I suppose this is a tale of two memories, my own which I thought could be recalled without difficulty and with numerous photographs to aid it, and hers, built up more out of fragments and rumour, bitterness and fright. In September 2001, I travelled around the Balkan region, through Slovenia, onto Croatia, before spending a fortnight in Mostar. I worked in the music centre there, and then continued to Sarajevo, Serbia and Montenegro, before passing back through Croatia and returning to the UK from Zagreb. I would have been in the region for five weeks and met numerous people who wouldn't have been inclined to communicate with each other. In Zagreb, I saw the beginnings of a recovery in the consumerist signs that showed a burgeoning German and American influence. By the coast, in Dubrovnik and Split, tourists were arriving in large numbers and often locals would be waiting at the station with a sign offering accommodation at modest sums for the person getting off the bus but a lucrative one for those whose hospitality one accepted. In Belgrade nobody waited as you exited the bus except the odd taxi driver surprised by your presence, warily wondering how you managed to arrive at this of all regional destinations. In Zagreb, I saw a number of buildings still left tangled and torn after the war, electrical wiring like tendrils spilling out of bombed office towers. But mainly I witnessed recovery. In Belgrade there were far more bombed buildings, the consequence I suppose of both superior technology applied to the effort of destroying them and how recent the bombing had been. There were buildings buckled and broken yet not quite collapsed. I could see inside buildings that were like half-open, morbid Wendy Houses, as though you could put your hand in and rearrange the furniture. In some of them, the chairs and tables were still there, many charred and molten. Staircases had given way and others were left dangling in mid-air; many offices and flats were missing floors the way numerous people I saw on my trip were missing teeth.
In Sarajevo, I stayed in someone's house at the top of one of the many hills that surround this valleyed city. I was there for five days, and each morning and evening I walked into and back out of the town centre and up past a graveyard dense with fresh crosses, of bodies probably buried within the last ten years. I never did ask anybody if this graveyard was new, as I always assumed graveyards are old, and yet no doubt many of those buried there were young and recent deaths, the siege of the city ending only five years before my arrival. In Mostar, I saw some street sellers flogging trinkets but as though aware it would be a few more years before the glory of the bridge they were selling next to would be completely rebuilt and the tourists would return in large numbers. I walked down streets where there seemed to be more buildings in precarious disrepair than occupied dwellings. But then I noticed one evening people were sitting inside one of them drinking cocktails and listening to music, seeing too that there was a makeshift bar, and a barman mixing the drinks.
I would have been twenty-three when travelling through the region; Marija eleven, and it wasn't until I was thirty-eight and she was twenty-six that we met, and we could compare the vivid pictures I had of a country recovering from war, with her vague, splintered memories that came she said in flashes of a recollection that she couldn't quite put into stories or even images. They seemed embedded as feelings and, as I knew, would appear to her in dreams as sudden terrible realisations that frightened her into wakefulness. Her screams woke me up as I slept beside her, or took me out of the book I was reading when I often stayed awake for much longer than she did. It was only a dream I sometimes said, yet knew too that Marija hadn't been dreaming about imaginary things but real events that she couldn't recall, except in fragments while her body was at rest.
When she awoke she would let out a scream and inhale deeply, look around her and ask me to hold her until her body stopped shaking. She then lay awake for often thirty minutes and if by then she couldn't fall asleep she started her day this was sometimes as early as 130 in the morning. By 7, she had worked on her dissertation for three hours, had breakfast, tidied the flat and sent various emails. She fell asleep next to me for an hour and half and then we both got up about 830. I suppose she woke up screaming about once a week, and about once a month she couldn't go back to sleep, though it seemed it was much more common than this.
During that trip in 2001, I had one obligation and a deliberate destination; the rest of the trip was contingent. The obligation was two weeks' work experience in the music centre in Mostar, a place set up several years earlier and which helped people with the trauma of war. I was halfway through an Msc in music therapy, combining my interest in the piano with my undergraduate degree in psychology, aware that I was never going to be a good enough pianist to play professionally. Frustrated by the statistical obsession of my undergraduate studies, music therapy seemed the best way for me to make a living and navigate my musical mediocrity with an interest in the individual rather than the mean. I may now look back on those two weeks and feel that a few years later I might have better understood the lives I was trying to help, could have comprehended an aspect of their existence that seemed so alien to my own while I had children tapping away on the piano - and sensing their glee as they put notes together and managed to produce a tune.
It was an accord after years of discord and I sometimes now think of the gap between my competence on the piano against a genius's; it is still nothing next to the distance between a person who cannot play at all and the first notes that they put together, especially if one thinks of the harmony of music against the chaos of war. While at the centre, people told me about the need for music no matter the circumstances, and the pragmatics sometimes involved, telling an anecdote about a string quartet during the siege of Sarajevo who gave concerts at lunchtime. One day it became a trio, the fourth musician hit by a mortar on the steps of the conservatoire as he entered the building.
The other deliberate destination was Belgrade, to visit a friend whose family had been living in London. His father was teaching for a year in the London School of Economics and he had taken the family with him. When the war broke out he didn't return even though his contract was no longer valid, and his father became a house painter during those years. My father got to know him when he painted our house in Swiss Cottage, and also did various odd jobs like electrical work and plumbing. My father, who taught modern British History, specialising in Scottish history during the 20th century, having studied the subject in Glasgow, where I was born, also helped him by suggesting his dad do occasional jobs for friends and acquaintances. The family managed to find a flat on a housing estate five minutes away from our house, and Dusan and I played music together: he played the Truba, and far better than I played the piano.
When I saw him in Belgrade he was quiet on the first day and still reserved on the second. It wasn't until the third and fourth days, the final ones of my stay, that he expressed why. Initially, he seemed pleased to see me and shook my hand with the firmness that his strength offered, a handshake neither flimsy nor firm but one that registered the strength in his arms and the awareness of an old friend as he also pulled me into a hug. When we were children he was always a couple of inches taller than I was but now he seemed huge even if I was of average height. He took me to bars, a restaurant and a nightclub; he introduced me to friends at the bars, and we met up with others when we went on to the nightclub. He invited a couple of friends when we went to a restaurant. He seemed to wish for me to meet people. In those first couple of days he wasn't at all uncivil but throughout I sensed subtext. In the restaurant on the second night, one of the friends, Goran, who remained in Serbia throughout the 90s, said at one moment that he thought Serbia was fighting an enemy that he believed had been a friend. It was offered almost as a riddle; I replied it must have been very hard seeing your nearest neighbours breaking apart from you. It is he said, but it is also very hard to see England bombing you. I could have added that it was not England nor even the UK that had dropped bombs on Belgrade a couple of years earlier; it was an international effort. But I knew that this would have been an inadequate response and felt it even more when he added that of course it is often said that the victors make history but too rarely that they have poor memories. While the British and others bombed this very city a couple of years ago, he said, how many British people recall that it was bombed many years earlier as well? He said that when the bombing started his grandfather exclaimed here they go again, a reference to the Allies' attacks in 1944. Goran asked me if I knew of this. I admitted I didn't and for a few moments, I felt under siege. The chatter in the restaurant sounded harsh, the Serbian music playing on the loudspeakers assertive, and the Civapi we were all eating smelt of the death that it was.
Then he smiled widely, patted me on the arm, and said he didn't want to insult me or to make me feel unwelcome. You are our friend here he said. But it was just to make me feel ever so briefly and lightly how they would have felt when the bombs were dropped. We thought your country was not our enemy and there we were years after our war with Croatia, finding another friend turning on us, and one who had turned on us all those years earlier and hardly anyone in your country remembered it as they bombed us again. He said all this in a sympathetic tone, and Dusan and the other friend, Stefan, looked on, saying little and yet in agreement with Goran. It was as though they had been discussing it in advance and wanted not at all to intimidate but to offer instead a different perspective. It worked, and also cleared away the underlying animosity I sensed from Dusan since I arrived. After parting from the others at Trg Republika we carried on back to his apartment. He apologised for his friends but added he believed maybe I would understand better now why he had been a little aloof for a couple of days. I wasn't his enemy, but my country had turned him into one and, as we were walking, we passed the Radio Beograd which I knew had been bombed in the attack, and where more than a dozen employees had been killed.
We didn't discuss the war or the bombings again that night, and the buildings we passed that were still in a state of destruction were acknowledged silently but not sub-textually, a feeling difficult to describe but immediately felt. On the final evening, we met again with Goran and Stefan, getting drunk at a bar with a group of others, then going back to Dusan's place where he insisted on finishing the rest of a bottle of whisky, a malt he bought on his one trip to Scotland. He would take a small glass every couple of months, he said, but here I was in Serbia, and the least he could do was toast properly my home country. There was half a bottle to start with and by the end of the evening, the four of us had finished it. A friendship that looked as though it was precariously held together by childhood memories and that had become weak next to British political intervention, was firm again, and though in the fifteen years since my trip to Serbia, I haven't been back, I have seen Dusan several times since twice at conferences in Paris and Berlin, and once when he was in London. He had become like me a scholar of music, even if his musical competence was far greater than mine and he could have I supposed become a professional musician if he had wished. But if my realisation had been predicated on the modesty of my talent; his was financial: the modesty of a salary that would provide him with a secure income rather than a precarious one. Seeing his father struggle in London, a freelance handyman, left him without any romantic notions of a hand-to-mouth musical existence. He wanted what his father had before he left for London, not what he had during it.
He told me this when I visited him in Paris, where he had co-organised a conference to which he had invited me. He was teaching Modern Balkan Culture and History and I gave a paper on my experiences in Mostar back at the beginning of the 2000s. I had become part of that history but I became part of it again and more personally still when I started seeing Marija.
Marija had recently finished her PhD and was in London working for a year in a cafe while she applied for post-doc funding, even if she wasn't sure she wanted to continue further in academia. She came along to a two-day conference in which someone she knew, Zrinka, was giving a paper, and I listened to the paper too, and the three of us started talking during the lunch break over tuna and cucumber sandwiches and a glass of cheap, fizzy wine. The hall we were drinking in was next to an elegant and elaborate staircase and the three of us were standing next to the bannister at the bottom of them. Our conversation was drowned out by the hubbub of other discussions and it didn't become exposed and echo-like until everyone returned to the conference room and the three of us decided to stay and talk. We chatted until the tea break, where I mentioned I knew, just a little, Croatia and the surrounding region, and of the three of us only Zrinka, who taught at Leeds and received a small grant to attend, was feeling any compunction about missing the conference. It was rude, she said, skipping other speakers when they had listened to her earlier that morning. She put her hand delicately on my arm and looked at me, before flirtatiously saying she would love to stay and talk. She was a confident woman in her mid-thirties who as she read her paper knew she had the eyes of everyone upon her in the room and not just for the ideas she was espousing, which were precise and forceful. Yet there was also an aspect in her delivery that was seductive, and matched by a red dress, red painted nails, ripe cherry lipstick and long, ringlet hair that occasionally had to be swept away from her face.
Since I wasn't giving a paper, and Marija had turned up only to support Zrinka, we felt under less of an obligation to return and instead I said why didn't we get a coffee somewhere off campus. She agreed, said she didn't know the area very well, indeed didn't know south of the Thames except for Waterloo Station. I said we were between Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common; we needn't seem to be in a city at all. It was an overcast but warm late May afternoon and after getting a takeaway coffee we walked for several hours. As we ventured through the tranquillity of Richmond Park, I said to her I had travelled around the region fifteen years earlier. It seemed I knew the former Yugoslavia better than she did. While her grandmother was born in Sarajevo and her father was born in Belgrade, she had never been to either city. For her grandmother and father they were places of their childhoods that had become buried by the rubble of war, and how could her father take her to visit places that he knew as a child when Serbia was not only now a foreign country but for several years had been an enemy one as well? She said that for her father and grandmother's generation they travelled freely around Yugoslavia but saw little of the rest of the world. She wondered if for her generation they would see the world but little of the former Yugoslavia except their own small part of it.
Not only hadn't she been to Serbia and Bosnia; she hadn't been to Slovenia or Montenegro. Yet she had been to Paris, Barcelona, Munich and Athens. As we walked she asked me to tell her about her the country she was born in but that she hadn't known. She was born in May, 1991 Croatia and Slovenia announced their independence a few weeks later. I said I could only tell her about the region, not the country of her birth; that I saw the aftermath of what happens when a country loses its unity. I told her that I walked through Mostar and struggled to understand that such a small town could have factions so opposed that many lived on one side or the other. On one there was Christianity and the West; on the other Muslims and the East. A river divided them and a bridge united them, and that bridge was blown up in the war. She asked me who blew it up. I said the Croatians.
She didn't know that, she said. Her family presented Croatia as a country fighting for its freedom from Serbia. Why did they blow up a bridge in Bosnia? I half-answered her question and said that as far as I knew Croatia was fighting to be independent. It wanted peace; it didn't wish for war. But I didn't know whether I was saying this since I wanted to assuage Marija from feeling that her family had lied to her, that this was the perspective I had gleaned from the media, or whether I was recalling accurately the various books I had read on the war while I was travelling through the region. I supposed that anecdote became so powerful since fact had become so complicated.
I said I understood why her parents would offer her so partial a view of what happened; they perhaps hardly understood it themselves. I tried while we walked, and fell into a few minutes of silence, to imagine how it must have been for her grandmother, who had never travelled outside of Yugoslavia and now never travelled beyond Croatia. While her granddaughter's movements had expanded to encompass most of the world, her grandmother's had shrunk to a knobbly nation, misshapen by history, lacking the geographical elegance of Serbia or Bosnia, backed against a coastline that a hundred years ago would have been of little use but now could absorb most of the tourists in the region and many more from elsewhere. What had her grandmother won or lost, I wondered, and when we started talking again I asked her if her grandmother regretted the break-up, almost as though I were talking about a divorce. She suspected that she did but that the bitterness was stronger than nostalgia and in her father's case much more so. Did he talk about the war, I asked. He tried not to, she said. He helped liberate Knin, she added, but never saw himself as a soldier.
We swapped numbers and parted as the sun set. I was going to be away for a week visiting my father in Scotland. I hoped she wouldn't mind if I contacted her when I got back. She said she would like that.
When I returned to the flat I thought a lot about Marija but also about the region I'd visited and was awake until two in the morning perhaps in nostalgia for that trip when I was twenty-one, to comprehend a situation once again that only travelling through the region allowed me even to begin to understand, but also to find a way of thinking about Marija, allowing memories of the afternoon and early evening to mingle with thoughts from fifteen years earlier.
During my trip I'd never been to Knin and Marija said there was no reason why I should have. It was famous for a fortress that was built in the medieval period and again for Operation Storm, the battle that liberated the town from the Serbian army in the mid-nineties. Marija had told me that her parents moved there after the war when the government wanted to acknowledge the town's importance in liberating the country. Anybody who moved was helped if they needed help. Shops were opened, and another secondary school. It was a youthful town. Now, one of the secondary schools had closed, shops struggled and the youths had left. I took a book from my shelves, one of the first and most important books published about the war and sure enough the town he described, at the beginning of the book, was ferociously hot in the summer, horribly cold in the winter, and located in a basin below surrounding mountains, including the highest in the country, the Dinarides. The writer's description matched Marija's - it may have been the perfect place to fight a war in both ancient and modern times (including during WWII), but not to live and bring up children.
A few days after meeting Marija, I arranged an online call with Dusan from my father's place. We hadn't talked for several months, I'd been meaning to arrange a chat, and now I had what passed for news. But what was the news exactly that I had a nice walk with a woman from Croatia who if I described her to him would reveal how attractive I found her, even if her older friend had been much more immediately alluring, and I couldn't deny either that if I had flirted with anyone it was Zrinka whose humour seemed, like her age, closer to my own. Also, Marija may have been engaged, though she mentioned no partner, may have been attracted to women, though nothing suggested she was, may have just broken up with a partner, though whatever melancholy she possessed seemed more deep-rooted than a recent breakup. I could have told him that I has at least potentially met a Croatian friend and joked as lightly as I could manage that I was expanding my fraternal relations to other parts of the former Yugoslavia. I could have told him that she was so young during the war that she couldn't have understood it and there he had been so far away from it that he couldn't do more than look on as a teenager while a country that he was born in was becoming several countries he wasn't able to return to. Yet when I thought of the politics I felt ignorant and it was as though that ignorance found its fullest expression in Marija. I was haunted, touched or moved it seemed, though all these words seemed too melodramatic, by her claim that she understood the war in the cells of her body but that she had never sat down and attempted to reduce it to the cells in her brain.
I told this to Dusan when we spoke, it was the one thing I said to him that evening which I thought would reveal an aspect of her character while I could have said a few things about Zrinka that would have created a vivid image in his mind of this most vivid of women. Marija seemed instead a permeation rather than a presence, and though it was a thought I felt very strongly, there wasn't the language to convey that to Dusan without the aid of abstractions I suspect I would have only been half-capable of providing, and that Dusan would have been less than interested in understanding. I could explain this I suppose by saying if I could better comprehend it and explain it than Dusan, without entirely being able to do so, it rested on his instincts that were so much better than mine, instantly recognising a quality without any obligation to fret over it. Whether learning a language or mastering an instrument, playing a sport or desiring a woman, Dusan never seemed to bother worrying about anything that would delay the desire or hinder his progress. There are some people we can talk to as our abstractions meet their questioning, that between us we can comprehend an event more clearly. Dusan wasn't that person and I realised as we talked I had fallen into a type of ethnocentricity: that since Dusan and Marija were part of the same former country, I believed initially that I should have been able to speak to him about her?
What I found myself doing instead was saying almost nothing about Marija and talked about Zrinka, about her paper, her delivery and what she was wearing. He said he would like to meet her some time and I told her she taught in the north of England but was often in London for conferences and visiting friends in the city. I am sure they would have the chance to meet.
After the call, I went back downstairs, past the many books in the hallway and tapped on my father's study door, where three of the walls were shelved from floor to ceiling. It was seven-thirty and I asked if he wanted me to go along to the shops and buy ingredients for dinner. I had cooked the last three evenings and used up most of the food we had bought the afternoon I had arrived. He'd been so lost in a problem, he said, knowing he had promised to cook, and now here it was almost time for dinner. I said we could get a takeaway; he grimaced and said as he often did that people should cook in or eat out a takeaway was a form of dithering. Let us eat out he said, and twenty minutes later we were sitting in a nearby restaurant ordering various Lebanese dishes and sipping on fresh mint water. That evening I asked him whether he worried at all that an independent Scotland could lead to a conflict like the one in the Balkans. He looked surprised at my question and then recalled my time travelling through the region, the couple of weeks I spent at the music centre.
Yet it wasn't the nature of the question that surprised him; more that I had been doing the asking. He thought often about the permutations of independence and though I knew he had always been sympathetic to the idea it wasn't only professional objectivity that kept him from campaigning for it. He said he didn't think it was likely but it wasn't impossible. For many years there were the Troubles in Northern Ireland, there is also the Catholic/Protestant divide in Glasgow that was strong enough for Rangers only to sign its first Catholic player in 1989, and that was headline news. It isn't as though there haven't been ethnic conflicts in the UK in modern history, he said. But he also wondered if now these had been diluted by other priorities that might allow Scotland to avoid hardened ethnicity. In the former Yugoslavia, Croatia was mainly Catholic, Serbia, Christian Orthodox and Bosnia was almost half Muslim. It was very mixed country religiously while in Scotland supposedly three-quarters of young Scots weren't identifying as religious at all.
It wouldn't be impossible but anybody he believed making claims for ethnic conflict in the breakup of the UK would probably have an agenda for such an argument. He reminded me that he too had travelled around the Balkans, and had talked about the trip after I myself returned from mine, but he had passed through a country while I had passed through a region; he had been there in the late seventies while it was still Yugoslavia, and what I don't recall him saying before was that part of the trip was to see how a united country functions, to see how disparate nations can fall under the one rubric. He believed at the time it was doing so quite successfully despite clear Serbian dominance and said that while the Serbs only made up 40 per cent of the population, they had almost 80 per cent of the administrative jobs; Croats had no more than 8 per cent. Also, when he was there, Tito was still alive; ten years later Milosevic was in power and the greater good of communism however debatable became the greater Serbia, of which the other countries would have been little more the insignificant figures they often felt themselves to be in Yugoslavia.
As he talked, he didn't seem to have in mind anything but the history he was offering so expertly, while I knew that it was the last trip my parents took together and that I was conceived during it. It was in 1978, the year of my birth, and 1979 was the year of my mother's death: she suffered postpartum depression and drowned off a beach on the West coast of Scotland. Nobody knew whether it was depression or the attempt to escape it that caused her demise: she had taken up swimming in the sea that summer to help her despair but perhaps it was an excuse it gave her to end it. I sometimes wondered if people knew but never wanted to tell me; that I was the child (her first) who generated in her unhappiness that wasn't evident before my birth. But no, everyone said she drowned; that she was feeling much better but the tides were strong there, and so on. I knew that I could ask my father almost anything about modern history and he would provide me quickly with an exact or at least proximate answer. If I were to mention my mother, that confidence with fact and memory would collapse, a blur of information incapable of finding order in the emotional chaos. I almost never brought her into the conversation and over the years most of what I knew about their life together came from her sister, an aunt who became a surrogate mum and who had no children of her own.
It was as though while I had tried to talk to Dusan about Marija and tried to talk to my father about the region, I couldn't understand Marija without understanding the Balkans, couldn't understand my father without understanding an aspect of my mother, and knew that the feeling I had towards Marija seemed to be more complicated than simple desire. But, I suppose, when is that not the case? Before returning to London, I visited my aunt on the other side of the city, on the Southside. I told her I'd met someone from Croatia and that to say this I didn't mean anything more by it than that, even if I'd been preoccupied with the encounter in the intervening fortnight. I had no reason to assume Marija had been giving me any thought at all. I asked my aunt if she recalled my mother ever talking about her last trip abroad, the trip she took to Yugoslavia before I was born. I had never asked her about it before and she might have wondered why I was asking her now had I not prefaced it with mentioning Marija. Whenever I had asked my aunt about my mother she had been as willing to talk as my father wasn't: to the point of what I sometimes saw as callousness on his part, with no photographs of her displayed in the house nor any wish to recall her memory.
Yet this time when I mentioned my mother in the context of her trip to Yugoslavia, she first went quiet, then looked at me as though the question contained within it an answer I might be looking for and then, realising it didn't, appeared to hide the look on her face that suggested she thought I was fishing for specific information. She seemed to note that the question was innocent just when I guessed that her answer was going to be incomplete. I must realise she said that she knew rather less than my father did and he might be the best person to ask after all, he was the one who instigated the trip and took her with him. Yet now knowing that she was going to hide what I didn't even initially realise I was looking for, I pressed her.
She said that my mother wasn't generally happy in the year or two before I was born even if the story was that it wasn't till after she gave birth that she became depressed. In the two or three years before I arrived, was aimless and bored. Her career as a painter wasn't successful and my father was becoming a very well-respected historian. While he was often invited to give talks; my mother only sold the occasional painting. Up until the mid-seventies this didn't seem to bother her; it never impacted on her productivity and she painted every day, even at the weekends. While my father worked in the study in the house, she cycled twenty minutes from our house on Cecil Street to an attic studio in Garnethill that she rented cheaply from friends who had no need of the extra floor and the extra light. But then the friends sold the house and while everyone expected her to find another space, she kept putting it off, looking at various studios and insisting they weren't quite right.
This went on for many months and a year had passed without her painting at all. She said to my aunt she sketched in her notebook and that was sufficing but she said it as though she had given up, that her career was over and that the promise her tutors at Glasgow Art School had seen hadn't been met. It wasn't just that my father was becoming well-known; so were a few of her classmates and my aunt wondered whether it was an exhibition in 1977 that was the proper catalyst for her depression. It was four artists all of whom attended the art school around the same time as my mother, and she knew that there would have been no justification for her inclusion: she was unknown and would remain so. Yet only two or three years earlier she wished this to be the case, turning down offers from a couple of galleries saying she wasn't ready yet, and dismissive of artists under thirty who thought they had a body of work that merited gallery space. She believed that until thirty, and ideally thirty-five, an artist should sell a few private paintings to survive but resist making a name for themselves until that name knew where it was going and couldn't be pushed around by gallery expectations and the force of the market. My aunt offered this to me with a combination of exasperation and sorrow, as though both recalling the arguments she would have with my mother over promoting the work, and remembering too the despair in those final years.
I believed that day there was more to tell but when I saw how my aunt became too close to tears for a woman I had never seen cry, I didn't question her further and she seemed to acknowledge the kindness of my retreat in saying that on another occasion we could speak more. I said that I appreciated over the years that she had been willing to talk about my mother, to talk about her sister, and that a woman who was dead before I knew what words like mother and death meant could still be alive to me in the conversations we would have. I said this to her as we exited the flat that faced out onto Queen's Park, and we walked for thirty minutes around the park without talking, as if aware that to have stayed in would have created awkward silences. The walk made the silence tranquil. We didn't share our thoughts at all as we strolled through the greenery but I recall thinking that for my father, my mother had died twice: once in her flesh and the other in our lives. When I was younger I suppose I thought of my aunt as the mother I never had, even if in London I would see far more of my father's two sisters. As I got older and we talked about my mother, my aunt also provided me with an image of a woman I never knew.
Yet on the train back down to London after seeing her, I thought maybe there wasn't so much of a difference between my father and my aunt; that over the years when my aunt talked about my mother she did so within the boundaries of her professional expertise. She was a therapist who knew how to talk about feelings but that afternoon when she looked liked she might cry in front of me, it was as though the professional and the personal had been breached in a way that either surprised her or dismayed her. On all the other occasions we had discussed aspects of my mother's life, she contained it within parameters that were invisible to me. That day they no longer were and I knew I had exposed something, exposed more than what she had told me about my mother's unhappiness before I was born.
Marija and I met up several days after my return. I suggested a film she had mentioned in passing when we had walked, a forties classic that had been rereleased and she recalled watching when she was twelve and which she wanted to see again. We generally laughed at the right places but occasionally laughed at the wrong ones at the same time and it was in those moments I felt an affinity again with this stranger. After the screening we walked for a while before I suggested going to a bar, aware in such a request I was asking for more than a drink without quite committing Marija to the pressure of a date. I wanted to create the space where a yes or no answer would be equally available. I wouldn't usually be so shy or so careful; I had asked often enough women directly if they wanted to go out and left no ambiguity in the request. But Marija appeared to me to exist in an ambivalent realm I couldn't quite countenance; that she was wary of intimacy and determined to find it. Such an insight no doubt carries with it much hindsight but I found myself awkward and indecisive with her as I hadn't been with any woman before.
She agreed and we talked for an hour and a half mainly about the film before the bar closed and I walked her to Finsbury Park station, where the train would take her up to Wood Green, and I walked back home to my place in Stoke Newington. We kissed on the lips as I said I wanted to see her again and she said she thought that might be doable - an expression I had used when we walked through Richmond Park and I joked that many friendships and relationships in the city aren't easily doable the distance is just too vast. When I got back I looked at an online map and saw that there were three miles between us and wondered how far I'd be from hers if I had lived around Richmond Park. The map said fifteen miles.
Over the next six months, Marija and I saw each other several times a week, usually staying over at my place where I lived alone, rather than at hers, where she lived with three other people. It was a luxury I could afford; my father bought the flat when he sold the London house and returned to Scotland there was enough money to buy the house he is still in as well as the one-bedroom flat that he rented for some years before I moved into it. It gave our affair an intimacy it wouldn't have had were we both in flat-shares and the few times I stayed over at hers it felt more like a social event as every trip to the kitchen or the bathroom seemed to require a hello or at least a nod of acknowledgement. It isn't that I hate being sociable; it just didn't lend itself to the intimate and we both agreed that it made sense for her to come to my place; often doing so on the way back from work, near Leicester Square. She would get off at Arsenal and walk to Stoke Newington, which doesn't have a metro line. Over the months she would leave more and more items at my place and while she didn't move out of her flat, she did move into its smallest room, a box room with space for a single bed, a wardrobe and a desk; she was now spending less than a third of her wage on rent and she said she could now afford to contribute towards the bills at mine. I said no but added I appreciated the gesture, and it was about the only domestic conversation we had in those first six months. Much of our time it seemed was spent in bed with lingering caresses accompanying conversations that would move from one topic to another, from a book I was reading to one she had finished; from how to make the perfect chocolate mouse to the greatest atrocities in British cuisine. She said she didn't want to go to Scotland since there would be nothing there to eat. They deep-fried bars of chocolate and even their national dish: haggis. I wanted to say that the deep-fried chocolate bar was a myth but I remember when coming back from my aunt's place that I passed two chip shops offering it as an option.
A topic we never really returned to after that first walk around Richmond Park was the war or even my visit to the region. On the few occasions I brought it up she showed irritation, as if it wasn't for people who weren't themselves from the former Yugoslavia to discuss it, or that she reckoned talking about it was going to create in her feelings she had for a long time worked on conquering. I never quite knew if it was the former or the latter and if I knew it was the former I would have pushed to say more, believing that those who claim that anyone who hasn't experienced a given situation has no right to talk about it as nonsense. Isn't the point of knowledge and understanding predicated on exploring areas that aren't pertinent to our immediate experience? If I knew for sure it was the latter I may have tried harder to get Marija to talk about it too, but not with me; with an analyst. I remember her saying on that first walk that she was a child of war and a product of trauma. She said even her birth was caused by fighting: her mother was shocked into labour after a bomb fell near their Split apartment. But Marija wouldn't talk about it so I couldn't discover whether it was that she guarded her country's history or protected her psychic health. I supposed it was both but believed more that the former was an excuse for the latter and thus didn't pursue it, though I often fretted to myself over the question.
During the next few months we were together we argued often and I thought it may have been that she was getting frustrated always coming to my flat and spending little time at her own, where she sometimes regretted taking the box room that had no window and almost no space. She was also irritated by her job and how much she spent on travel. I suggested she get a job nearer Stoke Newington and she admitted that might help but she still seemed often annoyed and I wasn't sure if a new employer was going to resolve it. She was also missing her family and wanted to swim in the sea, and yet as she said this I sensed that she didn't want me to join her, that even though she said her family had a place near the coast on the outskirts of Zadar, that it was often empty and that she had said before that we could go and stay for a month there, no invite was forthcoming when she mentioned it again as she said she knew she wouldn't be able to stay in Knin for more than a couple of days.
It wasn't until not long before flying out she wondered why I hadn't asked to come. I said I reckoned it was for her to invite me; not for me to invite myself. She apologised, saying she wanted me to visit but didn't know if she wanted to introduce me to her family and had avoided the topic. She promised when she returned that she would try to be less irritable and that she knew that there were some things she wouldn't discuss and that wasn't fair: she would try when she got back. I hoped that her saying this was a form of recognition, and perhaps she might even try and talk directly to her parents about it when she arrived in Knin. Concerning the trip, I said if she had proposed it a few weeks earlier I would have cancelled a conference in Manchester, it was rude to drop out now when I was one of the main speakers. What I didn't add was that Zrinka was going to be there, though I did say Dusan was flying over from Belgrade. Why didn't I mention Zrinka? The practical and most obvious reason was that I knew her hardly at all and several people were attending who I knew much better than her, and I had discovered once Marija and I started seeing each other that she and Zrinka knew each other little.
They had communicated a few times on social media, met once before in London, and again at the conference. They weren't friends and talking about her presence wouldn't have been relevant. But I also thought of what I had said to Dusan, speaking far more of Zrinka's attractiveness than Marija's presence, doing so at the time not because I was much more drawn to Zrinka than to Marija; more that it was much easier to describe Zrinka, as though there was a stubborn silence in Marija that didn't only hamper revelation but even description. When speaking of Zrinka I could describe her interests, her personality and her looks everything about her was vivid and bold. When I chatted with Dusan on the phone a couple of nights before the conference up, he admitted he came partly because he knew Zrinka would be there, and he recalled how attractive I'd made her seem in my description.
I thought back to what I had said and remembered that in the telling was a non-telling, a failure of description containing within it a narrative of beauty, intelligence and purpose, and he reminded me of what I had told him. That Zrinka was in her mid-thirties, having written a doctorate on the post-war Croatian economic boom that she published first in Croatian and then two years later in English, and that helped get her the job in Leeds. During the paper that day in London, she wasn't shy in criticising Croatia's lop-sided reliance on tourism, nor on her belief that Croatia felt too comfortable in its victory after the war, though she in no way reckoned Croatia was the perpetrator. The country defended itself, she insisted, but it wasn't without sin either. After the talk, several people were annoyed and criticised her paper without much substance while she defended her position with great force. When one of her critics, a professor in his sixties, wondered what she knew about Croatia during the war, she said that she knew that bombs were falling on her village, Vukovar, before she moved with her family to her aunt's place in Bjelovar. It was safer than the Serbian border but not as safe as he was, in a teaching position at the august institute in which he was now departmental head. She said it with firmness rather than arrogance, making clear that she was lucky but wouldn't accept a lesson from someone who was luckier still. She managed to convey in her comments that she had no interest in a feud but couldn't allow his remarks to stand without retort. And if all things were neutral (and there was nothing to suggest they were), then she also had beauty on her side, levelling her gaze at a man who seemed wizened more than wise. Her green, painted nails matched her eyes and the bright cherry lipstick captured an aspect of her colouring, which was perhaps a hint of rouge or could have been a flushed complexion, one that indicated a tension carefully controlled. I had noticed that later, when Marija, Zrinka and I talked together, the colour had faded slightly but didn't know whether rouge had worn off or it was because the tension had dissipated.
I arrived in the afternoon before the Manchester conference. Dusan was due to fly in at lunchtime the next day and was going to miss the first morning. I saw Zrinka in the hotel foyer an hour after I arrived as I sat getting tea in the cafe that faced out onto the reception. I observed her for a few moments while wondering if I should introduce myself: would she remember me; would she prefer to be left alone rather than get into a conversation with someone from the conference just after arriving? While thinking such thoughts I watched her, seeing a woman who had a categorical presence. It wasn't only that she wore a bottle green dress, her black coat over her forearm, nor that, as she turned away from the desk as they sorted out getting her key for the room, she was wearing as before a ripe lipstick and a bold eyeliner. It was more that she possessed a peripheral confidence, an assertive self-possession that one sees out of the corner of one's eye, before any proper perception can be formed. All one initially knows is that a presence has entered a room and then one takes a closer look and divides that perception into its various characteristics. Zrinka was easy to describe to Dusan because her presence was strong and her attributes clearly defined. As I saw her turn towards the cafe there was nothing new in what I saw; I remembered her clearly from before and I was certain there were very few people who once they had met her wouldn't fail to recall her on a second meeting.
Yet more surprising was that she remembered me, and after receiving her room key she carried on into the foyer while a member of the reception took her bags up to her room. I supposed at first she was there to get a coffee but instead, she came over to my table, said it was lovely to see me again, and said she remembered our conversation from last year. I asked if she would like to take a seat and she said only for the quickest of drinks as she needed to get organised. We chatted for twenty minutes about the conference, the speakers, the topics and so on, and as she finished her coffee she asked me what I was doing for dinner. I said I had no plans, knew no one in Manchester and had no idea of places to eat. She said I would join her and she would choose: she knew Manchester quite well and had friends who taught at the university. I wasn't quite sure if her use of would was a semantic slip or an assertive remark: usually a person would say could and with most people who had offered it, and where English wasn't their first language, he'd assume it was an error. But coming from Zrinka it seemed appropriate: that the decision had been made and I wasn't privy to manoeuvre around within it.
That evening as we ate she asked about Marija, that they hadn't been in contact for a long time and that she wasn't surprised when I said we started seeing each other not long after that conference. She needed someone Zrinka said, an ambiguous claim that left me wondering whether Zrinka was saying that I didn't, that Marija would have been happy with anybody or that two needy, single people were inevitably going to become a couple. I didn't pursue the remark until later after we had the main course and waited for decaf coffee and a cake she insisted she wanted but wouldn't be able to finish: we will share it she said in a complicit gesture. It seemed she didn't need anybody and I wondered if it was because she had the ability to generate complicity, even intimacy, with many, and never felt great solitude. It might not have been easy living in Leeds where I imagined few Croatians lived. No more than 10,000 supposedly resided in London and I would have been surprised if more than a couple of hundred lived in Leeds. Yet Zrinka interacted easily with everyone we came into contact with that evening, the two waiting staff who came to our table, the couple at the table next to ours whose dishes she asked about as their meal arrived, and who we chatted with for ten minutes at the end of the dinner, a couple we discovered were from Sheffield. She talked with all four of them more comfortably than I did, even though they were from Britain. But it was as though she could get to know them instantly, personally, and care little for them culturally. It wasn't that two were Mancunians and two were from Yorkshire; that didn't interest her at all; as if the second last question she was ever inclined to ask someone was where were they from. (The question she would never ask anyone, she said, was what did they do).
She had what seemed an instant rapport with people and I thought too of Marija and how far from that notion of rapport she was. It was this absence which I think appealed to me initially; her weak capacity for intimacy made our ability to achieve it all the more meaningful. As we finished the coffee, after we had talked for a few minutes with the couple next to us, I asked Zrinka what she meant by saying Marija needed someone: by implication, she was saying that she herself didn't; perhaps was even saying I didn't. She replied that it was both based on observation and a statement Marija made which Zrinka didn't think she was betraying by telling me. One night Zrinka and Marija were out drinking with several other Croatians who all knew each other chiefly through social media posts. Zrinka was in London visiting other friends (non-Croatians) but reckoned an evening out with her compatriots might be fun too. She stayed in the city for an extra night and rather than spending the evening at the friends' place where she had been for the previous three days, she booked into a hotel in the centre for a surprisingly cheap rate. All five of her fellow Croatians got drunk but Marija was drunker still. When she heard that Zrinka was staying in a hotel near where they were drinking, she asked if she could stay there rather than go all the way home to Wood Green.
Zrinka wondered initially whether this was Marija keen to take advantage of her hospitality or potentially her body, but when they were lying in bed together there was no sense Marija was interested in anything other than a bed she could share with company that wasn't just her own. It was clear that in the months she had been in London she was immensely lonely, and so when she heard that Marija and I were together it didn't surprise her. She had observed on the three occasions they had met before the conference that Marija looked forlorn, a beautiful word in English she thought, even if the connotations could seem far from flattering to the person to whom they are applied. But sometimes words have a sonorous quality that weakens the harshness of their meaning. In Croatian, Zrinka said, it sounded as severe as its content, but in English she thought it had a beauty to it as well. She would be reluctant to call Marija 'ocajno' but she felt forlorn was apt.
We returned to the hotel and I said I suspected that the decaf coffee was in fact caffeinated and I would probably just read for a while in the hotel bar, seeing if they had any camomile tea. Zrinka felt sure the coffee was; she would usually be drowsy by now it was eleven. She asked if she could join me; she would read too. We read for about forty minutes before she asked me a question that I would have been happy to have asked her. What, she said, did I make of the war? It may have seemed an abrupt query but it was as if she just recalled what she had previously forgotten; that I had travelled through the region at the beginning of the 2000s. I would have passed through places she knew well and that she hadn't been to most of them since, she said, saying that when she was eleven her family took a camper van and travelled south from Zagreb to Sarajevo, then on to Kotor, back up to Belgrade and returning to Vukovar, where her grandmother lived. She said I may remember the argument she had with a professor during the conference when she mentioned she was from Vukovar. That was a half-truth she said; she was from Zagreb but her parents reckoned they would be safer in a small town when the war started than in the capital. But when Vukovar was bombed first they quickly moved them and their grandmother back to Zagreb after briefly staying at her aunt's. It would have been too complicated to explain to the professor the intricacies of her parents' decision, when her purpose was to undermine a man who was in the process of undermining her but, she said, if there was one thing about the conflict, it wasn't simple. Every time she would try to explain even the smallest of details to friends who knew nothing of what happened during the war, a sort of epistemological exhaustion would come over her. But she knew too that she had to overcome it; it wasn't only part of her job it was part of her identity. If she didn't explain, if she didn't try and figure out the complexity of the question, of the situation, she would be somehow diminishing herself.
For the next hour, we discussed the trip she took when she was eleven and the one I took when I was twenty-three. She had gone one way around Yugoslavia before the war and I had gone the other way around the region after it, but we found ourselves talking about the places as though we had gone on the same journey, at the same time. Between us that evening it felt that we could map out the region in our head while I had the sense that for Marija everything was a muddle, a geographical confusion meeting a psychic resistance and who was I to propose how she should resolve a series of memories that were reactions rather than reflections, stuck in her body and unable or unwilling to find themselves formulated into words that could be expressed. Yet that evening I wasn't thinking too much of Marija; I was engaged at midnight in a conversation with someone who could make vivid again a trip I had taken fifteen years earlier.
It was after one in the morning when we parted, a hug shared on the second-floor stairway as she went off to her room and I went upstairs to mine. If she had asked me in would I have gone? I cannot say but if someone had asked who did I feel closer to that night Marija or Zrinka the answer wouldn't have been difficult. Discussing her country's history, talking about the devastation that I saw with my own eyes even if it didn't at all impact on my nervous system, was assuaging, as if my memories, when talking with Marija, weren't valid and with Zrinka they were. At one moment Zrinka had asked me to describe as accurately as I could how I found the bridge in Mostar. I recalled it surrounded by scaffolding and she matched my memory with two of her own. She recalled racing back and forth across it when she was eleven, challenging her sister to a series of sprints, and seeing it again a couple of years ago where it seemed she was walking across it as though there had been no intermediate collapse. There she was remembering a bridge that covered a twenty-year time-span, and but a brief spatial span, and yet I saw it between those two moments, as a bridge still in disrepair.
The next day Dusan arrived and I was relieved rather than resentful when I saw the rapport between them, one that I wasn't surprised turned sexual by the end of the conference. During it, after Dusan's talk, Zrinka asked him a question as awkward as the one the professor a couple of years earlier had asked Zrinka in London. But Dusan understood that the tone was provocative more than dismissive, even if the audience might have missed the inflection and witnessed an argument developing. After all, the conference programme made clear that Dusan was from Serbia; Zrinka Croatia, and the question Zrinka asked was about Serbia versus Yugoslavia. Dusan said that before Yugoslavia was a country that was mixed ethnically, culturally and geographically but now each country was much more locked in and perhaps none more so than Serbia, with Belgrade so obviously the major city, Orthodox Christianity the predominant religion, and where it now has no coastline. Zrinka asked if the consequence of the war on the speaker was of no greater consequence than the beach tan he could no longer take for granted. Dusan replied saying he found that he had personally always preferred lakes to beaches. The audience laughed, perhaps happy that potential tension had been dispelled, but I saw that a different type of tension between Dusan and Zrinka had been generated.
At the end of the conference, everyone went for a meal in a restaurant round the corner from the hotel, and afterwards many returned to the hotel bar. But by around midnight, there were only those who were staying there still around, and some of those had gone off to bed. By one in the morning, there were just the three of us, and while I was enjoying their company, and I think they were enjoying mine, as we discussed working in academia and a little our discipline, a gesture between the two of them indicated that whatever fun they might be having with me, more fun was to be had between the two of them. I wished then that Marija was there but believed the light way in which we discussed political issues of their region would have been difficult in Marija's presence. Yet I was also aware that in Dusan and Zrinka's frivolity there lay a harshness so antithetical to Marija's compassion. She perhaps took too many things seriously but I never once felt that she had underestimated or ignored a feeling, hers, mine or anybody with whom she was close.
Since Marija was away for another week and since I was already halfway north, I continued up to Glasgow to spend a couple of days with my father and also visit my aunt. I wanted to ask my father more about what my aunt had alluded to and thought that since my father would say little, I needed to go again to my aunt to find out more.
When I arrived he was in his study. I knocked lightly on the door and he came out, put on the kettle and apologised for failing to meet me off the train. He rarely did and I didn't expect him to, and he said he would have but he was working on an article that he had hoped to finish before my arrival. He could work on it again tomorrow. The number of books in the house always surprised me, even if I had spent years there in my later teens and, while no doubt since then he had accumulated several thousand more titles, the house always seemed crowded with books as though they were company. My aunt said the last time I visited her that she was sure the full accumulation started after my mother's death, not especially with the move from London, that what she saw when occasionally visiting him was my mother's absence in the presence of tomes on the shelf. She reckoned if my mother were still alive there would be as many paintings on the wall as books on the shelves and that her death meant any place in which he lived had lost the equilibrium, the balance between different aesthetic needs. The house in London and especially the house in Glasgow was too much like the interior of his brain, an immense wealth of facts and words. It seemed one could ask him anything on modern history and he would have an answer. Ask him about the Miner's strike and he wouldn't only know of course the date that it started and finished, but numerous details in between, from the numbers injured at Orgrave, the fatal death of a man after two striking miners dropped a 21kg concrete post from a road bridge and it landed on his car; how the Soviet Union sent 170 tonnes of food to aid the miner's strike only for it to be impounded at Hull as it didn't meet strict import regulations. That was just one of many subjects I could have quizzed him on, from the Chechen war to the Palestinian conflict, from the intricacies of the Vietnam War to of course the regional conflict in the Balkans. He relished questions that allowed him to extemporize. Over the years I have asked him many times about one situation or another, whether it was to have a better understanding of a subject at school, or after reading a news story that required more context, he was the person I would go to.
But what I wanted from him this time was information he possessed even more readily than the precise details of the Mai Lai massacre, but it was as if I were to ask one of its victims rather than one of its historians. How to get my father to talk about his wife's death, my mother's suicide? He knew obviously about Marija though he had still to meet her. When he asked me how she was, and I said she was visiting home, I also said to him that she wouldn't talk about the war, saying it was too painful to discuss, as we talked for a short while about the conflict. My father offered names and dates. When I told her where she was from he explained why her home town was important in the conflict. But what I wanted to do was find a way to ask him if not quite about my mother's death, for him to at least say a little about their visit to Yugoslavia. I asked him how well he remembered passing through the region in the 1970s, aware that he hadn't been back despite writing articles on the conflict, and he said he wouldn't want to exaggerate its qualities, it appeared to him like a liminal country; one that had absorbed many Communist principles without individuals completely losing their freedom. When we talk of Communism, he said, we tend to talk of oppression, but the people of Yugoslavia could travel in some ways more freely than anyone. He said they could travel to the East and the West, while in the US, in the land of the free, citizens were banned from going to various countries, most obviously Cuba. He thought this gave Yugoslavia a unique role in the world that was underestimated, and made the conflict all the more tragic; that there was a socialist country which allowed for free health care and education but also freedom of movement too. I asked him if that was one of the reasons why he went: to see a country that had balanced East with West, and he said that was one of the reasons, as if suddenly now wary of my line of inquiry. I decided to continue rather than retreat, saying it was the last trip my mother took before she died
He stopped for a moment, perhaps wondering if this was where I intended to lead him all along or whether it seemed naturally to have come out of the conversation. If it were the latter he might be able to manoeuvre out of it; if the former then he might have to face a confrontation. My father and I never argued and after my mother died he allowed my aunts to offer whatever discipline was necessary. But I think he saw in my face that we were no longer discussing the social and the political but the buried reality of our lives. He said that he wanted to go but it was more my mother's decision; that she knew that he would find it easy to attend a conference but it was she who seemed to have a more pressing need to visit the country. He told me that she had grown to hate the system she was in because she saw either success or failure; that for her capitalism forced you to seek fame or acknowledge its absence. Her desire to be simply an artist, not a famous one or a mediocre one, didn't seem to be possible in the West where talent was measured by success. She wondered if it was different in a communist country.
He said, they arrived a week before the conference, flying into Belgrade, then travelled to Sarajevo before spending three nights in Zagreb, where they went to the cinema, to an exhibition opening, to a concert, before he went on to the week-long conference in Ljubljana. She stayed in the Croatian capital. I asked him why she didn't join him in Slovenia. He said he wasn't sure. She said she felt calm in Zagreb, and believed that wandering around the old town, up along the various streets that led away from the main square, through the park near the cathedral, and over on the other side of the town by the Botanics, calmed her. Did it find it odd that she wanted to stay in a city she knew so little, I asked. My father looked uncomfortable, like I had asked him a question about physics or maths when he thought he should only have to answer questions about history. He said that maybe I should ask my aunt about such things. She seemed to know more about my mother's thoughts and feeling around this time than he did.
I knew that was the best answer I would get, saw in it a sanctioning; that I could ask my aunt whatever I wished and he would accept her revelations as long as he wasn't expected to confront any memories himself. I had asked him all this over a cup of tea at the kitchen table. I looked around the one room in the house with no books in it and saw in it how well my father had coped without anyone else in his life. If someone is to define the mental well-being of a bachelor, don't expect to find it in the study, the lounge or even the bedroom, but the kitchen. Looking at the rows of spices on the shelf, the varieties of wine in the rack, the gas hob he insisted upon when we moved in as he had the electric one removed, and the herb plants by the window (basil, coriander, mint, thyme, parsley and oregano), I witnessed well-being and knew that he still often had dinner parties here with various colleagues and friends. I knew he was happy in his way, and didn't feel I had the right to make him unhappy so that I could be happy in my way. That evening we cooked together, and he asked if he could invite the neighbours round. They would regularly eat at each other's place but I knew that the invite that evening was because he didn't want to risk another interrogation. I had no interest in questioning him further but was aware that the dinner would be less awkward if there were others there too.
The following day I went to an exhibition at Kelvingrove, and in the late afternoon got the metro over to Govan, ten minutes from my aunt's place. I had gone to the exhibition a little perversely: it was work by Scottish artists of the post-war years and there was a room dedicated to art from each decade. I knew my mother's paintings wouldn't be there but I wanted to see what paintings might be, and how they compared with my mother's work which I had lived with so inattentively over the years, through the several paintings I would see on the walls at my father's place and more especially at my aunt's. I won't describe the work here, nor say anything about the artists who I saw at the museum, but I could see that increasingly her work became unfashionable, that whatever her concerns they were not in tune with the period, or at least with the work being produced in Scotland. It was something I wanted to ask my aunt about but not before asking her what she knew of my mother's stay in Zagreb.
She said it was understandable my father was reluctant to discuss it; he knew little about what happened and what he did know he wouldn't wish to have confronted. My mother had an affair there that lasted no longer than a week; she met a fellow artist at the opening of an exhibition and when the artist said that he was in the city for ten days (he lived in the town of Zadar), she said that her husband was going on to Ljubljana and she didn't want to go. She didn't say in as many words that she wanted to sleep with him, but by staying in the city and arranging to meet up with him the day after her husband left, that was exactly what happened. She told my aunt about it not long after returning from the trip and was exhilarated by the affair but not at all in love with the man. My aunt wondered if this was denial on my mother's part; that he only wanted a fling and so she pretended it was exactly what she wanted as well but no, it was the excitement she sought and found it in a man who, while he wasn't interchangeable with anyone, wasn't so special that his absence caused her much pain.
My aunt supposed my mother wanted someone artistic and exotic, a man who existed in her life like a dream and needn't be part of her general reality. In the few weeks after she returned, she was a young woman again, as enthusiastic about life and her work as she had been at college. But this didn't last long. My aunt looked at me to see if I knew what she was about to say, and to see also if I could absorb information that would be doubly revelatory and potentially very wounding. She was of course pregnant, and in other circumstances perhaps she would have received this news with happiness; unlike my aunt, she always knew she wanted children. She just didn't know when and, despite marrying my father, didn't know who with. I don't think my aunt said this to make me feel better about my unwanted status; to suggest that I was wanted, only not at that moment. She had said on previous occasions when we talked about children that she was always the sister who showed no interest in family life even as children when the pair of them would play, though my mother was always more creative, and then as she got older bohemian, she liked playing with other people's children, and talked about a future with her own.
My aunt said I would probably think this man from Croatia was my father. Perhaps he was but your mother never knew. She slept with your father during that trip too and if she had known for sure this stranger was your father she probably wouldn't have kept the child. But imagine if it was your father's and she would not only have had an affair he didn't know about but a child that she would deny him as well? No, she couldn't do that, she said. And so you were born, and your father assumed you were his son until after she died; when my aunt said she told him about the affair after her sister expressed the wish that he should know.
I thought a lot about this on the trip back down to London, and in the couple of days before Marija returned from visiting her family. I wanted to tell her that she may well have a Croatian boyfriend after all, that if circumstances had been different if my mother had fallen in love and he with her, then I would have been thirteen when the conflict started. If my Croatian father (or stepfather) had stayed in the town he was living in then he may well have been drawn into the conflict as well, perhaps fighting in what was called the Battle of Zadar. These are a lot of hypotheticals, but when I offered them to Marija on her return she said that as far as she was concerned my father was indeed Croatian and that somehow she didn't feel any longer that speaking to me about the war was so impossible. It was as though this detail I offered her, which could be either shattering and irrelevant, useful and useless, confirmed both a feeling she had and a wish she needed to express. She said that for the first time she had what she called an honest conversation with her parents. She asked them why they chose to live in Knin, to move to a town where the war was a source of celebration, commemoration and yet denial. She told them that she knew of school friends whose parents committed suicide, parents who had been killed in the war, and nothing was said about it. They told her that jobs and houses were available in the town after the conflict; they moved from a one-bedroom flat in Split that had to house the entire family of four, to a three-bedroom house that they could buy within five years as both her father and mother were earning well. (She as a dentist; while he became the main pharmacist in the town). They told her this, she said, without anger but devoid of regret, and she accepted that, in discussing it at all, it was tantamount to an apology.
I wondered if Marija would expect me to have the honest conversation with my father that I had cajoled her into having with her parents, and what excuse I might make up to say that it wouldn't be possible. I wanted my father to believe he was my dad even if I wasn't sure if he was and Marija preferred to assume I had a Croatian one. But I am not sure if our inability to face facts had the same urgency. Marija would wake up in the middle of the night jarred by distant shocks to the system that materialised in her dreams out of the immateriality of her memories. I have no history of such reactions, no feeling that my being has been traumatised by events I cannot or will not bring consciously to mind. It isn't that I can't remember or refuse to do so; it is that I have no such memories at all since my mother's affair was before I was born. Yet I do sometimes think that I might have felt as a baby rejected by a mother who then rejected the world. I also wonder, even today, why I am not more shocked that my father might be a biological stranger and that my life wasn't reason enough for my mother to live. I suppose I have become an orphan, which is a strange thought to have when you are in your mid-thirties. Most people if they lose their parents at my age would not see themselves as orphaned; they have lost their parents when they feel no longer any great need of their support, however much they must mourn their absence. But to discover that perhaps, in your mid-thirties, you had no parents at all, is an odd realisation, but I seem to view it without the sense of terror that Marija felt with two parents who could not protect her against the bombs and who brought her up in an environment that celebrated an occasion she couldn't quite forget, nor remember.
I wouldn't wish to compare my trauma to Marija's, if for no better reason than there is no anguish I associate with the loss, while I have witnessed very clearly hers. Perhaps it rests on nothing more than feeling mildly bemused by my status, by the indeterminacy of a past that could mean my father hasn't been the man who brought me up but a stranger I will probably never meet, and that my mother may have died out of an obscure guilt rather than postnatal depression. What I do know is that a year ago I would have been very surprised if someone were to tell me I wouldn't be willing to confront my father and that Marija would soon be willing to confront her parents. Whether that shows hypocrisy I am unwilling to acknowledge or that my father needs to be protected more than I need to discuss certain truths, while with Marija it was the other way round, I cannot quite say. That will be for others to judge. But I do recall that scene in the restaurant with Dusan and his friends in Belgrade when they told me the victors have poor memories. Is it not often trauma that creates good ones?
© Tony McKibbin