“Holy mother of Jesus… Holy mother of Jesus… Holy…”
If he only knew how much further it was to the top. For longer and longer periods he kept his eyes shut. Sweat was dripping from his forehead and flooding his eyes. He squeezed his eyelids together and felt the drops of sweat running around them. He could not close his mouth in time and with quick breaths he drank his own sweat. Judging by the taste of it, his own sea of sweat. The first drop was the most dangerous one, it nearly made him fall. It slid down, then just tore itself away; he thought: what’s that? — and twitched his head to shake it off. You need room for a swift movement so he leant away from the wall. His left hand lost support, fell and immediately redeemed itself: a short distance further down it caught on a ledge and gave his body some time to calm down.
Did any of the spectators scream? Or at least gasp? He imagined himself splattered on the ground: a view from above, as if his soul, now rid of his body, was continuing with the climb and was fearlessly looking around. They would just run away and not tell anybody. They would leave him to the seagulls, the tide and the fish. They would turn him into another one of their secrets, one of those they bragged about all the time and because of which they held their heads up so proudly.
The secrets he wanted to find out. To share.
The sun had already begun to set and was shining directly into his eyes. Or was it that the rock had become smooth and reflective? Maybe the light had already destroyed his eyelids? He had never seen them so bright red, with tiny dots circling around, like small fish in the shallows.
What a wide ledge! The whole of his right palm slid over it, then his wrist, right up to his elbow. Then his left arm. His torso. His chest touched the ground. He opened his eyes and had to close them immediately because of the stream of sweat. He did not dare let go of the rock and wipe his eyes. He scrambled forward, then tried to open his eyelids a few times before he succeeded. He was at the top, beyond the reach of their eyes.
The jerky trembling started in his feet and promptly spread to his hands. He lay on the ground, giving in to his body.
Then he picked himself up, brushed the dust off his shorts and T-shirt and went down the path leading to the beach.
He was expecting their examining looks and spent the whole way getting ready for them. He practised looking bored and laid-back as if deep in thought about things which had very little to do with what was going on.
“As red as a tomato!” said Luka with contempt.
“Look, look, his legs are shaking!”
“Did you shit yourself?”
His eyes desperately wanted to look down, but he managed to stop them at the last minute and instead looked each of them in the eye. It was very unpleasant, as they were all a lot taller than him and he had to look up at them. Nevertheless, they did stop shouting, only Luka was still grinning contemptuously.
“I completed my first test,” he said, nearly sinking into the ground with shame about the unsuitability of his voice: it was high, trembling and he even had to take a few deep breaths in order to steady his vocal cords enough to say the first word.
“Yeah, you did indeed,” said Luka, “but this was the easiest one. The worst is yet to come!”
They left him waiting while they retreated to the rocks. Slowly he took a few steps to the sea and let the waves lick his scratched feet. Every time they stung, he said to himself:
“I’ll manage! I’ll manage! I’ll manage!”
A pleading chant, but the pain did become more and more subdued, almost bearable in the end. There was something pleasant in it.
The five of them had their heads together, arguing excitedly. Every now and then one of them would forget himself and look towards him. Only to quickly look back again, with a feeling of guilt. He went a bit further away to show them how he was not going to listen and did not care about what they came up with, they would not break him. Only a few excited negatives, hissed a bit too loudly, reached him.
He looked at the soles of his feet. They were strangely white, discoloured. There was no blood left in them, the edges of the open cuts looked torn. He bent over and watched the skin flapping. A little fish came swiftly, seemed to rip the edge of his skin off and disappeared just as quickly.
“They’re eating me,” he thought, shaken but also surprised to find no disgust in that realisation.
The voices in the background had stopped. He turned round and saw that it was decided. They stood beyond the reach of the waves, looking at him. He deliberately let them wait a bit, splashed a bit deeper into the sea and a slightly bigger wave washed over his knees.
He stopped a good two metres in front of them. They resembled priests in a temple, like the ones he remembered from his father’s bible. There was an uncanny resemblance even though, instead of eastern robes and turbans, they were wearing the shorts and T-shirts that they would be wearing for the rest of the summer and well into the autumn. The state of some of them would soon make it clear that they were the only ones their owner possessed.
“Right, brat, a second test. Do you give up?” said Luka.
“You’ll be sorry! We don’t accept such small brats.”
“I’ll complete all the trials!”
“We’ve yet to see that! Let’s go.”
They walked down the beach quickly and he had a feeling they were in a hurry.
Suddenly he saw clearly the horror of his second test. They would take him to one of the holes in the rocks, he would have to lie in the dark dampness and…
… and spiders, spiders would crawl all over him! He would not be allowed to scream or move. Spiders!
“What’s the matter, are you afraid? You’re lagging behind!”
He speeded up, hoping they could not read his mind. He would do even that, if he had to. They had already teased him to death just because he had dared ask to be accepted into a gang of lads who were all three or four years older than him. If he gave up now, he would not be able to leave the house ever again. He would do anything. Even spiders…
He imagined their hairy legs, the prickly feeling of them quickly and almost imperceptibly touching his skin. He had to press his teeth together and gather all his strength to swallow, it was as if he had to break up a lump of dry sand in his throat.
“Here we are,” he heard Luka say.
He looked around him with surprise. No caves, no spiders.
They stood on a long rock protruding into the sea like a small peninsula. Luka took a small knife out of his pocket, held it briefly on his palm just in front of the boy’s eyes and flung it over his shoulder.
“Bring it back,” he said. The boy could sense pleasure in Luka’s calm voice.
Even though the knife was already disappearing in the breaking waves he could still make out its reflection. But it was fading rapidly in the darkness.
“You can have one go only,” added Luka.
What comfort! He could see Adriano opening his mouth to (he was certain) object, but Luka stopped him with just a look. The boy’s earlier hunch of who would turn out to be his ally was right. He looked at Adriano gratefully, sighed deeply and jumped.
It was strange that it was the sea they had chosen as the next trial. He had expected that to be right at the beginning. They had all been born on this island and were all good swimmers, unlike their grandfathers, who mostly could not swim at all.
He dived in what he thought was the direction of the disappearing knife. The light became weaker and more diffuse. On his left, he could see a rock covered with mussels. He wondered how deep the sea was around there. Probably quite deep or they would not have chosen that spot. He would swim until he found the knife, he thought. If not, he would not go back. They would be sorry. He let go of a breath, which the water immediately turned into bubbles and carried to the surface. Suddenly, he had a feeling of certainty: this time, nothing would go wrong. A large fish swam past him, looked at him, waved its tail and swam into the open sea. The boy looked after it and with a corner of his eye caught a reflection on his right.
Impossible! A rock was reaching up from the depth of the sea, it was as sharp as a tooth. On the top, amongst the few strands of seaweed, stood the knife, waiting for him.
He carefully slowed down and approached the rock. The knife was perched very precariously, the slightest movement could dislodge it and make it fall into the deep waters, where they would both disappear for ever. He gently moved his hand closer and picked it up.
Closed his palm around it.
It had been so very easy!
He held onto the rock until he felt a pain in his lungs. Only then did he swim back up to the surface.
Seeing their faces was even more of a triumph. Adriano smiled briefly to himself and Luka bit his lip when he received the knife.
“Next one…” he said.
Again, the boy waited, wading through the sand. These negotiations were even longer, more objections reached his ears and he was beginning to regret annoying them by having been so openly pleased after the last trial.
What if he were to decline to join the gang after the last successful trial? What if he were to just walk away without looking back? He imagined their looks eating into his back and he wallowed in the sweetness of these thoughts.
Adriano moved away from the others.
“WHAT?” roared Luka.
“No! We can’t do that to him!”
Spiders. Must be spiders!
“Come back this instant or I’ll throw you out of the gang!” shouted Luka.
“I don’t care!”
“You’ll never be able to join again!”
The threat did not seem to have any effect on Adriano.
Bruno went over to Adriano’s side.
Luka calmed down noticeably.
“Don’t be silly, lads, let’s not fall out over this little brat!”
“We mustn’t do that to him,” repeated Adriano. Bruno nodded. Even the two boys loyal to Luka did not look overenthusiastic.
“At least we’d get rid of him!” groaned Luka, looking rather uncertain.
“With something even you didn’t dare do?”
Adriano sounded quite malicious.
Luka sighed deeply, jumped towards Adriano and pushed him in the chest with the open palms of his hands. Adriano stumbled but did not fall.
“What didn’t I dare? What didn’t I dare?”
“You didn’t dare,” added Bruno.
The two silent ones were also nodding, even though they did not dare say anything.
“ARE YOU COMPLETELY MAD? DIDN’T YOU SEE THE GREEN…?”
Luka ran around them all, screaming in their faces.
“DIDN’T YOU SEE? WELL, DIDN’T YOU?”
“We did,” said Adriano, “we did, and that’s precisely why none of us dared go nearer. Not even you.”
“I’ll go! I’ll do what he didn’t dare!”
They all turned round in surprise, staring at the new volunteer, who did not even know himself why the offer escaped his mouth. Was their astonishment really worth the risk?
“Don’t be silly, boy! You don’t even know what this is about.”
Adriano sounded genuinely upset.
The others nodded, apart from Luka who grinned.
“Well, now, you see! He himself wants to do it! Let him go then! Let him go!”
He opened his arms wide.
“Well? Well? You see!”
Adriano came closer.
“Now, let me tell you what you’re getting yourself into. Do you know where that diplomat’s villa is?”
The boy nodded. It was right at the other side of the island, where he did not often go.
“That wooden one, with one floor? With a summer house and cabins on the beach?”
The boy nodded.
“I know. I’ve seen it.”
Only once, in the company of his father. They had gone around the island in a boat and his father had answered all his questions very briefly. Yes, the villa was inhabited. It had been built by a diplomat, a man from the mainland — there were always problems with those — as his retirement home. No, he was already dead.
He had stared at the house until it disappeared behind the peninsula, it was such a surprise to see it there. You got used to the rocks, the little coves, the seemingly endless pine-trees, which had an even greater lulling effect than the rocking of the boat. And then suddenly, a bigger cove, a meadow behind it with a building in the middle and only then the edge of the pine-trees.
“Well, that woman from India lives there. The one whose husband died. Five years ago.”
“Seven years,” interrupted Bruno sternly.
“OK, seven then. It doesn’t really matter. Do you remember her?”
The boy shook his head.
“Yeah, I thought so,” said Adriano. “You’re too young. Since her husband died, she’s never come out. She’s living alone with a son I’ve never seen.”
“Me neither… me neither…” went round the circle.
That was no news. The whole village was speculating about the stranger and her son. They lived in complete isolation and that alone was a good enough reason for curiosity and gossip.
Adriano returned to his story:
“Well, the other evening, we were wandering around there and saw…”
“Miro saw it first,” explained Bruno.
“Bruno, you’re a real bore! What will become of you! Well, Miro saw a light shining from the cellar window. But it was no ordinary light. It was… how shall I put it…”
Suddenly they all started describing it.
“…a poisonous green.”
“A terrible green!”
“…light,” continued Adriano. “And then Luka said somebody should go and see what was going on in the cellar.”
“Somebody should go and see!” said Bruno meaningfully. “Somebody!”
“Yes, and nobody went. Nobody dared. At the end, after he’d shouted at each one of us,” Adriano pointed to Luka, “he didn’t go either. He took five steps towards the house and shat himself.”
Luka jumped again and this time he caught Adriano unawares and knocked him over. He wanted to jump on top of him when the boy said:
“I’ll go and see what that light is. If it’s there again tonight?”
“It will be. We’ve gone there three evenings now and it’s always there. But don’t boast prematurely, you’ve never seen that kind of green ever before. There’s nothing like it!”
Luka slowly relaxed his hands from the fighting pose and stepped back.
“Are you scared, boy?”
“That’s nothing, just to go there and look.”
“You don’t have to!” interrupted Adriano whilst shaking the sand off his T-shirt.
“I’ll go!” repeated the boy calmly.
* * *
It was getting dark as they stood on the edge of the woods, hidden in the pine-trees. They had not come along the path which they could still just about make out at the end of the valley; they had walked here along the sea, which took them a lot longer. They had plenty of time before evening. There had been no conversation and they had passed a very silent afternoon.
The sun swelled and turned red above the sea, leaving its signature on the windows of the villa, behind which no movement could be seen.
The boy started hoping that there would be no green light that night. He was not anxious or scared. All the way there he had a strong feeling that nothing would come of it all. The trial he had set himself would not take place. Fate would make sure of that. Definitely.
The sun sank into the sea and in spite of the rays of light left behind, darkness started spreading amongst the trees.
“It won’t be there today,” said Adriano in a whisper (and with hope?).
They waited a bit longer.
“Let’s wait for the darkness,” said Luka, “the light always comes on with the darkness.”
The boy knew his mum and dad were already looking for him around the village, so far probably still without a belt in their hands. But if he did not come back soon… Anyway, he was too far now and there was no chance of getting back early enough to avoid a beating. Even if he got up straight away and ran along the cart-track which cut the island in two, he would need more than half an hour to reach home, which would be too long for his father’s patience. He could imagine the familiar figure opening the door forcefully and taking the “educational belt” hanging on a hook as a warning to the children. He would grab it with his right hand, fold it so that it became very short and give his palm a short slap. As a warm up. Without realising, the boy stroked his backside.
“It’s dark,” said Bruno.
“It won’t happen. Let’s go.”
Luka persisted, as expected.
“Let’s wait! Maybe it’s still too light. The moon is so bright tonight!”
The boy looked through the branches of the trees and stared at the moon. Only a sliver of it was still missing. Its silver light made them look like princes. He looked at Adriano, who was breaking a pine-tree branch by beating it against the ground. He picked up a new one, squeezed it in his palm and rapidly hit the stones. The thin wood broke without a noise.
Suddenly Adriano’s left cheek became green.
They jumped to their feet and grabbed hold of the tree trunks.
“That’s it!” breathed Bruno.
The boy stepped forward and only now got a front-row view. The whole house was completely dark, apart from the cellar window. It did not look as if somebody was shining something to light the stairs while they walked down. The window just lit up suddenly and completely with a dense green light, which cut across the meadow and penetrated the pine-trees.
The colour was indescribable and it looked (oddly?) evil, unnaturally poisonous. Who was it who had said that?
The boy stopped and looked at it.
“Well, can you see now?” said Luka. “Do you understand now?”
“Yes, I understand. Are you coming with me?” replied the boy bravely, even though he did not feel courageous. He was tingling from the inside of his arms through his armpits and across to his heart.
“Holy Mary, be with me,” he said to himself, stepping onto the grass and starting to approach the house.
It was probably some stupid thing. Brandy making? That’ll be it! Or…? What could produce such a colour? He thought hard but could not think of anything.
He stepped into the light and when he looked towards its source he was not blinded. He could make out the window frame and occasionally, just for a split second, a shadow moving around. Or shadows?
A silly thought: he was spying on people whose names he did not know. Then he recalled he had heard the name of the Indian woman, but like the rest of the villagers he could not remember it. It was too foreign and difficult to pronounce. He had never seen the child either and did not know his name. Nobody in the village did, even though nobody found that strange or at least they never talked about it. But they talked about everything else, oh yes!
He could sense the looks of those in the woods. To go back, like Luka did? To be his equal? Never! After all the trials of the day he had already surpassed him. He was not aware of the fact that in the morning when he had started the whole thing it was only to become their equal, and now it was all about proving that he was different, superior.
A shadow, this time he definitely saw a shadow behind the glass. A raised hand? Holding something? How strangely it was lowered! So… He could not quite see, he had to go nearer.
He started to count his steps. Ten. And the shadow crossed the light again. Another ten steps and again the shadow.
Another ten steps, the shadow.
Another ten steps…
…he was by the window.
He looked through.
* * *
Adriano was the first to lose his nerve.
“What the hell is he doing?”
Nobody answered. It did not matter, the question sounded rhetorical anyway. They were each pressed against a pine-tree, looking towards the green cellar window. The boy stood in front of the window, motionless, like a foreign body in the rays of light, staring inside. None of them had a watch but they knew quite a lot of time must have passed already. The knees of those who were kneeling were beginning to hurt. Bruno leant his cheek against a sticky patch of tree sap and — a mistake! — tried to wipe it off, ending up smearing it all over his face and hand.
“Maybe one of us should go and get him?” said Luka.
Luka turned abruptly towards Adriano.
“You’re always taking the piss! Just watch it!”
“I’ve just about had enough of you,” said Adriano and they all felt he meant it. Even Luka himself, who started flexing his muscles whilst searching for words.
Not a sound could be heard from the villa. The crickets kept on singing, a gentle breeze started blowing from the sea, and the green blades of grass trembled in the shadow of the tree branches in rhythm with the needles above them.
“I’ll go for him,” said Adriano.
He got up slowly and his stiff knee-joint made a cracking noise.
“I’ll go,” he said again as if hoping that somebody would try to stop him.
Luka was looking down at the ground, feeling that his position was collapsing without a sound, even though he had taken so long to build it.
Slowly, hesitantly Adriano left the shelter of the woods. After a few steps Bruno joined him. They looked at each other and walked on side by side with a trifle more courage.
Bruno tripped and put his foot down noisily trying to catch his balance.
“Shhhh!” hissed Adriano and grabbed his elbow.
“Can you hear anything?”
“Let’s walk half way and then crawl,” whispered Bruno.
“Yeah, that’ll be better. Let’s not look inside otherwise we might freeze like the boy.”
They nearly turned round and ran back.
“We’ve got to save him!”
“We’ve got to!”
“Shall we go?”
They started walking again and after a few steps Adriano realised that he was still holding on to Bruno, who did not seem to mind at all. Adriano let go, even though he immediately regretted it. Feeling somebody else’s pulse under his fingers had calmed him.
They fell to their knees and then onto their stomachs and started crawling. The light was spilling out above them.
“Don’t look inside!”
“I won’t! I won’t!”
They were pushing their faces into the grass and suddenly found themselves next to the boy. Adriano reached out with his hand and grabbed him by the ankle. The reaction was instant and loud. The boy screamed:
The light went off instantly. They expected voices, shouting, signs of excitement and pressed themselves into the ground. But apart from the screaming above them, there was no noise. The boy suddenly stopped and then there was a complete silence.
They waited and did not dare to move.
Adriano slowly raised his head and looked up. Bruno followed. The boy was still staring ahead with his eyes wide open. He looked enormous from the ground as if his head was right up in the clouds.
Bruno mumbled to himself.
“There’s something very strange, something….”
“What?” hissed Adriano. “What?”
“I don’t know!”
“Adriano, look, look! LOOK!”
Bruno grabbed his shoulders, digging his fingers so deep it hurt. Adriano was looking around, his eyes scanning the walls, meadow and the wood, but he could not see anything which would justify Bruno’s horror.
Bruno turned onto his side, looked up and screamed.
“WHAT? WHAT?” started shouting Adriano. “What?”
How their voices carried across the open spaces! They filled the night.
“LOOK! THERE! LOOK!”
Bruno’s finger was drawing big lines in the air finding it impossible to point in the right direction. Adriano finally managed to wriggle out of his hands.
“CAN’T YOU SEE? CAN’T YOU SEE?” Bruno carried on shrieking and his horror slowly started giving way to despair and panic at his friend’s stupidity and unresponsiveness.
Adriano looked towards the motionless boy. He strained his eyes to pierce the darkness and find the cause of Bruno’s terror. He could not see anything. Nothing even remotely suspicious. Just the whiteness of the rescued boy’s T-shirt and head.
The whiteness of his T-shirt and…
Adriano grabbed Bruno with all his strength and pulled him up. They stood a foot behind the boy, who did not even flinch. His hair was completely white.
“I’m scared…, I’m scared…” Bruno kept repeating.
Adriano shook him.
“Me too! ME TOO! CALM DOWN, DO YOU UNDERSTAND! CALM DOWN!”
“Yeah, yeah… I’m calm… I’m… I’m… I’m…”
“What are we going to do? What?”
Bruno tore his eyes away from the white head for the first time.
“One of us should…, one of us should turn him round…, this way…”
They were pressed against each other and they both thought how much the other one trembled.
“Adriano, I daren’t! I daren’t. Will you?”
“Why me? Why?”
O, hell, why him? But at the same time he knew very well that they could not go on like that. Would all the binds holding his body and soul together break and would his innards just spill out like fish out of a fishing net?
He would do it.
Slowly he started reaching for the boy.
A few centimetres from his shoulder he stopped.
Suddenly he could not hear Bruno’s breathing anymore.
But he had already touched the boy! Earlier, by the ankle. Had he been icy cold? He could not remember.
He grabbed him and turned him.
Fear gripped his heart and for a moment he thought it would burst. But his fear was unfounded.
“It’s alright Bruno. It’s nothing. He’s just unconscious!”
“His eyes! Adriano, his eyes?”
“It’s nothing, Bruno, it’s nothing! His eyes have turned! That’s all. That’s all!”
Their shouting and shoving must have brought the boy round. They noticed his mouth opening and his lips moving. They watched him expectantly. As if one word from his mouth could wash away all the fear, return his hair to its normal colour and restore the night peace.
He moved his lips. In bursts and twitches.
Bruno and Adriano leant forward without realising and nearly touched his face.
“A… AAA… AA… A… A AAAA. AAA…..” he stammered for an unbearably long time and then suddenly collapsed, making his startled rescuers jump back.
* * *
She replaced the wooden lid and checked whether it was on properly. Then she knelt down, put her hand on it and whispered:
“Goodbye. They interrupted us, before you became complete.”
The contents of the wooden box still had not cooled down completely and she could feel them glowing through the lid. She stroked the wood and got a few splinters in her hand. She got up without moving her eyes away from the box.
In there. Her son.
“Goodbye. Sleep! Wait!”
As she put her foot on the bottom step she looked back once more. The morning sun fought its way through the window and its first conquest was the large tablecloth in the corner, covering the boxes, containing mainly souvenirs from her husband’s diplomatic life.
That window and the nosy village boys. Who knows what they had seen and what they would tell in the village. Would they believe them? Would they come in the night and set fire to the house? Would they try to kill her child?
She added the last bit of protection that was in her limited power: she knelt on the fourth step, bent her head, touched the wood with her forehead, sensed him and then reached deep inside between her legs with her hand, dampened her fingers and used them to write that name on the step. With letters which were immediately absorbed by the wood. Maybe it would help, but only against the weaker ones.
She looked at the wooden box — one of many — and sighed.
“I have carried out my duty, now it’s not up to me anymore,” she told herself. “I just have to make sure it’s dark in here but the rest is out of my hands.”
She closed the cellar door carefully and locked it. She checked that it was really locked. She put the key inside her clothes and the coolness of it refreshed her. It seemed so real — and most importantly — unplanned and unanticipated. Everything else had gone exactly according to plan and — was it really possible? — could she really be craving sensations which would slow her down, break her concentration and convince her that she was still alive?
She picked up the wooden planks and tools prepared in advance and boarded up the outside of the cellar windows so that the sun could not reach the resting place. Should she have done it before the ritual? Was that her mistake, had she relied too much on the remoteness and isolation of the place?
She returned to the kitchen and put on Greta’s apron, deliberately the wrong way round. She did not tie the ribbons, she sewed them together with a shoemakers thread. Then she opened the cupboard containing weights and carefully divided them among the various apron pockets.
She locked the front door and hung the key on the hook by the doorframe.
Whoever came, they would not have to break in.
The sky was completely clear and she turned her face towards the pale sun, which was pretending to be weak when in a few hours it would burn mercilessly. In a few hours, she thought, a few hours after her.
She took a deep breath and started walking towards the sea with her eyes closed. When she passed the last stones and felt the sand under her feet she looked at the horizon. The last bits of white mist were dissolving above the water. The surface of the sea was completely smooth. She did not disturb it with a heavy step, she melted into it with a slow movement and broke the stillness stretching out to where the sea touched the sky.
Suddenly she heard a voice in her head, more a feeling than a voice.
Darkness, loneliness, fear, Mama!
Without stopping, she sent him a message:
“Be quiet, lie there and wait. They will come and then you will get up.”
The sensation passed. How many more times would he have to nearly wake up in all those years of waiting? All alone? Buried? Melted?
The water covered the top of her dress, surrounded her neck, drowned her mouth, eyes, head. She did not stop walking.
She could picture herself all puffed up with decay, floating towards her home, into the warmer seas and their stronger currents and she let go.
“You’ll die tonight, guys!”
Max smiled the smile of an experienced sinner who had not only survived Sodom and Gomorra but had long ago surpassed it. As usual, the smile moved via Samo to Alfonz’s awkward attempt and even Raf made the effort but so belatedly that he decided to get up, mumbling something about going to the toilet and walking off down the deck with quick steps.
In the narrow passage between the restaurant and outer rail of the ferry he slowed down, glanced back — no, they could not see him — and did not even look at the door leading to the toilets. There was no sign, just the unmistakable smell. A few metres further along, another door gaped open. By the state of the door hinges he could tell that it had not been closed for a long time. He stopped in front of the dark opening and looked down the metal staircase. A smell of heat and petrol wafted up to him. After a moment’s hesitation he went down towards the part of the ferry he had not yet seen.
They had been going for three hours now and according to the timetable they were due to dock in an hour and thirty-five minutes. So far they had arrived on time at all three islands which were now far behind and it was safe to assume that there would be no delay. Raf looked away from his watch and paid attention to the stairs. On some of them there were large drops of some unknown liquid. It did not smell, just looked disgusting. The drops appeared in regular intervals, as if they had been spilled from a bucket, carried by an uncertain hand.
The belly of the ferry had almost completely emptied on the largest, best known island — the second stop — just over an hour ago. They had leant over the rail at the front, observing the unruly chaos of the vehicles making their way on to dry land. The stop was for half an hour, and at the beginning it looked as if most of that time would be taken up by the drivers hooting impatiently at a confused holidaymaker who could not get his car, caravan and, after a while, even himself turned in the right direction. Because of all the swearing and honking behind him he became more and more agitated and confused and therefore moved further and further away from his goal. Luckily, some of the bystanders started giving him advice, but of course, strongly disagreed with one another, and it all nearly ended in a fight. With the attention turned away from him, the unfortunate caravan owner finally managed to collect himself and drove off. His advisors did not even notice his departure and after a while were unable to notice it, as by this time they had forgotten what the argument was about.
This event was the only entertaining part of that day and it could not overcome Raf’s feeling of unease. He should not have come. He had no valid reason for these thoughts, which gripped him with a renewed strength in the darkness surrounded by the noise of the engines. When he was seven, a schoolfriend had come to ask him to play one afternoon. He rang the bell at the entrance, Raf looked down from the fifth floor and immediately agreed. On the way to the door of their flat, he was suddenly overcome by such tiredness that he could only just drag himself to bed and he fell onto it, falling asleep before his head even hit the pillow. His friend probably rang the bell a few more times, but Raf did not hear it. He was later woken by shouting and crying echoing down the corridor. In a daze, he got up to see what was going on. His friend had gone to the railway lines and climbed onto the roof of a train standing on a side track. The electric wires had sucked him up and fried him. After a few years of never thinking about the incident, two very vivid images came to him while he was alone under that deck. A father with a red-skinned son in his arms. And his friend in an open coffin, with face powder literally caked all over him. Which made him think of what had happened to open coffins, blessings and mourning since then? The whole class had gone to bless that boy, but when a few years later, at grammar school, a mountaineering schoolfriend died, condolences were sent by post and at the funeral there was just an urn with ashes which could have contained anything.
Raf shivered — on the way to a week’s holiday he was thinking such morbid thoughts.
He stepped over to a motorcycle parked nearby and looked at the shiny Japanese miracle. He allowed himself a short burst of envy. Only six months had passed since a girl he had been in love with had rejected him, saying she was only interested in men with motorbikes. Raf was well aware that a motorbike was one of those things that a man sometimes had to do without and that, anyway, it all depended on the season, but at the same time he also knew that that was just pure reasoning, which had nothing to do with the matters of the heart.
He sighed deeply and walked over to the raised bow door. He could see the sea splashing at the side and from time to time a few drops came inside. No dry land could be seen. Somewhere above, seagulls were circling. One of them dived quickly and grabbed something in the air before it fell into the sea.
Someone on the deck must be feeding the gulls. Raf smiled. He turned and walked the length of the ferry. There was only one vehicle left, a delivery van, which got off at every stop, unloaded and drove back on. The driver was asleep in his cabin and the noise of his hoarse snoring was escaping through the window in irregular intervals.
The same thing every day, thought Raf. What a job! He just managed to get round all the islands in his eight hours and that was it. In his old age he would be able to say that he had spent his life on the sea but his grandchildren would wonder why he was so pale.
Raf turned his head towards the high ceiling and slowly looked around the large room. When they had first set off, it looked as if it was suffocating with all the vehicles. And then, after each stop, there was less metal and technology and more room and peace and quiet. As if they were not just journeying away, but backwards in time too.
Raf went back up using the staircase opposite the one he had come down. Soon after the first turn in the stairs he tripped, nearly touching the metal with his nose but still managing somehow to steady himself. He sighed slowly:
“Jesus!” just like every other time he tripped.
He was getting fed up of his friends ridiculing his clumsiness and he was relieved that there were no witnesses this time.
Once back on deck, he was blinded by the sun and when he finally opened his eyes the first thing he saw was the motorbike owner. He was not wearing a helmet or a leather suit — he noticed those two identifiers only later, rolled and fastened to the rucksack and squashed under the bench — but had long blonde hair, a thick moustache and a tattoo of an eagle on his upper arm. He was sunbathing with his eyes closed but Raf was not fooled into believing he was asleep. Or was it that these muscular men, like Samo, slept in a special way, without relaxing their muscles?
He turned towards the bow and his (former) schoolfriends, who were still hidden by the middle part of the ferry and touched something soft with his left hand. Grease! Green grease on the ends of his fingers. They must have freshly greased the winch and judging by the large quantity of the stuff it was meant to last forever. Raf rubbed his fingers against the fence until they stopped sticking to one another. He looked at the traces of the stuff on the metal rail and realised he had set a trap which would sooner or later be sprung by someone. He did not have a tissue or a handkerchief. He made himself small and turned towards the stern. He was not in a hurry to return to his mates.
Maybe nobody would come upon the mess on the rail? The strangers on the ferry meant nothing and could do nothing to him.
A piece of bread flew in a large arc above his head. As it fell towards the waves a seagull caught it and swallowed it with what sounded like a very contented shriek. Raf looked up but could not see the bread-thrower. He did not even know that there was another deck. All he could see was the captain’s cabin, the aerials and the radar masts (or whatever those gadgets were called) on top of it, and two vibrating chimneys at the back.
He waited for another piece of bread, checked that the seagull’s response was as expected and then carried on towards the back of the ferry. It was less windy there, in fact it felt quite pleasantly sheltered behind the captain’s cabin. All the other passengers — a few families with small children — were gathered there, running after their brats and entertaining themselves by worrying about their little treasures falling into the sea.
There was no point in going to his friends to tell them about the sheltered spot. Max always had to sit at the very top like all people with an x or a y in their name, and Samo and Alfonz were just his hangers-on.
And so am I, even though I’m sulking at the opposite end of the ship, he said to himself. It was rarely so annoying to be right.
It was all very simple: school had finished and with it their four years together. Max had organised a farewell party, which he said was going to be super mega. He and Samo were always together anyway, so it was not hard to choose his first guest. Alfonz had money and home-made schnapps. Raf was included because of Max’s bad conscience. He had been copying from Raf in nearly every written test in the past few years and even though they were not friends — neither of them would call their relationship a friendship — Max succumbed to guilt and invited the boy who was almost solely responsible for his education. Raf could not quite remember exactly when it had all started. But he did remember that from the second year on he always had to first quickly answer his own questions and then go onto Max’s.
Maybe I do have just a little bit of a character left, thought Raf. If I were a complete slave I would have finished Max’s assignment first and then gone onto my own.
He smiled. He was getting used to these sarcastic little thoughts which had started coming to him sometime around the onset of puberty, at the end of junior school. The unpleasant feelings were gone now and he started to take in the clear blue sky in all its beauty again. Yes, the dark thoughts had started in that black hole in the middle of the ferry — a flash of a feeling, too fleeting to be registered, of being caught in a dark, narrow place — and the freshness of the early afternoon had blown them away.
It would be a typical sort of party. First they would drink too much and then they would throw up. Parties were just an unpleasant duty to him, one you have to carry out so that you can brag about it later. Another strange and morbid thought?
He decided to return to the front of the ferry. Their remarks about his long absence were bound to be bad enough as it was.
The seagull was quite far off now. The feeding had finished. Raf slowed down and looked up. Nothing. He remembered the stains on the rail and tried to find them. He could not. If he could not find them without looking really closely then it was not worth mentioning and he had worried needlessly earlier.
He returned to the other three, who were still laughing at their plans for the party that night when the whole villa would be at their disposal.
“…and we’ll smash everything!” Max was just finishing another brag. “Tomorrow, everybody will be able to see what fun we had just by looking at the place!”
* * *
Ana broke the last piece of bread into two pieces that were almost too small, in order to delay the time when the seagull would start to screech. And indeed, when the bread was finished, the bird gave her a good telling off before slipping back, where it looked around ever so casually as if it would never again even think of casting a glance towards the ship or her — me interested in bread? Never!
Holidays, said Ana to herself. Oh, what a holiday this was going to be! Her mum and dad did want the best for her and she really had been looking rather anaemic all spring. But they had sent her to this god-forsaken island with only one ferry a day, to stay for two whole months with an uncle she had never seen before!
She called him uncle, even though in fact he was not her mother’s brother, but her mother’s uncle. Ana tried to remember what she should be calling him but could not really think of a suitable expression. Great uncle? They never said much about him at home and during all this reflection, for which she had plenty of time on her journey, she suddenly started feeling that her parents avoided mentioning him. No, she could not prove it, but still… She thought it was interesting how parents always think they can hide certain things from their children.
She waved to the seagull and it looked at her for a moment before deciding not to pay any more attention to her. She felt cold. The sun was beginning to set and it was still only early summer. To top it all she was sitting on the most open part of the ferry, where the breeze was at its strongest.
The euphoria which had warmed her in the first half of the day, was cooling too. Her first holiday alone! She had felt good in spite of the isolated island and the relative whom she imagined to be an old weirdo — and had then felt guilty for her thoughts. The great feeling of freedom more than made up for all the worries she had had, waking up every morning for the last seven days wondering whether she could manage on her own.
She had been travelling for most of the day and everything was going according to plan, restoring her confidence and suppressing the dark feeling which tried to creep into her every time she looked around the deck. How empty the ferry was! On the way to the first port of call, the passengers were literally treading on each other’s toes and now she was nearly alone. As if the whole of the civilisation was just a great crowd of people, tightly packed against each other like grapes and all around them nothing. A beautiful nothing: the sea, the sun and the vibrating metal under her feet.
She went down to the main deck and checked that her case was still in the hiding place she had managed to squeeze it into earlier. It was peeping from behind the air vent out of which gushed the stench of the cars below. The lock had not been tampered with. She shook the case and was again astonished at how heavy it was. It was a good thing that her father had offered her his big Samsonite otherwise she would have never been able to squeeze in all the clothes her mother had got out for her.
She reached into her canvas bag — screech went the seagull (she had completely forgotten about him) — and took out the earphones for her walkman. Before she could put them on she had to let her long hair down. She left the walkman itself in the bag, felt for the switch and managed to press the right button. She started wandering aimlessly in the same direction as the ferry. Because of the noise of the engines she had to reach into her bag once more to turn the volume up.
A weak, feeble voice came gently from everywhere. A strange feeling: the sea, ferry and a voice belonging to nobody around there. Well, it did belong to somebody somewhere but that did not matter. This was the only tape her mother never had any objections to.
On the cover there was a praying angel.
She had secretly bought another tape, with two angels making love and put it in a blank cover.
Why on earth did she remember that? The picture of the two intertwined bodies, rather muscular for supposedly such ethereal beings. Almost like the man sleeping on the bench in front of her, who was dressed in Bermuda shorts with a brightly coloured pattern and an equally colourful T-shirt with rolled-up sleeves. She looked at the eagle — it too was probably flexing its muscles and stretching its wings, yuck! — and then at the rest of its owner, which was a bit rude and certainly a sin, as her mother was always reminding her. She even had to lean on the rail for a moment in order to get a better view of the whole. The sin had only one redeeming feature: he was asleep. What harm could one single look do?
By observing her schoolfriends she had learned how very rarely punishment for sins actually came and even when it did it could be attributed to other causes. But she knew all the time that it was different for her. There was a line separating her from them.
She noticed a helmet and a leather sleeve under the bench. A motorcyclist. She remembered some of her neighbours roaring down the street on heavy motorbikes and she pursed her lips. That was enough.
She went on.
* * *
“Hey, a chick!”
Max was the first to notice her. He had always had a good eye for such things and claimed that his looks never fell on stony ground. Even more, each look from him was like an irresistible bait to fish. Raf had heard unconfirmed rumours about Max and Samo’s disastrous visit to a brothel. Not because of lack of money, they had enough of that. Samo must have been put off by there not being any weights in the room, Raf thought and could hardly contain a giggle. What had been happening to him all day? He was not used to quite so many nasty thoughts. Simply relief at the end of the school year?
They observed her in silence. She came round the corner, noticed them, looked the other way and walked past them towards the other side of the ferry and the passage leading to the back of the ship.
“If Max whistles, I’ll thump him!”
Max did not whistle which seemed strange to Raf. He looked at him and saw his lips, ready for action but too cracked from the wind to be able to produce a sound audible at a distance. Max could not afford a weak huff, decided to give up and instead put on a smile appropriate to such occasions.
The girl was close to the passage and turned her back to them.
“Somebody missed.” said Max. Raf did not quite get it. Samo was already grinning but that did not mean anything. Alfonz looked just as baffled. Max noticed their incomprehension and helped them:
“Well, what do you two look at on a woman? Look at her arse!”
Alfonz put on a sour smile while Raf nearly groaned. On the right side of her behind there was a stain which he immediately recognised. She must have leant on the rail! She must have walked past and just where he had wiped his hand she must have stumbled (for a moment he forgot that they were not on a bus but a gently vibrating ship), leant on the rail and…
“Somebody must have come on her, for sure!”
Raf grimaced and put his hand to his forehead. Luckily all the others were too busy looking at the figure nearing the corner to notice. The feeling of regret for joining this trip returned. But on the other hand, what would he have done till the end of June? He had already arranged for a job at the photocopier’s for the next month and in August he was coming back to the seaside, but this time hitchhiking with two really good friends.
He came up with a way to survive the week.
“Alfonz, can I have a drop of schnapps?”
Alfonz gave him a surprised look. To be honest he had been expecting the question all along, but somehow not from Raf.
He reached into his rucksack and pulled out a bottle. He gave it to Raf, who after taking a sip from it passed it on to Max, who passed it back to its owner. After this little circle they all kept coughing and clearing their throats whilst praising the strength and power of the drink. Alfonz beamed. Even Samo could not resist it after such praise and he started looking towards the clear liquid with desire in his eyes. Max offered it to him immediately. Samo made a few attempts at refusal, mentioning sportsmen and the sporting spirit but in the end they all concluded that, fuck it, this was a holiday and they all ended up having another sip.
The conversation returned to women and Max gave the bottle to Alfonz and asked him to put it away. Only little boys get drunk as soon as they leave home, he said. He did not mention the experience that had taught him this lesson. They had been driving to the theatre and after only ten kilometres he was deadly drunk, five kilometres later he was in a coma out of which he awakened only once, in the middle of the performance, when he had a strong attack of vomiting. His father wrapped a belt round his hand – he would never forget how slowly and with what pleasure he did it — and beat him senseless. During the beating he taught him the meaning of appearances and public behaviour, which was basically the same thing. He said he had had to learn everything himself, build himself into a successful man, whereas Max was lucky enough to have somebody who would cram all this wisdom into his head quite early on in his life and for free. At the end he added that he did not mind his son drinking as long as he looked sober. Max remembered that and always stuck to it.
“That,” said Max, “that we’ve just seen, is a Russian nightclub-dancer type. I can remember…”
Raf’s thoughts went back to the stain which was beginning to really bother him. He started thinking about coincidence and fate, but at the end he decided that all these high-flying words were just an excuse to recall the image of the girl.
Long, thick, oh how thick! black hair, a navy blue polo shirt, white trousers. To be more exact, stained white trousers. Who dresses in white for a journey these days, except someone — a navy blue and white combination? — who has never seen the sea before and is trying to dress in the way they think one should dress for the sea. In an experienced and appropriate manner? What’s the matter with me, he said to himself. I’m getting really fed up with myself.
Max was pontificating about nightclubs and dancers and about his erotic experiences of both and Raf was relieved. The girl was forgotten. And he was again surprised at his feeling of unease about gossiping about a girl he had never seen before and probably would never see again.
But then again, an island… Deserted and isolated. If she stays for a whole week then maybe…
“How big was the island did you say?” he interrupted Max, who did not seem to mind in spite of being in the middle of bringing two Russian dancers to their second consecutive orgasm.
“It’s not that small. An hour’s walk from one side to the other. The village is on one side and our villa on the other.”
“Is that all? Is there nothing else on the island?”
“My old man told me they opened a new campsite halfway between the village and the villa earlier this year.”
A campsite? Was she a holidaymaker? Hm…
Max went on:
“But it’s a bit early in the season. There shouldn’t be too many people about, which suits us perfectly. At least nobody will interfere and…”
That special laugh.
“…they won’t hear our screams!”
“And how big is the village?” asked Raf.
“Hell, what do I know,” answered Max. “I’ve never been there before. My old man says it’s very shabby, twenty or thirty houses, a shop and a monument. Wilderness, I tell you.”
“What, no bar?” said Alfonz with real surprise. Each day he had commuted to the school from the hills, from a village which probably was not much bigger than the one on the island but which still had a bar, whose owner was his dad. On paper and in name anyway. He was always moving from table to table and back to the bar with a tea-towel over his arm, chatting to the customers, while Alfonz’s mother did all the work.
“My old man said that the shop is both a shop and a bar.”
It was surprising how many times in these last four years Max had mentioned his father. Contemptuously, but nevertheless. Raf had seen him only once, in passing, in a black BMW waiting for Max in front of the school. And that was also the only time when Max did not make any comment about every girl who happened to be passing. He just quickly, with his head slightly bowed, hurried to the car, opened the door and climbed in.
“OK, the main thing is that there is somewhere we can buy booze. I’ve only got five litres with me.”
Alfonz waved towards his rucksack.
“It’s my birthday tomorrow,” he added sheepishly.
“Oh, congratulations,” said Max, “we’ll drink to your health.” And finished the conversation.
Raf looked at Alfonz, thinking how little he knew him after four years. He was equipped with endless supplies of money, on which even Max himself had to rely, being completely dependent on his father’s good will which was very changeable; it seemed very generous, with periods of stinginess or, as Max would explain: “The old man remembered how poor he was at my age again.”
Alfonz’s parents had obviously never been poor. But still, why would somebody with all that money always wear the same set of clothes. Even here, on the boat: trousers in a hunter’s sort of brown made from wide-ribbed corduroy and a checked shirt, as opposed to everybody else’s jeans and T-shirt. In the winter, he wore a flannel checked shirt and over it — when it was very cold — a thick Aran cardigan. Raf imagined him in the snow: hidden in his cardigan, wading through deep fresh snow in the woods. Even though his village was often snowed in, Alfonz never missed school, which showed amazing determination. Why then did he have to be Max’s hanger-on? He had more brains, determination and money. The only thing in which Max was superior was simple chit-chat. Alfonz was very quiet and he made rather desperate attempts to be liked, badly timed and awkward. He even laughed at jokes too loudly and with a delay of just a second. And to top it all, when drunk or under an attack of friendliness, Max always quite haphazardly called him either “sad Alfonz” or “serious Alfonz". Raf never found Alfonz really sad, just down in the dumps.
Samo got up and stretched.
“I’m going to the toilet,” he said and went.
* * *
Samo stepped into the corridor, smelt the stench and changed his mind. He would last until they docked. With every kilometre further from home the toilets got dirtier and dirtier. Instead, he turned towards the deserted restaurant from which came the sounds of local songs. The waiter could not be seen anywhere — he was probably dozing under the bar. Samo turned towards the opposite side of the boat and caught a glimpse of a man’s foot.
On a muscular leg.
Samo stepped outside and leant on the rail. A quick look from under the eyelids. Hm, the guy was posing. He confirmed it by putting his hand under his head to show off his biceps.
The sleeping man then twitched as if in a nightmare and flexed his body. His muscles bulged.
Samo spat into the sea.
* * *
Raf waited for Samo to return and then went to the toilet. He muttered something about the drink which always made him go and made the effort to slowly move behind the corner.
The girl had to be there somewhere. On the top deck again?
He climbed the stairs but could not find her and came down again.
He saw her at the back, leaning against the rail. She was staring at the wake stretching behind the boat, widening into a slightly wrinkled surface of perfect blue.
Raf stopped a few metres behind her, not knowing what to do. Behind his back he could hear the roaring engines making an almighty noise, which seemed to spray out of some sort of an air vent between him and the cabin.
“Hi,” he said finally and thought she had not heard him. But before he could repeat the word she nodded without turning around.
Raf stood there, embarrassed. He looked back quickly to make sure none of his comrades were in sight.
“Are you staying on the island for long?”
She nodded again. He started feeling like a fool.
“The whole week?”
The anger which took hold of him only lasted a moment, but was therefore all the stronger.
“Well, if you decide to look at me, you know where to find me!” he hissed, turned round and walked off.
He noticed a nod with the corner of his eye.
* * *
The cassette player switched itself off with a click. Ana untangled the earphones from her hair and put them back into her bag. She turned and had a good look around. The parents on the stern were still trying to catch their children, but there was nobody near her. She just managed to catch a glimpse of one of those boys who had earlier sat on the bow before he disappeared round the corner. She could not be sure but she thought it was probably the bony one who looked different from the others. A pity that he had not walked past her.
During the last piece of music, the one with the faster rhythm, she thought she could sense somebody watching her. A passing feeling, which proved to be wrong.
Another half hour till landing. She tried to imagine her uncle from the photos her mother had shown her. They were all pretty old so her uncle must be well over sixty. Two months with an old man! She was bound to have to listen to him talking about the past day after day.
* * *
Max was the next to go to the toilet. He took a long time and suddenly the cynical voice inside Raf’s had recognised the truth. Max was lying. Raf got up and did not care what his friends thought. Without looking at them, he went off. He slowly approached the corridor leading towards the toilet. No sound, apart from the roar of the engines, to which he had grown completely accustomed, and the music which reached him in intervals.
He stepped forward and peeped through the stairs leading to the upper deck.
Max and the girl were talking.
What else could he have expected from him? From that bastard. He just had to chat up every woman who crossed his path. From whichever direction she came. However old she was or how she looked, he did not care. This was someone who would work his way round the whole crowd, not choose just one or two women. Someone who could not even order a drink in a bar or buy cigarettes at a newsagents without trying to interfere with the waitress or the shop assistant. Someone who lied to every woman’s face and told her how beautiful and clever she was — in short she was the most unique fusion of the two qualities in one body. How could women enjoy listening to such blatant lies?
He gripped the rail, wanting to break it. What did he do that was wrong? And what was Max doing that was right? He had never believed his stories about all the adventures and successes, but now… What were those magic words which you have to use to start a conversation? How could you just come, say something and immediately start chatting? Why did he always fail?
He put his forehead on the cool metal and felt like crying. He could not look at them any longer.
He crossed the corridor and walked back on the other side.
* * *
“Hi,” said Max.
“Hi,” she answered.
“Are you staying on the island for long?” asked Max.
“The whole week?”
“More, two months.”
“Two months? What will you do for that long, alone?
“I’m visiting my relatives.”
“Well, if you get bored, come to the other side of the island, to the old villa, it’s the only one there. Ask your relatives, they’ll tell you where.”
* * *
Alfonz nearly suffocated in the toilet. He did not really need to go but as all the others had been he had to. He found it strange that he did not meet Max and thought he must have gone back on the other side of the boat. He remembered the toilet in their own restaurant at home and felt almost homesick. He had had to scrub it out so many times that he could only hate it in a fed up sort of way. And therefore it seemed strange that here on a holiday in the middle of the sea, he did not recall his family but the toilet instead.
Back in the corridor, he slowly let his breath out and glanced into the restaurant. He was thirsty so he went in. He was just about to say hello, when he stopped himself — there was no one there. He leant on the bar and looked at the row of bottles on the ply-wood shelf under the mirror, covered with fly shit and other dirt and oddly stained at the edges as if it had been attacked by some strange fungi or mould. He nearly changed his mind and left before stopping himself. He had been shy all his life and this was his holiday away from the familiar. If he started shyly that was how he would carry on. He had come here for something different.
He cleared his throat.
He had to do it a few times before the waiter came in a crumpled black waistcoat and white shirt with rolled up sleeves, his arms so hairy that it looked as if he was wearing a tight fitting jumper.
The man did not say anything, just leant on the bar and looked through Alfonz with sleepy eyes.
“An orangeade, please.” said Alfonz.
The waiter carried out his routine without looking at his customer: he reached under the bar, opened the bottle, put it firmly onto the lino on top of the bar and added a glass, covered with white spots.
Alfonz paid and took the bottle.
“Sorry, but this is warm, could I have a cold one?” he said.
The waiter looked him in the eyes for the first time.
“If there’s something you don’t like, go to another bar!”
Alfonz was just about to turn round and ask where it was when he realised he had probably just been the victim of the waiter’s sense of humour. There was nowhere else on the boat and for kilometres around it. They were where they were and they would just have to survive for a week.
He left his drink untouched and walked out. A strange thought came into his head, as if it was not his but as if somebody had whispered it to him. What if he went in the opposite direction and looked for that girl who had walked past earlier? No, he would not have the courage to talk to her, he just wanted to look at her again. He did not take the idea seriously, it seemed so strange and impossible.
He returned to the bow. Max still was not there. Where was he?
* * *
The siren went and Max returned. Raf refused to turn away from the outline of the island.
“Another ten minutes,” said Samo.
“I’ve already got a date with the skirt,” said Max.
Raf felt he could kill him. Squeeze his neck and keep squeezing until the words stopped coming.
“Really?” said Samo, provoking a new monologue. Alfonz just nodded sadly.
Raf started pulling their rucksacks from under the benches and handing them out in a deliberately rough manner. Alfonz, whilst explaining how he had wrapped each bottle in several layers of newspaper, still asked for care to be taken.
Raf did not listen. He was still thinking about the magic words. How could women be so stupid? How can they fall for such bullshit and ignore an honest and well meaning guy, who did not see them only as an easy lay? But maybe that was the reason? a sharp voice whispered inside, more than surpassing its normal daily quota.
* * *
“Hey, what’s that?” Samo exclaimed with surprise and pointed with his finger.
They could now make out the village, the tree covered ridge surrounding it on all sides and even the little figures in the harbour, on the right hand-side of which there stood a tank.
“A tank!” breathed Max. “These peasants have got a tank!”
Then he added:
“The monument. That’s the monument my old man was talking about! Bloody hell, this lot really are behind the times!”
Then he spoke with real enthusiasm:
“They’ve even got monuments! Just think, ha!”
* * *
The ramp clanked against the large paving stones in the harbour.
The motorcyclist was revving up his engine and Raf promised himself that at the first opportunity he would check whether this long procedure really was necessary for those heavy bikes to take off, and why the ever so clever Japanese had yet not come up with a revolutionary patent which would enable a bike to drive off after just one turn of the engine.
The village was a real Mediterranean one. Stone houses — there could not be more than thirty — red tiles, decorated chimneys. The villagers gathered by the harbour, waiting for the event of the day. First, with a turn of their heads, they accompanied the motorcyclist, who drove for twenty metres, stopped, found a sign pointing in the direction of the campsite and then spent another few minutes turning the handle before he could take off again, leaving a big cloud of dust behind him.
On the bench in the middle of the square sat the pensioners, with their characteristic caps and deeply tanned faces, who turned back towards the ferry again even before the dust had subsided.
Raf saw the girl. She was standing next to an old man who had to use all his strength to unload her heavy suitcase. Raf felt a sudden desire to help but he resisted it.
The lorry drove to an entrance next to the pensioners and some villagers unloaded the last few boxes from under the tarpaulin. The driver started up the engine and drove back onto the boat, which then blasted its horn and pulled away. The schoolfriends stood alone in the middle of the square with the departing villagers giving them curious looks. The families were walking towards the campsite through the falling dust.
The pensioners were still watching the newcomers with indifference.
“Well,” said Max, “let’s buy the booze. There’s the shop!”
They walked over to the entrance through which the shop owner was still carrying the boxes and on the way politely greeted the pensioners who murmured something in reply.
“We’ve got to keep in with the natives,” whispered Max.
They bought a crate of beer and ten litres of brandy. The owner acted as if he had just signed the deal of the century. Maybe he had, judging by the badly equipped and stocked shop.
“We’ve robbed him of all his stock,” whispered Max in the doorway.
Outside they noticed that the sun was still quite hot in spite of it being nearly six o’clock and realised just how heavy the drink was.
Max went over to the pensioners’ bench, said hello in the sweetest possible voice and asked if there happened to be a taxi on the island. For a moment it seemed that he would have to explain the word but then one of the men shook his head and said that there was only one vehicle on the island and that even that was very rarely used.
“Could we hire it?” asked Max.
The old men shook their heads and started gazing through him at the open sea, towards the progressively reddening sun and a seagull, floating in the air and then deciding to catch the departing boat before it disappeared.
Max gabbled something and returned to the rest of the expedition.
“We’ll carry it,” he shrugged his shoulders.
* * *
From the slope, they looked back at the village in the middle of the bay. The tank on its stand looked as if it was aiming right at them and it seemed bigger than the stone houses. There were only two that had been painted in white with bright red roofs and they stood out from the rest of the crowd which seemed to be squeezed into the bottom of the bay.
“This lot really are backward,” sighed Max. “That monument! Stupid peasants! Where have we come! Ciao civilisation!”
Raf did not dare look in Alfonz’s direction but it seemed to him that Alfonz, too, had twitched with embarrassment. Max did not sense the unease.
“That’s strength!” sighed Samo. “They must have copied us, humans, when they designed it. The turret is like a head and the tracks like shoulder muscles!”
The tank did not produce the same feelings in Raf, to him it seemed clumsy and ridiculous rather than dangerous and strong. Surprisingly tall, with a barrel that was too long, it reminded him of a vehicle he had seen in an old comedy where Laurel and Hardy drove their car into a tunnel, encountered a train and emerged with the car somewhat longer and narrower. Still, he wanted to have a closer look, he had only seen heavy armoured vehicles on television and in films. He was curious as to how the tank worked — the wheels at the side, all the lids and covers, visible even from that distance.
“I’d like to see it from close up. Shame we didn’t have a good look at it,” he said.
“We’ll go to the village again,” Alfonz tried to comfort him.
“At least we know where we are now! Fifty years back!” Max concluded the conversation.
* * *
Her uncle was dragging the suitcase whilst Ana made sure from the back that it did not turn over or get stuck in the paving stones.
She had already had a good look at her relative and earlier, when he arrived to meet her at the bottom of the stairs leading off the boat, she found it very hard to hide her astonishment.
He was not an albino as she had concluded from the old, yellow photographs in the family album. None of them were taken from nearby, and her uncle was still quite young, but he was instantly recognisable next to the other relatives whose names, or at least the deeds and professions which were supposed to give them their place in the family history, even her mother sometimes could not remember.
She looked at the complete whiteness of the hair in front of her and she just could not hide a smile over a funny detail, which she had never noticed before. The hair stood up, even though it was not of the bristly kind but feathery soft.
“Maybe he combs it that way?” she thought and stopped her smile from widening with a realisation that in the next two months she would have enough time to find out her uncle’s every little secret.
And by the look of things, there would be no spectacular revelations.
One of them should have fainted or at least said that he could not go on and just sat down.
But it seemed to Max that it would never happen. He could not say it himself because it would not be right considering his position, Samo was not a serious candidate, and as for Raf, Max felt he did not really know him well enough to be able to say. He did not look like a sporty type, but skinny and bony. Alfonz with his thick shirt and corduroy trousers seemed Max’s best bet. His face was red hot and he kept having to use his sleeve to wipe away the streams of sweat pouring from his forehead.
Not one of them wanted to admit defeat and there they were, carrying the drink — Samo and Alfonz a crate of beer, Raf and Max the other bottles — with rucksacks on their backs. The previously quite innocent sunshine was tormenting them whenever it reached at them between the branches of the pine trees through which the road led. Up to the top of the hill and down to the campsite the road really was worthy of that name but after that it turned into a neglected and overgrown cart-track lined with electricity poles.
They stopped at the junction without putting down the drink and had a look at the campsite in front of them. The last group of tourists had crowded into the reception, and the guy with the motorbike was already on the restaurant terrace with his bike gleaming near the fence.
“This is where we’ll come to eat for the next few days,” said Max. “Today we’ll just finish off the sandwiches, and anyway, we came here to drink not to eat. And while we’re here we’ll catch a bird or two which will make it a real holiday.”
He turned towards them:
“You know, the seaside isn’t just about food and drink, but about squeezing, sucking and licking too.”
He burst out laughing and the others nodded.
Before Raf joined in the nodding he thought:
He was afraid he had said it out loud. He would have died with embarrassment if the others had not killed him with their teasing first, that is.
They said goodbye to paradise with wistful looks and went on, without too much moaning, just the odd observation about the island being bigger than it first seemed from the ferry (wider, they should have said wider!), and how the summer had already started in earnest there. But not for long, soon the desire to talk was gone.
Alfonz was dripping with sweat, Max was nearly as bad, Samo kept his hard-as-stone image of bravery and only once did Raf manage to catch an expression of suffering on Samo’s face before he quickly hid it again. Lifting weights is one thing, but carrying them for over half an hour is something quite different.
The cart-track had recently been churned up by a vehicle, its tyre marks were visible all the way from the junction.
“The jeep,” said Max. “Before my old man bought the villa he came to look at it and then sent some builders to sort out the wiring.”
He looked at the electric wires and the rotten wooden poles. Some poles had gone altogether and the wires were supported by the taller pine trees.
“There’s no water in the villa?” asked Raf, who could not restrain himself, his desire for a long cool shower was too strong.
“What do we need water for?” grinned Max. “You’re by the sea. You can wash when you swim, and as for drinking — we’re bringing the booze!”
And he had only one small moan about their present situation:
“It really is heavy, but worth the bother. Just think how pissed we can get tonight!”
* * *
Ana was still secretly observing her uncle and beginning to hope that the two months just might be bearable. What she had worried about most was that he would be one of those people who never stopped talking, always asking questions and telling stupid stories. But even before they reached his house, dragging her heavy suitcase, she was able to stop worrying as he only asked her the usual pleasantries about the journey (Fine, thank you.) and then remained silent. He seemed a bit shy to her, even though he did look her in the eyes when he talked to her. She could not get rid of a feeling that he was only pretending to be insecure. Not pretending in a negative sort of way, but as if he had been given a role which he was now trying to act out to the best of his abilities, even though it was not best suited to his character. The role of a guardian, who had to play host to an underage relative for whole two months.
On the way, he had explained to her that the monument had been put there in memory of all those who had died in the Second World War. Ana expected him to start imitating a tourist guide, but he stopped. He had told her about the only unusual thing in the village about which he thought she might have some questions. Everything else was completely self-explanatory.
But that funny hairstyle of his! It somehow did not quite fit the stereotyped image of an elderly islander, with his dark brown skin which looked as if it was not just tanned but as if it had been that colour from the day he was born. He could have either cut his hair off completely or worn a cap — a fisherman’s cap would have quite suited him. And he could have worn a checked shirt or something similar, like all the other pensioners who were sitting on the bench. But as it was, he really stood out in his short-sleeved white linen shirt and wide trousers of the same material.
She wondered why he bothered with his appearance on an island, where there could not be more than a hundred inhabitants and where everybody had to know each other as well as if they shared the same house; where the campsite had only been opened that year — or so she had heard them saying back home; and where the passengers she saw on the ferry were probably among the first tourists ever. Was he doing it for her? She thought about the winter when the presently seductively sparkling blue sea must turn into a matt-grey surface and she felt cold at the thought of it. At least in the summer the ferry came once a day and provided an opportunity for everybody to gather for the event of the day. It all seemed very strange.
Her uncle carried the suitcase up the three stairs leading to his house by himself and she had another good look at him. He certainly was not a weak old man, even though he was completely grey and quite wrinkled.
The only trace of a woman in the house was a photograph in an honorary spot behind the glass of a cabinet. Ana was overcome by sadness. That overwhelming, all inclusive feeling that ends as a pressure on the left side of her chest. A man’s room with memories of a woman. A photograph, memories — enough for a moment of melancholy, from which she was aroused by that most basic of smells: the smell of good food.
Her uncle smiled:
“I’m making dinner. You must be hungry after your long journey.”
She had been eating sandwiches on the ferry and until now she had not been aware of the emptiness in her stomach. So much saliva filled her mouth that she found it impossible to speak and she just nodded.
“I got your room ready. Do you want to see it?”
“Thank you, Uncle.”
“Just call me Aco.”
After a few embarrassing smiles they agreed on Uncle Aco. But the agreement did not last long. Ana soon returned to calling him just Uncle and he did not correct her.
The room faced the sea and the window was wide open, covered with a green mosquito net. Her bed seemed too short at first glance because of the wooden frame. The open window did not have any effect on the stuffiness of the room, even though Ana was sure Uncle had been airing it ever since her visit was first arranged.
Ana’s mood was very fragile and it did not take much to tip the balance. The smell of the room carried her over to the dark side and she again started thinking about the longevity of the two months ahead.
A romantic image: caught on a small island, amongst natives who seem friendly enough but rather clumsy.
They sat down in the kitchen and she accepted tea which seemed a strange choice for a summer drink. It had a very full and sweet flavour. Her uncle explained without prompting that it came from the herbs he had made it with and that there was no sugar in it at all.
Ana looked into her cup while sipping the lukewarm liquid. She was expecting to find a hair-line crack running from the bottom up to a small chip on the edge of the china cup. But there wasn’t one. The cup was intact and very old looking. Wide and thick, a smaller version of the bedpans from silent comedies.
Uncle asked her how she had done at school and she gave him a brief rundown of her results. He praised her and then concentrated on his tea.
She finished the last sip and wondered what would happen next. Well, what happens next is that I am here and the two months begin, she answered herself. She should have been happy to be at the seaside on her own, for the first time without her parents. On her own! Up until then she had always gone away with her parents, who spent a part of every summer in the village where her mother had been born. There Ana’s only company were the village teenagers with their cruel pursuits — from tearing wings off flies to teasing the goat — which invariably made her stomach churn. She had voluntarily changed her holiday activities to babysitting, as there was nothing better to do.
But this time she was on her own. Probably the last one to achieve this privilege amongst all the girls in her class who had long ago lost their holiday virginity, both literally and metaphorically. Maybe her parents were aware of the fact that she was now grown up and that was the reason for suggesting this trip. To a deserted island, admittedly, but even that was more than she had dared ask for in her wildest dreams. But on the other hand, maybe… She remembered the boys on the ferry, especially the thin one. Maybe…
Her finger slid to the bottom of the cup and rubbed against something which felt different from the porcelain. She turned the cup and looked. There was a label stuck to the bottom, saying in faint handwriting:
The second date was unreadable whereas the first one referred to a day three years ago.
She looked at Uncle and he blushed.
“I lent the cup for the wedding of my neighbour’s granddaughter and afterwards I forgot about the label.”
He rose from his chair and reached for the cup and then remembered that it would be rude to just snatch the object of his guest’s interest from her hands and he sat down again.
Ana took another look at the label. Very neat writing with an obvious desire to make the letters look beautiful. Very old fashioned.
Uncle was still hesitating and she realised she was embarrassing him, so she put the cup back on the table and — almost too briskly — moved her hand away.
“There were quite a few tourists on the ferry,” she said and Uncle visibly relaxed when she showed no intention of asking him about this friend of his who put labels on borrowed things so as to remember who they belonged to.
“Yes, they opened a campsite this year,” said Uncle not very enthusiastically. “I suppose it was inevitable,” he added, more to himself.
“Is that the only place to stay on the island?”
“Yes, there’s nowhere else.”
“No bed and breakfast?”
“They’ll probably start up one day soon, just like on all the other islands.”
He got up and walked over to the cooker, opened the oven and let out a new wave of the wonderful smell. He bent over and with a fork gently and very carefully turned each fish on the roasting tray. The fish sizzled with submission when turned and Ana remained silent as she observed the operation which looked more like a ritual than cooking.
“It’ll soon be ready,” he said and smiled at her.
She returned the smile and asked:
“What’s on the other side of the island?”
A sudden seriousness, a very brief and sharp smile, which seemed like something her imagination projected onto her uncle’s face.
He stared at her.
“I…” she opened her mouth.
“Nothing. There’s nothing on the other side of the island.”
She closed her mouth and said nothing. And then… she herself did not know what came over her. She certainly was not used to answering back at home where she had been trained right from the moment she was born to swallow anything which might be interpreted by her parents as answering back. Maybe it was the sea, the feeling of freedom and independence, maybe it was the wind left behind by the ferry which still seemed to be blowing through her head.
“The boys were going to the villa,” she said.
The fork rattled onto the floor and neither of them followed it with their eyes. Her uncle’s eyes became strange, huge and perfectly circular; she couldn’t stop looking at him.
He stammered. Her parents never mentioned that to her.
“H-how d-do you k-know?”
Then she saw the wave. It travelled across his hair, lifting it. It looked like a field of wheat, the memory of which suddenly filled her head but she was unable to put a date to it or any other proof of it ever having been real.
His hair lifted from the back towards the front and it stayed up. His eyes: she could swear they were looking at her but she could not see her reflection in them. Only something terrible, which she was to her horror nearly able to distinguish but did not want to see.
She did not scream. She let out her breath in a clear staccato of As, which at least halted if not removed the scene forming in her uncle’s eyes.
Maybe she was louder than she thought? The rattle of the glass in the cabinet confirmed her suspicion.
“We didn’t tell… we didn’t tell anybody…”
What was he saying? What was happening?
Oh, my God, suddenly she realised. Her first day on the island and her uncle would die. How old he was! She remembered all the heart attacks she had heard about which happened to people as young as forty. Or even younger. Any moment he could be struck and it looked as if it was happening right now. She would stay there alone with his body among strangers. With a tray of nearly-ready fish cooking in the oven, the smell of which drove away her fear.
“They told me,” she repeated very slowly and carefully, “today on the ferry.”
“On the ferry?” he asked almost immediately, comprehending what she had said much later. “On the ferry? Who told you?”
His stiffness passed but he was still acting very strangely. He stared at her, moving at the same time in very slow motion as if he was moving through chewing gum.
Quickly and jerkily she told him about the group of boys on the ferry and their invitation to the old villa. When she had finished, she noticed his hair was not as upright anymore but she could not remember when it had changed.
Maybe she was not going to be stuck with a corpse after all?
Her uncle turned round, picked up the fork, took it over to the sink and put it in. Ana watched him move away and come back again, wondering what had changed. There was something different about him.
He was silent during dinner. She did not take her eyes off him, but it did not seem to bother him. She felt forgotten. He filled two plates with large portions of fish, put on the table a bottle of wine without a label, put a glass in front of himself, then for a moment noticing his guest, he went over for another glass and again lost himself in his thoughts, turning the glass in his hand as if not knowing what to do with it.
She said grace on her own whilst Uncle stared at his plate with his head bowed. During her prayer she remembered the thin boy from the ferry. Was he religious? She was cross with herself for not having looked at his neck; he might have been wearing a chain with a cross. Quite exciting: a secret sign from the times of the first Christians. Maybe he wore his money and documents round his neck as well, a secret sign of young tourists?
She took the first bite out of politeness, only to be straight away overcome by hunger. The first two fish she devoured in big forkfuls, each one catching the previous one still in her mouth, then her manners finally surfaced successfully. Ana looked at her uncle guiltily but he had not even noticed her. He was not eating; he was just staring at the fish in front of him.
* * *
“Wow,” said Samo, as usual impressed by anything big.
“Mama,” said Raf, immediately becoming aware of having said it. Nobody had heard him. They stood amongst the last few pine trees looking at the villa in the middle of a meadow, surrounded by the woods in a sharp semi-circle. On the left gleamed the sea and the sun had dropped down just above it. The building was closer to the sea than to the trees and from the veranda a path led to the beach, finishing in small pebbles mixed with sand. On the border between the grass and the sand stood square concrete platforms, probably the last remnants of beach huts.
From behind the house, peeped the wall of a small overgrown garden shed.
The longer side of the villa was turned towards the sea whilst the front door with a porch supported by two pillars faced the boys. The villa really did look big in comparison with the village houses. It was built of wood which seemed totally dried out. Some of the wooden planks had warped and there were gaps between them. Only the bottom part of the house was built of heavy pale stones. The two cellar windows, boarded with wood, were almost completely obscured by the tall grass.
These details did not escape Raf, even though he was busy thinking why he had uttered the word which was almost prohibited amongst the teenagers. Mama, he had said Mama. He tried to remember what had made him say it, but those few moments were swallowed by darkness and uncertainty. Yes, darkness! When they had been walking through the last trees he had thought: at last! His sigh of relief was overcome by a strange feeling, first of agreement, then loneliness and dense darkness as if a coat had been thrown over his head. He felt a restriction and pressure all over his body, which left him unable to move and he could only say the word in his mind.
Whatever it was, had passed. A moment of weakness because of all the physical strain. Not surprising, after the long journey on a hot day. Luckily the others had not heard his foolishness.
“So this is what your old man bought?”
Samo could not conceal his admiration.
Neither could Max, for a change. Alfonz did not say anything and Raf wiped his forehead trying to tear himself away from thinking about his little outburst.
As they approached the house he watched it intently, especially the windows, but he could not see anything which would explain what had happened to him and the memory of it became more and more distant and pale.
* * *
The atmosphere in the kitchen was becoming increasingly unpleasant and Ana could not really blame it on her uncle. He was not doing anything, but that was what was wrong. He was just staring at the fish — which had by now gone completely cold — and was completely still. She used his absent-mindedness to do something very daring, something she could only do far away from home: she did not eat everything on her plate.
She left a bit of bread next to the plate, secretly looked at her uncle — he did not move — and then bravely took the leftovers to the rubbish bin and put them in. Food really was a gift from God, but she was on holiday, on her own. That little piece of bread was just a visible sign of her determination to follow her own free will rather than a result of her stomach being too full.
Ana had difficulty in remembering anything from when she was very young and sometimes — when she was talking to her schoolfriends — she got seriously worried that she was not normal. But it was interesting how one thing always remained fresh in her memory — the cult of the empty plate. Heavy verbal downpours under which she always gave in and ate up that one morsel. And then another one. And the one after. They became more and more difficult to swallow and her parents had to use more and more authoritative arguments to persuade her. The first morsel for mother, the next one for father and the last one for God.
She could not swear to it, but it seemed to her that right at the beginning of her memories the first morsel belonged to her sister, who later ran away from home and took not just her rucksack but Ana’s first morsel too.
“Uncle…, Uncle Aco…”
She reached out with her hand as if trying to wake him up but she changed her mind. Epilepsy? Maybe he was having a fit? No, he wasn’t screaming and rolling on the floor with foam around his mouth, which was what she had heard about those attacks. She resumed her contemplation of old age. She herself would be twenty in two years, which seemed like a serious age, but the age of thirty, she had always thought, meant a rapid decline into old age. One day you were young, then came your birthday and in a moment you became old. Just like her Uncle. He had looked quite normal, even cheerful, and then suddenly…
She cleared her throat a few times in succession until it hurt. No effect.
“Uncle,” she said as loudly as if she was trying to strike a conversation with someone who was nearly completely deaf, “Uncle, that monument to the war victims. How many villagers died in the war?”
She was not expecting an answer and it caught her unprepared.
“None,” he said.
“Just one of my friends died a few years ago.”
He raised his head swiftly and looked at her. She was expecting a remote, foggy, far away look in his eyes, but all she could see was a weary sadness.
“I did everything a Christian could to make sure I did not live this long,” he said.
* * *
Max was like a tourist guide at a place he had never visited before, but who knew every last detail from having heard descriptions of it and was now sharing the excitement of the first visit with the tourists.
“Well, the villa was built by some diplomat who moved in when he retired. Soon after he had a stroke and the villa was deserted until my old man bought it.”
They were standing on the porch and Raf could not help wishing Max’s speech was shorter — he did not seem in any hurry to look for a key in his pockets.
“Oh,” thought Raf, “what if he forgot to bring it?”
Well, the door did not look too solid and if needs be they could smash a window.
Max got the key out of his pocket and put it in the lock. He stopped talking and they all held their breath. The lock clicked noisily and the door creaked.
“Those builders didn’t seem to have oiled anything,” said Max, “but it’ll be alright. Let’s go.”
They stepped into a hall covered with a thick layer of dust, full of footprints made by the builders’ heavy boots.
“I hope they sorted out the electricity,” added Max “not just trampled all over the house.”
Just enough light was coming through the dirty windows to create a stuffy semi-darkness. Raf was expecting it to smell musty but it was just hot and dry as if all the different smells had burnt away a long time ago.
Slowly, they went a few steps further and Samo looked through the half-closed door on the right. It was surprisingly dark and cool in there compared to the room they were standing in.
“What’s down here?” Samo asked.
They crowded round the door, blocking the light so that they could not see anything but the first part of a staircase.
“A cellar,” said Alfonz. “There’s no light switch anywhere. Somebody did go down though, look here, footsteps.”
“He hesitated or something on this stair and then came back up.”
“Well, what did you expect, did you think he would wait for us down there or something?” Max interrupted. “Sad Alfonz, the Scout. Let’s close the door and that’s that. Fuck it, we don’t have to go down there anyway.”
“I’ve got a torch in my rucksack,” said Alfonz, “we can go and have a look later.”
There was no real enthusiasm.
He lifted his rucksack, unfastened it quickly and took out the torch.
“What else have you got in there?” asked Max.
“Anything I thought we could use,” answered Alfonz with embarrassment.
“Oh, yeah, pliers, fuses and look! a handy camper’s axe. Are you going camping, Sad Alfonz?”
Alfonz blushed, searching for an excuse.
“Let’s look here and on the first floor to begin with,” said Max still with a grin on his face.
They decided to have their party in the dining room. It had the right sort of table: long and sturdy. They took off the dust sheet and almost suffocated in the cloud of dust which forced them to open the window. The sun had touched the surface of the sea and the sky was red.
The light switch worked and Max proudly remarked that his father had promised to cut the builders’ balls off if they did not sort it all out properly.
“Can you imagine,” he added, “if there were balls there instead of the light bulb?”
“Illuminated balls,” quipped Samo.
“Hot ones,” Alfonz joined in.
Raf missed his turn and this time they did all look at him. He tried to redeem himself with a smile, desperate to hide his embarrassment. He went back to looking around the room which was what he had been doing while the others were trying to be witty. He could not quite establish what it was that seemed so peculiar.
They examined the other rooms. In the kitchen, they were amused by the old fashioned water pump, the handle of which had to be pushed down a good few times before some smelly brown liquid came out. Max repeated his usual commentary. As for the toilet, they decided that they would go outside on the grass instead. On the first floor they walked around the bedroom and the study full of memorabilia belonging to the old diplomat — they established that the man had to have travelled all around the world and laughed at his portrait on a dried out old photograph which must have been taken in a desert, judging by the clothes he was wearing and the background.
Only the nursery shutters were so tightly closed that almost no light came in. Max tried to put the ceiling light on — like he did everywhere else. The successful cooperation of the lightbulb was accompanied by his mumble of approval. He thought how the only thing he respected in his father was his ability to bully anybody who worked for him. Max had never seen any of them do anything but their best. But maybe the secret was his father’s knack of recognising the right people in an instant. Just as he managed to choose his short-term female companions after a single glance.
The fluffy elephant on the bed under the nursery window looked very sorry for itself. The heat and the dust seemed to have got to it. None of them touched it. Max started going on about how filthy the place was. In the corner they noticed a baseball bat and agreed on a short game the next day. If any of them still felt like it.
Max was the first to notice the framed photograph of a young and extremely beautiful woman, the Indian woman, judging by her appearance and clothes. He started his predictable speech, which Raf found obscene, as it concerned a woman who had undoubtedly been dead for a long time, and Max talked about things which belong to the living only, the very things that make us alive.
Samo sneezed a few times and suggested they went outside otherwise they would suffocate in all that dust. Max agreed immediately:
“Let’s go and have a ciggie!”
“Something’s wrong,” a voice said inside Raf again when he was the last one to leave the nursery. He looked back at the fluffy toy. The elephant did not return his look, instead it kept stubbornly staring ahead as if the answer lay in its dark eyes almost completely obscured by dust.
* * *
Uncle Aco did not become any more talkative and made no effort to explain anything. He stood by the window looking at the sea. He turned round only once and he looked completely calm, just slightly remote. He started asking her very detailed questions about the boys, demanding a description of their appearance and anything else she could remember.
Ana did her best to please him and she noticed how she spent most of the time talking about the thin boy who had not spoken to her even though he had a chance.
Aco nodded from time to time and when she finished talking he turned away again. Ana pottered round the kitchen, put the rest of the fish in the bin, washed up, sat down, saw the red sky behind her uncle’s head and tried to gather courage.
She wanted to ask him for permission to go for a walk but she forced herself to change the question into a statement:
“I’m going for a walk.”
She had to say it again, before he mumbled something which she interpreted as his permission even though she suspected he had not really heard her at all.
* * *
They sat on the sand by the sea giving in to the sunset. Max and Alfonz were smoking with the ferocity typical of smokers who have been deprived of cigarettes for a whole hour because of the heat and the burden they have been carrying, but whose bodies had now calmed down and were demanding tobacco.
Alfonz had also brought a bottle of brandy and it travelled among them slowly.
“Yuck, it’s hot!” yelped Max.
“Yeah, we’ll have to cool it,” agreed Alfonz.
He took the bottle to the sea and spent a while trying to position it in the water by digging it in and surrounding it with stones so that the precious contents would not spill.
“That won’t work,” said Samo. “We can’t be coming here in the dark during the party. Besides, if the tide comes in, the sea-water will go into the bottle.”
“You’re right,” agreed Max.
“What if we took all the drink to the cellar?” suggested Alfonz.
“Yes, there was quite a cold draft when you opened that door. Alfonz, you sort it out! I leave it all to you. Samo, what do you think?”
“You’re right, Max. But it would be best to cool the beer a bit in the sea first, while it’s still light.”
Alfonz got up obediently and made his way to the veranda to get the crate. Raf accompanied him with his eyes, wishing he would rebel just once.
“What’s the matter Raf, why are you so quiet?” Max prodded him.
Suddenly, Raf felt a strong desire to mention the girl from the ferry. Just like that, in passing, even though he knew what sort of comments about her he could expect from the others. But if she was not present at least in their conversation it seemed to him that she would become very remote, non-existent. He had to clench his teeth, so overwhelming was his desire for her presence. He had to talk about her, he had to!
“I’m still knackered from the journey,” he said.
“Yes, it was boring,” sighed Max. “It was too long".
“No interesting passengers,” added Raf, congratulating himself on his cunning.
“Yeah, except that babe who wasn’t too bad,” agreed Max.
“Well,” said Samo, “she could be a bit fitter, her hips were too small.”
“And her tits weren’t very big either,” grimaced Max.
In the background they could hear the clanking of the bottles as Alfonz arranged them on the veranda.
“I do like them to have big tits,” went on Max dreamily, “but they have to be nice and firm!”
“Yeah, right,” yawned Samo, stretching.
Every word cut into Raf’s heart. How nastily they spoke of her! But even that was better than the silence after they had exhausted the subject of all the relevant parts of the female anatomy.
Raf got up:
“I’m going to help Alfonz.”
He walked on the stones which slowly gave way to the thicker and thicker grass of the meadow. It was alright, he had been cunning enough, they did not suspect anything.
“Well, well, how excited our good friend Raf is about that chick,” said Max as he flicked his cigarette end into the sea.
“Yeah,” said Samo, “but I bet he’s still a virgin.”
“What else do you expect? He’s so clumsy that he wouldn’t be able to find his aim even if he found a woman stupid enough to let him try!”
They giggled quietly and turned towards the horizon, which was unbroken by ship or dry land.
* * *
Ana stopped in the harbour, which looked deserted. The sea there was greasy and dark, the bay itself was darkening, the lights in the houses were on, the hill behind the village had already obstructed the sun. There was no trace of the ferry and it seemed as if it would never return again.
She walked on the large paving stones and avoided stepping on the lines. She looked back at the shop which was now probably a bar and became aware of the pensioners on the bench. Because they were not talking and because of the twenty-metre distance she could not be sure whether they were looking at her.
“I don’t want to get old,” she said to herself, “I want to stay as I am now,” she added and felt silly. And a bit sad.
She stood there in the middle of the old men’s horizon, the horizon which they had probably been staring at every evening for decades. She felt like a stranger and it was not a pleasant feeling. She went to the left side of the bay, stepping from the paving stones onto a concrete path, which after a few metres turned into the base of the monument.
The plaque said exactly what her uncle had told her: ‘Dedicated to the villagers who died in the war’. She could hear his voice again, telling her very casually and she was quite sure, honestly, the number of the victims worthy of the monument: zero. It really bothered her that that was exactly how much she understood about it all.
Her Mum and Dad had sent her to stay with an oddball. She believed he must have changed in the years since her Mum last saw him, so that his sister knew nothing about his illness, the strange attacks he was having. She hoped it was nothing dangerous or contagious. Her fear of the latter had nothing to do with reason. She remembered another detail from her childhood and she thought how strangely vivid her memories were that day. Maybe they were like that because she was far away from the flat where they all originated. Anyway, she used to think that being in plaster was contagious. No, that’s not quite right. She did know that you had to break (or at least badly twist) a limb before you got it put in plaster, but at same time meeting anybody with one always produced this strange fear in her that she would become like that too. It had taken her years to learn to control the fear to the extent where it stopped being obvious to other people, but the feeling never quite disappeared.
She looked at the large monstrosity, the back of which had already fused with the dark sky behind. There was a group of clouds in the east which did not seem to be moving at all. Behind one of them she could make out the outline of the moon, which was not too far from the ragged edge of the cloud. Maybe she would be able to finish her walk in the silver moonlight.
The tank. A terribly ugly machine, which did not belong there at all. She looked towards the pensioners and wondered how they must have felt when the army positioned that monstrosity right at the tip of their bay. The second most visible point on the island was probably chosen only because the first had already been occupied by a lighthouse.
The barrel was pointing towards the hill and the plug at the end had been soldered on very badly, half of it sticking out. A large five pointed star had been white until someone had hastily and carelessly painted over with red.
Why had they not removed this monument? Had the old men on the bench just got used to it as a part of their horizon or could they simply not be bothered? A heap of old rusting metal, a military reject, which…
In the middle of the turret she noticed a small white sheet of paper with writing on it. She was standing too far away to be able to read it. She tried to get nearer, touched the metal and immediately withdrew her hand.
It was pleasantly warm, as you would expect from metal which had been standing in the sun all day, but it was also greasy. There was nowhere she could wipe the grease off her hand. She decided to go down to the sea and she immersed her hand in the water but it just slid across her fingers without removing anything. She had to rub her skin on a rough stone.
She threw an accusing look at the metal and started walking towards the other side of the bay where the lighthouse flashed into the darkness.
* * *
“I think we should take the drinks down to the cellar while there’s still some daylight", said Alfonz.
They were still lying on the beach and the two cigarettes glowed in the dark. They had eaten the last sandwiches they had brought from home and had just had a good belch.
“Take it, take it,” said Max and Raf could feel Alfonz looking at him but he continued looking at the sea. He just did not feel like getting up. Alfonz would manage on his own.
Alfonz hesitated and when none of his friends took any notice of him he went to the house. He got the torch and started thinking how he would manage the torch as well as the crate of beer. He turned the torch on, put it on top of the beer bottles, lifted the crate and started walking towards the cellar entrance. He would manage.
Only when he reached the stairs did he realise that his solution was flawed — the side of the crate cut off the bottom part of the beam from the torch. The stairs went down and Alfonz’s light only shone on the ceiling. He tried to lean the crate forward but that made the torch slide so he had to just hope that after all those years all the stairs were still there and safe.
He tested each one first with the tip of his toes, then the rest of his foot and only then did he transfer the whole of his weight plus the load onto it. He counted each stair before standing on it, as if counting meant giving it a name, making contact, a request to be able to trust it.
Alfonz was aware of his heart beating. Suddenly it contracted, pushing all the blood out into the rest of his body. “Fear, this is fear!” realised Alfonz and he could not believe it. He racked his memory to find a reason, a comparison with a similar situation in the past. The nearest feeling was the one of returning home in the middle of the night, walking through the woods when suddenly tiny lights appear in the distance and you are not sure whether you have walked so fast that this is already home or whether the lights are the eyes of wolves (or other beings?) waiting for you. On top of it all, fear was too mild a description of how he felt: he could not move or breath. He flexed his muscles trying to tear himself out of this state but it did not work. His only hope was to give his fear a name, to identify it. He thought of a woman. Not any particular woman and especially not the neighbour from his village. It was an unreal being, a conglomerate, the collective noun for women. He was afraid of women. It was that simple. On the fourth step of a strange house he was overcome by fear raised to the thousandth potency, which appeared in its milder form whenever he thought (dreamed about?) losing his virginity. How could that small fear grow into a wall pressing against him? Pushing him back, out of the cellar, away from the woman?
He tried once more to push himself forward and this time he broke the barrier. He had given his fear a name and thus overpowered it. He stepped onto the next stair without testing it. His fear was gone. The only trace of it was a very unreal memory, which already seemed unbelievable to him.
He pulled himself together and went on counting and testing the stairs until he successfully reached the bottom.
The cellar was surprisingly big, it stretched under the whole of the building and it was empty except for some wooden crates in the corner, which reached up to the first window. Here too, everything was covered in dust, proving nothing had been touched — there were no footsteps either. Alfonz put down the beer and picked up the torch. He shone it around the room, mostly onto the crates, made of oak planks roughly nailed together. He went closer and bent over them. BOMBAY was burnt on the side of one. God knows what was in them when they first came over on a ship.
And what was in there now?
He touched the wood. It was old and dry, without a trace of wood-worm even though it was not painted or varnished. He tried to move the lid and managed easily. It was not nailed down.
He lifted it a few inches and shone his light inside.
Old junk. Clothes.
He tried another crate.
Old newspapers and letters.
He lifted the lid off and leaned it against the wall. The dark surface was completely even and smooth.
Why would they keep something like that in a crate? And the stuff seemed as if it was a part of the crate itself. It stretched from one edge to the other without any gaps, it looked as if it was moulded into the wooden planks. So smooth.
He put his palm on the surface. It was warm compared to the temperature of the room.
He moved the source of light nearer and whatever it was acquired a yellowy glow around the edges while remaining dark in the middle. Wasn’t there something in there, something long? He moved the torch even closer but he still could not make anything out. He only managed to see that the material was not as smooth as he had first thought. Now he could see the inner composition of the mass, full of densely intertwined veins, which somehow kept escaping the light.
What if he turned the crate over and tipped out the contents? He pushed against the side and after a lot of effort the crate started to lift off the floor. He turned it almost completely over but the strange thing showed no sign of detaching itself from the wood. Alfonz performed the task with the determination of somebody used to working in mountain conditions. He has found a task he has to complete before the winter snow and cold sets in, when nothing else can be done except to sit inside by a burning stove. The plan in his head was growing bigger and more complex by the minute. He would turn the crate upside down, get some tools, pull the nails out of the wood, then bang on it here and there until… and then he stopped.
The house belonged to Max and he was just a guest. He remembered how he had feared that Max would leave him out! He had seen him conferring with Samo and he had known immediately that they were discussing holidays. Then Max spoke to Raf (just think!) and finally to him. Alfonz looked at him as if Max was an approaching angel and Alfonz was sure he would ask him something silly and not what he so much wanted to be asked. Even after he had heard the question, Alfonz hesitated. Not because he needed to think but because he was not sure he had heard right.
And there he was on his first evening — only hours after arrival — messing around with somebody else’s things, planning how to break and damage them.
He sighed with shame, looked around himself — darkness — and slowly released the crate into its previous position. Just before it touched the floor the over-burdened fingers let go, the crate slid and hit the floor so that clouds of dust came up at the sides looking like the steam from a locomotive which is just about to set off. The noise it made seemed so loud that he expected to see his friends rushing in, but nobody came.
Again he kneeled next to the monolith’s surface and put both hands on it. Warmth. He could not get rid of the memory of walking to school in the snow in the winter. The darkness surrounding him just like in that cellar. Only his fingers were in a warm place, like in the bed which he had had to leave at half past five in order to get to school on time.
What was he going to do after the holidays? His mother most definitely would not let him go to university. She already viewed him as no better then his father who spent his days just wandering around the place. He was just another parasite, wasting his time at school. He was the youngest son, there were three others above him — not counting the invalid brother — and they had let him stay on at school just to get him out of the way. But subsequently all his older brothers had left for the city one after another and each one of them had later sent a letter saying he was not coming back, restaurant or no restaurant. One of them then got killed by an electric cable after he had jumped off a train before it reached the platform.
Mother had probably already read the note he had left on the kitchen table written on a sheet of paper torn out of one of his notebooks. He had written in pencil that he was going to the seaside for a week and that he would definitely return. He promised to come back. He underlined the last sentence with such ferocity that the pencil end broke and he finished the line with just the leftovers of the graphite embedded in the wood.
Alfonz sighed and returned his attention to the crate. He had a feeling that he was trying to immerse his hand in water which was so thick that he could not break the surface. That shadow in the middle, the denser bit or… He strained his eyes… To no avail.
He heard steps above him. His friends were back. One set of steps lost their rhythm, crashed against the floor, then moved quickly again before returning to a steady pace. Raf had tripped again. How clumsy he was! Even though he was the one that Alfonz liked most. Max was all Alfonz was not and never would be. How he could talk to women! How he could seduce them! No, Max was no virgin, like Alfonz who would probably remain one for ever. And to top it all, Max always did and said the right thing. Raf was more like Alfonz and therefore Alfonz had nothing to learn from him.
How he had looked forward to this trip! He imagined that everything would be different after it. Like some sort of ordination. You went away as a boring and innocent youth and you returned as an experienced and confident man. At least that was how those from his village who had already done it, seemed to him. He used to look at them carefully, trying to guess from their faces what it was that had changed inside them, made them different.
And now he was there and there was no sign of anything changing inside him. On the ferry, he felt like he had been stabbed by hope when he saw that girl. But he immediately became aware of Max, Samo and even Raf and realised he did not stand a chance next to them. It was hopeless.
He was just wasting time with that old crate, like a lunatic. Max would never do anything like that. But why should he do just like Max, why should he look up to Max? He became embarrassed — yes, he was a real arselicker. He remembered the journey and nearly bit his lip. His birthday! He had moved his birth date by nearly a month, just to attract some attention and take part in the conversation. He had feared they would see he was lying but nobody did. Birthday indeed!
He got up swiftly and wiped his hands against the corduroy. Without thinking, as there was no need for it. He returned to the stairs and started walking up, examining each stair with his torch.
Raf really was brushing dust from his knees when Alfonz walked into the hall. Raf’s lips were still pursed after he had just, as always in such cases, exclaimed the name of the Saviour, even though he did not seem to be a believer. Alfonz went to church with his parents, but he did not believe. Neither could he remember ever believing a word said by the chaplain in the village lower down the hill where everybody walked for Sunday school. What he hated most about his own village was its position. Wherever you went you had to put on heavy boots and coats and then trudge through the snow, apart from in the short summer, when walking was easier but the distances stayed the same.
Max was commenting on Raf’s latest fall:
“Listen, Samo, listen! A nuclear bomb will fall and it’ll go BOOOM. The whole city will come down, ruins everywhere and from under them Raf’ll emerge looking confused and say ‘Jesus!’ Ha!”
They burst out laughing, which made Raf even more embarrassed. He turned to Alfonz.
“I’ll help you carry the brandy to the cellar.”
“No, the stairs are very steep, you’ll break a leg or something,” said Alfonz becoming both sad and happy. Happy because of another burst of laughter from the other two and sad because of the look on Raf’s face.
He grabbed the rucksack containing the bottles (he could not have got the wrong one — his was the only ancient canvas one, like hunters used to use, as opposed to the modern, brightly coloured nylon ones), put it on his shoulder, turned on the torch and set off downstairs again.
He put the rucksack on the floor and started taking out the bottles. He unwrapped each one and put it on the floor. Then he very vividly imagined Raf coming down to get the drink, tripping over the crate of beer, falling onto the bottles, breaking them all and injuring himself as well. He started moving them somewhere safer, near the wooden boxes and as they were already there he thought he would lean the bottles against the one with its top off. Nothing could happen to them there.
He picked up the rucksack and playfully threw it over his shoulder. He turned towards the stairs and noticed something strange above him. He shone the torch onto the ceiling and let the light slide across the thick wooden beams, which glowed in the light. Far too beautifully for wood. He raised his arm and stood on tiptoes to see better.
Hard, solid drops.
He felt them. The same stuff as in the crate. This time he realised what it was. Earlier, he had been confused because of the large mass of it. But seeing it now, in small amounts, which were attached to the wood by their pointed end while their wider part faced him, there could be no mistake. Following the usual custom, his mother and father had gone on a honeymoon, their one and only trip, holiday or anything like that. They went to Russia. When looking at their photos from there Alfonz would always shake his head asking himself if there was anything at all he had in common with them. He could not even console himself with the thought that he might have been swapped in the maternity ward — his mother always gave birth at home. Anyway, his parents went to Russia. From a village where there was winter for most of the year, they chose to travel on their only trip ever to a country where there was winter for most of the year. Besides the Russian dolls and a plastic Lomonosov with a thermometer they brought back a piece of transparent golden stuff in a shape of a large drop, encapsulating an insect.
As a child, he often looked at it but then forgot about it. It was probably still in his parents’ bedroom in the top drawer of the large cupboard.
It must be the same thing, he was almost certain. Unless it really was plastic — apparently they can fake anything these days.
But on the other hand, there was something encapsulated in the drops on the ceiling too. It did not look like insects. It definitely was not black and even though it was difficult to make out the exact colour because of the reflection, he was pretty sure it was red.
He pulled nearer one of the wooden crates containing old junk and stood on it. Now his head was touching the ceiling and he had to bend it. He moved nearer to one of the drops and tried to see what was in it.
Something was written in it.
Silly, really silly. There was a word in there. It did not seem to be written on anything, rather it looked as if somebody had written it on a sheet of paper, on both sides, and then cut the letters out with superhuman care. On top of that, the word was not flat, but looked as if it was waving, moving and fluttering like a flag, caught in the wind by an avalanche of amber, preserving it in that position for ever.
He concentrated on the drop next to the first one. He strained his eyes to read it. And then the next one and so on.
He read the amber. There were no sentences, just independent words, in which he started to recognise names. From everyday ones to foreign, strange sounding ones which he assumed were given to babies in far away countries. Some written in letters he recognised, others in letters whose origin he could only guess.
Name by name, each in its own drop, all over the ceiling.
Alfonz crossed the cellar diagonally. He became dizzy from reading all those names. He himself did not know when he had started reading them aloud, spelling some of them.
How did they do that? Was it at all possible?
“Hey! Who’re you talking to?” Max’s voice boomed down the stairs.
“Talking?” muttered Alfonz to himself and then shouted:
“No, I was just humming a tune to myself.”
“Come up! What are you doing down there for so long? Did you fall asleep? Wake up! The party is starting. And bring some bottles with you. Who needs all of them in the cellar? COME ON, WAKE UP!”
Aco started writing a letter. At least that was what he intended to do, but when he finally found a pencil and a few blank sheets of paper and wrote a few words, he realised how he was completely out of the habit and, what was even worse, how much time it would take to explain everything.
Time he did not have.
He limited the letter to a few short sentences. The people he was writing to knew what it was about anyway. They had been there.
He took a few paces around the kitchen then walked to the window and looked into the night. The moon shone through the edge of a cloud and sparkled on the sea. He had to decide what and how much to tell his niece.
He would wait for her and tailor his story as he went along, judging her reaction after each sentence.
* * *
Max took a gulp out of the bottle and missed a number:
“thirty eight…, gulp…, forty…”
Raf was watching the rhythmical movement of Samo’s body going up and down, irrespective of the counting. Apparently he did fifty push-ups every evening and he was not going to miss one single night, party or no party. Fifty! The nose-touching-the-floor ones! Raf went dizzy. He himself could not do very many and it was only because he was so thin and there was not much weight to lift, rather then because of his strength that he could do any at all. In PE, the teacher tormented them incessantly. All of them, even Samo, who was the personification of a sporty type. With him, the teacher directed his mockery at his brain whereas with all the others at their physical abilities or the lack of them. Raf envied Max and found it encouraging that he never worried about any of it. He just lay on the parquet floor or the sports-ground or wherever it was they were supposed to be doing the exercises and giggled. When the teacher came near him Max would grunt in a terrible effort as a result of straining his vocal cords and facial muscles rather then any other part of his body.
“Forty five…, forty six…”
Once Raf had heard the PE teacher in the changing room threatening Max that he could not care less who his father was, he would still teach him a lesson or two. But he never succeeded.
Alfonz offered Raf the bottle. Raf took a sip and trembled.
“Ha,” said Alfonz, “this brandy would wake even the dead!”
Raf nodded, smiled and returned the bottle. Alfonz too was probably capable of doing quite a few push-ups, he was as strong as a bull. But he never showed off and his strength came from hard work on a farm and in the woods rather than from lifting weights and that showed in his body-shape.
Samo picked himself up and applauded himself with the excuse of brushing the dust off his hands. He was not out of breath and there was not even the smallest drop of sweat on his forehead.
“Right,” he said, “and now the party!”
He pulled the table back and sat down. Max immediately put his feet on the table, saying:
“This is quite posh, eh?”
They had split into two groups without really thinking, realised Raf. On the one side of the table there were Samo and Max and on the other him and Alfonz. Max picked up a candle and lit his cigarette.
“I’ve just realised what seems so strange in this house,” said Raf and they all turned towards him.
* * *
Ana was fully aware that she had to return to her uncle’s and that was precisely the reason why she was still wandering around the lighthouse. The night was magical, like nights can only be in a strange place, far from home, away from people, when you are lonely and out when you should not be. Considering how many conditions had to be just right, it was no wonder that moments like that were so rare.
The moon had finally overtaken the cloud, revealing itself in all its glory, reflected on the surface of the sea. It was nearly full and Ana wished she could remember which side was full when it went up and which side when it went down.
The light on the lighthouse winked again, but Ana stood outside its reach, in the safety of the shadows. She had walked around the lighthouse a few times trying to work out what the red and white lights were supposed to mean. Slowly, she turned towards the village and stopped next to two fishing boats, which were being prepared for departure. The fishermen nodded to her in a friendly manner and she nodded back. They did not seem to mind her watching them. They arranged the nets, explaining to Ana that the catch would be bad that night because it was nearly full moon and there was no point in using a light to attract the fish. They showed her around one of the boats and the flood lights on it, but above all they kept talking to her in their melodic dialect, which made everything they said sparkle so much that the meaning of their words did not matter at all.
A lazy night. The first stars, the sea and a wonderful feeling that time was hers and she was in no hurry.
* * *
“Do you remember when we walked around the house?” started Raf.
“And here too, look! Don’t you find it strange?”
“No.” said Max.
“There are candle holders, cutlery, paintings… Everything.”
“They didn’t steal anything. That’s what seems strange to me.”
“Who?” asked Alfonz and he looked really worried or at least different from Samo and Max who just stared ahead, expressionless.
“Well, I don’t know, the villagers. This house was deserted for…, how long did you say?”
Earlier Raf was turned towards Max but now he looked him straight in the eyes.
“Something like that, yes.”
“Well,” continued Raf, “all these things sit here for fifty years and nobody takes anything. Nobody! I saw a fluffy toy elephant in the nursery upstairs. I don’t think the villagers have toys like that even now, let alone fifty years ago. But nothing! They didn’t come and take it! Isn’t that strange?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” agreed Alfonz. “They didn’t steal anything, even though everything is just sitting around.”
He shook his head in disbelief.
Max took a sip for strength and said:
“Maybe they’re so behind, maybe they’re bonkers, maybe they’re…, how do you call it…, honest?”
“Oh, I don’t think so. They can’t all be weirdos!” Alfonz shook his head. “No, no!”
Raf was quite grateful to him for his support.
“Look,” said Max,” when my father came to see the place, the key hung from a nail in the doorframe on the outside! How mad he was when he saw that! Look, they’ve got the sort of monument that everywhere else was got rid of ages ago. Except maybe somewhere in the middle of Siberia, eh? Maybe they’re frightened of each other and nobody dares steal. In a village like that everybody knows about everything everybody else gets up to!”
“No, Max, that’s not right. They could have all been in on it and taken everything out of the house and nobody would have known.”
“Raf, don’t talk rubbish! These peasants can’t even agree on what time of day it is, otherwise they’d know by now how far behind they are!”
He was overcome by laughter which he interrupted only for his last remark:
“Anyway, what do we care about them anyway? Are we here to party or to attend a summer school for prospective detectives, eh? Ha!”
Raf nodded and gave in. There was no point in going on, but he still thought it was odd. He pushed the puzzle to the back of his mind but only after he had noticed that Alfonz looked like somebody who was getting ready to mention something which bothered him a lot. He opened his mouth a few times, looking towards the cellar (why there?) but when he heard Max asking if anybody else had any other crap to discuss, Alfonz shut up. After the bottle travelled around the circle again, Alfonz started talking, but Raf was certain it was not what he was going to mention earlier. He was telling them about somebody from his village who was a thief and was found out. Raf started listening, first with one and then both ears. He had always liked cruel stories.
* * *
Their voices travelled around the cellar, in a gentle murmur and it seemed as if the sound was coming from the names on the ceiling.
* * *
Samo stretched his fingers and took hold of the bottle. He could have cracked it in his hands if he wanted to. Just crushed it with his fingers. He glanced around and all his friends seemed busy. Raf and Alfonz were talking. Max was messing around with the cassette player, turning the cassette and cursing and swearing.
Samo squeezed the bottle. Not too much, just a bit. He could feel the glass under his skin and he was hooked. He always avoided alcohol in bottles or glasses because whenever he took a sip from something made of glass it always aroused in him a desire which he found hard to resist. To squeeze, to crush. His muscles would flex, the liquid would splash, his blood would flow freely. When it was all mixed up on the floor it would be impossible to say which was wine and which used to be a part of him.
But he would not do it that night. He would not. Only once had he lost control of himself in the presence of others, and they had taken it as proof of his hard-to-control strength. They bandaged his hand with a handkerchief and took him to the doctor’s. An accident.
It was just like what was to him the saddest parting imaginable: the cutting of his nails. He would lock himself in the bathroom, open a newspaper, kneel down and do the business with the little scissors incorporated in his Swiss army knife. Whenever a nail or a fragment of it flew across the bathroom he never gave up until he found it and put it next to the others on the newspaper. When he had finished, he would pick up the paper and get up slowly without moving his eyes away from the crescents. Slowly he would let them slide into the toilet, look at them once more and then flush the toilet. They disappeared in the whirlpool! They no longer existed! Parts of him that used to be and then ceased to be. On him or anywhere else. Or maybe they were everywhere! Somewhere where his mind could not follow.
This was a shock which he needed to live through again and again.
He had just a hint of the same feeling when he had his hair cut and when he defecated, but only a hint, like a shadow, a brief flash, a thought. But nails…, how shocked he had been when he first read that nails continued to grow after death! So independent — neither one’s brain nor one’s willpower could control them. Even when everything else stops, they just go on. In death and beyond. Whenever he heard about the afterlife he always thought of nails.
He put the bottle back on the table. Alfonz and Raf were laughing, the cassette player had chewed up Max’s tape and he was trying to rewind it with his finger, cursing incessantly.
Samo concentrated on the bottle, trying to break it with his eyes. It did not work, it never did. He liked watching films about people whose strength was all in their eyes. Not like his dad’s eyes, which seemed like a sheep’s eyes ever since he could remember. Together with his moaning about Samo’s mother who had left them — she had just walked out. So what? He was sure nobody else had such a wimp for a father. He was all bowels and fat, that was what he was built of. And those eyes… A man should never be such a weed. So, even if he had to spend hours and hours lifting weights, feel the sweat leaving his pores — a sweet feeling, another part of him leaving! — he must never be like his father.
Women: they come and go. It was never possible to understand them so it was better to keep away from them. That was why he was always just accompanying Max on his adventures and never took part in anything that went on but always managed to stage a retreat just in time. It did not matter to him that he was still a virgin. Manhood was about self-control, not about giving yourself to others.
He grabbed the bottle, turned it upside down and took a big gulp, as quickly as he could to avoid temptation.
* * *
There was no sign of Ana. Aco squeezed his hands into fists and took a deep breath.
How much longer could he wait? Maybe at that very moment one of the boys was walking down to the cellar, looking up, noticing the names and starting to read them out. Some stuck in his throat and he would try to pronounce them out loud.
Would anything happen? What Aco had seen years ago looked like a beginning, a preparation.
He had two feelings simultaneously: yes, it would happen and he would be too late.
* * *
The pensioners were no longer sitting on the bench. They must have gone to bed as there was nothing else for them to do. She should really get back. She did not have a watch but it felt late. The two fishing boats had set off and the bay was filled with the noise of their engines. She waited on the pier until the noise became just a reminder of the presence of the ships which had already disappeared out of sight.
Her best friend had said to her: the uncle you are going to stay with is probably similar to your parents. The first evening is the most important one. If you go to bed early, then he will expect you to go to bed early for the rest of your holiday. The rules have to be established straight away and they have to be established by you.
Ana had always admired her friend’s decisiveness, but she did not approve of her insulting attitude towards her parents.
But her advice was not bad.
She stopped on the junction between the way to her uncle’s and the way to the monument. She looked at its shiny outline and again it seemed very ugly to her.
She went closer.
* * *
Aco put on black clothes. He stood in front of the mirror and slowly and with great care did up all the buttons on his shirt and tightened the belt on his trousers. He pushed his hair under a black beret and smiled bitterly at himself as he said goodbye to his image. Vain to the very end, he thought.
He went back to the kitchen table and started writing a note. The first word was Ana’s name.
When he was finished he put it in the middle of the table, under the light.
She would not miss it.
He went over to the photograph and picked it up. He looked at it and then kissed it.
“Thank you,” he said before putting it back down.
He unlocked the cabinet. Deep in thought, he slid the palm of his hand over the shotguns standing upright, then lowered his eyes to the pistols arranged under the guns. He chose an officer’s beretta, checked it carefully, inserted the chamber, put bullets into the barrel and put the weapon in his pocket.
Just before he reached the door, he allowed his eyes to say goodbye to all the little everyday things that he was so used to that he normally never even noticed them.
When he looked at Jesus on the cross in the corner — which had been put there by his parents (or grandparents?) and where he had been, out of respect for them not him, lighting candles for all those years just because they used to do it — he crossed himself. His hand just did it automatically and he let it, even though he knew it would not make any difference.
Jesus had nothing to do with it all and the Saviour would not be able to save one single soul from Hell’s gates that night.
* * *
Max took a long sip from the bottle and belched.
“This is the business,” he said. He wanted to repeat the procedure but he managed to stop himself. If he got drunk then he would throw up in half an hour and cry ten minutes later. He remembered his father’s lecture and immediately added the fact that they were on a more or less deserted island, a few hundred kilometres away from his father and that surely he did not have to watch his behaviour.
He continued with the interrupted move. He would have to go for a piss soon, he was the only one who had not been to sprinkle the grass yet.
The tape had just reached the end of a song, the audience started clapping and the singer thanked them:
That made Max laugh loudly.
* * *
Aco stopped just for a moment in the middle of the harbour and looked around. There was no sign of Ana. Where could she have gone? He looked towards the bar and the empty bench and restrained himself. It was best to do what he had decided earlier. He had to go and check it out himself first. He did not really know anything for sure, there was just this desperate feeling of doom and gloom forcing him into the night. It would probably all turn out to be nothing.
There was no need to go and wake up his comrades.
He crossed the square and started walking up the hill.
It made him angry when he realised that he was saying goodbye to the houses and everything around them just like he had earlier said goodbye to his home.
* * *
Smoke started coming from the wooden crate and there was a barely detectable tremor on the surface of its strange contents. Not as if something inside had moved, but as if somebody had sighed.
* * *
Ana stood next to the tank, on the side facing the sea. At first, she wanted just to walk around it, to waste as much time as she could and then she stopped in front of the trap-door and she trembled. No, there was no danger, she was just managing to frighten herself. She often did that with her friend. They would tell each other horror stories and soon they would both be scared to death.
She imagined the lid suddenly opening and a man’s head popping up, his eyes gleaming, on his head the sort of cap she saw tank-drivers wearing in films. A leather one, with headphones or whatever it was that covered their ears.
Her fear suddenly subsided and the trap-door remained firmly shut.
With headphones? was that possible?
She pictured herself on the ferry, the rail, the white wall, the seagull in the air. A figure walking away from her, soon to disappear behind the corner.
Was it possible? Could something so silly really have happened?
She ran her fingers through her hair, touching her ears. Maybe he had spoken to her, but she had not heard him?
Too silly. But… His look as she was getting off the ferry. Offended?
Oh, men, they’re always sulking about something or other, at least that was what her schoolfriends said.
She would go and look for him and ask him. She would come up with an excuse for going to the other side of the island in spite of her uncle’s strange behaviour. She would ask somebody else for directions, they could not all be strange.
She went back to the path leading towards the village. Only a few houses still had lights on, the others were lit only by the moon. For a moment, she thought she could see something moving among the first trees on the slope but when she looked closer she could not see anything.
* * *
“Alfonz, Serious Alfonz! Go and get the drink! We’re running out of everything.”
Alfonz got up obediently, took the torch from his rucksack lying next to the wall and left the dining room. The cassette player was screeching its tune, Samo was staring at the bottle in his hand thinking, and Raf was wondering why he had come in the first place. He had known exactly how it would all look and he was not wrong. Why did we do predictable things? Because that was when any unforeseen event turned out to be really exciting?
Oh balls, he said and reached for the bottle.
* * *
Alfonz went into the cellar and remembered the fear which had attacked him when he first went in. He stepped very carefully onto the fourth step but there was just a very faint repetition of what had happened earlier — it was not like an attack this time, it just seemed as if he had gone through a broken shell. Whatever it was, the danger had passed. He continued his descent and three vivid images appeared simultaneously. They were so real that it seemed as if he was actually there that very moment. Alone in the middle of the pine forest. In church just as the altar boy waves the censer. By the village road onto which the workers had just spread the hot asphalt, getting it ready for the roller. He stood in the middle of the stairs, manically shining the torch all around him. Everything looked just like it did at his first visit. But…
The cellar was filled with a smell which evoked all three memories at the same time. Alfonz tried to find its source but could not see anything unusual. Could it be that that was how the woods surrounding the house smelt in a summer night? Was that possible? Could so many scents come through the few gaps in the wooden planks on the windows?
He directed the light onto the ceiling and immediately moved it away again. The drops were gleaming, all in their usual position — they could not have been the source of the smell.
What was happening to him? That sadness! He had to carry out the task he had been given.
He went over to the crate of beer and took out four bottles. He was struggling with them and the torch which was throwing its light haphazardly through the darkness.
In the end, he put each bottle into a separate pocket. His trousers really were not much to look at, but they had deep pockets. Under one of the regular pockets there was another, hidden one that he had sewn in himself, pricking himself with the needle quite a few times in the process.
He went over to get a bottle of brandy when he noticed that the row of bottles along the wooden box with the amber was not undisturbed. Two bottles were lying on the floor, luckily unbroken. He put the torch closer to examine the rubber bottle-top covers and saw that out of one of them a few drops had escaped, leaving a centimetre-wide trail in the dust.
They could not have fallen long ago. But why? The floor was made of stone and he had made sure to put all the bottles onto a smooth and even surface. He had also checked each bottle to see if it stood firmly enough.
He picked them up and felt something irregular under his fingers. He shone the torch onto the drops which had stuck to the glass. Amber? There were drops all over the floor too and they were all still warm. Quite a bit warmer than the wooden crate…
He lifted the torch and directed it into the crate. The lid was still leaning against the wall, just as he had left it.
“Oooooh,” he sighed, with his eyes wide open. Quietly, just to himself; his escaping breath making a noise without any effort by his body.
He had found the source of the smell. Heavy, dense, sleep-inducing vapours were coming from the crate. There was a warm glow above the surface and it looked as if the stuff had melted earlier and was now cooling again into its former firmer state.
But the surface lay about a third lower then before.
He reached with his hand: it was too hot to touch. He would have burned himself.
It seemed to him that the light was getting through the amber more evenly as if the thing in the middle was no longer there. The whole of the surface was light yellow, probably because of the higher temperature.
How? From what?
Alfonz got up, shining the torch along the side of the crate. The two overturned bottles had stood by the bottom third of the box and that was where most of the drops were too. The bottles had fallen away from the box as if somebody had pushed them and the ribbons of amber were pointing in the same direction. He shone the light on the floor around his shoes. Among his own footsteps there were some smaller ones, which he had managed to almost completely destroy by trampling all over them. They pointed in the same direction as the bottles and the amber.
To behind his back.
The footsteps suggested a stupid scenario: Alfonz was looking at a bed out of which somebody had just got up and the first move of his feet had knocked the bottles over.
A feeling tickled on his neck and then spread towards his cheeks.
He was not alone.
A crazy idea. How many times had he waded through the snow and the woods… The familiar woods, said a voice inside him, the woods near your home. He knew everybody there and everybody knew him. But here he was a stranger.
And he was not alone.
I’m alone, said Alfonz but the feeling would not disappear.
I’ll turn around and shine the torch. And I’ll be alone.
He turned and shone.
He was not alone.
Ana returned quietly. She did not know what to expect.
She thanked God — there was nothing unusual. The only light which was still on was the one above the table and all the kitchen corners were in semi-darkness, which her eyes were still able to penetrate. There was nobody in the kitchen. She could not see the moon through the window, just its image on the sea.
She noticed a folded piece of paper on the table and immediately thought it had to be a message. It was. Not just one but two. The first sheet of paper was folded so that it had writing on the outside and the message started with her name.
IF I’M NOT BACK BEFORE TWO IN THE MORNING GO TO THE VILLAGE, FIRST HOUSE NEXT TO THE BAR. WAKE LUKA. GIVE HIM THE OTHER MESSAGE ON THE TABLE.
YOUR UNCLE LOVES YOU.
Capital letters and pencil? The effort which he must have put into the writing was almost palpable. Why did he underline “two in the morning” so much?
She looked at the other sheet of paper, folded inwards, with the traces of the writing visible on the other side as a result of too much pressure on the pencil. There were even a few places where it had perforated the paper. The sheet was not sealed in any way, just one move and she could open…
…somebody else’s letter.
And become just like her mother. Ana never got any letters, only post which it seemed right her mother opened and read first: junk mail, advertising brochures, subscription invoices for various children’s magazines and such like. Once — with her schoolfriends — she gave in to what was then a fashionable thing to do and wrote to a girl who was looking for a pen-pal and whose address she got from a magazine. She soon got a reply. It had been opened and read.
And it was then she had her only real row with her mum. It ended just like all the other minor sins Ana committed, but only after a long fight. Ana had to repent in her heart. Sometimes she would wonder if this repenting in her heart ever had any effect. Maybe it did and that was the reason why she did not remember much from her childhood?
And she suddenly realised that repenting in her heart was not such a terrible punishment. What she had to do was to lean her head on her mother’s chest, her mother then embraced her with her left arm while putting her right hand on Ana’s forehead. So Ana repented in nearly complete darkness. During the last few years she had really used the time to think about this and that. Sometimes about her mother’s scent. It was a cleanly-washed scent, without any perfume. Her schoolfriends…
No, there was no point in thinking about her ex-schoolfriends. They were gone now, scents and all.
So, this repenting always seemed like a very small price to pay for her sins. God knew when you repented for real, when you were just faking it and when you did not bother at all, her mother would always say. But Ana often doubted that, secretly to herself. There was never any proof of Him really knowing.
Somebody else’s letter.
Your uncle loves you.
He must be out of his mind. People like that could not be responsible for their own actions. Therefore:
She opened the letter with a single move.
THE KIDS FROM THE FERRY WENT TO THE VILLA. I’M GOING AFTER THEM. I HAVE A FEELING IT DIDN’T ALL END THAT NIGHT.
I did everything a Christian could do to make sure I did not live this long.
She looked outside. Peace and quiet everywhere. When had he gone and why had they not bumped into each other? Should she go after him and try to find the villa, the existence of which he had so vehemently denied? Should she go and find this Luka and try to get him to give her the key to this puzzle?
The letter to her was from her uncle. In the absence of her parents he was her superior, so to speak. An older relative who gave her an order. All her life she had been taught to respect her superiors.
She would wait.
* * *
“Where is that Alfonz?” mumbled Max and lifted the empty bottle high above his head.
He shouted louder than the music and the effort made him almost choke. He hit the cassette player angrily a few times until it stopped and expelled the cassette.
Samo put down his bottle and both he and Raf looked towards the door.
Samo joined in for the last few OOOOs, but quietly and only as a sign of solidarity.
Raf was beginning to get dizzy and his head had already fallen backwards a few times. So he had to concentrate in order to hold it still and turn towards the door, which was beginning to look double from time to time.
“Where is the peasant?” Max stopped shouting. “Somebody ought to go and get him.”
His friends did not move. Max looked at them with contempt and tried to get up.
“I’ll go, you paralysed fuckers!”
Getting up took some time and the other two shifted their concentration to Max’s attempts at lifting his legs off the table. He accompanied his efforts with ample swearing and guesswork.
“He must be throwing up somewhere, the fucking peasant, or he’s fallen asleep. Or he wants to keep all the brandy to himself! Fuck…”
Suddenly his face spread into a contented smile. He was looking at something behind Raf and Samo and said:
“There you are, Alfonz! Why didn’t you say something?”
* * *
Aco leant on a pine-tree and pressed his palm onto his heart. He had to wait and calm down. He would not be doing anybody any favours if he died in the middle of the woods. What he found worst was that it was not the physical effort which made his heart race, but the fear. He did not even try to pretend it was not there, he was far too busy just trying to control it.
Maybe he would not do anybody any good by dying there in the villa either, he thought and tried to concentrate on long slow breaths in through his nose and short breaths out through his mouth.
* * *
“Eh?” said Alfonz.
Max was suddenly in a very good mood.
“Alfonz, Serious Alfonz, smile! Where’s the booze, man?”
“The booze, the booze!?”
“Here,” said Alfonz and put the two bottles on the table and then pulled the beer out of his pockets.
He’s so pissed, thought Raf. He’s completely gone. Or does he just seem like that to me?
“Alfonz, sit down,” Raf said to him.
He did not hear.
“Alfonz! ALFONZ!” repeated Raf, each time a bit louder but Alfonz took no notice.
Raf leant forward and tugged at his trousers:
“Sit down. Are you deaf?”
Alfonz sat down and took hold of the bottle but did not have a sip.
“This one’s dead already,” Raf dismissed him and turned towards Max, who was pressing a new dose of alcohol to his heart with a blissful expression on his face. Samo had returned to his original position — looking at the bottle in his hands.
Suddenly Alfonz spoke.
“I saw somebody.”
Raf turned to him and said:
“What did you say?”
“I saw a strange…”
Max shouted from the other side:
“What’s he saying?”
“He saw somebody in the cellar,” replied Raf and woke Samo.
“Who did you see?”
“A strange what?” prodded Raf.
Alfonz thought hard before answering.
“A brat. A strange one.”
“You saw a child? In the cellar?” jumped in Max, his mouth already widening.
Raf gave him a look of warning, but it had no effect; Max was far too drunk to notice anything so subtle.
“Yeah,” confirmed Alfonz.
“And what happened then?”
Max leant forward expectantly, suppressing laughter only because he was hoping to get even more first-rate fuel for it.
“He asked me what my name was.”
“Then he thanked me.”
“HE ASKED YOU WHAT YOUR NAME WAS? IN THE CELLAR? A BRAT? AND HE THANKED YOU?”
Max burst out laughing so loud that the walls shook. He roared so much that he drowned Alfonz’s next sentence, which only Raf could hear because he was next to him. And he found it so odd and meaningless that he thought it must have been a mistake.
“He didn’t open his mouth.”
What was that supposed to mean?
He took a good look at Alfonz who fell silent, looking towards his thighs.
“He really is legless! HA HA HA HA! Sad Alfonz has become a comedian! HA HA HA HA!” roared Max and Samo joined him.
Raf’s confused eyes moved from one side of the table to the other. He remembered the nursery and the toy elephant on the bed. A child?
He shook his head and concentrated on his drink. Soon, he would be drunk enough to get Max to give him his first cigarette of the night. In the morning he would be more hung over from the tobacco than the alcohol. So what!
* * *
“How long should I wait?” Ana kept asking herself. Maybe her uncle often had a turn like this and the villagers then had to look for him all over the island. Maybe there really was some danger and those boys were in trouble. If only she knew what time her uncle had left and where he was. Should she go and see Luka? After two he had said and she could almost see his hand underlining those words.
She looked at her watch. Half-past eleven. What should she do?
The waiting was killing her. A few times she stopped herself at the last minute before putting her fingers in her mouth and biting into her nails. After all the trials and tribulations of getting rid of the habit!
She got up and went to her room. She took her clothes out of her suitcase and arranged them neatly, quite automatically and without thinking, her hands working while her mind was miles away.
The last thing she took out of her bag was the walkman. She put it on the bedside cabinet and arranged the cassettes next to it. Then she put her hand to her chest, just below her neck, but soon changed her mind. No, she was not going to take her purse off except when she was in bed. That was what she had promised her mother.
“Finished. And now?”
She would get changed into her jeans.
She closed the window shutters and took off the white linen trousers which had in some places — especially at the bottom, on the inside — acquired a greyish tinge. She thought she would have to wash them. She picked them up by the waist and held them straight.
A stain. Big and black. Why had she not sensed it?
She just could not remember. Had she leant on the tank? Maybe it was from earlier, from the ferry? Oh, no! Maybe he had seen it too. What must he think of her?
* * *
Alfonz could not remember his name. The one in front of him was Max, the one next to Max was Samo, Raf was the one on his side of the table and…
He looked at Raf. He was drinking brandy, the brandy he had stolen from his parents. He had talked about theft earlier; he distinctly remembered Raf talking about thieves and about all they had stolen. Raf! What sort of a name was that? A nickname, yes. Alfonz remembered how Raf had acquired it: he had been hanging, head down, from the rings, then still Peter. Suddenly, he had let go and crashed almost vertically onto the mat. He had picked himself up immediately and said a name. Jesus, yes, that was what he had said. Max had started teasing him that that was how the Royal Air Force planes took aim. The day before, they had been watching an English film about the Second World War and Peter became Raf. That bony earwig next to him had two names and he did not have even one. Nothing. How was that possible? Max had a name, the gym had a name, and the school, even the film and every person in the film. Everybody. Except the ones who just walked on and off the set and did not say anything. Just like him. He was not allowed to speak. He was nameless. Oh, how could Raf talk about theft. Theft? What did he know about theft?
Or maybe he did? Those bastards with names were capable of anything. Somehow, Raf could have found out how his nameless schoolfriend had been stealing money from his parent’s bar for years, hiding it in his sewn-on pocket and buying his classmates’ friendship. He could see it now: he had been trying to buy a name for himself.
A name! A name!
He got up and started walking towards the door.
Raf was saying something, calling somebody?
Who? One of his own again? Those with names.
He would not stop shouting.
Raf pulled Alfonz’s sleeve.
“Where are you going?”
“Are you alright? You look a bit strange.”
You just go ahead calling that Alfonz and leave me alone, thought Alfonz. What could be wrong with me? Nothing, I just haven’t got a name, he thought and walked out. Apart from Raf, nobody noticed.
Alfonz stopped in the hall and looked around.
Earlier, there had been a boy around there, also without a name. Actually, he did have one now. But it was not his.
He put his hands on his head and took a deep breath.
His memory of the boy from the cellar was very faint and foggy. The only thing Alfonz knew for certain was that the boy did not open his mouth when he talked.
Alfonz went outside and looked at the moon. Another name. He walked across the meadow, reciting names. Everybody had one, everybody. And he, who had spent four years (four years!) stealing money from the drawer behind the bar, did not have one. The risks he had taken, the suffering! He had only been able to spend the money on drink or food or to give it away. Nothing that would last. There was no way he could have used the money to buy a pair of jeans, as his mother would start asking him what he had paid for them with. That was why he had been going around in those rags for the past four years in spite of having all that money. Oh, how he hated those corduroy trousers and that bloody shirt! Oh, that was the end, the end! Never again, never!
He took a knife out of his pocket and opened it. He dragged the blade along the stitches on his thigh and the first holes appeared. Blood started coming out of some of them.
Enough was enough! He wanted to be like all the others! First he wanted the right clothes and then a name! Yes!
Faster and faster, with longer and longer sweeps he kept cutting off his trousers. They fell off him piece by piece and each one of them hurt. No wonder, he had been wearing them for such a long time! They had become a part of his body, his skin and what he was doing was not undressing, it was sloughing off. More, an operation! He would cut out his brown corduroy trousers!
Yes! Yes! Yes!
Cut! Cut! Cut!
It had to bleed, that was nothing to worry about. Whenever an infected wound is being cleaned it bleeds, so why should he not be bleeding?
He would cut off his shirt, too!
And his y-fronts! He must not forget those! He had to cut off everything old!
* * *
Max was still in one of his rare good moods.
“Hey,” he said to Samo, “didn’t Alfonz say something about a birthday?”
“It must be tomorrow now.”
“Let’s surprise him.”
Raf listened and made a firm decision to stop any practical joke the other two might come up with.
Surprisingly, it seemed as if Max was not up to one of his usual tricks.
“Let’s do what they do in American films,” he said. “Let’s turn off the light and wait for Sad Alfonz. When he comes in, we turn on the light and shout SURPRISE! What do you say?”
“Alright,” nodded Samo.
“Good, I think it’ll make him happy. He looked a bit sad earlier, before he went out,” agreed Raf. “Even more than usual.”
“We’re all agreed than?”
“Raf, you’re the nearest to the switch, move your chair and turn the light off. Did you understand? We wait and when you hear his steps you turn on the light and we all shout at the top of our voices. Is that clear? Go on, turn it off.”
Raf did as he was told. They sank into a complete, all embracing darkness.
“He’s not a bad guy, that Alfonz, even though he’s a bit of a peasant,” Max went on being nice in the dark and Raf thought he must be really pissed – he had never seen him like that before.
“Let’s call him,” added Max and started shouting.:
* * *
They’re calling somebody again, decided Alfonz, still waving his knife in the air while striding around the meadow in front of the house.
They are up to something again, those guys with names.
He stopped and became very sad.
That was how they had called him once, too. Sad, they used to say he was sad. What else could he be, what with his guilt because of the stolen money eating away at him all the time? During school lessons he would be wondering whether his parents had found him out yet. He imagined the reception he would get. He would be walking home, see the village — would he know immediately that he had been found out? Did everybody in the village already know about his sins? How could he be happy with all that on his mind?
And anyway, how could anybody without a name ever be happy?
That was what those shouting in the house were thinking. But what did they know about darkness, woods, fear and the pain of those who were different? What did they know! Nothing! Nothing!
Shouting, that was the only thing they could do.
He would show them that even the nameless could be happy. Those pushed away, the outsiders could enter with a smile. Break with the past and change. Start again!
With a never-ending smile.
He went over to the window of one of the rooms, which was in darkness, and had a look at his face in the glass. Whoever he was, he really did look sad. It was time for laughter, like the laughter Max, Samo and Raf were capable of. Mouth wide open in joyfulness.
He would laugh and join them. They would accept him as one of their own.
Those who laugh are always popular.
Looking at himself in the mirror, he took his bottom lip and pulled it with all his strength. Then he cut it off with one single sweep of his knife.
There, that was better.
He tried holding his top lip but it kept escaping from his fingers, slimy with blood. He tried a few more times,
- they were still shouting from time to time in the house; he said: I’m coming, I’m coming, but they probably did not hear him, just the glass in front of him got sprayed with tiny red droplets -
and then he realised that that was not the way to do it. He would swap hands. He was able to get a good grip on his lip with his right hand, but his left hand was not quite so adept with the knife and he had to create his smile in stages.
He tried to wipe the drops off the glass with the palm of his hand to see himself better, but all he did was make it even messier. He decided to bend over and look at himself in the corner of the window pane which had no blood on it yet.
“No more, no more,” he spat on his image again and added: “I’m coming, I’m coming.”
* * *
“He’s coming,” whispered Max, “get ready.”
Raf too could hear steps in the hall.
“I’m ready,” he said.
“Shhhhhh” came from the other side of the darkness through which a few shapes were just beginning to become visible.
The steps halted in front of the door. Raf had his finger on the switch, waiting. Outside the crickets sang, he could hear his heart beating in his ears and his own breathing sounded very loud.
Hey, he said to himself, this is a pleasant surprise, not an ambush. There is no need to feel worried.
The door opened a little.
Alfonz was surprised by the darkness. A ribbon of moonlight stole into the room.
Then Alfonz opened the door fully. Raf saw the outline of the shadow with a gentle light behind it and there was something strange about it.
He needed time to think, to take a good look.
“Come on,” hissed Max from the right.
Raf switched on the light.
All three shouted simultaneously from the bottom of their lungs just before the light came on fully:
* * *
Aco was resting at the junction. Below him shone the lights in the campsite: a few lamps, in two rows with tents under them. The receptionist was reading the newspaper.
Peace and quiet. Normality. A glimpse into another world.
Maybe he would find something similar at the villa and the boys would call him a senile old lunatic. Let it be so, he said.
That’s what they’re like, realised Alfonz with disappointment. You come to them with a smile on your face and they still don’t accept you. They scream, shriek and cover their eyes. They move away from you and one of them, that Max, even throws up. That’s what they’re like. He told them he only changed because of them and they rejected him in spite of that.
How they had disappointed him! Cut right into his heart.
That’s what they’re like.
They had hurt him.
Enough was enough, he would not stand for it any longer. Enough was enough.
They had no respect for him or his property. They did not even look where they trod, running around like headless chickens. They had knocked his rucksack over. How did they think he would get to his name without his rucksack, without proper tools?
Everything came out, the pliers, the axe, everything. They trampled on the fuses. What a lovely name those had: 1,5A. What he would not give for a name like that!
Was it possible that they were just clumsy? No, no, they were evil and wicked!
All of them.
He picked up the axe and looked around the dining room.
There was nobody there. They had left him on his own. Is that how a friend should be treated?
“Where are you?” he shouted, surprised to see the spray of red droplets filling the air, “Yoo hoo, where are you?”
They were hiding. His last hope. Maybe they were playing with him, maybe they were not wicked after all?
“Yoo hoo, where are you?”
He looked past the table lying on its side and saw Samo, cowering on the floor with his head between his shoulders.
Slowly Alfonz reached with his hand over the edge of the table, coming closer and closer to the shoulder. But before he touched it a few thick drops fell off his fingers and onto the white T-shirt.
Samo looked up.
“Tag, you’re it!” said Alfonz in a friendly manner, covering the face in front of him with blood.
Samo screamed, jumped up, pushed Alfonz away and ran towards the door.
They’re pushing me away, thought Alfonz. They don’t want to play, they’re shoving me away just as they’ve been doing for years. The new wave of fury was not like the quickly extinguished flash of the previous ones, this one grabbed him and would not let go of him.
“Samo, Samo, I’m coming,” he said and went out.
Really, he may be angry but he was fair, too.
“I know, Samo,” he said, “I know, you’re not completely bad. There’s something good in you too.”
* * *
Raf was hiding behind the kitchen door, listening. At first he did not know what the strange bubbling noises were and it was only after Samo’s screaming and escape that he realised what Alfonz was saying and that frightened him even more.
What had happened? Suddenly and without any reason his friend had changed into a madman, who first mutilated himself and was now after them.
Raf felt nauseous and he had to use all his self-control to stop himself vomiting.
Where was Max? Raf had not really noticed him in the panic but he had a vague idea that he had run out. So, was Raf alone in the house?
Slowly he tiptoed to the window and looked out.
Alfonz walked right in front of him and Raf nearly screamed.
He had not seen him, he was looking for Samo.
Raf looked towards the shed and he thought Samo could be there.
And that was exactly where Alfonz went.
* * *
Samo grabbed the door handle and flexed his muscles. From the first time he had lifted a weight he had always believed that the strength he was trying to build would come in very handy one day. If all the loose ends in one’s life did not get tied up at some point, would there be any sense in it all?
He had never thought he would need his strength to escape a lunatic. But this was for real, a fight for survival that only the strongest would win. So many times he had said: there is no mercy. They had been sitting in a bar, the sun shining, that strange thing which throws a different light on everything and which now seemed beyond reach; anyway, they had been sitting in a bar and he had said: fight for survival. Stay alive. Without mercy. And now his words had become reality. And they lay heavily on his stomach.
I mustn’t let up, he said to himself.
With both hands he held the door handle on the inside of the shed where he had hidden, feeling his strength spreading upwards from his wrists, elbows, biceps, across his shoulders and into his back. There was no force which could tear those hands away from that handle! Mad Alfonz could hammer on the door all he liked, he would never get in.
His confidence started to grow slowly, making him more optimistic.
Maybe Alfonz would not even find him? Did he go somewhere else, to catch somebody else? Max, he was the one who had got them into this shit. Where the hell was Max? And Raf, the clumsy Raf? He had probably fallen somewhere and was now lying there, moaning.
Strength, strength in his muscles.
How big they were, bulging in the light of the moon.
It was too light, too light. He looked back and saw that the back wall of the shed had long ago fallen down and blackberries grew in between the planks of wood. Alfonz was slowly coming nearer through the bushes, seemingly unfazed by the thorns.
* * *
“Samo, I’ll be honest with you. You’re not all bad, at least you weren’t bad to me. But the time of reckoning has come.
I only want what everybody wants: to know what’s good and bad in a friend. When we see what there’s more of in you, then we can decide what to do with you.
When I remember school, the first thing that springs to mind is the day when you kicked me in the changing room. With your right foot, so that foot is bad. Don’t shout and deny it now, you should have thought of it then. And that time, when I scored the decisive goal, quite by accident, I can tell you that now — the ball came towards me and I kicked it with all my strength just to get it as far away from me as possible and stop everybody teasing me again. That’s how I scored that goal. But that doesn’t matter now, what matters is that you shook my hand then. Your right hand was kind to me. I thank it for that. But not the whole of it. Don’t think I’d forgotten. Twice, during lessons, you gave me a sign with your middle finger. Come on Samo, now it really is time to let go of that door handle. You won’t? Alright then, I won’t force you. Anyway, your right hand really was kind to me but not the middle finger. It was vicious. Just like your mouth, which has always grinned, like Max’s. And your tongue — well, a third of it was good and two thirds bad, I’d say. Occasionally you did say a kind word to me and I won’t forget that.
Your eyes, well, they always looked at me unkindly. But that’s what your eyes are like, it isn’t your fault. I haven’t got an opinion about your left hand, it… oh, I remember now! Once, when they took us to the cinema, you offered me some crisps with it. Your left hand goes on the good pile than. Left foot… I don’t remember anything about it. Let’s say it remains neutral, we don’t assign it to either side. Is that OK?
OK. It’s important that you agree. I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m biased or accusing you of something you haven’t done.
We haven’t got much left. Your chest — no opinion. Stays with the neutral parts. But I can tell you, it would help you now if you’d ever given me a hug. Just look how big your chest is. It would certainly swing the scales onto the good side. But anyway, as it doesn’t go onto the bad side either, it doesn’t really matter. It was all just hypothetical. I’m not accusing you of anything.
Your abdomen, together with your stomach and liver. I think they belong on the bad pile. How much of my money they devoured! But I suppose I offered things to you myself. OK, neutral than.
Hmmm, your prick, balls and arse. For half a year you had to sit next to me instead of Max as a punishment, and you farted non-stop. That’s bad manners and counts as bad. Your prick too. You often bragged about it and that’s vanity, bad habit. I have no opinion about your balls, they can go on the neutral heap.
Well, we’re finished? It wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Alfonz stepped back and looked at the three heaps in front of him. All three were about the same size.
“Hmm, a difficult decision,” he said to himself, reached for the chest and lifted it. “If you’d ever given me a hug… it would really have made a difference.”
He looked to see if he could split Samo’s chest further, but could not find anything much in it, apart from the heart. After a short pause he cut it in half and threw one half on the heap on the left (the good parts) and the other half on the right (the bad parts).
He did not feel tired at all, in spite of the long time he had spent deciding and making a judgement. Even his right arm did not hurt and there was no blister where his hand held the axe.
He stood next to the piles thinking, unable to decide. In the end, he picked up all the good bits and, cradling them in his arms, walked off towards the woods.
* * *
Aco saw a light between the trees and stopped. He could see himself that night, years ago, as he had walked towards the green light in the cellar window. How terrified he had been! And when he had not been able to tear his eyes away from what he saw, his fear had grown even stronger.
He should have come before. But he did not have the courage and that was his sin.
He stood there, looking. The light filled him with hope that nothing had happened and that his expedition would end as a simple night stroll.
Everything was quiet and peaceful, just like at the campsite. But there the tourists were asleep, and here some young boys were supposed to be having a party and parties are never quiet. He took a few more steps but had to stop again to clear his mind of the images, just as he had been doing all his life.
The images from the cellar.
It took him a long time to get to the edge of the woods, positioning himself behind the last tree before the clearing. On the other side, he caught a glimpse of somebody walking into the woods. He was carrying something, but that was all Aco could distinguish in the silvery light. He waited. Whoever it was did not come back.
Then he saw another figure, creeping slowly out of the front door, looking left and right, unable to decide whether to go any further.
Undoubtedly one of the boys.
And Aco was sure. Something had happened.
* * *
Max was squatting on the landing, waiting. He dared not move. Once, he could not control himself however much he squeezed his lips together. Vomit came out through his nostrils, running down onto his knees. He did not move to wipe it away.
Only after a long time, when there were no more sounds to be heard inside the house and the screams coming from somewhere outside, far behind the house, had died down and everything went completely quiet, he tried to straighten up. His legs had gone to sleep and he could not feel them at all. He scrambled up by the wall and waited for the pain to stop. He did not dare make a sound.
When he was finally able to try taking a few steps, he started thinking what to do. More precisely, where to escape to. He was too frightened to walk to the village, an hour’s walk through the woods. There was no way of knowing where that crazy Alfonz had got to. Murderer. Judging by the screaming he must have slaughtered somebody. Probably Raf, clumsy enough to be a victim. Samo, where was Samo? Only he could overpower Alfonz.
He had to hide somewhere. It was probably better to stay inside. There he would at least hear anybody walking up the stairs. And then what? He had to find a weapon.
He slid his soles slowly along the floor, still leaning on the wall. He sort of fell from one side of the corridor to the other rather then crossed it. Luckily, the moonlight was bright enough to enable him to distinguish a door. The nursery, if he remembered rightly. Had he not noticed a baseball racket in the corner?
What a weapon! Whoever came up the stairs and was hit with it on the head would be a goner, however crazy he might be.
He opened the door slowly and the complete darkness surprised him. He stopped and waited.
Suddenly he heard steps downstairs. Somebody was coming. He ducked into the nursery, closed the door behind him and leant on it.
Were the steps getting nearer or further away? Whoever it was must have heard the door slamming and hidden.
Silence. Silence. Silence.
His father… NO! NO! That was not happening now, that was in the past. He must not succumb to the memories.
Not a trace of light. Had the moon gone behind a cloud? He remembered the tightly closed shutters. Where was the baseball bat? In the right corner behind the wardrobe or the left corner behind the bed?
Try to remember! Try to remember!
He could not. The only thing he could remember from the tour of the house that afternoon was turning on the lights and looking at the Indian woman. Would it matter if he turned on the light and got the bat?
The shutters were closed and if the light could not get in, it could not get out either. He would be very quick. Grab the bat — he remembered it now, it was small, for children, but hard enough for a weapon — and switch off the light. Wait till his eyes got used to the darkness again and return to the landing. And then…
He had to last till the morning. And the bat would help him.
* * *
Raf waited but he could not hear any more noises from upstairs. Maybe it was Max upstairs? He was too afraid to go and see.
He crept towards the door and looked around. He could not see anyone. Where should he go? What should he do?
The woods looked dark and Alfonz could be hiding behind any tree.
What had happened to Samo? The screams from the shed were not very promising. Raf took a deep breath, flexed his diaphragm and made a decision. He would go and have a look.
* * *
Max was trying to remember where the light switch was. Somewhere on the right, he was sure. Leaning on the door he slowly started feeling towards the wall.
He could feel the dried-out wood under his fingers, from time to time a tiny splinter would bend under the pressure of his skin.
The doorframe. The tips of his fingers slid into a crack, he pulled them out and started sliding them again across the solid wood. Over a slight curve on the edge of the frame towards the wall.
He was overcome by a desire to hit the wall haphazardly until he found the switch and turned on the light. But he controlled himself, he could not afford to make a noise.
He had to continue over the centimetre deep edge of the frame and onto the wall. The rough plaster stuck to his fingers.
He stopped. Could he hear something? Breathing?
He held his breath as long as he could. There was nobody there. But he still tried to breathe slowly without making an audible noise.
He moved his hand again and he could feel every tiny lump in the plaster. His hand began to slip down and slowly he directed it up again.
Another noise. This time a recognisable one. Somebody was opening the front door, the creaking could not have been anything else. He stopped breathing as well as moving.
After a long spell of silence, he continued to move his hand up the wall. He had to be very near.
A feeling that he was not alone in the room came suddenly and very clearly.
Again, he failed to hear any breathing. Just once he thought he could hear something but it sounded like a rustle, the origin of which he could not establish.
It was all too much for his nerves. He would turn on the light and have a look.
He swiftly slid his palm up along the wall, found the switch, put his hand on it and…
… paused for a moment.
I will, he said to himself, taking the switch between his thumb and index finger.
I’ll turn it now.
A gentle palm lay on his hand.
Max felt his urine trickling down his thighs. He did not move, just pushed his head low between his shoulders.
Waiting for a blow. It did not come.
That gentle hand resting on his. He could hardly feel it, there was no pressure, he was sure it could not stop him moving his hand away. Again, he tried to make out somebody else’s breathing.
The waiting went on and on. The hand did not move. Max’s two fingers on the switch started to hurt.
He only had to turn them and he would see everything.
Was that what he really wanted? Or should he try to remove his hand and run for it? Very slowly, he started to move his fingers but the hand increased the pressure accordingly. It was still very gentle.
He did not dare go on.
“I give in,” he whispered but even that sounded piercingly loud.
There was no reply.
Do I really want to see, he asked himself. Do I?
I’ll turn on the light and what happens happens. He remembered Alfonz’s grinning face and changed his mind. He could not take that.
How much longer could he stand there, motionless?
What would his father do? He would grab that hand without a body, without a face, push it away, turn on the light and give whoever was there three good punches. Max bitterly and clearly realised for the first time that he was not his father. He did not have a book of prescriptions, a catalogue of solutions for every conceivable situation, which decision to take in every dilemma — you just turn the pages until you find the appropriate advice, clear and short so that you can read it in a hurry.
Would such a book describe the situation Max was in? You are standing in impenetrable darkness, holding the light switch with somebody else’s hand resting on yours. Gently and patiently.
He started crying without moving. He pleaded and begged.
Nothing happened. No ruin, no salvation. The urine had cooled down and his thighs began to feel cold.
He pulled himself together slowly, stopped crying and tried to make out as much as he could about that hand. It was small and papery. Yes, that was the right expression. It was not damp with sweat or smooth. He remembered from school — where was Raf? — that the pores in the skin excrete grease or something like that to make the skin smoother. That hand was not like that.
It was inevitable. He knew that sooner or later he would find out whose hand it was. It had to happen. It was just like going to a dentist, a visit he always delayed beyond the first aches right to the swelling and the puss. In the end he always gave in. Dentists were inevitable, just like this thing waiting for him in the darkness.
It was better to do it now than torturing himself endlessly.
He screamed and turned the switch.
Everything was red. Why was that?
It only took a split second before he realised that his eyes were closed and that they had probably been closed in the darkness, too. And then he thought that all the waiting and agonising would have to happen all over again before he opened his eyes. He overtook his thoughts: he had to ride on the wave of decisiveness, he could not afford to repeat all the suffering he had just been through.
Another split second, a new wave of thoughts, events and observations.
In front of him stood a brat, a strangely funny brat who held his hand on Max’s with his eyes closed. Was he asleep standing up or what? He was wearing a black suit which looked shiny as if it had been waxed or something. And a bow tie! That was the last straw for Max. A bow tie!
That terrible creature because of which he had pissed himself was a brat with a bow tie!
The whole thing seemed terribly funny to Max. He laughed with relief. In the moment between his opening his mouth and the sound of his laughter actually coming out he caught the word uttered by the little boy:
He sounded very disappointed as he was opening his eyes. Did he only just realise some terrible mistake?
Max was not just laughing, he was screaming. He was banging his forehead against the door, roaring. He noticed the boy’s large black eyes and that he did not open his mouth as he spoke, but it was all too funny and Max could not stop himself.
Laughing, he told the boy his name and when the boy thanked him politely
- without opening his mouth, HA!HAHAHAHAHA! -
Max bent double with laughter.
Ana made a decision. She would disobey her uncle and go to the village earlier. Straight away? She looked at the open drawer — yes, this was another thing she had started doing, rummaging through somebody else’s things. She was looking for an explanation but she found nothing. Maybe it was in the middle part of the cupboard, which was locked. There in the drawer lay only the reminders of her uncle’s life, which was filled with a single hobby: medal collecting. He had filled a whole box with them and they came from all parts of the world.
OK, so what did that tell her? Nothing. Nothing. She felt that this was one of those decisions she had to carry out without a mistake. Should she go straight away, or wait for the hour her uncle had stated in his letter? The more she hesitated, the nearer that time would be and soon no decision would be necessary. She wanted to do what was best and therefore she turned to God. She started to pray but could not finish the prayer. God told her to wait. Or was it just his representatives, those who spoke about respecting one’s elders and obeying orders? This was too much for her and she wished God had given her less free will.
To do nothing was doing something too and that was why she left without turning back.
* * *
The hand without a middle finger or a body, which was still holding the door handle on the inside of the shed, swayed gently.
* * *
Raf approached the shed and put his ear on the door. Silence. He began to open it very slowly and cautiously, just for an inch to begin with, just enough to have a look inside and then a bit more. There was nobody there. He noticed the collapsed back wall and the branches that had been trampled on.
He started to imagine Samo taking refuge in there and then noticing the back wall. The screams he had heard confirmed his theory but there was no body, which filled Raf with the hope that Samo had managed to escape.
Let’s hope so, he said to himself and closed the door.
A strong hand covered his mouth, another held his arm. They pressed him against the body behind him. Raf tried to scream and free himself from the embrace but he could not.
“Don’t scream, don’t scream, I won’t hurt you!” somebody hissed in his ear.
Slowly Raf calmed down. What else could he do?
“Are you calm?” continued the voice, “Don’t shout, we’ve got to talk. You won’t shout?”
Raf tried to nod.
The hands gripping him relaxed a bit in order to test him. Raf took some deep breaths and waited. The hands loosened their grip but did not move away.
A man who seemed familiar to Raf stepped in front of him. White hair sticking up rather funnily. This was the man who had met the girl who would not speak to him on the ferry.
“I won’t harm you,” the man said. “Let’s hide by the side of the shed. We’ve got to talk.”
Raf followed him without hesitation. The feeling that he was no longer alone in the middle of that night was incredibly pleasant. He would do anything to keep that feeling for as long as he could.
Thick tufts of dry grass from the year before grew along the wooden boards and the old man with white hair sat down and motioned to Raf to do the same.
“It’s best if we’re not very visible.”
Raf leant on the wood with his back and slid down slowly right next to the old man.
“I’m Aco,” he said.
They nodded to each other without shaking hands.
Raf answered with a question:
“What are you doing here?”
“That’s not important, just tell me what happened.”
The man may have been old but he was undoubtedly strong, radiating a decisiveness which Raf could not ignore. It felt so good to let somebody else do all the thinking and agonizing. Maybe Max had worked that one out four years ago and that was why he had spent all his school life copying from Raf.
He quickly gave Aco a resume of what had happened: they were having a party when Alfonz suddenly went crazy and mutilated himself and then went on to attack the others.
Aco did not want to believe that that was all. He prodded and prodded until Raf managed to tell him all he could remember about Alfonz’s visits to the cellar and his strange talk about a child who had asked him his name.
Raf was surprised to see the old man cover his eyes with his hands and start to tremble. Slowly and only just visibly at first and then the shaking got stronger and stronger. Even his hair stood up more and seemed to move.
Raf did not know what to do. Should he touch the old man, comfort him? He sat there silently and waited, constantly observing Aco.
Loud laughter came from the house. Perversely joyful and relaxed, a real contrast to the atmosphere of that night. Max, without a doubt. Letting them know in his own way that he was still alive.
Aco raised his head.
“What’s that? Is there anybody left in the house?”
“Yes, I did think earlier that there was somebody on the first floor. That must be Max.”
“There were four of you on the ferry: you’re Raf, Alfonz has gone crazy, Max is laughing, what about the fourth one?”
“Samo. I don’t know where he is. Alfonz was trying to get him, I could hear screams, I fear…”
The laughter stopped for just a second and then continued with renewed strength.
Aco looked towards the villa with trepidation.
“Let’s go and see,” he said.
“I’m sure it’s Max.”
“Yes, I’m sure it is. But he’s not the one we’re looking for. We’re looking for the fifth person.”
“The fifth? You yourself had said that there were four of us…”
“On the ferry! In the house there were five of you.”
“There was that thing, whatever it is.”
Raf moved away, looking at Aco with expectation.
“The former child, I’ll explain later. Let’s go!”
Aco’s impatience grew and he kept looking towards the source of the laughter, which would not subside.
Aco jumped up without leaning on anything. Raf tried to imitate him, but when the wood behind his back, which he tried to use for support, started creaking he decided to lean on the stone next to his left thigh, which he had noticed earlier.
He got up and went after Aco, who had already set off for the house. He wiped his left hand on his T-shirt. The stone must have been wet.
In the middle of the dry grass?
He looked at his palm and the dark stain on it.
Suddenly he did not want to go back and see what the stone next to him really was.
But he had to do it. With one long movement he leapt back, moved the tall tuft of grass and looked at the empty head which used to sit two rows behind him. He started choking, ran into the bushes to throw up and stepped into two piles of something he did not really want to recognise, but the moonlight winked back at him from the gouged-out eyes lying on a heap of flesh. He turned back, running up and down, vomiting.
He screamed and rolled on the ground.
He received two such strong blows that it sounded as if he had church bells in his head.
He calmed down.
He let the fluids flow from every possible opening in his body.
“Now you know what happened,” said Aco calmly, holding Raf’s shoulders, “you know what it all looks like but you’re wrong in thinking you know who did this. Wipe yourself and let’s go. It’s going to be a long night, there’s a lot to do.”
Raf nodded, remembered the scene behind the bushes, collected himself, took a deep breath and wiped himself with his T-shirt, which was getting full of stains. He remembered his father, and a little observation Raf had made first about him and then about all the other men who put weight on around their waists and then stick their big stomachs out proudly: they can never finish a meal without dropping some of their food on their front. Always and everywhere. The memory of his parents was both calming and unreal. They were so grey and average, so boring that he suddenly realised what home meant. Home is where you feel safely bored.
“Alright? Shall we go?”
Raf got up and stumbled. Knowing that next to him was a man who knew what it was all about helped him.
Aco hoped deeply that that was how Raf felt about him. If he was on his own he would die from fear, run away in a panic, but as soon as there was somebody who needed his help, he was able to control himself completely. He was a born soldier.
The villa was silent. There were no more sounds of laughter. The dining room light was still on and when they walked round the house they could just about discern some light escaping through the nursery shutters.
Raf hoped they would not have to go into the house. They stood in the middle of the meadow, waiting. It felt like a very long time.
They heard some steps and then the door opened. Max stepped out, saw them and nodded.
Raf nodded back, surprised at how casual their meeting seemed. As if they were somewhere else, at some other time.
“Let’s go,” said Aco and pulled Raf by his sleeve.
“I thought we were going in?” asked Raf, visibly relieved.
“No, not yet. We don’t know enough. Let’s go to the woods.”
Raf noticed the old man watching Max as he joined them, unusually silent.
“Max,” said Raf, “hey man, why did you laugh like that earlier?”
Max was looking at the top of his trainers and did not move a muscle.
Raf noticed the dark patches on the inside of Max’s thighs, the traces of vomit on his chest and thought his friend was embarrassed so he stopped quizzing him.
“Let’s go to the woods,” said Aco impatiently, waved Raf off in the direction he wanted him to go and waited for him to start walking. Max followed Raf and Aco went last. He stopped behind the first trees and turned back as if expecting something whilst not taking his eyes off Max for more than a few seconds.
“He’s scared of him,” realised Raf. And at the time when Max was at his most harmless, just a small shadow, one of many amongst the trees.
They waited for a long time, or that was how it seemed to Raf. He knelt, lent on a tree with his hips and felt something sticky on his T-shirt. How it frightened him! He took a long time to pluck up the courage to feel it was just tree sap.
He looked towards the house. It was a beautiful night and the previous events seemed like a dream. He would wake up. The crickets and the moon would still be there but all the memories would be gone.
Aco was hiding behind the tree next to Raf’s and suddenly he took a sharp breath in through his nose as if he had a cold and was trying to keep the snot in. Raf expected to hear a breath coming out and when it did not, he bent forward slightly to get a better view of the figure in front of him. The crickets’ song suddenly became strangely different or so it seemed to him.
He looked towards the house. The door was already closing.
On the veranda stood a small boy, who reminded Raf of a child prodigy, standing on stage waiting for a sign from the conductor. His suit, his bow tie and glowing white shirt, his eyes which travelled from left to right as if he was embracing the audience lovingly. Letting everybody feel that he was performing just for them. He even held something in his hand, but in spite of the moonlight Raf could not really make out what it was, though it did not look like an instrument.
The boy turned his head towards them and Raf looked at Aco, who seemed to be frozen — he was so pale and motionless. He only moved when the boy’s head continued its journey without stopping.
Raf noticed with horror that Aco had produced a pistol from somewhere and was now pointing it at the boy. The barrel looked frightfully steady in the moonlight. Aco would not miss, he looked like a man used to shooting. His left hand was supporting his right hand which was resting on the tree trunk. He was going to kill the child, Raf thought, I must stop him. How could anybody be as calm as this crazy man he had only known for half an hour? I’ll jump, now. Twigs broke under his feet as he got up.
The finger on the trigger started to bend.
Too late, said Raf.
Something big flew through the air and covered Aco. At first Raf could only see a writhing mass on the ground but then Max flew away as quickly as he had flown in. Aco had somehow thrown him off and something small, barely recognisable flew with Max, quickly disappearing amongst the trees.
The child was saved, thought Raf even before he could feel surprised at Max’s jump. His friend crashed on the ground, picked himself up straight away and looked around for another victim. He noticed Raf, who thought he looked like a dog, on all fours with sparkling animal eyes. Max took another leap. At first on all fours, panting, and then springing up and jumping onto Raf, knocking him down. Raf opened his mouth to shout for help but immediately felt somebody’s tongue upon his.
* * *
Ana had no difficulty finding the house her uncle had described in his note. The place was right but the time was not. She looked at the name-plate on the door. If nothing else she could at least find out Luka’s surname. The thought that it was strange that there was a name-plate on that door only and on no others she had passed on the way came to her very casually and did not really take a proper form. It was logical: the villagers all knew each other and name-plates were quite unnecessary.
On Luka’s door it said:
At first, she was surprised at the age of the door, then recognised the writing, which she had already seen on the tea-cup she had drunk from earlier, and then she wondered about the man who stuck labels on every object, however insignificant and common it was.
She would knock on the door and see. She hoped he would not have a label with his name and birth details on his forehead.
She was trying to guess what his reaction would be. She had a few scenarios and her favourite was the first one: Luka waves his arm, telling her all about her uncle’s madness and tells her to stop worrying and go to bed. It would not matter to her even if he slammed the door in her face or shouted at her. She would not mind at all.
Luka was obviously a light sleeper. Immediately after the first two nervous knocks of her knuckles on the wood a light came on in the window above her head and an old, thin and wrinkled man with a nose like an eagle’s grumbled at her.
“Aco sent me,” she said.
“Alright, I’m coming,” he groaned and closed the window. From the length of time he kept her waiting, Ana concluded that the old man was not in any hurry. He did not open the door fully, just enough to have a good look at her. Maybe he was trying to hide his funny pyjamas with their wide vertical stripes?
She handed him Aco’s letter.
He opened it and read it, moving his lips with a whisper
Weird, Ana said to herself in astonishment. All her imagined scenarios disappeared like a puff of smoke.
The man became like a blowfish. He straitened up, threw his shoulders back, spread his arms so that the door crashed against the wall, took a deep breath into his lungs and in an overflowing mixture of relief and enthusiasm roared:
“ACTION, AT LAST!”
* * *
Max suddenly realised just how much he loved his father. He was nothing without him, he did not even have a name. He had had to come that far, he had had to wait all that time to realise it.
A son’s love for his father!
He kissed and hugged him tightly.
Became one with his father.
I’m coming, here I am!
I’m yours, father!
* * *
Raf would have thrown up this time, too, if there was anything left to throw up. He turned on his side, choking and struggling for breath. Above him stood Aco who had kicked Max a few metres away and was now observing him as he slowly got up again, groaning.
“It’s started,” said Aco without sounding worried or frightened. His fear had only showed when he looked at the child and earlier, behind the shed, when Raf had told him about the villa. Raf said:
“He nearly killed me. I couldn’t breathe!”
“With a kiss,” added Aco and Raf was not quite sure if he just imagined the ironic smile on his face.
Max was on his feet again.
“How much I love you!” he said opening his arms wide.
In two jumps he was beside Aco, leapt onto him and knocked him down. He attached himself to Aco’s mouth. And a second later he again flew up in the air. The old man seemed well versed in the martial arts, noted Raf.
Aco wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
“We’ve got to tie him up otherwise he’ll cover us both in his saliva.”
Max was up again.
“Father! FATHER! Just a kiss, father. What’s bad about that? Just one kiss?”
“Here he comes, watch out,” Aco got ready.
Max opened his mouth, stuck out his tongue and jumped. The old man received him with a kick between his legs, a knee-blow on his chin and a fist in his ear. It sufficed.
Aco jumped over to Max lying on the ground, and folded both his arms behind his back
“We’ve got to tie him up,” he shouted to Raf, who had only just got up, “take off his trousers!”
Raf did as he was told and when he finally managed to pull the jeans off the unconscious Max, he caught a worried look on Aco’s face.
“You’re a bit clumsy,” said Aco.
Raf nodded willingly. What else could he do? With resignation, he accepted Aco’s expression of displeasure at having such a companion.
Aco pulled a fishing knife out of his pocket, cut the jeans into strips and used them to bind Max.
Max started gurgling and Aco turned him on his side and gave him a good blow on the back. The captive blew a balloon of blood onto the pine-tree needles and Raf groaned.
“It’s alright, he just bit his tongue,” Aco comforted him. “I hope he’ll be able to talk. We’ve got to wake him up.”
He started hitting him and after a while Max opened his eyes and immediately recognised the person leaning over him.
“Father!” he breathed.
* * *
Ana had to knock on Adriano’s, Bruno’s and Miro’s doors. She surprised herself by never mixing up or forgetting the instructions given to her by Luka. They were all sleepy and bad tempered when they first opened the door and then became full of energy as soon as they heard Luka’s message which Ana conveyed to them word by word:
She soon realised she was gathering the whole team who had been sitting on the bench at her arrival. She did not wait for them to get dressed but returned to Luka’s house. The light was on inside and the door was open. She did not dare go in and waited outside in the light from the naked bulb, around which moths immediately started flying. Suddenly, something moved on the wall and one of the insects disappeared. Ana stepped nearer and only after a thorough inspection discovered some lizards, sitting on the stone, their colour matching that of the background, making them impossible to spot. She moved away in revulsion.
From time to time she could hear rattling noises, the slamming of drawers, the odd curse in a quick dialogue between a man and a woman coming from inside.
She knocked on the door. No answer. She knocked louder.
Luka opened the window and looked at her:
He was not in his pyjamas any more, judging by the arm holding the shutter. He had put on some sort of green hunting shirt.
“Could you tell me what’s going on?”
“Action, what else.”
“I mean with my uncle?”
“He’s the boss. He’s much cleverer than I, and after what happened
much braver too. Didn’t he tell you anything?”
“Then I can’t tell you anything either. A conspiracy, that’s us.”
He was about to go back in when she stopped him pleadingly:
“Please, tell me at least if it’s something serious?”
“Serious? Why the hell do you think I’m running around in the middle of the night? And Aco too?”
He closed the window, leaving her to wait.
* * *
Alfonz was walking around the woods with his friend in his arms, explaining to him his very special attitude to trees.
* * *
Aco and Raf were watching the child who was by now quite far away on the beach, right next to the sea and suddenly it occurred to Raf just what it was he had been clutching all that time. The cuddly elephant from the nursery.
“We’ve got to find the gun, all is not lost yet!” said Aco.
He started desperately rummaging through the undergrowth and the thick layer of pine-tree needles, looking behind tree trunks. Once he stooped swiftly to pick up something black, but it was only his beret, which had fallen off his head during his fight with Max. After Aco gave him a sharp look, Raf joined him in his search even though he was not quite sure what he was supposed to do if he found the gun.
But he was spared that trial. The darkness on the ground was thick and impenetrable and their search was futile. Aco stopped, pressing the palm of his hand onto his forehead.
“So this is it. This is it.” he said. Raf did not know what he meant.
The child was still on the beach staring at the horizon, all the time in the same direction. Whilst searching for the gun Aco kept looking at the child and when the boy slowly walked off along the beach out of sight Aco stopped.
“He’s going to the campsite,” said Aco. “If he keeps walking along the sea that’s where he’ll end up. We’ll cross the island and we’ll have at least half an hour, maybe more, advantage over him. It’ll do. In the meantime, we’ve got to find out as much as we can about how to destroy him.”
“Destroy him?” Raf moved away from Aco.
“Yes, of course. We can’t kill him.”
“Well, I should hope not.”
Raf was not sure if he really understood the joke.
“He’s been dead for a long time and I was there when he was dying. Now we’ve just got to destroy him. And before that we’ve got to find out as much as we can from this one.”
He pointed to Max who was lying there, his tongue pointing up into the air, as if he were licking an invisible ice-cream.
“Father, just a little kiss!”
Aco sat on Max’s stomach, put his hands on Max’s shoulders and pushed him down. Max was trying to lift himself up, desperate to kiss the figure above him.
“Just a little kiss, a little kiss, that’s not much, just a little kiss!”
The captive was lifting his head and reaching for the face above him with his tongue. Saliva stained with blood trickled from the corners of his mouth.
“You’ll get a kiss,” said Aco, “You’ll get one. You just have to tell me something before.”
“I will, father, I will!”
“Did you see the child?”
“Yes, I did. In that room, in the dark. You weren’t there, father, and I was scared. I’m not scared now. Just a little kiss!”
“You’ll get it. What did the child say?”
“Mama, he said. That was the first thing he said. But mothers don’t matter, just fathers! Mothers come and go! That’s what they’re like!”
“Mama? And then?”
Max, in between pouring out his emotions, finally managed to tell them what had happened to him in the villa. He did not forget to mention how the boy did not have to open his mouth while he spoke and Aco asked him to repeat that bit twice.
Slowly, Max started losing the plot more and more and talked only about love and kissing his father. He kept jerking forward with his tongue out, trying to lick his interrogator, until Aco got up and moved away. Max writhed on the ground, tirelessly repeating his litanies.
Raf watched him and after a long absence that cynical voice which had been so active on the ferry but had then vanished, as if it had returned to the mainland, reappeared. He remembered their form-teacher’s words spoken during the final celebratory speech. He had asked them to look at each other as that was the last time they would see each other as they were then. Next time they met, a few years later, they would be different, something would have happened to them. It’s true, said the little voice. Just look at that body on the ground, remember Alfonz’s face, remember yourself. Who would have thought that you would become like this in just a few days.
Aco came over to Raf and said to him:
“It’s time to talk.”
* * *
Ana realised how everything she had done in her life had been guided by rules and reason. At the same time, she knew that that was the way which suited her best, but she still wondered when the last time was that she had done something instinctively, under an impulse, on the spur of the moment.
Her instinct was telling her to leave. The whole night she had been waiting, the whole night. Some strangers came and told her to wait. Just like that.
She knocked on the door firmly and decisively.
“What now?” the window opened.
“Will you take me with you when you go after my uncle?”
Luka looked at her in astonishment.
“But how, you’re a woman?!?”
She swallowed thickly.
“Where are you going?”
“Well, to the villa.”
“The one on the other side of the island?”
“The one near the campsite?”
“No, the campsite is in between. A different path leads to the villa. Further than the camp!”
“I haven’t got time for this! It’s time for action!”
He slammed the shutters and started to clatter around, moving things again.
So that was it! Even if she waited there until the morning or even until doomsday, they would not take her with them because she was a woman! So!
She remembered her mother who was always waiting for something: with lunch for her husband, with a towel for her when she was having a bath. Always. The first signs of puberty manifested themselves in Ana’s wondering when her mother would rebel. She would have been able to respect her a lot more if she had ever raised her voice or done anything her own way. Stopped waiting.
It’s night and I’m free, she told herself.
I’ll go. Now. On my own. They’ll be sorry for not taking me with them.
* * *
Behind them, Max was calling for his father while Raf and Aco sat next to a bent pine tree. Aco talked and Raf listened:
“I’ll tell you just the most important details, we haven’t got enough time for the rest. When I was eight I looked through the cellar window of that villa,” he pointed in the right direction, ” and I saw”
He had to take a deep breath and lean his head back before he was able to continue.
“ something. A woman killing her child. Slowly, drop by drop, she took his blood as if he was an inkpot and with each drop she wrote down a name in the steam from the glowing amber. About the others who were there, the strange demons, I won’t talk. Towards the end, I screamed. I don’t know if I’d interrupted their ritual or not. I don’t know. It probably doesn’t matter anyway. The next morning the woman disappeared and everybody thought she’d left with her son. She was from India, her husband had been born over on the mainland and he’d brought her here when he retired. He died before his son was born. There were lots of rumours going around the village about the child not being his. The child was born exactly nine months after the husband’s death. I was too young to understand it all then, but the rumours stayed around till I grew up.
I never told anybody what I’d seen. Nobody. Not even those who took me there that night. But it got out somehow and the villa became a no go area for the villagers. I believe that new generations of young boys have all tested their courage there. How many small boys must have stood there swallowing hard and trembling. But nobody ever went really close. There was no talk about the villa being haunted or anything like that, we just never mentioned it at all. The whole village wiped it out of its memory. It wasn’t there anymore, do you understand? I know, we should have gone there and burnt it down. I thought of it many times, but our daily life here is so boring and uneventful that it puts you to sleep. Whatever you can put off till tomorrow, can’t harm you.
I became the leader of a gang of those boys, together we joined the forces and fought for the allies during the last war. I became a professional soldier later. What else could I have done?
I got a whole load of medals. I’ve still got them somewhere. I survived everything. Everything. I was brave only because I wanted to die. But all along I knew I would have to come back one day and deal with what I saw as a child. But I didn’t have the courage! I was afraid! AFRAID! That’s why I was always in the first lines of attack, the most exposed positions. That’s why. I received wounds and medals but never an absolution from that original duty. God is very generous with the former but he finds it hard to give the latter. Once, when I was at the peak of my strength, during the Korean war, I even wished for the demons to return that very moment. But I knew they wouldn’t listen to me and I’d have to meet them when I was weak again.
Do you believe in God?”
“Me? No. I’ve never even thought”
“I was brought up to believe. After what I saw in the cellar I often thought about God. For some time, that was all I thought about. This is how it is, I think. The only time we’re in contact with him is when we sleep. And dreams are our defences, our earthiness, trying to lead us away from Him. If we fight them and break through them we come into contact with Him. That’s what we call a nightmare. The more horrible the nightmare, the closer to Him we are. And that’s why in our everyday life it doesn’t matter whether you believe in God or not: but when your life starts becoming a nightmare that belief is the only thing that can save you. There are no decisions when you’re in contact with God. There’s no free will. And that’s what makes the nightmare so horrible. Things happen to you. Horror is the prayer of our time.”
“What about the devil?”
Aco hissed with contempt:
Then he shook his head:
“Let’s leave this, I’ve strayed. I’m glad to have you with me. If I was alone I’d go mad with fear. That’s one advantage of being in the army: you’re never alone. You’ve always got somebody with you and I’m the sort of person whose courage feeds on someone else’s fear and thus smothers his own. But let’s forget this. We’ve got to talk about that thing out there walking towards the campsite. It must never get there! It mustn’t! It would bring to them the madness and the slaughter it brought to you. And then it would go to the village. The ferry comes again tomorrow and it would get on it. And so on. We’ve got to destroy it! Here! Tonight!”
“NO! THAT’S NOT A CHILD! The child died in front of my eyes. This is a thing which which is doing what it was created for. Don’t you ever forget that! It’s not a child! IT’S NOT! It’s not alive either! IT’S NOT! It’s a machine, that’s what it was made to be. I was an army instructor and I’m telling you, I made machines like that, according to my best abilities and within the means at my disposal.”
“I’ll tell you things about which I’ve heard and which are coming true tonight. When I travelled the world I talked to many people. I made friends in the Indian regiment. I heard about a sect whose priests collect names and who believe that when they’ve collected every name there is, these names will embody God. They believe that God divided himself among all living beings during creation. And I heard rumours that heretics from that sect who’d split away many years ago and who claimed that the names found, remembered or written down by a priest are not the names of real people, but are just the priest’s imagination. They said that every collected name had to come from a real living person and that it had to be taken from them. I’m surprised they left this thing here and not in America where they have a name for everything. Anyway, God had divided himself among his creatures. And everything that exists has a name. Because if there is something new, really completely new, that does not come from God because it hasn’t got a name. That’s why some people say that something really new can never happen. If it ever did, there’d be no God. The thing from the villa asks people their name. You heard how your friend Max keeps shouting how he hasn’t got a name anymore, and Alfonz said something like that too. But all this is just philosophising. Maybe it isn’t true and I’m telling you made up stories. But even those are better than nothing.”
Raf felt a disbelief which vanished the moment he remembered Alfonz’s grinning face.
“So, this thing goes around collecting names?”
“Yes. He asked both victims for their names and they told him. You saw what happened to them. Listen, they both said he didn’t open his mouth when he spoke to them.”
“Yes, I noticed that.”
“That’s what’s worrying me most. Those strange abilities. I don’t know, but it seems that he can read peoples’ minds, at least from nearby, and I’m afraid we’ll have to destroy him without coming close to him or we’ll have to distract him somehow, entrap him.”
“We haven’t got”
“We haven’t. The gun is lost and we can’t wait till the morning. All we’ve got is this knife and a plan. I’ll tell you about it later. My niece is waiting in the village to wake my friends.”
“The girl from the ferry?”
“Yes. They will”
“There’s no time for that now. My friends will come and they’ll be armed. But they’ll be too late and the thing will already have done its job in the campsite so we can’t rely on them. Maybe it wasn’t a sensible thing to call them at all. They’ll be expecting monsters and all they’ll see is a child. If you see them you’ll have to explain that to them.”
“ will you recognise them? Oh, that won’t be difficult. You’ll hear them as soon as they start off, they’ll come with a lot of noise. Do you remember the pensioners on the bench?”
Raf’s head just fell forward. Four pensioners, four senile old men, who had spent their whole life stretching on the bench, moaning about their various ailments, will be the rescue party.
“Young people, young people, always judging by appearances. Don’t worry, I’ve been expecting tonight’s events for a long time, so we have worked hard to acquire weapons.”
He became serious and got up.
“Let’s go, it’s time to attack.”
“What about Max?”
“We’ll leave him here.”
“Alone? Tied up?”
“Yes, we won’t carry him with us because we haven’t got the time. We can’t untie him because he’s dangerous. There’s two of us and we can protect ourselves from him. What if he finds somebody who’s alone and weaker than him and he suffocates them with his outpourings of love? He stays here.”
Raf looked towards his tied up friend who called him father and he nodded.
“Questions kill actions,” said Aco. “If we die, he’ll probably die too. But then there will be so many others dead too Let’s leave that now and go.”
* * *
Ana turned round. The shining roofs seemed so beautiful and above all inhabited, as opposed to the pine-trees around her. Only five lights were on and she remembered that when she had left Aco’s house she had not even looked at the light switch. Maybe so that she would see her way back. Didn’t they use to leave a lit candle in the window for travellers and sailors returning home? She trembled and looked around. Crickets were singing and every now and again she could hear a strange noise which she ascribed to birds. Was it much further and above all: was it going to get even more isolated?
Looking at the village, she thought about going back. Luka was probably still pottering around and she could go back and wait under the light. Nobody would even notice her escape and humiliating return.
They would send her to bed because she was a woman.
She knew that was her last chance to go back but she chose to go on.
* * *
His father had deserted him. No, not for ever, fathers always came back.
Max remembered previous occasions on which his father had left him, particularly one of them, when he had tied his hands behind his back – just like now! – and shut him in a wardrobe. Max did not dare even sob, let alone try to loosen the belt around his wrists. When his father finally returned, he pulled Max out and when he saw the belt, he kicked him and gave him a few blows on the head and then threw him back into the wardrobe. He told him never ever to forget the following lesson: he had to learn to save himself and not wait for anyone else’s help!
Aha, his father was testing him again! This time he’d be ready for him! His father would be pleased with him! He would wait for his almighty father to come surrounded by light whilst his nameless son sits in the darkness. Father, big and mighty like a mountain, so that the ground rumbled under his feet!
Max would be ready for him. He would not disappoint him again.
He started jerking wildly to release his bonds as quickly as possible.
* * *
They did not talk on their way through the woods. They walked very fast, from time to time almost running. Raf started off at full speed, then stopped himself, thinking that the old man would not be able to keep up with him. But after a while, it was Raf who was out of breath and looking at the old man’s back. Aco kept up the same rhythm and proved to be very fit.
Finally, they stopped at the top of a hill, out of breath. Below them shone the lights of the campsite.
“Everything is quiet,” said Raf.
“Yes, we got here in time!”
They saw the receptionist dozing at his desk, scratching his ear from time to time.
“We may have another five, ten minutes. Listen! Can you see that cliff? On the right, a short distance from the campsite?”
Raf nodded. The cliff looked like a slide pointing the wrong way. It slowly ascended from the flat part of the island towards the sea and then stopped suddenly.
“He can’t go past there along the sea. It’s all sharp rocks sticking out of the sea around there. He’ll have to turn towards the island and cross the cliff on its middle part. That’s where we’ll wait for him.”
“The plan” said Raf.
“Don’t expect too much. I’ll go and stand at the top of the cliff and I’ll whistle old tunes quietly. When the thing crosses the cliff it’ll see me and come to me to ask my name. I’ll try to distract him while you run from behind that last tree there before the clearing and stick this in his back.”
He pulled out the knife and let the blade catch the moonlight.
Raf swallowed thickly. The plan! The plan! How proud and redeeming that word sounded! As if to save them it would be enough just having a plan, without actually carrying it out.
” shall do that, is what you say to yourself. Repeat that while you’re waiting, repeat and repeat! And then do it!"
“DO IT! If you don’t, I’ll die first, then you, then the whole of the campsite, the village in the morning, everybody on the ferry at midday, the mainland in the afternoon and in the end, the whole world. Who the hell would shoot at a polite child, who walks the streets asking people their names and then thanks them. And leaves death behind. It isn’t a child, it isn’t alive, it is a walking virus! Just think that and you’ll do it!”
Raf pictured the girl from the ferry instead of a crowd of people. He was talking to her uncle while she was waiting in the village. Maybe she was even asleep? He imagined her in bed, a sheet pulled up to her neck, her right hand lying on top of it. Next to her stood the child looking at her. She opened her eyes and he asked her her name.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
“Good. My only worry is this. The thing has special abilities for sensing things. And when you come near him he may catch your thoughts. Look at his back, concentrate on something banal, run towards him and stab him with all your strength. Wait, I’ve got an even better idea!”
He got up and started looking at the trees. He cut off the longest and straightest branch he could find, hewed it roughly, cut off most of the top and made a five inch incision in the middle. He pushed the knife handle into the gap, took off his shoes, pulled out the shoe laces and wrapped them around the wood above the knife handle.
“Here, a spear. It’ll give you a distance of two metres between you and it. Maybe those two metres mean nothing, maybe everything!”
He gave Raf the spear and Raf grasped it with both hands. The bark scratched his palms and the sap on the cuts to the wood felt cold.
He looked at Aco’s bare feet. Aco smiled:
“Don’t worry. If you do your job properly I’ll gladly walk to the village barefoot. If not, I won’t need them anymore. I may be running around with an axe in my hands or I’ll go and kiss the one in the woods. Or whatever else the loss of my name would make me do. I certainly won’t be worrying about my shoes.”
He looked at Raf and put his hand out:
“It was a pleasure,” he said, “whatever the outcome.”
Raf felt a big lump in his throat.
They shook hands.
Aco looked up. The child couldn’t be seen anywhere.
“If I go and stand on the cliff? You’ve got more experience, more training, you”
“Yes, I’ve killed more people then you can imagine. But it’s more dangerous up there. Just look at the distance you’d have to run and judging by your figure you’re no sprinter. I may have to tell him my name. Whereas you just run and run. When the spear stops, you’re done.”
“What if he really does ask your name?”
“Are you worried you’ll have another madman to cope with?” He looked towards the sea, “don’t worry. Have you ever seen a cook around here prepare a fish before cooking it? She cuts it open and puts it on a rock for the waves to rinse out all the entrails and blood. If needs be, the sea down there can wash my sins away.”
“No buts. This is a private thing I’ve been putting off for fifty years. I’m going up there and that’s it. In addition”
He smiled cheekily. How inappropriate such a smile seemed to Raf on the wrinkled face, at least forty years too late. Is it possible that the brain sometimes forgets what sort of body it’s in?
” if we swapped roles and we failed and I was on my own, I’d die of fear.”
“And you’ll do everything to the best of your abilities and how it should be done!”
“You think so?”
“Yes, I believe in you.”
Aco turned and stepped out of the trees. He would go and leave Raf on his own. On his own, with Aco’s trust.
“You’re lying,” Raf half shouted after Aco, who looked back and smiled.
“Even if that was true I wouldn’t say so now.”
He nodded and walked in the direction of the cliff. Raf looked after him, knowing that the talking was over. It was time for action now.
The pensioners lined up in front of the monument. Luka examined the squad: Adriano had put weight on and could no longer do up his jacket (he had tried to stitch it together but a centimetre-wide strip of his white T-shirt could be seen between the stitches) and to top it all he had hung ammunition belts around his neck like those guys shown on the telly, for which he received a severe reprimand. Miro did not hold himself straight enough and Bruno was perfect as usual, apart from still being out of breath after having gone to Luka’s house to look for the girl. He could not find her and Luka got worried. Could she have done something as stupid as going ahead towards the villa on her own instead of waiting for them? Luka and Aco had been through a lot together and the last thing Luka wanted was to be accused of not having looked after Aco’s niece properly. He felt guilty about having left her waiting in front of his door for so long whilst he was gathering his clothing and weapons. When he had finally got ready and stepped out of the house she was nowhere to be seen. He had sent Bruno to look for her and they had lost another ten minutes. Now it really was time to go.
He stood in the middle of the squad, turned towards the men and shouted:
“Ready!” shouted Bruno.
“Ready!” said Miro.
Luka nodded. Good.
Silence. He looked towards Adriano, who stared ahead with his lips tightly shut. Miro leant towards him and whispered: “M 1919A4?”
Miro had to repeat it in a much louder voice before Adriano replied with a shout:
Good, Luka was pleased. Maybe he should make an up-beat speech before they started their rescue mission?
* * *
Alfonz was becoming sadder and sadder.
* * *
Raf stood under a thick branch, keeping the spear close to him and watched Aco at the top of the cliff. Aco had his right side turned towards him and did not throw even one glance at Raf’s hiding place, his attention being constantly divided between two points: the part of the beach where the thing should first appear and the distant light of a fishing boat on the horizon.
To be there! thought Raf. Somewhere else, in the middle of the sea, in the middle of a job, in the middle of everyday life.
The child would come and he would kill it. And then it would all be over. They would have survived and could go home.
That was how it was going to be.
The man at the top of the cliff was not whistling, he had probably just joked about that.
* * *
Aco looked at the point of light in the distance. It seemed to him as if their positions were reversed and that he was approaching the town, but this time the lights were not scattered like stars, but concentrated in one single burning point, on a spot big enough for just one person. He remembered his woman, but not just her photograph in the kitchen, as he usually did. Pre-battle nerves? Saying goodbye to his dearest? No, he felt more like he was just about to do something he had been delaying for such a long time that it had turned into a moral obligation. He tried to stop remembering her but without success. Memories of women are like mice, they can squeeze in anywhere. Even when they are women from other countries, other times and – this was how it felt at that moment – from other lives. Even when they were dead.
There, beyond that light, was Africa with its desert sands and unpronounceable place names. He had lived through all those events, met all those people and now he was where he had first started.
He looked down, towards the sea. It was a long fall. After that first experience which had got him into all this, he was no longer afraid of heights. The dark rocks below him surrounded by the golden sand looked like flowers. Where the sand ended, a path went up some terraced stairs to the grass. There was no way he could miss that thing in its dark clothes on the light background. He expected it to enter his visual field in a narrow passage between two rocks, which looked somehow lonely because of the distance between them and the other rocks lying in the sea, the surface of which was periodically raised by the waves.
He wished that moment could become eternity. The night, the silence, the sounds of the trees in the distance, the light on the ship, the splashing of the waves. Nothing out of the ordinary and nothing superfluous.
He took off his beret and rolled it between his fingers. Its material full of memories. No wonder it made his head feel so heavy. He threw it towards the sea and it flew off in a wide arch. He did not have enough strength to stop his eyes following it, but luckily the darkness soon swallowed it.
He listened. There were no sounds coming from the village. Even if the rescuers took off at that very moment they would be too late. He felt guilty and could not find anything that would absolve him of that guilt. Really, he had asked for help before he had known what the enemy would look like and if the ambush failed, they would come, find a helpless child and tell him their names. After all the battles they had fought together they would just utter their names and die. Adriano had once been captured and tortured, they had even burst his eardrum with a handle of a gun, but he had not told them a thing. This time he would be asked a polite question and he would not be able to resist answering.
He secretly hoped that Ana was not as obedient as she seemed and that she would disobey his instructions. But of course, she would not, his first impression was correct: she would have a hard life ahead because of the way she was. If that boy in the bushes gave her a life, that was. For the first time, he thought about the young man behind him and his heart did not exactly sing out. Raf seemed clumsy and confused. The latter was hardly surprising after the events of that evening but the former lay like a heavy weight on his chest. Maybe Raf would not even jump up, let alone attack? He would have to give his name to the dark forces and the tree branches would remain undisturbed.
However, it was too late to choose his companion. You take what you are given and you try and make the best of it, that is what he had learnt as an army instructor. You just have to rely on them in battle.
A dark shadow covered the sand between the two rocks.
“There you are!” said Aco and looked at the light on the horizon for the last time.
* * *
Ana was getting more and more frightened and she had to stop. I mustn’t look at the trees any more, I see too many monsters in them, I must look at my feet, she said to herself. I’ll count my steps.
One two three four five.
I won’t think of monsters hiding in the woods because they don’t exist. Fear is a hollow surrounded by nothing — as my mother, who’s always watching over me, would say.
I won’t count, I’ll pray:
Saint Stanislas, my guardian, protect me from the woods and the monsters which don’t exist, which I know very well don’t exist and that’s why I’m begging you
* * *
Max could feel that his bonds would soon be loose enough and he gurgled with pleasure. What sort of a kiss would he get from his father for a job well done?
* * *
Raf waited and his determination was unshaken. The monster would come and he would stab it. He remembered a picture depicting George’s fight with the dragon on a wayside altar he had seen by a path one day.
And then he noticed that the man on the cliff had stopped turning towards the sea and was now looking only towards the beach. Raf had to move a bit to his left to be able to see past the tree trunk and it was a minute before he spotted the child on the sand, still clutching the toy. It took an unbearably long time before the child finally came to the rocky bit where he had to turn towards the meadow. He stopped on the last stony terrace and Raf could only see the top part of his body. He put the toy down, lay on his tummy and kicked his legs up onto the ledge. He then got up, brushed the soil off his knees, picked up the toy elephant and slowly went on.
Raf suddenly saw the truth: all that talking earlier about destroying monsters and dragons was just theory, and that there, that child brushing dirt off his knees, was reality.
He did believe that the being on the meadow brought madness and death but he could not really comprehend it. The child looked so vulnerable, so lost. Raf was an only child and he had never had much experience in dealing with small children. He had never had to babysit and nobody expected him to mess around with the neighbours’ little brats.
A possibility occurred to him about which he desperately wanted to talk to Aco. What if they had left the child there because he was unfinished? Had Aco’s scream disturbed their ritual that night, driving away the demons and interrupting the procedure? What would the boy have been like if he had been more successfully transformed? A machine, which would walk from person to person, without stopping, without calling for his mother and without moments of being lost. How easy it would be to destroy such a robot in human form! But as it was, the child’s best weapon was his vulnerability, his humanity. The machine inside him awakening just for a moment, carrying out its murderous task and then retreating and leaving the body to the child.
He looked at the small figure slowly approaching the middle of the cliff and he groaned to himself, feeling with every step the child made that he probably would not be able to do what he had promised to do.
Even worse: what he had to do.
* * *
“Alright?” said Luka, “are we ready? As you are aware, I’m the leader in Aco’s absence and although I may not be as clever as he, you have to obey my orders. Shall we go?”
Soon the moment Luka liked most would come.
* * *
The receptionist opened his right eye and listened. Complete silence and undisturbed peace. He asked himself how much longer it would be before the mayhem started. He looked at his watch and could not believe just how late it was. He looked at the glass wall but could see nothing but the lit up semi-circle in front of the reception.
Why hasn’t he come yet, the receptionist asked himself. What is stopping him causing havoc around the campsite?
Whenever it happened, the receptionist would be ready.
But until then he could have another sleep.
* * *
He’ll just go past me, thought Aco as the thing crossed the cliff lower down without looking towards the top. The final reckoning would have to be postponed for another time.
“Hey, boy!” he shouted, “where are you going?”
The child stopped and looked at him. Aco felt a weak pressure on his temples and thought: so that’s what it’s like. He became aware of an image of Raf sitting behind a pine-tree and Aco wanted to shout to him to wait a bit longer until the monster bit into its bait fully. But he managed to control himself and suppressed any thought that could jeopardise the ambush.
The thing walked towards him and it looked so gentle and vulnerable, whilst its eyes got bigger and bigger, completely out of proportion with the rest of its body.
“Come, come!” repeated Aco.
The name collector obeyed.
* * *
Now he had to get up and run. He could not delay any longer. He could not.
First the muscles on his hands and arms which were clutching the spear started shaking, then it spread to the whole of the top part of his body. Aco stood right at the edge of the cliff and the child was half way there.
I HAVE TO!
I HAVE TO!
He bit his lip and could feel blood on his tongue. The most earthy flavour possible.
Think of something banal and do what you have to do!
He could not think of anything. He was looking at that tiny back which looked so helpless in front of the figure from which it was now only ten steps away. It was repeating something but Raf could not quite make out what. He aimed the spear at the middle of the dark jacket.
If he had a gun he would only have to press the trigger and that would be it.
A jacket, it was just a jacket; without a head, without a body, without anything.
He leapt forward, a branch hit him in the face, he ran, looking past the tip of the spear at the garment coming nearer and nearer. A wild piece of material, impersonal and belonging to nobody, jumping up and down because of stones, small ridges and thick bunches of grass.
* * *
Now he’ll ask me, realised Aco. The pressure at the side of his head did not get stronger, it just spread towards the back of his head. So that was how it felt. He tried to tear his look away from the all embracing eyes, black, nicely shaped and with a small V in the middle.
He’s not as strong as I thought, he’s not!
Somewhere behind, as if behind a thick curtain, Aco sensed a shadow approaching rapidly.
“Dear God, dear God! Thank you. He has found the strength!” Aco thought and suddenly the pressure in his head vanished.
* * *
Raf’s nose dug into the grass and because of his eagerness and speed he did an elegant somersault before landing with a dull thud.
He had fallen.
He felt a pressure in his head and the black eyes above him sucked him in. The boy stood above him, looking at him.
I tripped! groaned Raf aloud. It was all over. He lay on his back like a turtle with his arms spread wide, the spear had flown to god-knew-where and there he was – a helpless victim.
He waited for the question and he could not tear his eyes away.
This was the end, everything was finished.
* * *
Ana stood at the junction looking down towards the camp. How peacefully the receptionist dozed at his desk! She wished she was there, in the light and the safety.
No, I have to continue with what I have started, I cannot give up halfway!
With envy she looked at the picture of calm in the valley and set off along the overgrown path with the electric wire running alongside.
* * *
Aco nearly collapsed. With a single glance he understood what had happened. The thing took no notice of him anymore as it stood over Raf and Aco could see Raf starting to open his mouth to tell it his name.
The spear stuck into the grass far away and the handle was still swaying to and fro.
Aco would have to carry out his task with his bare hands. He jumped forward, two long jumps and felt that the thing sensed him and turned towards him – he’s slow, thought Aco, it had been a good plan and could have succeeded. The thing would not have had time to turn around. A terrible feeling of pressure hit his head and with fingers like talons Aco grabbed at something and pulled.
The foreign body in his head did not go away, but he could sense a great surprise emanating from the monster in front of him.
Aco took two steps back and looked at the thing in his hand. The toy elephant looked back at him with its sad, dark, glass eyes, which looked like a promise of things to come.
“HA!” shouted Aco. “HA! Come, come and get it!”
The pain in the middle of his brain was unbearably sharp. As if the monster had sucked out every bit of fluid from his head with its eyes and now his nerve endings banged against his skull with an incredible force every time he moved.
I can’t stand this, I can’t!
My God, where is the end, how much further is it to the edge, how many steps, how many more blows to the inside of my head?
* * *
Raf looked up and the child was not there anymore, he was not inside his head either. He saw his back a few metres away and in front of the child Raf saw Aco with a terribly contorted face, offering something to the child just out of the reach of his hands.
“The elephant!” breathed Raf seeing immediately what Aco intended to do. He would lead the child to the edge, grab him and take him down with him.
“NO! NO!” he shouted and jumped up. Neither of the two figures at the edge heard him. He looked around to see where the spear was and saw it very far away. He panicked and he turned around three times. What should he do?
Pull yourself together, pull yourself together!
Aco would know what to do!
A cold voice said to him: this is one more chance to retake the test. Run and push the child over the edge! But Aco was standing in front of the child and he would get pushed too. Aco would certainly do it if the roles were reversed.
No, Raf shook his head, what if. And then realised that it was too late for anything. Aco’s leg waved in the air and his eyes widened. He looked relieved which seemed inconceivable to Raf. Aco lifted his right hand high in the air and invited the child another half a step closer.
Aco opened his mouth and uttered his name, which was followed by a short moment of stillness and after that everything happened quickly and irrevocably.
Aco lost his balance and leant far back, tried to stop himself falling without letting go of the elephant in his right hand, realised that it was too late and then, in the last sway before falling, tried to reach for the creature in front of him with his left hand. The hand moved through the air as if it was moving through honey, lowered itself past the child’s head and moved ten centimetres in front of his face, without achieving anything but a slight breeze which disturbed a small strand of hair in the boy’s perfect parting.
Aco disappeared over the edge and the elephant was the last thing Raf saw. He ran to the edge of the cliff and looked down. Aco’s body hit the rocks and broke apart. The waves immediately washed over him and the merciful night hid the rest in spite of the moonlight.
Raf thought: there’s a murderer standing next to me, looking down there too. Maybe he is mourning for the toy. What if I grab him and push
Raf turned quickly and decisively and started to lift his arms.
He sank into the boy’s eyes, heard the question through the unmoving lips and whined:
“Too late, too late, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”
The name collector thanked him and left.
* * *
The receptionist opened his right eye again. Still nothing? Good.
* * *
Raf was crying at the edge of the cliff. The waves carried the two halves of the body in different directions and he did not want to look at it anymore. He should move his head, look in a different direction, think of something else but of his guilt, his powerful and infinite guilt. With his own clumsiness, panicking, hesitating, thinking and fear he had killed a man, who was now dissolving down below. He had killed everybody in the campsite, on the island and in the whole world.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!” he sobbed, during a breath in.
He had killed himself.
He tried to remember, even though his contact with the child seemed like the memory of a dream.
Did he ask me? Did I tell him?
He just could not remember whether he had answered. But the question was quite clear in his mind, just like the boy’s thank you. Oh, no, no, I’ve been condemned. Another few minutes and then How long did it take with Alfonz and Max? Half an hour, no longer. Another thirty minutes before I sink into madness and then into death.
He jumped up. Ran across the meadow, kept tripping, falling and rolling in the grass. Grabbing at the grass and pulling it towards him.
I’M GOING TO DIE I’M GOING TO DIE!!!
I’M GOING TO DIE I’M GOING TO DIE!!!
He bit into the soil and clenched his teeth with all his strength. He felt very clearly that the grass was something different, something outside him, just like the sky, the stars, the night, the rest of the world. It would all still be there when he was gone. He remembered that time at school when Max said he was not afraid of death, just the end of the world, and Raf said to him it was the same thing. How easy it had been to say that then! To use names without really understanding the things they referred to.
He knelt in the grass and something slimy poured out of his nose and mouth.
I’m not a part of all this around me, I’m separate. I’m not immortal. I’ll die, I’ll die.
I’ll be nothing. In half an hour or less. With every second, that moment is getting nearer and nearer.
He moaned and tears ran down his cheeks, mixing with snot and saliva. With a corner of his eye he noticed a figure of a child entering the campsite and he did not care anymore. That was not his world anymore, let those who belong in it take care of it.
It was the end. How was it that he had never before understood death and mortality? He did know, of course, nobody had hidden it from him, everybody talked about it, keeping it away only from very small children. He had listened and never imagined it. He had just accepted the name as if that was all and he had never thought of the meaning of the word. Did all names have a meaning or only some and were all of those with a meaning like land-mines in the middle of a field, which explode and destroy our lives when we step on them?
How much more time did he have? How much?
* * *
This time the receptionist opened both eyes. He had a feeling that a small figure, resembling a shadow, had crossed the edge of the lit-up concrete platform in front of him. He walked over to the door, opened it and looked out. He could not see anybody.
He went back to his chair and dozed off again.
* * *
The motorcyclist was dreaming a funny dream: he was sleeping and even though his eyes were closed, he saw a boy, standing over him and waiting patiently. He opened his eyes to see the boy better and the child asked him his name, without opening his mouth. Funny! He told him his name and went back to sleep.
* * *
“I’m testing,” said Luka, “can you hear me?”
One, two affirmative answers. Adriano was nearly deaf anyway, since his good ear had started deteriorating and there was no point in asking him. Luka looked down towards his legs and kicked Adriano gently. Adriano turned around and gave Luka such a big smile that his false teeth moved in his mouth and after that he did not take his eyes away from his leader.
“Miro, did you pump the oil in?”
He even sounded a bit out of breath.
“Bruno, did you remove the plug from the barrel?”
“Now we’ll wake the dead!”
He looked down to the left and all he could see were Bruno’s thighs and hips.
“Bruno, start it up! That’s it that’s it LET’S GO!”
The rumble suddenly turned into an explosion resounding around the bay, spilling over to the other side of the island. The crickets became silent, the birds stayed still. Thirty two tons of steel jerked forward with a groan and a rumble. A flame hissed out of the exhaust pipes, the caterpillar track rattled and the tank started moving off its base.
The memorial plaque was smashed to pieces.
“Shit,” swore Luka to himself, “I forgot to remove it.”
He looked at the sheet of paper in his hand. No, he had not forgotten, he had just overlooked point three. OK, they would make another one, but he was still angry.
“How it started, just like new,” Luka heard Bruno’s voice through the earphones.
“Yes, short, sweet and noisy!”
He looked out of the turret and leaned back. He could not see Bruno’s head in the bottom part of the tank but he could admire his skills. After all those years, Bruno had not lost any of his driving abilities. Well, just a few maybe – one of the mooring stones had just been smashed to smithereens by the tracks.
Not one light in the village came on and no window opened. That was precisely why Luka loved that village and that island, there were just enough people to stop life being too boring and not too many to make it impossible to agree on things and keep them to themselves. He took a deep breath. There was nothing he enjoyed more than leaning out of the top of the tank and riding through a warm summer night. They did start the tank occasionally, but always in the winter, when it rained and there were low clouds, when the ferry only came in once a week, when there was nobody but the natives on the island and the possibility of anybody seeing them was minimal. The thunder of the tank in that kind of weather could never compare to the sound echoing through a warm, early summer night. The only time it was even better was in the desert in the middle of nowhere when the battalion and the tank.
He ran his eyes over the steel around him and quietly repeated the names of all the parts around him. He knew them all, as always. Everybody laughed when he stuck a label in the middle of the turret, saying:
How could anybody forget anything like that, they said. You could, said Luka to himself, remembering his parents. They were both still alive, the oldest on the island. But their minds were like those of the youngest inhabitants: they could not remember anything, they did not recognize anybody or anything and it seemed they had even forgotten how to speak. I’ll never be like that, Luka had promised to himself. Every morning, he would list the names of everything in his room, making sure that the process of forgetting had not started that night. Because he was the oldest child there was no way of telling whether his parent’s extreme senility was hereditary. His middle sister, who had married on the mainland had died in a car accident. His other sister was ten years younger than him and was not a really suitable guinea pig, but in spite of that he still observed her carefully. She looked after her parents and her older brother, just like the youngest female child was supposed to do and that was another reason why Luka liked that place so much.
He remembered it well: his parents’ senility did not start with forgetting small, unimportant objects, just the opposite, it started with things nobody could believe could be forgotten. They did not really forget objects as such, they remembered how they looked, they just could not think of their names — often they would wave their arms around, trying to catch the lost word:
“Well, that thing, what do you call it, that, you know, that thingumajig!”
And that was only the start of a long process of forgetting.
They turned out of the village and started climbing up the hill. Luka turned on the floodlight on the turret and lit up the road way up the hill. The pine trees at the side stopped the light getting even further. In his earphones he could hear Bruno and Adriano talking and it struck him how funny, how everyday their conversation was, as if they were still sitting on the bench.
“I CAN TELL YOU THIS! YOU CAN DRIVE! NOT LIKE THAT SON OF MINE, WHEN I VISITED HIM ON THE MAINLAND AND HE LET ME DRIVE HIS CAR. NEVER AGAIN! HE SAID, I’D RUIN THE ENGINE! ME, RUIN THE ENGINE! I ONLY PRESSED MY FOOT DOWN ENOUGH TO HEAR THE ENGINE PURR QUIETLY! WHAT WOULD I RUIN! RUIN, HA! WHEN I’VE DRIVEN MORE KILOMETRES IN MY LIFE THAN HE EVER WILL!”
Bruno did not interrupt Adriano’s monologue, knowing that there was no point. Luka looked at the road in front and thought about what was ahead of them. Had Aco planned it all back then? Was it possible? He had talked them into stealing one of the tanks which were on the island waiting to be transported back to the mainland once the war was finished. They hid it in the woods in one of the gullies. Aco did not have to persuade them for long, it sounded like a wild adventure. They had all been among the soldiers who had disembarked in Naples two years earlier, at the time of a theft of a destroyer, an enormous ship. The crew had left it there in the evening and when they returned in the morning they found the tied up guards and no ship. The case remained unsolved. Just like the case of the tank. The American officer shouted at the villagers who did not understand him anyway and just stood there stoically in the warm spring air. They knew it would not last long. The soldiers were eager to get home after four years of absence. The tank was left in the gully until it was flooded during a big storm when they had to take the engine completely apart, clean each bit and put it all together again. Luka himself then asked where they were putting it and they talked about various hiding places, caves and hollows which were all rejected by Aco because they were too far. They may need it urgently, he had said. Miro said how great it would be to be able to keep their eye on it all the time and Aco jumped up with excitement. So, they put it up as a monument and whenever any politicians came from the mainland, they always praised the islanders for their model patriotism and continuous loving care in keeping that monument to the glorious past. Luka could not stand those visitors — they behaved as if the islanders were all savages or at least idiots. And that campsite, it was created by those from the mainland, without asking the islanders. And to top it all, all the young people went to work there instead of rejecting the intruders. Shame on them!
Luka always had a feeling that the tank was somehow connected to that night at the villa. Aco would sometimes become very restless, constantly looking towards the other side of the island as if he was expecting something terrible to come from there. He only calmed down when he looked at the tank nearby. Luka suddenly realised that the barrel was always pointing towards the villa. How could he not have noticed that before! Maybe he should make a note of it to stop himself forgetting, just like he always did.
Whatever, he was sure that only a tank could destroy something which could turn an eight-year old boy’s hair white in half an hour. I hope so, anyway, he said, trying not to show his despondency, standing in for their commander and thus having to set an example to the common soldiers, who were down in the belly of the tank still hearing about Adriano’s son’s driving abilities.
He corrected himself: not the pensioner Adriano, not the old Adriano, but machine-gunner Adriano, just like in times past. A smile floated above the floodlights.
* * *
Max managed to free himself at just the right moment before he heard his father’s arrival. He could not be mistaken: the noise was very fatherly, a remote thunder without a body.
He jumped up, held the material with which he had been tied and ran towards his father as fast as he could.
* * *
“A storm!” thought Ana, “that’s all we need.”
* * *
The receptionist opened both eyes and swore. The pensioners were getting more and more daring, now they were riding around in the middle of the tourist season! The first, decisive tourist season! He sighed over the selfishness of the old people: they could not sleep and they thought that everybody was like them. He really hated people who judged others by themselves. And anyway, he was really fed up of these particular senile old buggers. So what if they had been heroes in the war. The war meant nothing to him. They sat on that bench boring everybody with their stories, and even though nobody wanted to listen to them they had to because the island was so small that there was nowhere to escape to. There they were, rabbiting on while he had to work!
* * *
It had started!
Raf stopped whimpering. The madness was starting. He could hear thunder, the clanking of the iron, soon the ground would start shaking and then… He did not know when it would come and what shape his madness would take, but it had undoubtedly started. He ran to the edge of the cliff and looked down. He could only see one half of the body, the rest had been dragged into the darkness by the waves. A look at the unnaturally bent arm stopped him.
Everything could end down there. He would not go crazy and start killing or slowly cutting bits off himself!
Jump! said the voice inside him! Finish it all!
Maybe he would have done it if he had just run up to the edge without stopping. But as it was, with that body on the rocks, it was like seeing his own remains, and he could not do it. He knelt on the edge and looked at the waves. The white foam seemed to be winking at him, not invitingly, more like not caring one way or the other. He cried.
How can I live when I can’t kill myself? A weakling, without courage or willpower. I’ll just kneel here, waiting to become a lunatic and a killer, without trying to prevent it, even though all it would take is a movement, all I would have to do would be to lean forward, forward, the air would embrace me and take me. He imagined falling into the darkness — a sweet feeling — and then a quick smash against the rocks and that would be the end. I’ll do it! Another promise, just like the one he gave Aco, who had relied on him and who was now down in the darkness, or rather his remains were there, or to be even more precise the remains of his remains.
He heard the noise coming nearer. He did not have much more time, he had to decide.
* * *
The child stepped out of one tent and was going to go on to visit the three family tents which stood together in the corner. But then he stopped by the motorbike and had a good look at it and then turned towards the noise coming from the hill and saw a tiny ray of light flashing from time to time. The light was becoming brighter and the noise noisier. He made a decision, stroked the motorbike, left the campsite and started walking up the hill.
* * *
The receptionist tried to sleep in spite of the noise. He closed his eyes tightly, cursed the pensioners and tried to come up with a plausible excuse to tell the tourists in the morning.
The biker appeared in the doorway, with his eyes bulging, the right corner of his mouth quivering, copious saliva running down his chin. He looked at the sleeping man and started grinding his teeth, as if their every move was tearing a piece of meat from a large joint.
“FATHER! FATHER! I’M COMING! FATHER!”
Ana froze. The screams, together with the sound of running feet were coming from the darkness in front of her, and the strangest thing about them was their joyfulness, euphoria. She quickly jumped behind a tree, tripped and rolled into a hollow. A wonderful hiding place, she thought, leant on the soil, pushed herself up and peeped over the edge.
A figure dressed in a short T-shirt and y-fronts ran along the path, waving something in its hands and calling for its father. The apparition had gone past her before she could make out anything else about it. She looked after it in amazement. For the first time, she got a very serious and unpleasant feeling that something was happening which was not a game and which was completely out of her control.
Should she go on? The rumbling from the direction of the village was increasing and for some time now she had known it was from some kind of an engine, probably a tractor or something similar even though she could not think of anything suitable. She let the soil take her down to the bottom of the hollow. She would wait another few minutes and then pluck up the courage to go on.
Moonlight shone on the branches but it was nearly completely dark down there, apart from the very middle of the hollow, about a metre in front of her, which was lit up by a vertical ray of light from the moon.
She became aware of the quiet in the woods, probably because of the shouting earlier.
The first day of her holidays and there she was already alone in the middle of the night (or was it early morning?) among the pine-trees. She remembered her schoolfriend’s advice that she had rejected. No, she would not want to stay up that late every night. The thought reminded her of bed and sleep, which she had not really missed until then, but now she started to. It would be nice to go to sleep in her own bed. But she would make do with the bed at her uncle’s, even though it looked very old, with a mattress stuffed with straw, and was probably pretty uncomfortable. Only somebody rested finds it hard to decide between an adventure and rest.
She smiled at the darkness.
A skull nodded in the ray of light, or so it seemed at first glance. Large shining eyes, teeth exposed in a big grin, whilst the rest of the face was covered with something dark, sticky and hard, studded with pine-tree needles.
Ana felt like screaming. Her mouth opened, the air travelled into her lungs, her vocal cords flexed, but her brain read the look on the monster in front of her and told her: if you scream, you are dead.
The being made no threatening moves, it just stared at her. Ana did not scream, she believed her inner voice.
“Why are you trembling so much? Are you cold?” asked Alfonz.
* * *
Raf saw the light in the woods and in between sobs, little seeds of doubt started emerging: were those really signs of madness? They looked so realistic. But then, that is the definition of madness.
He felt his forehead, took a quick breath in and got up. No, his hope was false: his neck was completely stiff, his body was drenched in sweat and he could feel his stomach somewhere deep in his groin. All the signs of an imminent catastrophe.
He looked towards the campsite. The child came out of the smallest tent and started paying attention to the motorbike. The slaughter had started. Raf surprised himself with his cold indifference and a feeling of superiority — all that had nothing to do with him anymore. He was already dead and buried. The only thing that bothered him at all was the slight envy he felt when he thought about the destiny of the tourists within those tents. He felt ashamed and he turned away from the boy who was now looking towards the light above the woods.
Raf put his hand on his heart and it gave him a fright. The madness was growing. His organs were working more and more irregularly, the visions and noises were becoming clearer and clearer.
He wrinkled his forehead. Was that possible? The creature was looking at the light above the trees and it seemed to Raf that it was standing there, listening. If it was seeing and hearing the same things as him, than it could not all be just his imagination.
He looked towards the camp again eagerly but the boy was not there anymore. Raf turned his head around in panic, his eyes cutting the air. Finally, he noticed the boy near the campsite entrance, walking up the hill slowly. There was somebody at the reception door with his back towards him, but the completely confused Raf was not interested in him. Pull yourself together, he told himself, what did actually happen earlier?
Aco fell and Raf looked on. In the meantime the boy turned towards Raf and asked for his name, he remembered that very clearly, but everything after that became blurred. He must have answered, because the boy went off and left him as if he had finished his assignment.
"Too late, too late, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!"
That was all he had said, nothing else. He had repeated the name of the Saviour and NO!
it had saved him. He had directed all his attention to Aco’s fall and that had helped him to lie. Not deliberately, that was not possible. He told the name collector a name he surely had already? So what happened with other people’s names and duplicates? Was Jesus a self-sufficient name, which did not need a person behind it? Was that why many doubted it ever did have a person behind it?
He’s saved me, thought Raf. Saved me! Jesus has saved me.
Suddenly, he found himself in the middle of the world again. He was not an inseparable part of it — that was impossible after his close experience of death — it was more a case of a temporary coexistence and responsibility.
I have fucked everything up, well and truly. God saved me that time I didn’t go to play on the trains and God lent me his name tonight and saved me again. There is a task I have to carry out. If there is a goal, than God does exist. This time I won’t fuck up. I’ll be cool and collected, just like Aco. I’ll do everything right and try to atone for my sins.
You’ll hear them as soon as they start off and they’ll come with a noise.
That was what Aco had said. Raf repeated the sentence a few more times and suddenly he recognised the sound coming through the darkness.
The tank. They were coming in the tank!
The child was at the bottom of the hill.
He had promised Aco to warn them and explain to them who their enemy was and what he looked like. He ran over to the spear and pulled it out of the ground. He wanted to run after the boy and attack him again. He changed his mind, remembering the boy’s powers and his own clumsiness. There was one move which would do both at once: he must run along the slope across the wood and not on the windy road so that he overtook the boy, which should not be difficult as the boy seemed to be moon-walking. The rescuers on the tank were sure to have weapons with them and when the creature appeared in front of them, they could shoot him without coming within the reach of his powers. The solution had never seemed so simple and so near. A ripe promise of the end of the nightmare. He looked towards the campsite where there was nothing to do anymore. The boy had already completed his task there and the mad slaughter would begin any moment.
Over the hill, then. Clutching the spear he ran like never before.
* * *
The reception door opened noisily and the biker jumped into the room, transformed into a wild and merciless monster. The receptionist jumped up, picked up the tourist by his collar, gave his head two good blows, one from the left and one from the right, kicked him over to the built-in cupboard, opened it and hurled his attacker in and then closed and locked the door.
He brushed his hand on his trousers and sat back on his chair, which had not even begun to cool down. Good job he had been expecting an attack ever since he had started his shift that evening, when he had looked through the personal details of all the guests and seen that one of them was a writer. He had never met one in his life, but knew very well what sort of people they were. They came to the seaside, got pissed out of their heads and then caused havoc, having fights all night. His assumptions proved correct and the receptionist smiled smugly and shouted towards the cupboard, without feeling any need to open his eyes:
“You just keep growling and scratching at the door (spitting on the floor) — fucking writer! We know your sort very well here!”
* * *
“We’re half way there now, boys, so let’s be a bit more careful from now on!” Luka said into the microphone. He was still half way out of the turret, leaning on the heavy Browning machine-gun on his left.
Bruno asked: “Luka, may I lower the seat?”
“You think it’ll be dangerous straight away?”
“No, it’s just that there’s quite a cool breeze and my rheumatism”
“OK, lower it and drive more slowly!”
From where he was, Luka could not see the driver looking out of the tank just beneath the turret, right next to the barrel. His seat was lowered and the lid was closed.
“Miro, are you ready?”
Miro was really an artillery-man, but had now taken Luka’s place at the second machine gun.
“Give Adriano down there a kick, just to make sure he’s not asleep.”
“What if he starts going on again?”
“EH? WHAT? WHAT SORT OF BEHAVIOUR IS THIS, YOU’RE NOT ON A BUS OVER ON THE MAINLAND!”
“Alright, it’s alright. Just like I said, be careful now, boys!”
The tank struggled on up the road and it was another five-minute drive up to the junction at the top of the hill.
* * *
Raf stood in the middle of the road and the lights were already penetrating through the trees. The child was nowhere to be seen.
“Victory!” he said, while catching his breath and then he waited for the arrival of the rescuers.
“FATHER! FATHER!” Raf heard behind him, at first quietly from a fair distance, but then it got louder and he knew it was coming nearer.
“Oh, no! Max!”
He looked around quickly and hid behind some pine-trees at the side of the road. He could not afford to be seen by Max, it was not the right time to be kissed by him, he needed his mouth empty so that he could speak to the pensioners.
Lights appeared in the middle of the road: the one a few metres above the ground was so strong that it blinded Raf whereas the two lower down, in a triangular shape, were much weaker. He could only hear the mass of iron behind them but not actually see it.
Max sped down the road, shouting and running towards the tank.
* * *
That was Father’s look! So full of light that it blinded everybody, especially his nameless son. Max could feel his Father’s strength, he could hear his rumble and he knew that they were getting closer and closer, another moment and they would be united in an inseparable embrace. The earth trembled when his Father walked, so he could not be mistaken.
Max waved the strips of jeans he had been tied with in the air. Let his Father see how his worthless son had freed himself from them and was now bringing them to show.
* * *
Max ran towards the centre of the light, waving his arms in the air and shouting. His words lost their meaning and became one long howl, an orgasm of euphoric vocal cords.
Raf was hiding behind a tree and could not take his eyes off the scene in front of him.
Luka suddenly noticed the screaming boy, waving something long and flexible above his head and grabbed for the Browning. He was not as quick as he used to be and for a moment he thought that he was finished, the terrorist would throw his explosives before they managed to stop him.
What was Adriano doing? Why wasn’t he firing, he was the head machine-gunner! Was he now blind as well as deaf? Adriano!
The machine gun at the front went off, a moment later Miro joined in and Luka finally managed to aim his barel in the right direction and press the trigger. That was more like it! Fire at the end of the barrel and after every ten loads the fire extended into a long ray of light, which helped him aim. A spider’s web in the darkness.
Max did not seem to be harmed at first and then his right arm came off at the elbow and flew in a long arch into the darkness. The end and devastation happened in a moment: an explosion of stones, soil, pine-trees, blood, flesh and bones fused into a cloud which first flew up into the air, then smashed onto the ground, rolling here and there under the shower of bullets which just would not stop.
Luka let go of the trigger, but the machine-gun would not stop firing. He started hitting the mechanism until it finally stopped.
“STOP!” he shouted.
Miro stopped immediately, whilst Adriano needed another kick, but this time Luka did not have to order it.
“FUCKING HELL!” Adriano’s shouting came through the earphones. “LUKA, FUCK YOU. YOU STICK THAT FUCKING LABEL OF YOURS ON MY MACHINE-GUN AND YOU WRITE ON IT: MACHINE-GUN M 19119A4 AND I CAN TAKE THAT. BUT THEN YOU PUT ANOTHER FUCKING LABEL ON THE FUCKING TRIGGER, SAYING MACHINE-GUN’S M19119A4 TRIGGER! HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO FUCKING FIRE WHEN I HAVE TO SCRATCH THE FUCKING PAPER OFF THE TRIGGER, EH?”
“ADRIANO, SHUT UP!”
“I FUCKING WILL NOT! SOON YOU’LL BE STICKING A FUCKING LABEL ON EVERY FUCKING BULLET. MACHINE-GUN’S M19119A4 BULLET. AND THEN I’LL HAVE TO SCRATCH OFF EACH FUCKING ONE BEFORE I FIRE IT!”
Luka blushed. Was it possible that the deaf old man could read the innermost thoughts that he had fought against so hard? He decided that attack was his best defense.
“BE QUIET, ADRIANO! WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO FORGET EVERYTHING? YOU SPEND ALL YOUR LIFE LEARNING NAMES OF THINGS. ALL YOUR LIFE! AND THEN YOU FORGET THEM ALL AND YOU’RE NO LONGER HUMAN! GO AND HAVE A LOOK AT MY PARENTS! IS THAT CLEAR? NOW LEAVE ME ALONE!”
“FUCK YOU, LUKA!”
“HEY, YOU TWO!” Miro interfered, laughingly. “What if we paid some attention to that guy on the road?”
“Yes, you’re right!” said Luka. “ADRIANO, THE DEAD BODY INSPECTION!”
“ARE YOU MAD? WE’VE SCATTERED HIM AROUND A RADIUS OF HALF A KILOMETRE, YOU CAN’T EXPECT ME TO WALK THAT FAR, I’M AN OLD MAN!”
So that was it, he was now starting to disobey orders! Luka knew that Adriano would spend at least ten minutes sulking and that he could not count on him.
“ADRIANO, COVER US! Miro, come with me and take the gun!”
* * *
Jesus, said Raf. If I show myself they’ll shoot me.
The dust was beginning to settle and he was worried that he would soon be able to see what was left of Max.
Two old men came carefully from behind the lights both wearing uniforms, one carrying a machine-gun, the other one a pistol, and slowly approached the mess on the road. They looked around cautiously and Raf ducked down instinctively.
“Hey,” said the one with the machine gun, “there are no weapons. Just some strips of material”
“Well, I thought”
“Why the hell was he running like that then! Serves him right! Did you understand what he was shouting?”
“Not quite, but it sounded to me as he was saying ‘father’.”
“Yeah, I had that feeling too. There are some weird people around, don’t you think? He sees a tank, runs towards it, shouting ‘father’!”
“If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed it!”
The one with the pistol added:
“Don’t say anything about this to Adriano!”
“Still, we’d better be a bit more careful from now on! We should soon be catching up with that niece of Aco’s and I wouldn’t want to have her on my conscience.”
“Yes, she’s a fast walker for somebody from the mainland!”
Raf bit his bottom lip. The girl from the ferry was not safely in the village but somewhere in the woods, on the way to the villa. He had to pluck up the courage to reveal himself to the pensioners, hoping they would not shoot him. Their eye-sight probably was not very good and they would probably think he was another terrorist. Maybe he should find a white flag somewhere?
“Hey,” said the old man with the machine gun, “there’s somebody by the tank! Why doesn’t Adriano shoot?”
Raf saw the outline of a small figure between the bottom two lights.
* * *
Ana kept looking at the beast in front of her and could not stop trembling.
“Yes,” she said, “I’m cold”
“Unfortunately,” said Alfonz, “I haven’t got anything to put around you.”
“I know, I know.”
She nodded eagerly. The light did not reach below his naked shoulder and she had no desire to see the rest of him.
“I can put a hand on your shoulder, the good hand, the one that gave me crisps, if you want?”
The only thing Ana understood was that the monster wanted to touch her and she found it very hard to suppress a scream.
“No, thank you, I’m getting warmer. I’m not shivering any more.”
“Yes, you really are shivering less. I’m glad.”
They stopped talking. Ana knew she had to look at him, look into those crazy eyes in front of her, but at the same time she was trying to blur out what she saw as much as she could.
“I know you,” he said. “You’re the girl from the ferry. The decent girl, the one I could introduce to my mum and dad and we could have a cup of tea together. Fresh tea, not the one brewed in advance for the guests.”
“From the ferry?”
“Yes, we saw each other there, you probably didn’t notice me, because I was very different then. I was sadder, I wasn’t smiling yet.”
He was one of the boys from the ferry? My God, not the bony one? His shoulder answered that question. It was either the muscular one or the one next to him, whose face she could not remember, but who was dressed like some boys she knew from Sunday school. And the one who was earlier shouting for his father on the road was probably one of them too? What was happening? Where was her uncle? And that boy?
“I remember,” she said.
“And I remember you. You know, I divide feelings into three levels of love: to like somebody, to be fond of them and to love them. I liked you then on the ferry. Quietly – I didn’t dare say it out loud – I said: I like you.”
She tried to be friendly hoping that kind words might soften what she saw in front of her.
“But since a few minutes ago, when you looked in my eyes and smiled at me so nicely – the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen in my whole life – I’ve been fond of you. Ever since you’ve joined me in here, I’ve been looking at you, not daring to speak to you. But your smile gave me the courage. Listen, I’m telling you, I’m very fond of you.”
Ana did not quite comprehend what the creature was talking about:
“I think soon I’ll love you,” he said. “But don’t worry, I’ll warn you before it happens!”
Ana understood. She fell into the hollow, started thinking and smiled to herself, but the creature in front of her saw that smile and thought it was directed at him. She had to be careful and friendly. She had to lead the conversation away from rape. She remembered how all her schoolfriends lost their virginity by the sea, after long romantic talks in the dark. But she did not want to follow their example, at least not there and then, and not with him.
“What’s your name?” she asked him.
He moved and she nearly fainted with fear when he growled and gritted his teeth.
“It doesn’t matter!” he hissed. “What does a name mean to somebody who’s in love! Nothing! Real love pays no attention to names! Names are only important when it comes to inheritance, not to matters of the heart! This is love, not the law! We, the nameless, have a right to love too!”
He went on and on. Ana did not understand anything anymore. Maybe he was not all that dangerous and would let her leave?
He stopped suddenly and remained still.
“I’ll give you my heart, that’ll make you believe me!”
“I believe you!”
“You’re just trying to calm me down. How can you believe me when we’ve only just met? And to top it all I’m very sad. I lost a friend.”
“You lost a friend? One of your friends from the ferry?”
“Yes, I wanted to separate the good parts of my friend from the bad ones, so that I could keep just the good ones. And then I went for a walk and I realised that friendship is not just about looking at all the good things. You look at a good thing, get hurt by a bad thing and then take comfort in another good thing. Have you ever lost a friend?”
“Well, there you go. That’s why I have to explain it better to you. A friendship is like a yo-yo, it goes up and down, up and down. Yes, I can see you do understand me, that’s why I’ll give you my heart.”
He moved so that she could see him down to his waist, pulled an axe out of the darkness and put the blade to his chest. He pressed on it and Ana could see blood trickling from the wound.
“NO! Don’t give me your heart!”
He sounded terribly disappointed:
“You don’t want my heart?”
The axe was lifted and directed towards her.
“I do! I do! But you still need it!”
He started thinking hard. Ana felt sweat running down her back and into her pants, she felt an itch in the middle of her back but she did not dare to scratch it. A stench of rotting flesh was coming from the boy and his breath smelt sour.
“You reject it just because of me?”
“Then I’ll give you the only other heart I’ve got.”
He reached towards her with his hand and there really was something dark on it.
“Take it, it’s a friendly heart, it comes from a friend.”
“I don’t know”
That look again.
“Oh, I’ll gladly take it.”
She touched the thing on his hand, trying very hard not to come anywhere near to the hand offering her the gift. She prepared herself for something slimy but it was not too bad. Warmish and dry, a bit sticky in places. A lump of meat, obviously.
“Don’t be offended, there’s only half of it. You know, that friend was only half good.”
With outstretched fingers she took the lump of meat he was offering her and held it away from her, at the same time pretending to be very happy with the gift. She looked down at her hand and it took her a few seconds to realise that he was speaking the truth. She was holding half of a heart. A very large heart, much larger than the model they had looked at in her biology class and she hoped dearly that it was a cow’s organ.
“Treat it as if it were mine: press it close to your heart,” he said. “Heart next to heart.”
She looked at the axe, at the eyes above it and tried to smile when she held the thing next to her own heart.
“You’re happy, I can see that,” he said. “I’ll give you a friendly hand. I’ve still got that. As I told you, I’d lost a friend, but not all at once. I was walking through the woods, loosing my friend piece by piece, just as it always happens when you lose a friend. Bit by bit. I’m sad about that too.”
* * *
Too late, he was too late again!
The name collector was standing in front of the tank, the two old men walked back and stood next to him. The end.
Raf felt like crying again. He had fucked up earlier with Aco, destroyed the campsite and now he had allowed the rescuers to meet up with their death. There was just one person left to save and he was not going to make another mistake.
“You said that ten minutes ago, when you came to warn the rescuers!” said a cynical voice inside him.
No, there would not be another mistake. The girl from the ferry was on her way to the villa. He would catch up with her and save her. He slowly crept out of the reach of the tank lights and ran off as fast as he could.
* * *
Adriano was over the moon. They kept going on about how deaf he was and now he heard the boy’s quietly spoken question very clearly, without looking at his lips.
* * *
Ana was holding the friendly hand in her left hand, pressing the heart to her chest with her right hand and praying to God to save her and allow her to become unconscious. How much more could she take? She would never had thought that she would be able to endure talking to a butcher, a monster from the very centre of hell for such a long time.
“You must tell me,” said Alfonz, “what you feel for me. And don’t lie to me, I’ll know if you’re not telling the truth.”
Ana wanted to scream, cry, shout, but knew that talking was her only chance of survival.
“Do you feel anything at all for me?”
“Eeeehm would I be here if I didn’t?”
He calmed down visibly.
“Indeed,” he said, “you did come of your own accord. You did. But which level are you at? Do you like me, are you fond of me or do you love me?”
“Eeeehm I can’t how shall I say it you know”
His voice was soft and gentle, a complete opposite to his eyes and the axe.
“I don’t know. You’ve got to tell me. I don’t know.”
“Why don’t we just say we’re friends?”
Even before she had finished the sentence she could see by the flexing of his fingers on the handle of the axe that she had made a mistake.
“NO! Friendship is something completely different! It’s not suitable for men and women. Friendship is a poor substitute when all three levels of love have failed. How can we be friends when I’m so fond of you and soon I’ll love you?”
Say something that will break the anger and the tension, echoed around her head.
“I’m not worthy of you,” she breathed. “You deserve someone better. I’m such a boring person, without any imagination or talents.”
He shook his head and the bare teeth cut a horizontal line through the moonlight.
“No. That’s not true. You mustn’t think about yourself like that!”
He reached for her knee with his hand, with his dark, sticky fingers.
“He’s going to touch me!” screamed Ana inside. I won’t be able to take it. I’ll throw up with disgust, right onto his hand and then he’ll cut me into pieces with his axe, just like he did with his friend.
She would manage. It was not all that bad. The thick material of her jeans protected her and he only touched her for a second with the tip of his finger.
“You’re beautiful!” he said.
“I’m not, I’m not, I hate seeing my image in the mirror!”
“I’ve never met a woman as critical about herself as you. I value that. In my eyes you appear different to what you see in the mirror. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
“I have ugly legs. My calves are too big. I have to wear trousers all the time.”
He started to shake his head.
“I have to tell you something, I’ve learned this with my friend and it’s true about love too: a person is more that just a sum of his or her parts. Believe me, I know!”
* * *
Raf ran without stopping. He did not look left or right so as not to waste energy unnecessarily. His heart was rebelling, his lungs felt as if they were full of razor blades, but he did not give up.
* * *
Ana heard fast steps above her head and thought:
“Help is on its way!”
The steps came and then went again. Was there really no way out of that hell? Was she really completely alone and nobody would come to help her? Did she still have any real hope or was she just fooling herself? She would have to deal with the monster herself.
The worst thing was that she knew what she would have to do if she wanted to get him completely on her side: she would have to touch him. But she could not make herself do it. She imagined how she would slowly raise her hand and stroke his cheek. The lumpy surface on which little streams of drying blood alternated with lumps of already dried blood. She could not do it.
Alfonz tried again. He touched the ends of her hair lying on her shoulders and it was much worse than the touch on the knee. Not because she could feel the touch more on her hair but because his bloody hand, covered in dirt and all sorts of unidentifiable bits, had to travel so near her face that she could smell the decaying flesh. The smell of death helped her go on.
“You’ve got to tell me what you feel for me,” he kept saying and Ana surprised herself when she sensed a desire to kill and started to imagine grabbing the axe, hitting her tormentor and screaming: “This is what I feel for you! THIS! THIS! THIS!”
A beautiful dream.
“I’ll tell you,” she said instead.
“It’s not that simple. You have to give me time to think.”
“Yes, you’re right. I don’t want to be a nuisance. It’s only because I’ve changed and I’m now smiling that I dare speak to you, I would’ve been too embarrassed before. They were right. A holiday on the seaside really does change you. I can just imagine the look on my mother’s face when I come home. Oh! And come home with you!”
He was reaching with his hand again. This time he touched her in the middle of her right cheek. A short and gentle touch. The first direct contact between the two bodies and Ana was at the very edge of fainting and vomiting at the same time.
He moved away and got up. A few more bits of his friend fell off him. He said:
“Think about what you feel towards me and when I come to ask you, tell me in clear sentences. You know, I’m not very familiar with a woman’s soul. Please, tell me soon and don’t torment me. Every second of uncertainty hurts right here,” he tapped the left side of his chest with the axe. “Now I don’t need a friend anymore, just you. Please, tell me soon! You’ve completely confused me. Your smile and your eyes are telling me to come near you, but whenever I touch you, you shudder instead of just giving in to my touch.”
He looked at her sharply and Ana pushed her head low between her shoulders.
“You’re not one of those flirts, are you?”
He went on without waiting for her answer:
“No, I don’t think so. You look like a decent girl. I’ll go and you think until I come back.”
In three jumps he was on the road and outside the reach of her eyes. It took a while before she comprehended.
He had just gone.
The killer had left her alone, alive and (nearly) untouched!
She got up slowly, looking around. She could not see much beyond the hollow, so she was getting ready to climb out when she suddenly became aware that she was still holding the heart and the hand. She felt like throwing them away with a scream, but she was frightened that those crazy eyes were watching her from somewhere in the darkness. She hesitated, wondering how to get rid of those things. Finally, she just dropped them without looking as she crawled out, like a child slyly dropping a sweet wrapper.
A few metres later she collapsed in a fit of crying, vomiting and diarrhoea. She only just managed to pull off her jeans and pants before squatting at the edge of the road, excreting all sorts of fluids, still wishing she was unconscious.
It was starting to get light. Raf staggered onto the meadow in front of the villa and fell to his knees. He gasped for breath, looking around, but there was nobody there. The moon was still large and nearly full, only its brightness was diminished by the greyness of the early morning. There was complete silence everywhere — among the trees, in the tall grass — even the surface of the sea was completely smooth, like a pane of glass.
When he opened his mouth to call her, he stopped helplessly. He did not even know her name! He had never had an opportunity to ask her, apart from that time on the ferry when she would not speak to him. His heart missed a beat and he was not sure whether that was just because of all the running. She would not even turn around then and now he was trying to save her. Anyway, it did not matter — that night he had allowed too many people’s lives to be ruined (as if his own was not enough!) and this time he would not repeat his previous mistakes.
How should he find her when he could not even call her name? Should he shout HEY THERE! or HEY YOU? Impossible, it would frighten her and she would not answer. If you wanted to earn somebody’s trust you had to know their name and you had to use it at the right moment. When I see her, I must first ask her her name, he decided and then remembered the woods behind him and the other being with the same intention. It frightened him.
He walked around the meadow, whispering repeated reassurances about his friendship and harmlessness — just in case she was hiding somewhere, watching him. He walked around the house and confirmed the feeling which had accompanied him ever since he had first seen the villa that morning: she was not there. Maybe she had hidden from him when she heard him or…
… he remembered Alfonz covered in blood and started trembling. Not that, please, not that. Send him to me, God, if you have to send him to somebody, just don’t send him to her.
I keep repeating God’s name and thinking of him, thought Raf. I’m in danger, that’s why. But do I really believe or do I just not want to be on my own? Can I believe in something I can’t quite imagine? Is schizophrenia an atheist’s redemption? Do I believe in something that’s just a name I keep repeating as if bewitched? Was that why he saved me with his name?
And what about the girl he was trying to save? Did she believe or not? He had noticed a leather purse hanging around her neck. And what was underneath? A cross? He went back to thinking about her name. What sort of a name could she have? He tried to read it from her face which he suddenly saw very vividly in front of him, but he soon gave up.
It did not matter, there was no time for thinking, he had to act.
He looked at the dark windows above him and decided to look inside, in spite of an uneasy feeling.
* * *
Ana kept on walking towards the villa, constantly looking back. The monster could be anywhere, he could be watching her that very minute. Earlier, while she was walking fast, his skull suddenly appeared from behind a tree and asked her if she had decided yet. She shouted:
“NO!” and he disappeared. But she could not swear she had not imagined it. It happened so quickly and it could have just been her imagination responding to her frayed nerves.
The rumble behind her back was getting louder and louder. Just before it caught up with her she stepped off the road and hid behind a tree. This time she made sure she was alone in her hiding place.
The tank was making its way along the narrow track, squashing the undergrowth and any trees that stood in its way. Ana pressed herself against the tree and gawped. The tank! The monument! And there was Luka looking out of the turret! She wished he would send her back and she was just about to jump out of her hiding place and call to him. But then she saw the expression on Luka’s face and the tears running down his cheeks.
“As if somebody had died,” thought Ana.
The vehicle was now parallel with her and she looked at the two other heads looking out of the bottom part of the tank, just underneath the turret, separated by the barrel. The left head belonged to an old man with a helmet on his head and the right one to a very beautiful child. They were going to leave her behind and then they took a six-year old with them! She leant forward in order to see better and for a moment her eyes met with those of the child. She felt a pressure in her temples and then the tank rumbled past and she wiped her forehead. What sad eyes the child had!
* * *
Luka was crying. He knew that as a good commander he should check out the machine gun next to him but he had other worries. Old age happened when you could not lift the sort of weight you used to be able to and when you had to be wary of every cool breeze. But death started with forgetting. He still knew the names of M4A3E8 below him and M2 next to him but he could not remember his own name. So that was what the end was like and it started from within! And all that time he had thought that forgetting would start outside him and then slowly progress inwards. He had thought the world around him would collapse bit by bit while he stood in the middle, catching the bits and pressing them to his heart. After all those years of preparation it caught up with him and surprised him. The first thing he forgot was the most important one — himself. And what use was the rest of the world with all those names on labels — the traps he had set for forgetfulness, when he was not a part of that world anymore?
Adriano had even accused him of trying to preserve himself forever. How could he be friends with a man who did not understand him and who had nothing in common with him?
* * *
Raf stood in the nursery, holding the photograph of the Indian woman he assumed to be the boy’s mother.
In the features of her face he tried to find some reasons or an explanation. He found out nothing even though he spent a long time waiting for the answers.
“She turned him into a weapon,” he said, opened his hand and the frame smashed onto the floor, the fragments of glass flying all over the room. The woman was still looking at him with a smile on her face; with the top of his spear he turned the photo around and did not look at it again.
The noise of the tank came very near. Raf thought he had to hide in the woods as they were bound to come into the house. He ran to the ground floor and peeped out through the front door.
Too late. The tank came to the edge of the clearing and stopped. All the barrels were aiming at the house and Raf knew he did not stand a chance if he ran out now. He remembered Max’s body disintegrating in the floodlight and decided to stay indoors. It was not really a decision as there were no other options.
He retreated inside, knelt under the kitchen window and watched the rescuers. Three old men came out of the tank, together with the child and started walking towards the house. Two of the men held machine guns, the third one had a pistol. They were arguing, which made them walk slower and slower. The child took no notice of them, he overtook them and Raf got scared of another meeting with him. Was he safe now or would the boy ask him his name again and finish him this time? How did he know which names he already had and how did he recognise the people he still had to ask? By their eyes, their behaviour, their smell?
* * *
Ana stood some fifty metres behind the tank, watching it. They came out and their behaviour seemed strange to her. Because of the noise of the engine she could not hear their conversation but it had to be pretty heated as it looked as if they would start fighting any minute. Only the child was calm and deep in thought. A fragment of normality among all the madness she encountered that night. She wanted to talk to the little boy, to give him a hug.
“I’d like to talk to you,” she heard a gentle voice behind her. She knew who it belonged to and she could not turn around, even though she knew she would have to sooner or later.
“Tell me what you feel for me.”
Ana ran as fast as she could. The tree branches kept hitting her face but she made no effort to protect herself. The monster was sure to be faster than her, but the tank
She could almost feel the creature behind her, right behind her neck, but she succeeded nonetheless. She jumped onto the back of the tank, nearly lost her balance, her trainers tapped on the metal, she did not stop, she jumped over some sort of bars, pushed herself up, landed on the turret and dropped inside without looking back. She fell hard, hurting her back on the metal but she did not moan, just grabbed the handle above her head and pulled it towards her. The trap door closed and she continued hitting the locking mechanism even after it had done its job of separating her from the world outside.
* * *
Raf saw her jump into the tank and immediately recognised her even though she looked very unkempt and dirty. At first he did not know why she was in such a hurry but then — long after the door had closed — he saw the naked figure covered in blood standing on the bottom part of the tank.
It did not look as if Alfonz was trying to catch the girl — he started doing something outside the reach of Raf’s eyes. When Alfonz straightened up again he was holding a long, shiny axe in his hand, probably a part of the equipment belonging to the tank, and he threw his own small axe on the grass.
“I hope she knew how to lock that door,” Raf thought while holding onto the handle of his spear. The name collector was walking towards the house and if Raf wanted to save the girl he would first have to deal with him. He put his forehead on the wood. God, why are you forcing me, a coward, to make these decisions, why don’t you give them to somebody braver, who deserves them.
* * *
Ana started looking around the tank. It surprised her how small the inside seemed, compared to the size of the vehicle. She looked for any other openings she should block. The trap door on the floor was closed. Below, on the right, she saw daylight coming in, so she crept into the room with the machine gun and closed the door there. The light was still coming in from the left. She looked there and saw a part of an old man while the rest of him was covered in hand grenades. He nodded to her. What was his name again? Bruno?
“What’s wrong with all these people,” she thought, “they all look so sad.”
“I’m a war hero,” he said.
“Please, please, can you drive off?”
“I can, girl, I can.”
He moved the gear handle and the tank started moving slowly.
“You see, I can drive,” the old man turned towards her. “and I know all the names of my comrades, the live and the dead ones. From all the squads and battalions I fought in! Just think, I’m a war hero and I can’t remember my name.”
What was he on about? Another lunatic in addition to the one outside? What was happening?
“Please, sir,” her voice trembled on the edge of crying, “Could you close that door above your head?”
“I could,” he said, “I could, but then it’d be like being in a grave. But maybe it would be better that way!”
“CLOSE IT!” thought Ana. “CLOSE IT!”
“I can’t be a hero without a name and I know how I lost it. They came in the night and took it away. That’s how they treat heroes, oh how blind I’ve been! I thought: voluntarily, what an honour! But in reality they just come and take it. In the evening you’ve still got a name and in the morning they give it to some factory, a road, a school. They don’t ask you, just take it! Today you’re a person, tomorrow a biscuit factory!”
Ana kept looking towards the light falling onto the talking man and waited for the grinning skull to block it.
How could he talk so much nonsense? Stories about stolen names! What was the matter with him? She only took a good look at him when he reached for the gun in his belt. She squeezed herself into the furthest corner, without thinking, just hoping. The old man methodically prepared the gun for shooting, put it against the side of his head and pulled the trigger.
Just like that. Quite a bit over half a century of being, day after day, how many hours was that, how many thoughts? And then, just like that, in the middle of talking…
Ana screamed, covering her eyes. When her vocal cords gave up nothing else could be heard but the slow rumble of the engine. She looked at the body which had half slid off its seat and then got stuck in an odd position because of lack of space. Some sort of pipes behind him became covered in blood but luckily she could not see his head. She was spared that, at least.
Suddenly an upturned skull dropped down form the opening above and said gently:
“Tell me what you feel for me.”
Ana screamed again and retreated in the only possible direction, up into the turret.
Her attacker did not try to come into the tank. His body stayed half outside and he leant through the hole, blocking the light and repeating:
“You have to tell me. I can’t live without you telling me. Every moment is so painful. I walk around on my own, imagining I’m with you. I’m looking at you, we’re talking together, laughing, just like I’ve been laughing for a while now, but on my own, which isn’t the same. It isn’t the same. Every beat of my heart hurts, wherever I look I see your face. I see you everywhere, everywhere. Put your arms around me and give me back the trees, the houses, everything you’ve overshadowed. I dream about touching you; everything else I touch is just a waste of my senses, which are there just for you. I want to see you, to taste you, to feel you and smell you all at once. I want to embrace the whole of you. Oh! Such love, such pain! I can’t go on, I’m not alive anymore. I’m just your shadow, nothing else; not even a shadow, your shadow can touch you. Oh! Please, tell me, what you feel for me. Don’t hold me in suspense, I can’t stand it! Tell me! Don’t I deserve your answer? Talk about your feelings, not about your body, about the world around us! Tell me!”
Ana squeezed herself into the space under the trap door, having at first wanted to open it and jump out but then she changed her mind thinking that was exactly what her attacker was expecting her to do. She could always escape when he came in. But why was he telling her things she really did want to hear but not from him? She remembered the bony boy from the ferry and wondered what had happened to him.
“Look what I’m bringing you! A brand new axe! I got it for you and I’m giving it to you! Love means wanting to give. Just like I’ve already given you the hand and the heart, I’m now giving you this! I’m offering you everything I’ve got.”
She could hear the blade of the axe scrape against the metal on the tank and she screamed.
From her hiding place she could only see a part of the driver’s body which suddenly became lit up by the daylight coming in, then covered by the darkness again. Two bloody and dirty hands grabbed the body and started lifting it.
“I understand, you’re embarrassed because we’re not alone,” she could hear a voice say outside, “I’ll just move this gentleman and then we’ll be able to talk in peace and you’ll be able to tell me what you feel for me.”
The body disappeared and the only thing left was a bloody stain on the seat. After a minute, two naked legs lowered themselves towards the seat.
“I’m coming to talk,” he said.
The first leg touched the floor. Ana jumped up, wanting to escape. Whilst grabbing for support her left arm pushed forward and her right arm reached for the trap-door handle, and then she noticed a whirr of the engine and suddenly the walls around her started turning. Her attacker screamed.
The leg, which had earlier touched the floor, was dangling in the air.
“I’m stuck,” moaned Alfonz, “you caught me. I’m trapped.”
Trapped? The turret really was turned in a different direction – without realising, she must have pressed the button which controlled its movement. Her attacker was probably pressed against the barrel, half of his body in and the other half out of the tank. But how was he trapped? Surely he could have bent over and moved away? He had to be lying to her to make her come out.
“I’m caught against the axe. Nothing can stop me when I want to talk to you. Nothing. I’m coming. I’m coming. The axe is sticking into me. I’ll keep pushing down and I’ll come. Don’t worry. I’ll come. Down. Down. Down.”
With every word, a few drops of fresh blood slid down the leg and fell onto the metal floor.
“I’m coming. I’m coming.”
The blood started running in a little stream and the leg started approaching the floor.
“I’m coming! I’m coming! I’m very happy knowing that there’s somebody waiting for me. Just a little bit more! Just a little bit more!”
Blood dripping down into a red puddle on the floor. His toes were dangling just above it.
“NO! NO!” screamed Ana, hitting the button in front of her forcefully. “I’VE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS MADNESS, THIS RUNNING AWAY! DIE! DIE! DIE!”
The noise of the engine drowned the loud screams, followed by the crack of wood – bones? – and around the dangling legs – I mustn’t look, I mustn’t! – blood splashed across the seat, spilling onto the floor. Ana kept pressing the button, unable to tear her eyes away. The legs fell onto the floor, twitching in the blood. They were followed by the top half of the body, rolling off the seat towards the partition, and over it spilled the innards. The grinning skull turned around and stopped only when their eyes met.
“You didn’t even like me,” he said and he was so…
Ana could not stand it any longer. She leapt out and threw up, bent over the machine gun. Through the light flashes in her eyes and waves of sickness she looked across the clearing and saw the three old men fighting and next to them that beautiful child who turned towards her, saw her and started walking.
With the back of her hand, she wiped off the drops of bile from around her mouth. The child must not see her like that. The tank was very slowly moving forward in the direction of the sea and it would soon – she hoped – disappear in it forever. The old men were strangling each other and taking no notice of the boy. She would jump down, grab him and together they would run away from that nightmare.
“Don’t worry,” she said to him, even though he was too far to hear her.
* * *
Luka knew he did not have much time left. He had seen too much dying by then to be able to fool himself with false hopes. With his left hand he kept pushing in his innards, which were steaming under his palm, covering him with some kind of fluid, and before his eyes he saw images of military cemeteries. Long rows of white crosses in the middle of very well-looked -after grass. None of the crosses had names on them. Where were their names, where did they get lost? It was a terrible violation of the natural order of things: a body is put in the ground and the name rests on the cross above it. But white crosses without names, no, NO!
He grabbed Adriano who was still wheezing in spite of the fact that the stream running from the vein on his neck had nearly stopped. It was him, for sure!
But where could he have hidden the name after he had stolen it?
Luka groped in the blood with his hand and then looked at his palm. Nothing.
He had to be cool and collected. He had to think.
Adriano became calmer but he was still looking at him as if he was hiding something.
Behind his eyes.
That was where it was.
Luka pushed his thumb between the bone and the eye ball on the body under him and pulled out the eye. He turned the eye in his hand around and around. He bent over and ran his fingers around the bloody hole. He did not find his name.
He felt faint and found it difficult to keep upright. It had to be behind the other eye.
Just a little more strength. Just… please… please… just…
Just a little more.
* * *
Raf saw the tank moving at the edge of the woods, he saw Alfonz’s death, he saw the old men fighting, he saw them slaughtering each other and he looked on without any feelings. Things were happening but he was too numb to care anymore. He saw the girl vomiting next to the machine gun, and seeing the direction the child was looking at, Raf knew that she was his next victim. Suddenly he moved and straightened up.
He ran to the front door and onto the veranda. The abandoned tank was rattling at the edge of the woods, the girl was getting ready to jump off and – he knew it! – run towards the boy – she wants to save him! The name collector was on his way towards her, with his right side and most of his back turned towards Raf.
Raf became aware of the similarity with the scene on the cliff. The victim waiting, the child’s back and a spear in Raf’s hand. He was going to run again. This time he would not make a mistake. He would not trip over. He would run with the spear in his hand, thinking of her face and he would end the nightmare.
God, you gave me life once and you saved it twice. For this. This. Now. For her. You do exist, God, when you give us another chance.
He lifted the spear, aiming it at the back in the middle of the clearing and ran.
* * *
Ana was just about to jump off the tank, when she noticed the figure on the porch. She recognised him immediately. That bony boy from the ferry! She was horrified at his appearance and then realised that she had to look pretty bad too. How glad she was to see him!
He was holding something, aiming it forward – a stick?
He was getting ready to run and she knew who was his aim. He wanted to kill an innocent child. He, too, had gone mad and turned into a murderer.
She had to be cool and collected. SHE HAD to save the child!
She had no chance to save the child. What could she do against a madman with a spear who was bound to be a faster runner than her and who was nearer the boy to begin with?
SHE HAD to save him! SHE HAD TO!
The machine gun.
She jumped back onto the turret, grabbed the handles and turned the barrel towards the veranda. The tank was travelling parallel to the villa, the bodies of the old men stayed behind and the little boy was approaching from the right, from the middle of the clearing, almost following the vehicle. The attacker took his first leap. There were no obstacles between him and the gun. She could not miss.
She pressed the button and nothing happened. Was it not working? Was it empty?
She remembered the machine gun inside the tank.
The crazy boy with the spear had covered the first few metres.
Ana knew how little time she had and she did not hesitate. She jumped into the tank, turned away from the grinning remains and slid into the seat next to the machine gun.
She looked over the barrel. For a moment she became worried that she would not be able to turn the weapon enough to be able to aim it at the attacker, who was half way towards his victim.
My God, I beg you, guide my hand, help me kill that animal and save the innocent child. God, do it for all those forkfuls of food I had to eat for you. So many times. God. For all that food. God. God.
She kept repeating God’s name and fired.
* * *
Never in his life had Raf felt so free of thoughts and mistakes. He was flying not running. The wind and the rapidly approaching back in front of him.
• a blow.
Suddenly he was lying on the ground, looking at the sky above. It was getting bluer and bluer, like blotting paper dunked in ink. Something had happened and he could not understand what. He was sure he had not tripped. Not this time.
And that strange feeling in his stomach, a heavy feeling and then nothing below. He could not feel his legs at all. He put his hands on his stomach and it was all wet. He brought the hands to his face. Blood.
“Tell me, am I going to die?” he said and then kept repeating those words, turned towards the sky, even though there was nobody he could ask, nobody to give him the answer.
Tell me, am I going to die?
Tell me, am I going to die?
Tell me, am I going to die?
Tell me, am I going to die?
Tell me, am I going to die?
Tell me, am I going to die?
* * *
By the time Ana let go of the trigger, the barrel was already aiming towards the roof and the tiles were flying up into the air.
The attacker was lying on his back in the middle of the grass, with his legs spread wide and he was not moving.
“There is a God!” breathed Ana and pressed her knuckles to her mouth.
The boy did not take his eyes off her. Nothing could stop him from getting out of the way now. Thank God.
It was all finished. She would jump up and run to the boy. She started moving backwards when she felt something on her wrist and saw an arm clutching her.
“I love you!” said Alfonz looking at her.
She started shaking off the arm and the top part of Alfonz’s body shook with her. It looked as if the monster was nodding to her faithfully. It was pulling her towards it. Ana rolled forward, fell almost right next to the skull, kept feeling around her for a weapon, grabbed the handle of a stick, pulled but could not tear it off, then felt some sort of a pipe under her fingers and started hitting those eyes. The pressure of the arm slowly weakened and she pushed herself backwards, rolling back into the machine-gunner’s part of the cabin. The skull kept looking at her, leaning onto the side of the partition. Ana grabbed a grenade and hurled it towards the skull. In the split second while the grenade flew across the air she thought BOOOM, but it never happened. She had hit her target and knocked the skull over to the other side, where her eyes could not reach it.
“Alive! He was still alive! How was that possible?”
She listened but there was no sound from the other side of the partition. Were those his last words? Was this the end after all?
She did not have to climb back up to the turret! She could get out right there! She opened the door and pushed her head out as if she had been drowning for a long time and her lungs had been nearly destroyed.
The child was a few metres away from her, getting out of the way of the tank, which was now heading straight for the villa. Oh, how did that happen? The stick she grabbed when she was looking for a weapon! She pulled one of the sticks again and the tank turned.
The boy was only a step away from safety and Ana realised he was not in danger anymore but she could not stop herself from shouting:
Suddenly she felt a pressure in her head. What big eyes that boy had! Why was he looking at her like that? A moment earlier he had been moving out of the way but now he just stood there, looking at her. Why did he stop getting out of the way? Why did he become so strange? As if something strange and terrible had awoken in him, something that would not leave him until he had performed a duty. He wanted to ask her something. No, there was no time for things like that! I have to save him! I have to! I have to turn the tank!
Ana wanted to move her head back in, but the boy’s eyes would not release her. Then she tried to reach the controls blindly with her hand…
- — - — - — -
Her arm was too short!
“Let me go, please, let me go! I have to save you!”
The boy was looking at her, holding her eyes and asking for her name. She knew she had to tell him it otherwise he would not release her and she would not be able to save him. That was why she shouted Ana! Ana! Ana! and then felt her freedom returning to her, the pressure was gone, the boy’s face changed back from that of a cool interrogator to that of a child frightened to death. He was only a metre away from the tank and Ana, who was still screaming, and then the tracks pulled him under.
“Fucking hell, what a night! I was up till one o’clock and now this!”
“Right, you’ve been here for half an hour. I’ve seen the first report, but still tell me what’s it all about.”
“Well, it just looks as if they all went crazy and killed each other.”
“The villagers and the tourists.”
“You mean the villagers fought the tourists?”
“No, I’d say they just killed each other pretty indiscriminately. It’s not a pretty sight.”
“Fuck it, don’t ever forget the first rule: their nightmares are our jobs, our daily bread. But let’s stop romanticising and get going before the boss comes. We’ve got to write a report. Have they all been identified?”
“Not yet. There’s no problem with the villagers. But as for the others, let me summarise it for you. We found one of them behind that shed there and he was cut up into pieces and it won’t be an easy job to put him all together again. Another similar body was stacked in the tank, we don’t know who he is either. The woman driving the tank had a wallet with all her documents around her neck, so there shouldn’t be a problem there. We’ve already notified her parents. They’re in the middle of a divorce and they’d sent her here for a holiday so that they could arrange everything in peace. And we don’t know who that one, lying in the grass over there, is.”
“That burger over there?”
“Yeah, did you notice how she managed to run over his trunk while his limbs are untouched?”
“He’s holding a spear, what was he, a red Indian? Weird, weird. And what’s that, that little white pile under the tank tracks?”
“I don’t know, though I did have a look at it earlier. Let’s wait for the rest of the team.”
“I can still try to identify it. Hm, no smell…, no taste. Sand or something. Maybe there’s something inside, let’s have a look.”
“I’m not sure that’s very wise…”
“Come on, it’s nothing. Hey, look at this… a drop of blood. Did you see it?”
“Yes, quite fresh blood, in the middle of the dust.”
“It sank into the soil, did you see?”
“Oh let’s leave that now. So the woman driving the tank is the only survivor?”
“Yeah. She hasn’t got a licence, I’ve already checked.”
“I’d say so, looking at that pile of minced meat, the tracks zigzagging all over the place, those legs over there and the villa she drove into. The floor gave in and she ended up in the cellar! That’s women drivers for you!”
“Ha ha ha!”
“Funny, isn’t it? That’s my favourite joke. Anyway, she’s alive, has she given a statement yet?”
“No, and the doctor who examined her said it might be difficult — she’s in a coma, but there don’t seem to be any physical injuries apart from a few scratches and bruises. He hasn’t got all the test results yet though. He can’t see why she’s in a coma.”
“What do these guys ever know? And the rest of the island is OK?”
“The village, yes. The receptionist at the campsite had a body in the cupboard. Looks like the man bit the veins on his own wrists. It’s writers and their antics, said the receptionist, winking and grinning as if he wasn’t quite right either. They took him to psychiatric hospital on the mainland for observation.”
“We found another body on the road, he’d been shot and hasn’t been identified yet.”
“Is that all?”
“We’re still looking, there may be more.”
“There’s a chopper. The boss must be coming. Let’s go.”
* * *
The drops hanging from the beams on the cellar ceiling started to bubble, move and tremble. Steam, smelling of old, long disappeared woods, was coming from them, combining into long, thick ribbons, which were wrapping themselves around the front of the tank, sinking into the ground. The vanishing drops were bursting and names were falling out of them. Rays of sunshine forced themselves in through the rubble, making bright patterns in the air. On their way through the light, the names became red for a moment then tumbled over, some of them floated for a while but sooner or later they all became dust before they even reached the floor. The dust fell on the ground with a faint rustle, turning around like a vortex and then disappeared through the cracks and into the soil.